Questions people always ask: Why Bosnia?

There are questions that we constantly seem to hear. One of them is “why did you choose to go to Bosnia?” It’s a fair question. Why, of all the places in the world, would you choose to make your home in a country as obscure as Bosnia and Herzegovina? I usually say, “well that’s a long story”, or something to that affect.

Sit back, get comfortable — here’s the story of how our family came to live in this remote, beautiful place, halfway around the world from where we began.

New awakening

Like most stories of this nature, there is plenty of background. I am among the oldest of the millennials, having been born in the early 80s, with a faint recollection of events like the fall of the Berlin wall and the advent of email. As I was becoming an adult I can vividly remember the Florida re-count of 2000 and planes flying into the Twin Towers.

My parents became Christians some time before I was born and wanted their children to know and love Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t until I was in college, watching those planes explode that that decision finally became real for me. I couldn’t call myself a Christian just because I had spent plenty of time inside a church building, no more than one could call oneself a car after spending time in a garage.

Student ministry

I was drawn into student ministry first as a student, through the invitation of a friend who had a Bible study meeting in his dorm room. Through getting involved in that group, and then in the wider community of Christians on my campus, I saw my need for God. I decided not only to give my life to him, but to give a whole year of my life (how noble of me) to helping people overseas have a similar experience. I went to Sarajevo, Bosnia, with an organization called “Cru”, a world-wide, interdenominational ministry that operates in nearly 200 countries.

The first experience

My first year was so good I decided to come back for seconds. It was a ground-breaking experience for someone like me. My experience of Christian community and ministry had been fairly limited at that point, and this was something totally new. We walked up to random people on the street and asked them if they cared to talk about God. We distributed winter coats to people. We organized movie nights, seminars, and social events — anything to gather people.

Then I went back home. I thought I’d never come back to Bosnia. I found another job. I got married. This was a chapter of my life that was closed. But eventually that would change.

The comeback

In the winter of 2008, a friend of mine sat down with me and told me he was going to Sarajevo and he wanted me to come. He was going to sort of finish what we had begun several years before. At once I had a yearning I could not explain to go back and once again be in Europe, working on something truly compelling — helping bring a message of peace and hope to people in another culture.

It was hard to come back. It was an uphill climb. There were times when it seemed like we wouldn’t make it back. But in the fall of 2010, we finally made it.

We were back, as a family. It was different. We had different obligations, different expectations, but now finally we were back to finish what we had started several years earlier.

The mission

We’ve been back in Bosnia and Herzegovina permanently since 2010, with a mission of bringing young people together and building a community where all students can belong, believe in God, and become the people they are created to be. In a place where there is so much division, it is refreshing to be able to share a message of hope and redemption.

Thanks for reading. Make use of this site to find out more about our mission, our story, and what we are doing with young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

3 Essential Elements of Any Great Team And How to Build Them

Working on a team is challenging, even if all the members are seasoned professionals. This year our team consists of several new interns and staff that have never spent time in our location before. Here’s what we are planning to do — things any team can do — to promote clarity, build camaraderie, and develop trust as we step out into another year of work.

Trust

Trust is perhaps the most basic building block for success in any team environment. It’s like air — when we have lots of it, so many things are possible; when we don’t have it, even the simplest things are hard. Here are a couple of things I think build trust in the early going, when you haven’t yet had time to get to know each other well.

Talk about things you value.

Everyone has things that they think are important, and talking about those things will help everyone to get to know one another. At the very least, it will get everyone talking — and talking about something more significant than the weather or the Braves game.

Open your home.

Whether you are a leader or just a team member, I believe inviting colleagues over can be a great first step toward success. It can be for a meal or just a cup of coffee, but putting yourself in a position where you can host others for a couple hours really helps break the ice and get people comfortable with each other.

Camaraderie

It would be a great group activity to see who can spell the word “camaraderie”, for some kind of cash reward. Camaraderie is easier to define, though, and it is something every team needs in order to be successful. When you achieve camaraderie, a group becomes a team, coworkers become friends, and everything becomes possible. Here are a couple ideas:

Attend a social event together.

The day after our team arrives, thousands of people will descend on Mostar for the fourth annual Mostar Cliff Diving competition, in which world-class divers come to jump from Mostar’s old bridge. It’s a magical time, the streets are full, and it’s the perfect opportunity to take everyone out to share a great day together in the city.

Go on a team retreat.

