Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Growing and Maturing Together

I watched the clouds roll by quickly above me as I tried to fall asleep. Only a mat and sleeping bag protected my back from the pebbles on the ground while my face lay bare to the open sky. I was joined by another leader from Macedonia and 12 teenagers from various former-Yugoslavian countries. We were camping next to a lake in the rugged mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of the Royal Rangers Junior Leadership Camp. 

One of the challenges specific to this camping trip was that we packed no tents. Instead, we brought ponchos that would serve as shelter. There are various ways to set them up, but because they can't be closed or sealed there's no surefire way to prevent rain from coming in. We decided to connect the ponchos to make a long tent for the 12 boys. 

As one of the leaders, I went to bed last. That meant I could lay with my head outside the shelter in order to watch the ever-changing scenery above me. But as I lay with my head exposed, I thought about the possibilities: the unknown...animals...weather. And these worries were compounded by the fact that I was partly responsible for the well-being of all the teenagers with me. I felt vulnerable.

Rain dripped slowly through the sparse brush above me. I had resolved not to change positions but my mind changed as the sprinkle turned to a steady rain. I turned my body so my head was inside the tent like the 15 year old to my right and my colleague to the left. The younger one snored while the other, who shared my responsibility for the teenagers, lay awake. After an hour or so, the rain became heavy.

The outside of my sleeping bag was already damp. But now the cloth inside began sticking to my feet and legs like a cold heavy glue. As the noise of the rain increased, our covering began sagging, the mat became more raft-like and the question of how much longer to keep the teenagers in these conditions rang louder and louder in my head. We were at least a mile from a building with showers and beds.

"I think we should go!" my fellow leader told me as our watches showed 2 am. I agreed. We talked details, woke up the few sleeping campers and took our packs to an abandoned cafe terrace, leaving our sleeping bags and mats behind. Once everyone had gathered, we marched quickly through the downpour to shelter.

"Why do I need this?" I asked myself as I sloshed through one of the many ankle deep mud puddles. My thoughts first turned to the 12 teenagers behind me and the others who passed this training last year. "I'm here for them," I resolved. "I'm offering them a chance to grow and mature," I said in my head.

But that led me to a question. "Are they the only ones who need to grow and mature?" The obvious answer challenged me to embrace the situation I was in.

As a leader, sometimes I get too comfortable. It's easy to believe that I've become an expert at solving problems or knowing answers.  Experiences like the one I had last weekend allow me to expose my weaknesses, inexperience and fears while growing in my dependence on God. I need to grow too. And I need those who are walking alongside me to know that I don't have it all figured out.

That's the beautiful thing about making disciples of Jesus Christ - we can be in the process of becoming and making disciples at the same time. We grow together. This outlook allows us to be vulnerable, share our struggles and burdens knowing that the other has similar difficulties. This is one of the strengths of the Royal Rangers program: leaders and participants go through challenges together.

The teenagers showered and drank hot tea when we got back. We were all in bed by 4. It was a gracious end to the unpredictable camping trip. As I lay in my dry bed, I sensed God's hand of mercy upon us. He had cared for, watched over and protected us. But he had also provided a way for us to grow in our dependence on him. For all of those things I am thankful.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Goggles, Jesus and Losing Oneself

“I’m going to lose my goggles so I can find them!”

We were taking a three day family vacation at an indoor pool complex in Slovenia when my oldest son Enoh unknowingly contextualized one of Jesus’ sayings. I thought about following up his remark with a conversation about Jesus but as soon as I saw him throw his goggles in the air and turn around with his eyes closed, I realized I was the one receiving the lesson. 

Usually we talk about the act of losing something as a mistake. When we lose our keys, phone, or glasses it’s always a matter of misplacing something or forgetting where we put them. But here Enoh was making a conscious effort to lose his goggles. And not only that, he was trying to lose the one thing that would normally be most helpful in finding something lost at the bottom of a pool. 

Did my seven year old just help me understand the Bible? 

Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew 16 are about making an effort to lose something - namely one’s life. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” Of course, the goal is to find one’s life. However the path to getting there is not as much in the finding as it is in the losing. 

Denying myself has always been difficult because I’ve always been a nice guy who follows the rules. And that, for most of my life, has fit in well with being identified as a Christian. I’ve always felt that denying myself was a step I could step over, because I’m really pretty good already. 

Except that is precisely what was wrong with the Pharisees. They were pretty good already. In that context, Jesus’ point about denying oneself doesn’t seem to be as much about doing the right thing as it does with allowing the right person to be in charge. It’s the difference between doing and being, the latter the more important part.  

Which brings us back to identity and losing it. Finding our life in Christ means losing whatever part of us believes we are good enough to be in control. We cannot reach God through our moral efforts. Christ is the only way to reach God and is simultaneously the only way we can truly find ourselves. Losing ourself means being vulnerable, giving up control and trusting God. 

That's not always easy. 

But it leads to the best and most joyful discovery.

Friday, December 25, 2015

2015 in Review

Since we've lived in Croatia, my awareness of how interwoven my life is with those around me has increased. That awareness turned into deep gratitude as I went through pictures and videos from 2015. This project is certainly a way for us to remember special occasions and milestones from the past year. But it's also a symbol of how we are surrounded by wonderful, generous people. Our lives could not and would not be what they are without so many friends and family with whom the Lord has blessed us.

