Mountains are great. If you have water. (Story of another travel adventure in Kozara, Bosnia)

Back in 2015, I was asked to go find a hotel where my organization could host a retreat for all of our staff. So I made a few calls and charted out a 2-day trip around the country (Bosnia-Herzegovina is small) where I would make a big loop and visit several hotels that had conference rooms. Suffice it to say, the trip was a complete bust. Some of the hotels completely forgot I was coming, Google Maps apparently wanted me to disappear completely, and on the second day my car broke down — 100 miles from my home.

I managed to catch Elena in a pose. In focus.

In the end, we chose a hotel that I had not visited on that trip, and decided after our retreat that it had been too expensive and we wouldn’t go back. Then, last year we went to the hotel where I am now, Hotel Monument, on a mountain in northern Bosnia. It turned out to be great — it’s a hotel on top of a mountain, with lots of woods, hiking trails, a huge WW2 monument (hence the name), and a big conference room. It was good enough that we decided to come back for the second year in a row. In a year when there’s apparently been a huge, nasty drought.

So this year they didn’t have water. At least, not all the time.

When I arrived, the woman at the front desk said, “Just so you know, we’ve been having problems with the water¬†pressure¬†on the [European] second [American third] floor. It hasn’t rained in several weeks.”

Right. We woke up the next day to find that the water had been turned off completely.

The hotel. It at least looks nice.

I felt sorry for them. Apparently, there is some kind of break in the water system in the village at the bottom of the mountain, and it impaired their ability to have running water 24/7. So, the water turned on from about 7:30 until about 10 in the morning, on again during lunch time, and then again for a while in the evening.

Think about it — kids who wake you up at 6:30, and nobody can take a shower. Sweaty kids in the afternoon who can’t take a shower. No instant coffee in your room in the morning.

Tyler found a tank. Naturally, he thought squatting was the best way to pose. It’s a slavic thing.

Well, maybe not having the instant coffee isn’t that bad.

But it was bad enough that there will not be a 3rd consecutive team retreat at Hotel Monument. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because it was a great place for kids. My 8-year-old son and his 9-year-old best friend (who has the same birthday as him) can go and play in the woods¬†unsupervised¬†for just about as long as they want. Tonight he rode on the back of a motorcycle. Then he watched a movie with other American kids his age. If you’re a kid (and don’t really care about the lack of water because your dad can just buy you juice from the cafe) it’s a wonderful time.

Tyler also found a gun. Kozara is pretty cool.

It’s also a shame because coming here helps our entire staff team to connect more deeply with the country where we live. In WW2, there was a small group of Partizans that fought against the Nazis, who took this mountain at one point during the middle of the war. The Nazis came back with tens of thousands of troops, and laid siege to the mountain, against a Partizan force of only 3,000. The Partizans were able to inflict heavy losses on the Nazis, but they ultimately lost the battle. The Nazis lost 25,000 men but took the mountain, and had most of the survivors rounded up and sent to Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia.

This was cool. I’ve deciced Hannah looks like her grandmother.

It was also a shame because the disappointing aspects of doing business in Bosnia and Herzegovina were on display in a very obvious way, brought out because of the unexpected scarcity of a normally plentiful resource. The hotel staff kept the lights off most of the day, in an effort to save money. A kitchen inspection happened one morning, so they just delayed everyone’s breakfast until 9am. Day after day, coworkers complained about the lack of water. And on the last morning, I was asked if I could have everyone leave an hour early because the hotel “needs the rooms” (I apologized and said no). I was disappointed because the surroundings were so beautiful, and I wanted things to work out, but forces of nature seemed to be pulling us apart.

The aforementioned monument, and Tyler

We made the best of it, and as a family, we had a good time. I am glad we went, and we had some memories we won’t soon forget. With mixed emotions, I felt as if I watched while another chapter was brought to a close in our story of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Why theology is the most important subject you could possibly study

If you’ve been in a church for any length of time, you may have heard someone state that everyone is a theologian. Books have been written on the premise; countless sermons have begun with that line; all making the claim that, though most people think of theology only as the discipline of¬†dry seminarians, all people actually operate on the basis of some conclusion they’ve made about God — consciously or subconsciously.