After bringing everyone up to speed in their new job and new surroundings, it might be feasible to take everyone on a team retreat. Retreats are excellent opportunities to go deeper and explore just what makes a great team.

Clarity

If Trust is like concrete, clarity is like the cement in the concrete. Without clarity, it’s hard to make good decisions, people become dissatisfied, and trust erodes. But with it, trust solidifies and teams become super productive.

At first, have lots of meetings.

This may be counter intuitive, because meetings are often said to be a huge waste of time. And they are! But when you’ve got a brand new team that you’re trying to bring together, I believe you need to see each other a lot. You need to learn each other’s strengths, preferences, habits, before you can really start to click.

Maybe those meetings could be just 15-minute standup meetings where everyone just shares the status of their projects and ask questions. Or, you could think of team-building exercises that will help the team think deeply about how they work together. However you do it, in the first few weeks it is important to see each other often.

Write everything down.

This takes a lot of work for the leaders, but I think it can be helpful to write down a lot of the planned events, policies, or customs of your workplace so that new hires have the information to refer back to in the future. Here are a few examples of things you could write down and email or hand out to everyone:

  • A list of all the planned holidays, store closings, or other special events that will happen over the next six to twelve months.
  • The different ways in which your team communicates for work (phone, email, Slack, messenger, etc.), and what situations they are used for.
  • A list of things your team members need for work that might cost money, and suggestions on where to buy them (uniforms, certain shoes, technology, certain books, etc.).

Obviously, you won’t have time to write everything down, but it will make things easier when team members come to you with questions. Even if you need to make an exception, you make the exception with a better knowledge of why the policy was made in the first place.

I hope this has been helpful. What are some things you have learned while working on teams? Leave thoughts in the comments.

Podcast episode 3: The Refugee Question in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Finally, here is the long-awaited third episode of podcast. The audience has been clamouring for the next instalment, the press has been calling, and time has been tight, but I have managed to finally bless my listeners with the sweet sound of my voice again 😉

As you listen, keep in mind that this episode is meant first to inform you of the situation, since it has become an important current event in the country where I live. Second, it is meant to raise questions that I believe we need to think about, especially those of us who claim to be Christians. I have tried to refrain from voicing any hard and fast opinions here, as I know this can be a controversial issue.

Notes and links for the information discussed in this episode can be found at the bottom of this post.

Enjoy.

=== Podcast transcript ===

Podcast 3: Refugee Question

Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. Today is episode three, and we are going to talk about the Refugee crisis in Bosnia and how it affects us as believers.

The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.

“The Bosnia Project” is a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer.

I often say that we are building a community where people can belong, believe in God, and become the people he has created them to be. It all starts with belonging. My personal path to where I am today began with a community that made me feel that I belong, that I had a place in their fellowship. That eventually gave me the tools that I needed to believe and become the person I am today. That’s why I believe that belonging is an essential part of becoming a believer and seeing meaningful life change.

There are lots of groups and ministries that are based on this principle. Alcoholics Anonymous, depression recovery, and many other kinds of mercy ministries are effective because of the community they create for people in need. These communities create a kind of social framework that helps lift people up out of the places they are in, so they can reform their lives.

When people fall into destructive lifestyles, they often find camaraderie there. There are often lots of other people who help them descend into places they otherwise wouldn’t want to go. And when people are finally able to recover, it is often because of the help they receive a community. Very few ever recover in isolation.

For you and me, in a very similar way, I think community is essential if we are serious about becoming the people we are created to be. Any kind of small group, men’s group, women’s Bible studies — they give us hope and focus us, and help us know that there are other people who care about us and want us to advance.

Introduction

Today in Bosnia refugees have begun to show up on our doorstep. These are people who don’t belong anywhere. They’ve been driven from their homes and literally have no place to call home, and they’ve started to show up in great numbers in the country where I live now. We often think of the refugee crisis as something akin to serving the poor in the places where we live. It’s a very complex thing.

===

Driving back from meeting

In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have the capital city of Sarajevo, where I lived for a total of 7 years altogether, and then as you go west, towards the border of Croatia and European Union, the only big city you come through is Mostar, where I live right now. Right now, I’m driving back from Sarajevo to Mostar. There’s two small towns you go through to Mostar, I’m in that last stretch before you get to Mostar. It’s an incredibly beautiful, striking drive, especially when the sun is out.

You have a river that cuts through this mountainous area, and the road is down next to the river, so when you’re driving your way down in the middle of a valley, and the mountains go straight up on either side of you. The way the mountains are made up they look like sheets of rock going down diagonally into the water. It’s as if the sheets are almost on a 45 degree with the water, and they are sliding down into the water. It typifies Herzegovina and its distinct look and how it’s different from the rest of the country.

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Bosnian refugee work

Refugees have started to come to Bosnia because they have nowhere else to go. They start in the Middle East, and their goal is to get to a place where they can lead productive, safe lives, unthreatened by conflict. So naturally, they go West. The nations to the east and the north are not really in a position to help them, and they have their own problems. They go west, they come through Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and many of them get caught there. They stay in camps there, funded by the Turkish or Greek or Jordan governments, and they are provided for, but they have to live in tents and temporary buildings. Their children don’t go to school, their lives sort of go on pause for the time that they’re there.

Then many hear of the locations of these camps, and they choose different routs, searching for better locations. They want to get to Germany, they want to get to France. Once they get to these countries, they’ll be accepted as refugees, or they’ll be able to apply for some kind of protected status, and they will be able to stay. But they get stopped at the borders of the European Union. Once they’re in, they’re in, but the EU doesn’t have to let them in.

So, they try different entry points, which has brought them finally to Bosnia. There are as many as 100 people showing up in Bosnia every day, from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and other countries across the Middle East. They’ve been stopped all across the borders, and so they have to stay in Bosnia. They’re at several different places. There’s a large hostel in Ilidza, there’s a bombed out building in Bihac, there’s tents set up by volunteers in the center of Sarajevo, there’s a refugee camp in Mostar. The response ranges from incredibly unorganized and chaotic, to organized and sophisticated in other places.

===

Refugee clarifications

Here are some clarifications that may be helpful as we think about the refugee issue in the world.

  1. Refugee is a loaded word. It’s a politically charged word no matter how it is used. A refugee is someone who is justifiably seeking refuge from a government or other group, and is therefore seeking to permanently leave their home country and take up residence in a safer place. So if you accept that someone is a refugee then you are also accepting a couple of things:
    1. That the country they are leaving is unjustly persecuting that person.
    2. That person is not a criminal for trying to run away.
    3. They have the basic right to leave wherever they were living and seek refuge somewhere else.
  2. All of the people involved in this crisis are technically migrants — and many of the migrants are refugees. Some people are not refugees, because they are migrating for reasons that technically don’t qualify them as refugees. Basically, their home country is not in an all-out war.
    1. However, for the kurds from Turkey, for example, that are part of this huge group of migrants, they’ve always been persecuted by their own government. But Turkey is a legitimate, universally-recognized, functioning state, a member of NATO, and we can’t really say that people fleeing their country qualify as “refugees”. Saying that would imply that a member of NATO is mistreating its citizens, maybe that country is deserving of some type of sanctions, and so forth. It would be unsupportive of its government — a government that’s supposedly aligned with the West.
    2. So, the Kurdish factions of Turkey have taken their cause into their own hands, raising up their own leaders and creating their own institutions that fight for equality for their people in Turkey and the surrounding countries. In the United States, this would’ve been something like the NAACP, the Black Panther movement, the Nation of Islam, and other groups that rose up to fight for Black equality. But in Turkey, there is an obvious difference — these people are going for an independent Kurdish state as the end-goal for their fight. They want Kurdish equality, Kurdish autonomy, Kurdish independence — which means that they eventually would like to secede from the state of Turkey. They view this as their goal, as their right. Which raises a lot of questions — if these people are against their government, what’s the difference between them and a terrorist?
    3. But don’t they have reason to protest against their government — a government that has in the past outlawed the use of the Kurdish language? Don’t they have a right to protest against the suppression of their culture by a government where another ethnic group is clearly in the driver’s seat? And what about the history of crimes, deaths, even massacres committed against the Kurdish peoples over the past several centuries? The Kurdish people have a rich history of existence that goes back several centuries. However, In an attempt to deny their existence, the Turkish government categorized Kurds as “Mountain Turks” until 1991.
    4. So, what’s the verdict? Are these people terrorists? or are they legitimately oppressed minorities? By using the word refugee you would be choosing a side in this conflict — something none of us intend to do.
  3. As a Christian — and I think this is the question that most of us listening want to answer — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?

===

American attitudes

We’ve got some questions to answer as Americans. At least, that’s what the people at the Pew Research Center say. They do surveys, though, so they’re always saying that. Sir, would you mind answering a few questions? I never stop and answer. I guess I’m reluctant to give my opinion.