While I don’t particularly like the attitude with which the statement is usually offered — the intention is usually to say something that seems counter-intuitive, in the same way that one would mention at a party¬†that flying an airplane is many times safer than driving a car — I believe it, and I also believe¬†it is more meaningful than one would casually think at first. I suppose this betrays my own intention to write something that would strike a reader as counter-intuitive, but… I digress.

It doesn’t matter if you believe in God — you have still reached a conclusion about God.

Your theology may simply be that God doesn’t exist, or it may be every bit as deep and involved as that of the oldest Presbyterian seminary professor. If you are yourself an atheist, know that¬†I don’t¬†consider the atheist’s conclusions to be necessarily¬†shallow — I know that many of us religious types could be¬†one cataclysmic life experience away from drawing the same conclusions ourselves.

But belief in God’s existence or non-existence doesn’t change the fact that one has at least considered the concept and come to a conclusion.

The God-concept conclusion governs all other conclusions, decisions, and emotions.

I’m hoping the reader will allow me the leap I’ve made with the above heading — the “God-concept conclusion” is our answer to the question of God’s existence, along with all of our beliefs about that existence. In an effort to spare us a lengthy trip through the usual¬†“I think, therefore I am” paths that¬†these discussions usually take, I am¬†making this claim without much justification, hoping that it will be received with an open mind:¬†our conclusions about God’s existence govern, consciously and subconsciously, all of our other conclusions, decisions, and emotions.¬†

I realize that I’ve just made a rather large claim; however, taking that for granted a little bit, I’m choosing to limit the discussion¬†at this time on the¬†decisions¬†that one makes in one’s lifetime — and limit that even further to the kinds of decisions that are rather large and involve large sums of money, time, or personal energy. The conclusions and emotions, we can talk about at a later date.

Most of our big decisions come from somewhere deep down

One may say that they bought their house because of their preference for its¬†red door or white picket fence, but before seeing the house, value judgments were no doubt made, and those value judgments necessarily came from some value system in one’s head where one has made a conclusion about God’s existence. The fact that one would see the location of a domicile as completely unconnected to a belief about the existence of God betrays several related conclusions that had been made long before the purchase of that home became a possibility.¬†Conversely, choosing a location because of some idea about God and his ongoing activity in one’s life also betrays an alternative set of conclusions.

And I believe it is fair to suppose that a change made to the basic God-concept conclusion would necessitate — at least eventually, as subsequent¬†conclusions succeed in seeping out into the rest of one’s life —¬†life-altering decisions made down the line.

Application

Weirdly enough, there is an application for this post. Go out there and read. Read, read, read — and then think, think, think. It just happens that my reading recommendations are generally Christian, as my understanding of God is from a Christian perspective. But I believe not only that he exists, but that he is living and active, and is able to lead those who honestly search for him into all truth.

So at the very least,¬†invest some of your mental energy into the God-conclusion. I believe it’s worth the time.

Still Choosing To Believe You Can Have a Family Vacation To Remember

About a year ago, I wrote a response to this article from the blogger M.Blazoned. Her article about family vacations got picked up by HuffPost, and subsequently got a lot of mileage from friends of mine who share my stage of life.

There is a difference between a vacation and a trip.

I remember a few people responding to me by saying that I had missed the point —¬†M was only¬†pointing out that there is a difference between a true “vacation” and a mere trip.¬†Lest we get our hopes up needlessly, they said, in our¬†stage¬†of kids and minivans we ought not to expect too much from our summer excursions.

But I don’t think that was the point she actually made. Here’s what she said:

Wait. Is It Ever a Vacation with Kids?
I’m sorry to say, no. Unless you can pull off the hat trick of family trips. 1. Tropical resort. 2. All-Inclusive. 3. Kid program your kids will happily attend. It will give you moments that feel like a vacation, but, even still, you’re looking at a Vacation-Trip Hybrid at best.

Brushing aside the fact that M avoids¬†clarity with her “no-unless-but…” retort, the claim is generally staked — your family trips will never be vacations. They will never give you the refreshment and rejuvenation that a vacation will give you. ¬†If you cannot manage to take your family to a wildly expensive destination that offers fantastical arrangements for families with small children, you are doomed to¬†simply¬†cart your family around each year, spilling mustard on your clothes and getting burned by the sun while you satiate your children’s wishes to see Mickey Mouse, ride a roller coaster, go to the beach, get the¬†huge bouncy ball, or do whatever they just have to do right now.¬†

The prognosis is that you’ll be a leaky faucet, constantly, until these moochers finally leave your house, some time in the next century.