There’s an article on the Pew website about how people in the US are turning more negative toward refugees. The picture at the top is of a girl from Bhutan, sitting in college class in the US. The caption reads, “Her extended family was resettled in the area, as were hundreds of other refugees from Bhutan and Nepal in recent years.

In the late 1980s Bhutanese elites regarded a growing ethnic Nepali population as a demographic and cultural threat. The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.

After a campaign of harassment that escalated in the early 1990s, Bhutanese security forces began expelling people, first making them sign forms renouncing claims to their homes and homeland. “The army took all the people from their houses,” a young refugee told me. “As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.”

Today, about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese authorities have not allowed a single refugee to return. In 2006, the US government, seeing an impasse, offered to resettle 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees.

Now, only about half of Americans (51%) say the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while 43% say it does not. That qualifies as a controversial issue.

But what would be the best way to assist in this crisis? Would it be to resettle these people into a neighboring country where they would probably become an impoverished group again, never at home, and never provided for? Which nation would be in a position to support a group of people who have no means of support? Which nation would be able to place these people into a situation where they can work, support their families, and lead meaningful productive lives?

To date, 92,000 of the 108,000 total refugees from the situation in Bhutan have been resettled to the United States. Many of them own businesses, work in jobs, and send their children to school in communities across the United States. In the United states, refugees from places like Bhutan are often resettled by large faith-based charities like World Relief, which was Founded in 1944 as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Europe after World War II.

These are their values: The Example of Jesus as we serve those who are suffering from poverty and injustice, regardless of color, belief, or gender, as part of God’s plan to redeem, reconcile, and restore the world. We seek to follow Jesus by living holy, humble, and honest lives individually and corporately. The Local Church as a primary agent of bringing peace, justice, and love to a broken world.

There are Bhutanese people still in refugee camps, but most of them have been resettled to Western countries. Many were resettled by World Relief. And I think that’s where we’d like for them to be — in the hands of a group of people seeking to live out the “example of Jesus”, working to alleviate suffering because of a deep desire to see this world redeemed.

===

Middle East Refugees

In the Middle East, though, the numbers are different. Maybe because it’s such a high-profile struggle, maybe because of the stigma attached to accepting Muslim refugees, or maybe because of other factors, the number of people resettled to the United States has been unimpressive.

There are 6.1 million refugees from Syria.

Many in the US have remarked that these refugees should be taken in by neighboring countries. Well, they have.

Kuwait has taken 150,000

Iraq has taken 230,000 — even as it faces the remnants of ISIS.

The UAE have taken 242,000

One of the world’s poor nations, Sudan, has taken 100,000.

Jordan has taken 1.3 million

Lebanon has taken in 2.2 million

3.5 million have been taken in by the nation of Turkey.

This situation, unlike the situation in Bhutan, is one where the US hasn’t been one of the top nations extending help to those displaced. And as I said before, offering help has a lot of complex side effects. By accepting refugees into your country, you’re saying that it’s ok to call them refugees and give them refugee status. By doing that, you’re saying something about the place they came from. You’re saying it’s not treating its citizens properly.

But in the process, in the US, you’re also giving people like World Relief the chance to have an impact and an influence on people who have been driven from their homes. You’ve giving people who’ve been impoverished, persecuted, threatened, the chance to live a normal, productive life in a nation that can support them quite easily.

So far, seven years into the Syrian conflict, 16,000 of the 6.1 million refugees from Syrian have been resettled to the US.

===

The Question

So, back to that question I raised before — how can we do what we are supposed to do, without wading into this political question?

Think about the question — it’s got two parts. The second part, wading into political arena, is what always stops people from doing things. We don’t want to be political, but we often don’t realize that by doing nothing we become political. We’re political because we are more concerned with the outer appearance of what we’re doing than we are with the act itself.

We need not be reminded — or maybe we do — of other situations in our world’s history. Inaction is action. Not to act is to act.

The question, then, ought to be, how can we do what we are supposed to do? There’s no second part of the question. I’m a Christian anyway, and this is not our home, anyway. Or at least, here we do not have a lasting home — we are looking for the home that is to come. We’re supposed to have an eternal perspective. What we’re supposed to do is the eternal question. Political conflicts are by nature, fleeting, temporary, short. The question that will stand the test of time is, did I do what I was meant to do? Regardless of the political questions involved.