Maybe the problem is not that we’re expecting too much from vacations, but that we’re expecting the wrong things from¬†life

I want to posit that our real problem is one of unrealistic expectations of life in general, and that if we will reform our expectations to reflect reality, then we can find rejuvenation through fulfillment of purpose and experiences of closeness to the ones we love.

#1. Purpose

I don’t have the time to treat this topic fairly, but I will say that¬†life is better, fuller, clearer when lived out of a passionate pursuit of purpose. And though your children should not be at the very center of that purpose,¬†they play a clear and vital role. So, as you¬†use up your vacation days (a precious resource), and go spend time with your spouse and children, there is some sense that you are fulfilling some of the purpose for which God put you on this earth.¬†

#2. Closeness

If you have kids, you eventually get the idea in your head, clearer and clearer each day, that people¬†you love — your spouse and your children — will¬†live on after you are gone, and your time with them is ultimately limited.

Therefore, experiences of closeness are like fuel for your tank — they may not help you turn a profit at work, but they help you appreciate the people around you more, and they make you more thankful to God for graciously putting these people in your life. In other words, they bring you closer to a¬†maxim of faithfulness and gratefulness in a way that other experiences cannot.

What if we realigned our vacation planning around these goals?

I believe M’s ultimate problem with “vacations” was in her expectations of life, in general. Vacations, in that economy, are essentially a time totally free of obligation, except for the obligation to fulfill one’s own material desires. If that’s part of your definition, then it’s no wonder you can’t have a vacation while you also have a young family!

We¬†shouldn’t¬†focus on those things, because that’s not what we’re supposed to get out of life anyway. We’re disappointed, not because we don’t get what we expect, but because we expect things that we¬†can’t¬†get.

Instead, I would contend that vacations are a time when we get to take a break from the work and obligations that drain us, and draw nearer to the sense of purpose and relational closeness that gives us the energy to face the things we encounter upon our return.

With that in mind,¬†maybe we should ask the following question…

How can I plan a vacation, so that it will help me and the members of my family fulfill our purpose and grow closer as a family? Do we need the big bouncy ball in order to do this? …the roller coaster ride? …the hours in the car? Or,¬†can we do something simpler that will better prepare¬†us to come back and face our daily lives?

Think about it.

 

It’s NOT just a trip! Choosing to believe you CAN take a vacation with your family.

This is a response to this article that got so many likes and shares on social media. Parents were posting this article left and right. “We just went on a TRIP!” As I’ve said before, it is easy to point out mistakes and make complaints; it’s hard to actually solve problems.

 

team Trousdale
 
My family just returned from a fairly significant family vacation. We went to  a beach village about an hour from where we live. There’s nothing to do there except go to the beach with your family, which is precisely the reason we chose the place. Our whole family went — me, my wife, and our three kids (6 years, 3 years, and 3 months old).

Whether we had spent the day on the rocky beach in the village, or on the sandy beach about half a mile away, our children told us each day was the most fun day ever. We ordered pizza every night from the local pizza restaurant, and spent our evenings watching the water from the balcony of our rented apartment. Our family needed this, and I hope we can make it a yearly tradition.

Your family has a culture.

I have written a fair amount on culture and communities in this blog. I believe every family has a family “culture”.  Some families ignore it, others are unaware of it, but it exists regardless of members’ ambivalence. And the culture of the family unit is incredibly influential.

Culture is a set of traditions, beliefs, and obligations that gives a group of people meaning and purpose. It’s the things that bind a group together and make it “stick”. Vacations and trips are part of the ingredients of the family culture because they create shared memories. On every vacation, there are things that are done together, which the entire group remembers together, and every member plays a role. Groups that have few shared memories have trouble establishing a good culture; shared memories make a group more important to its members.

Creating a good culture is your job as a parent.

First, let me say that I get it. Changing dirty diapers gets old. Wiping crusty noses and bottoms is not fun. And, when all of this is multiplied over 2 or 3 (or more) children, it’s easy to wonder if you’ll ever do anything else. Spending the days cleaning up messes and cooking dinners takes a toll on your attitude. It makes us dissatisfied, crabby, and unhappy.

Vacations can’t solve all of a family’s problems. But they can be part of the solution. They can break up monotony and infuse some positivity back into the culture of the family. If they are done right, they can keep us from breaking down and being so dissatisfied. And let’s face it — nobody wants to live with crabby, dissatisfied people.

Making fun of the antidote doesn’t help anybody.

In spite of the claim made in the article’s title, it was not helpful. It’s easy to make fun of stuff. I can make fun of our vacation right now. But making fun of it would discount all the progress that was made in those 5 days. And I don’t believe it does any good to tell parents that their only discretionary trip of the year with their family was not a vacation. 

Choose your own adventure.

Ok, maybe the M.Blazoned article was helpful, albeit indirectly: by describing situations where families are driving for hours, waiting in lines, and battling bad attitudes, it implies that a lot of us parents might be putting our kids in situations where they can’t succeed. Think about it: if you go to Sea World, you’re asking your whole family to walk around all day in the hot sun together, wait in long lines, sit and watch presentations, and not get lost, all while you fork out lots of money. Many adults fail to have a good attitude in such situations. So why do we expect our children to behave any differently than they do?

Less can be more.

I personally wonder about the benefit of investing lots of money and time to take young children to visit attractions that they won’t remember. I realize that we want to do cool things, but it’s just something to think about: when it comes to choosing what attractions to visit on vacation, are we choosing the things that will allow us the best chance at having good, refreshing quality time with our loved ones? Is going to a theme park a good way to play with your kids? Maybe it is. But maybe — just maybe — we’d find that if we were content to do less, we’d end up with a lot more. 

So what do we actually need to do?

I don’t know what you need to do, but I know what I did. Here are a few things that we did this year.

1. Minimize travel time.

Nobody wants to be in the car with small kids for hours and hours. So don’t do it. I know how it goes — you think about all the options and instinctively want to go to the best beach, the best theme park, etc. But kids are not likely to appreciate the extra time spent in transit. And, if you are able to have fun together at a closer location, no one is going to asking, “why didn’t we drive further?” So, try to stay close.  

2. Go where there’s nothing to do. 

This point is ironic — if you’re going to Sea World, Busch Gardens, or Disney-anything, you’re in danger of turning your vacation into a trip, and a not very good one at that. Don’t do it! You will probably not have that much fun! And you will not create the shared memories you want to have. 

It will be hot, and you will stand in line for an eternity with your 6-year-old. Is that how you want to spend your “vacation”?

3. Keep some of your normal schedule.

Make the  kids take naps. Oh, make them take naps. MAKE THEM TAKE NAPS! 

You need a break in the middle of the day, and they do too. If they usually take naps in the afternoon, don’t discontinue this habit. They won’t be agreeable in a strange location if they are constantly tired. 

4. Have fun with your family. 

We did drive by one town, on our way down the coast, that had everything you could want to do — tennis courts, movie theatre, shops, restaurants, etc. Meanwhile, the place where we ended up didn’t even have an ATM! I realize that such a place might not be for everyone, but it is worthwhile to consider whether the range of activities you do is giving you more or less time to actually have fun with your family.

That’s about it. Go out there and make your next trip into a family vacation. 

You Must Define Your Culture Because It Will Define You

 
 Today I am once again a vagabond, traveling alone by bus to Sarajevo to get my car out of the shop where I left it several days ago. As I ride alone through the Bosnian countryside — alone with 40 other people I’ve never met — I am surrounded by and constantly reminded of something for which most people of my background have very little vocabulary: culture

Culture can be defined as a set of shared traditions, customs, and obligations that gives a group purpose and meaning. There is a song that is collectively sung by the people of this land, and it echoes from every red tile rooftop, every kafana, and every bombed out building. It unifies them, and it tells every member of this country where they are going and from whence they came. It is construed so that no one from here will ever forget the past, guaranteeing that the future will be reminiscent of what they already know. 

Culture is all around you. 
Perhaps you made the connection that I could have just been describing a family, a high school graduating class, or a group of coworkers. Though they don’t have an entire country at their disposal, every group of people has a culture. Sometimes the group culture is so weak that it is inconsequential to its members — each member may also be a member of several other, stronger groups that exercise more influence over them. But every kind of group you can name can be thought of in the framework of culture. 

Every family has a family culture — some of us run from it, some of us run to it. Family culture is especially influential; it governs when the members go to bed at night and when they get up in the morning. It sets our expectations for marriage and family life when we become adults. Just like all these people here in Bosnia, most of us will never forget. 