So, whether you’re in Atlanta — where I was over 20 years ago — or in Bosnia — where I am now — there’s the question. Am I going to do what I’m meant to do? Am I going to try to serve this community? Am I going to support that person that needs my assistance? Am I going to go looking for people who need my help? Am I even aware of the help I can offer?

I hope this has given all of us plenty to think about.

===

Notes about the Kurdish people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurds#Antiquity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_of_Kurdish_people_in_Turkey#Issues

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey#Demographics

Notes about attitudes toward refugees and immigrants in the US

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/03/the-number-of-refugees-admitted-to-the-u-s-has-fallen-especially-among-muslims/

http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/immigration-attitudes/

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/24/republicans-turn-more-negative-toward-refugees-as-number-admitted-to-u-s-plummets/

Notes about refugees in Bhutan

https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/02/01/bhutans-ethnic-cleansing

Notes about World Relief

https://www.worldrelief.org/values

A book for life: Celebration of Discipline

At the family reunion yesterday I joked with someone about how I stopped reading books after about five or six really good books, and now my personal reading consists solely of reading those books over and over. And while I was mostly joking there was at least some truth to the statement. So here is one of the books I’ve recently finished re-reading, and I offer it as a recommendation for everyone who it’s interested in deepening their personal spiritual journey.

Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

In our day, discipline is truly something to celebrate, and something that we often aspire to. In the Christian world, there are several habits, or disciplines, that have been practiced by Christians through the ages. These are the things that are prescribed in Christian Scripture, and are the activities through which God has said he will speak. In other words, when we do these things, God has promised he will show up.

Here is the list: 

  1. Meditation
  2. Prayer
  3. Fasting
  4. Study
  5. Simplicity
  6. Solitude
  7. Submission
  8. Service
  9. Confession
  10. Worship
  11. Guidance
  12. Celebration

The presence of God is a constant and does not change during our day-to-day struggles on this earth; the concept of God “showing up” is actually misguided. However, our perception of his presence does change, and journeying through this list will heighten the believer’s awareness of him in all circumstances.

Dr. Foster explains each of the habits in depth and gives helpful ways to apply each one in day-to-day life. One can read Celebration cover to cover in a week, or study it slowly over a month and give proper attention to all the Scripture references and footnotes. Both methods are profitable for the reader and offer their own level of benefit. Celebration is a treasure to have on any bookshelf or nightstand.

Interview with Richard Foster

Preview Celebration of Discipline here:

How to go to America

I’M GOING TO AMERICAAAAAA!!!

I’m a bit excited. My family and I are visiting the U.S. next month. I take my family to the U.S. every other summer to visit grandparents, attend a family reunion, drive…

We end up doing a lot of driving. And, now that I have kids in school, we are basically limited to the month of July. The America Trip used to be so simple, back when we had fewer kids and none of them were in school. Now, it’s gotten so complicated that I feel like I need to hire an assistant just to organize all the tasks just for this one trip. Here are some things that go into the making of The America Trip. 

Airfare

We have three kids, which means we have to buy five tickets to fly to the U.S. Any fluctuation in the price gets multiplied by five, so it gets pretty expensive.

It’s also funny that our friends where we live assume that we are going to America for a vacation. Flying in planes for 8 hours with 3 small human beings who think it’s funny to slap you in the face is not my idea of a vacation!

Borrow a Car

A car is a necessity in the U.S., but since we don’t live there anymore, we don’t have one. So, getting one — and sometimes, two — that we can use to go back and forth is a chore. This time, though, we were able to find a company that rents to people like us for a discount. Hopefully, this will be a solution we can use again in the future.

Clothes

Certain clothing items are just not available in Eastern Europe, so we do have to use the time in the U.S. to find what we need. Whatever it is — whether it’s some special brand of socks or a good waterproof jacket — it needs to be good enough to last until the next time we visit.

Food

Yes, that’s a picture of peanut butter. I can’t explain it, but peanut butter is one of those things that Europeans will never understand about the U.S. You can actually find it here, but it’s just not very good. So every time we come (which isn’t often enough) we try to bring back a couple of huge jars of Jif.

 


This photo of Bangkok Baking Company – at the JW Marriott Hotel Bangkok is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Hamburgers

Hamburgers are another thing that America just does better than anyone. I’m talking about a good pub burger here — not Burger King (although Burger King has its place). While it’s definitely not something you can take back to Europe with you, the good hamburger is a thing that we miss about the U.S. very much.

Phone

This is a rare moment where I advocate something that seems like something you’d hear on Dave Ramsey: we buy cellphones in the U.S. every 2 years — full price, no-contract, factory unlocked — and take them back to Eastern Europe with us. There are several reasons for this, but I’ll start with a general financial principle: If you buy a phone in this way — even though these phones can cost $500 and up — it’s almost always a better deal over the life of the contract than getting the phone under a contract with your wireless provider.

After getting the new phone, we sell our old phone on eBay, which has an amazing program for selling your smartphone. In fact, if you have a model that’s not too terribly old, they will format the listing for you, recommend the settings for the sale, and then guarantee the price that you will get it, based upon the average price for that model of phone. If you end up having to sell it for less, they will give you eBay credit for the difference, which you spend on eBay to buy other things you need.

Last time I was in the states, I sold my 2-year-old iPhone 5 for more than the average price (about $120), in less time than eBay had told me it would take. Then I sold my wife’s phone for less than the average price, and as promised, they sent me eBay credit, which I used to buy phone chargers and headphones.

Family

This is one of the main reasons we go to the states — to see uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins — and this is something you definitely cannot take back with you. The time is short, but the memories last a lifetime.

 

Work

There is a lot of actual work that we do while in the U.S., and it requires our family to do quite a bit of traveling. Lots of people, churches, and organizations contribute to our work and we need to visit with as many of them as we can. Sharing with others about the past two years is one of the most important things we do.

Rest

There are a lot of things we do while in America, but rest isn’t one of them. We schedule a week of vacation, immediately after we return from the U.S., near our home in Mostar. This has become a special time for our family to regroup and be refreshed before the next school year comes.

I am beginning to get excited.

Give to those in need and become the one in need

I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’…

I can still remember the day when my good friend sat down with me in a Starbucks in Atlanta and said, “I want you to come back to Bosnia with me.” He was going there to work with the organization that I currently work for, and he was overtly recruiting me to with him. I had lived in Bosnia for a short time right after college, a period during which many surely thought I was sowing my wild oats. I’d get the travel bug out of my system soon and come back and settle down.

But as soon as I heard “come back to Bosnia”, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt a burning desire to go back and help build something meaningful. We mulled the decision over for about a year, but my wife and I eventually decided to go.

Learning a new world

The U.S. can be very different from the rest of the world. Living in Eastern Europe has been an adventure in adjusting to new cultural norms. But somewhere in the process of acquiring a new language and learning new customs, people tend to change. We’ll always be foreigners, but we’re no longer the same people that left the U.S. in 2010.

Yes, there are new habits and tastes that have developed, but most important is the new awareness that has resulted from our time overseas — awareness of ourselves that we would not have had, had we stayed home.

I’ve learned how to survive — quite well — without all the creature comforts available back home. My children speak a different language fluently. speak a different language. I’ve learned organizational skills I never would have learned had I stayed in my old job. And the young people I have worked with have given me more than I’ve ever given them.

The last shall be first.

In this upside-down world in which we live, I think the principle arises that might not have been as visible before. When one ventures out to help others, often the giver benefits more than the receiver — but in ways that were unanticipated before. The one who helps might gather up clothes to donate to the needy, but in that process they gain an understanding of the things that people truly need. Or, they gain lifelong friends in the process of teaching an English class. Building a staircase might serve a temporal need, but the knowledge and skills gained in the process are valuable for a lifetime.

In the end, the givers become the receivers, the first become last, and those who give help discover just how needy they are.

An American plan for better work: Stop.

There are few things as American as the work ethic. Some call it the “Protestant work ethic”, connect it to religion, and claim it sacred. That’s their choice, but those people would do good to note: not all that’s worshiped is holy.

And that’s the thing. We often treat our work as if it is high, special, sacred. When work calls, we do. We go. We run. And in the mean time we forget that there are other things in life that require doing, and going, and running — more than our work. 

The proposal

The idea is simple: work gets tough, so stop.

Stop working. Go somewhere where you can’t work. Turn your phone off, unplug, recharge. Then come back, emptied of work, ready to fill up again.

Do it for one week. Do this once, then plan to do it again, in one year. Make this a ritual for life — take your family, go with like-minded friends. People will help you unplug completely.

Plan for it. Save your money all year so you can do this. Entrust your work to trusted colleagues while you’re gone. Watch your life unfold as you travel through time from one period of rest to the next.