Every work group has a culture. It comes with an attitude toward authority, and a system of rewards for compliance. It clashes often with that family culture we go home to each night, and culture wars ensue. Anyone with a full-time job can imagine the problems that arise when a spouse fails to appreciate the work culture that demands so much from their husband or wife. Or, when the family culture is made subservient to the culture of work. 

I work with a team here in Mostar, and we are just beginning our existence together. We all moved here in February, and before then, there was no one in the city from our organization. I can’t remember when it occurred to me, but at some point I had the distinct realization that the most important thing about leading a group of coworkers is establishing a culture that works for the members of the group. Most of us read articles about companies that have a great culture on the job; few of us get to live it out at work. 

I had the opportunity to participate in leading my group of coworkers through an entire year, a few years ago. It is not an experience I would like to repeat. I was less enlightened then, and many of the experiences of that year gave me first-hand knowledge of how not to establish a good working culture. And I’ll never be allowed to forget that year. 

I was unaware of what I was doing, and though action and inaction, I helped establish a working culture. As many cultures are, it was full of unwritten rules and ambiguous expectations. There were unjust assumptions, unfixable problems, and scapegoats. There were no festivals, for sure — there was little to celebrate. Celebration and friendships felt contrived and filled with unvoiced frustration. 

It wasn’t all terrible. But it wasn’t at all what we wanted. In our failure to define a productive culture, one was defined for us, and we were all defined by it, unable to escape it, struggling to forget it. Because I failed to appreciate my incredibly influential role in that group, I was bound to things I didn’t realize existed, and our growth and influence was stunted. It wasn’t all bad — some parts were even good — but it wasn’t what it could have been. 

And I will not forget — I will not be defined in that way, never again. Not ever, never

So as we sat together the other day and began to talk about our hopes and dreams for the future, I brought up the idea of culture and explained it the best I knew how. I knew that this was no time for empty promises or pledges. I had been down that road before. That was a journey I would never forget and hoped to not repeat. 

Don’t make promises. 

Promises and covenants about working relationships rarely work in creating a life-giving culture because they do not describe anything that currently exists and therefore offer the parties involved nothing to defend. Promises and covenants usually say something like this:

I promise to always respect the boundaries of my coworkers, to strive to finish my assignments on time, to treat others in the way I would like to be treated, et cetera…

The problem isn’t that we are saying bad things, but that we are answering the wrong questions. Such promises fail to take into account the habits and customs and assumptions that already exist, and there is inequal value placed on them by the participants. A father of three might see his missed deadline as inconsequential, while a young single, driven staff member is up in arms. Assumptions are made. Conclusions are drawn. People are judged. 

It is better at the start to define those things that are already true and accepted by all the team members. Defining that which is true gives participants something to defend and appreciate. Documents that cannot be defended should not be made — they will only make people upset, and they will not define a culture that makes people want to come to work every day. They will be forgotten, and a culture will be defined by default. 

It may seem that I am overreacting to my past experience, but I believe this type of nonconformity is something I can’t emphasize enough. Do not check off the boxes in leading a group — any group. Don’t do it as a father, a project manager, a boss, or a team leader. Do not create documents that you don’t need to create, just because someone else tells you that they are good things to have. Do not say things you don’t need to say. 

As you lead, do the things you have to do. Do the things you must do. State that which is true, and then defend the truth with every ounce of energy you have in you. 

As a father, a leader, a boss, or whatever position you find yourself in, do not say, “I will always.” You won’t. And don’t say, “I will never,” because you will. Instead, say those things which you know that you do. Right now. 

And if those things you do now need to be changed somehow, then you must make the decision to change them. But don’t tell people you will change things that you have not decided you are ready to change. Though you’ve said good things, you are sowing a culture of ambiguity, stagnation, and unmet expectations. I will not judge you for it — we have all been told we need to say good things. But it is ultimately better to resist, than to succumb and give birth to disappointment and ill will that we cannot control. 

However, if there are any good things that you do now — and I know that there are — then you must defend those things with every ounce of vigilance in your soul. Go to war for these things and don’t let them be pried from your grasp. Live for these things — live and die for them. Let them define you. Let them be the words of the song that echoes from every corner of your life. 

And let those things be the things that define a culture that you will never want to forget.