Rely on it. Do things that refresh your heart and soul, like playing games with your spouse and kids. Take pictures and hang them on the walls of your house. Look forward to this time, and make it everything you need it to be.

Start working again. Get back into work immediately. Dive into it like an Olympic diver. And know that, no matter how tough things get, you’ve got another breather waiting for you in just a few short months.

The excuses

It’s too expensive. Yeah, it is. That car was “too expensive” too, but you bought it. This isn’t expensive. This is priceless. 

I’m too busy. Exactly. Did you read the proposal? You do this because you’re busy.

I just don’t trust anyone to take over for me at work. Sorry. People probably deserve to be trusted a little more, though. If you never trust them with anything,  you’ll never trust them. With anything. 

I don’t have the money. Somehow people think this is different from “It’s too expensive”. You have the money, you just choose to spend it on other things. Put $50 per month into an envelope. That’s enough to do something fun for a week.

I don’t like vacations. That’s silly. Do anything fun (not work) without stopping for a week. That’s a vacation.

The problem

Conventional wisdom says to find yourself in your work. Find something you love to do, they say, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

The problem is that tomorrow you could be rendered unable to do your work. Then what would you be? Who would you be? If the time you feel really alive is only at work, that’s a problem.

Tell your wife that, and guess how she’ll put it together: if you’re alive at work, then when you’re with me you must feel… dead. 

Ultimately, that’s not her problem. It’s yours. It’s wrong that we can’t find anything to define us other than our work — especially when we have spouses, friends, children, churches, etc. These people deserve our time and effort, just as much as the things at our jobs do. Actually, what they deserve from us, is work. 

The truth

The truth is that there are things in life that are worth more than a paycheck. Oh — and for those who say their work is their passion, there are things in life that are worth infinitely more than that, too.

What good is it to live a life based on things that are not ultimate? If the unthinkable happens, and somehow your passion was taken away from you, what would you be left with?

The solution

The solution is to come to an understanding that people are more than what they do, that a person works better when their soul is full, and not emptied from years of overwork. If you can understand yourself in this way, you’ll eventually come to see other people that way as well.

Rest. The ancient Hebrews had a rhythm of life that was given them in their religion, and it mandated a day of rest on Saturday. Then, they had seven festivals every year, during which they were also not allowed to work. Somehow, they prospered. It was a way of reminding them that no matter how hard they worked, they ultimately would never be able to completely control their own success. They would always ultimately have to depend on God.

That’s more than a work ethic. That’s a rest ethic. 

Work. Work is an incredibly important thing. It should be attacked with vigor and skill. But it is not, and can never be, the only thing. A man (or woman), the saying goes, should work to live — not live to work.

Work without rest is drudgery. It does not require skill to devote time to a task, undivided. Skill is required if one is to balance work with something else. This is our calling, as workers — less conquering, more balance.

A wise manager will promote those who know how to balance many responsibilities. Imagine the kind of person who is sufficiently organized and mature that they have found a way to add a rest ethic to their work ethic. I think that’s the kind of person we want to be.

The why

The conclusion is the why, the reason for all this. It’s deep.

We don’t stop doing important things unless we find something more important. The thing is, more important things exist all around us, regardless of whether we recognize their worth. The stopping of something as important as our work requires us to find those things that are important enough to make us stop.

All of this thinking and planning will teach us 2 things.

It’ll teach us to go, do, and run for something other than our paycheck.

It’ll teach us that, even if our work is our passion, there are times when we need to let it be “just” a paycheck.

The planning and thinking we must do to learn these two things will make us better people, and, ultimately, better workers.

 

 

The person you want to be: an introduction to willing

There’s a man in the neighborhood who has no education, but works three jobs to support his wife and kids. He’s dirty and sweaty when he gets home, but he has a smile on his face, and he somehow still has time to invite you over for dinner.

There’s a cancer patient who is always smiling and full of energy, even when she’s completely drained. She’s making jokes and talking to you about her friends — not her chemo.

There’s a young family with a down syndrome daughter, who invites you into their home and prays for you. Their daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, but they take every challenge with determination and pride.

We know these kinds of people exist. Every day is a challenge, and while they probably wish things were easier, they don’t hold anything back. They’ve put everything out on the table, because they know that life is simply better lived that way.

What is it about these people? Why are they attractive to us?

Is it possible to become like them, even if we don’t have cancer, a down syndrome child, or a manual labor job?

The thing about these people, in my opinion, is something I call will.

It’s not the results. These people never would have chosen the hand they were dealt.

It’s not desire. Most days, these people have to do things they really don’t want to do.

But one thing they are: and that is willing.

They know what they have to do, and they go do those things willingly. They hold the door for people, they practice hospitality, and they are kind — even though they have more than enough reasons not to be.

This is willing: it’s an attitude, a posture, a way of thinking.

I believe we can learn from these people. I believe that, if we examine the lives of people that face life willingly, then we’ll find lots of things we want to copy, that we can copy. And I think eventually we can become people who are a little more willing than we are now.

 

What kind of life do you want? The question you should not be asking.

You’re probably familiar with the motivational speeches and books out there that urge you to choose the life you want, and then go out and make it your own.

“17 steps to the life you want.”

“Live the life of your dreams!”

They make it sound so easy, and yet most of us know that life usually doesn’t turn out that way. If having the life you always wanted was simple, everyone would be rich, healthy, and popular.

Maybe they’ve got the question slightly wrong. Usually, you can’t control the results in life. You prepare, you make choices, but things usually don’t work out as you plan.

So what if you forgot about how things turn out?

Instead of asking “what kind of life do you want,” what would the question be?

I think the question would have to center on the type of person you want to be.

What kind of person do you want to be?

You’d have to have some way to look at qualities that are apparent in lots of different people, and then decide which ones you want to keep, to nurture, and to strengthen.

Honesty, patience, courage, peace, kindness… if we made a list of the qualities we want to add, those would probably be at the top, wouldn’t they? Can you think of any others?

But there are other qualities, too — the kind we already have and probably wish we could get rid of. Most of us have been keeping, nurturing, and strengthening these kinds of qualities for a long time.

These are things like bitterness, fear, inaction. If you’re an adult, it’s likely that you’ve had an encounter with these; they’re like a right of passage. They become like bargaining chips, after a while — we hold onto them tightly, as if they have immense value.

But the truth is, they’re worthless.

Here’s my wager: bitterness, fear, and inaction are those things that keep us from being the person we want to be. If we’re going to become the people we need to be, then we’ve got to go find all those chips and put them on the table.

Everything about this is hard. But that’s the thing about wagers — you can’t take the pot unless you’ve got skin in the game.

Do you want to get in the game? I do.

A story of the will: Ernie Johnson, Jr.

To understand me, you’ve got to know something about basketball.

When I was a kid, I loved basketball. I would play all day, and on the weekends I would watch it on TV. But I remember, about halfway through my teenage years, TBS, one of our Atlanta TV stations, began broadcasting NBA basketball on Wednesday nights. And that is when I became acquainted with Ernie Johnson, Jr.

More to the story

One day I saw Ernie on television, but he wasn’t calling a game. He was shaving his son’s face. And in that moment he became a completely different person to me. Suddenly there was a lot more to him than sports.

The son that I saw is Michael, who is ethnically Romanian. He suffers from muscular dystrophy, and today breathes through a ventilator. In an interview for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ernie said, “He’s on a ventilator with a ‘trake’ (tracheostomy tube),” Johnson says. “We’ve all become very good nurses, everybody in the family. We know how to suction his lungs. He has overnight nursing, but during the day it’s me or my wife or my oldest daughter if she’s got a day off.”

“I just don’t have that… courage.”

– Charles Barkley,
about Ernie Johnson

Ernie Johnson, pictured with the rest of his crew from Inside the NBA: Former NBA players (from left) Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley

In 1991, Ernie and his wife Cheryl were watching the news and they saw a report about the hundreds of orphans in Romania that the world found out about in the wake of the collapse of communism. A few months later, Cheryl got on a plane to Romania, and brought back a 3-year-old boy.

One of his feet was turned in the wrong way. He had never been outside. The nurses said not to take him.

Cheryl said, “he’s so much more than we said we could handle, but I don’t know if I can go the rest of my life wondering what happened to him.” Ernie said, “Bring him home.”

The amazing thing about Ernie, perhaps, is not that he decided to adopt a kid from Romania in 1991 with muscular dystrophy.

The amazing thing is that he decided to do it again.

Ernie and his wife have 6 kids — 4 adopted, 3 with special needs.

Now, there is something really special about a person who decides to do all that, and then has to go work with larger-than-life characters like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.

Doing something like that takes courage, perseverance, and a strong will.

I don’t know if I have a will that strong. Do you?

I sure want to.