Merry Christmas!

Photo by Kristina Ocelić

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Our First First Grader

There's something special about your first kid starting school. It's nature's way of telling us that it's time to get serious about parenting while giving us a few more moments of peace to do so. For Enoh it was pure excitement.

I'll be honest, I don't remember my first day of first grade. Maybe in Iowa it was a big deal. But here in Croatia it's a BIG DEAL. At the end of school last year they invited all the kids anticipating entering first grade to a presentation put on by 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders welcoming them to the school. It was at that time that Enoh was designated a First Grader. Over the summer books were ordered, supplies were bought and many, many, many questions were answered. 

On Monday all the first graders and their parents stood outside the school in anticipation of which teacher they would get and how many of their friends would be in their class. When we finally entered, one of the teachers informed us she was just as nervous as we were. "So...not very," I thought to myself. But then I saw Petra biting her fingernails so I didn't say anything. 

Once we all got to the classroom we received quite a number of papers including what looked like a college schedule. Like most other European nations, first graders in Croatia begin taking their second language in first grade. In addition to Croatian and English, Enoh has math, social studies, art, music, gym class and religious education. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing was that the teacher asked each of the students to bring in a jastučić - a small pillow that he would sit on so his bottom doesn't get cold. I've mentioned it here before, but my whole elementary school experience was shaped by sitting on cold floors during assemblies, bleachers during presentations and un-cushioned (normal?) chairs during class. I've lived in Croatia for 8 years but I still don't understand why having cushioned chairs is such a big deal. Overall we are very pleased with the teacher Enoh has and have been encouraged by how excited he is to go to school everyday. 

When Enoh came home, he received a Schültute - the German traditional way of making the first day of school even sweeter. We enjoy introducing our kids to various cultural traditions and Petra worked hard to put this together. Needless to say it put an exclamation mark on Enoh's first day of first grade. 

Here's a short interview with Enoh on his first couple days of school. 

Here are the outtakes. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Seventy Years

From the Slavonian farmlands. . . to sunny Zagreb. . . to the bustling hub of Munich. . . to fireworks on the Fourth over NYC. . . to a ghost-town in Buffalo, I had journeyed 24 hours. In Croatia, my wife made last-minute arrangements for our four kids to be taken care of while she worked full-time and I traveled for a week. 
Flying over Germany

The primary purpose of all of this was so I could be with my grandparents for their 70th anniversary celebration. 

Robert and Delphine Bohall July 5, 2015

Seventy years! 

Perfection? Perhaps as close as it gets on this earth. Seventy years of marriage represents a combination of God’s grace and human commitment; gifts of life, health and patience intertwined with hard work. It symbolizes the sort of unity many of us strive for. 

Seventy years speaks to the past. It shows that a decision made at a time of innocence and naivety can be honored long after both have worn off. Actions breathe life to words spoken before their significance was realized.  

Seventy years speaks to the present. It says follow me. It provides a path to walk and a hand to hold. When I asked my Grandma for advice she said "Keep it going". Later in the week I heard the words "Keep the faith." Our 10 years of marriage are surrounded by clouds of witnesses celebrating 40, 50, 60 and 70.

Seventy years speaks to the future. It proclaims that the definition of the relationship is given by the Provider and is proven by the fruit of faithfulness. An anniversary is a gift to following generations to be received with grateful hands prepared to be calloused. 

No, it's not perfect. 70 years of marriage, I'm sure, has scars to show. Yet, is there any other thing on this fallen earth that points more clearly to the perfect love promised in the Old Testament and confirmed in the New? Is there any more important Christian testimony to the deep, deep love of Jesus?

The week before I traveled, before I even thought of making the trip, I began putting together the slideshow below. It's as I was working on it that these thoughts began taking shape. 

On Friday, as my wife watched the finished product she asked if I'd like to go to be with them...in 24 hours. Long story short, I decided on a price limit, she looked for tickets which matched my limit, we talked, prayed, thought, then bought them. In less than 12 hours I was on my way. My wife initiated the decision, putting her concerns to the side. She, and others who have sacrificed their time and energy were the reason I could be here.

Thank you, Grandpa and Grandma for your commitment to one another. It was a privilege to celebrate 70 years with you.

Thank you, Dad and Mom, for helping make our last minute plans so smooth. I'm glad I was able to spend some quality time with you.

Thank you, Petra for your sacrifice. I am honored to be your husband. Volim te do neba visoko.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pushed to the Extreme

“One of the goals of Royal Rangers is to push you to your limit” our regional leader explained to us during a preparatory training session. “You never know how you’re going to react in extreme circumstances unless you’ve been pushed to your extreme ahead of time.” 

This would be my third National Training Camp (NTC). My first was in Serbia as a participant. Last year I hosted and shadowed the leader so I would be prepared to lead in the future. This year the responsibility fell on me. Although I felt inadequate to lead, especially knowing my greatest weakness - public speaking in Croatian - would be exposed, I didn’t expect to be pushed to any particular extreme. 

Throughout the camp I felt even more sure that this training would pass without any major challenge. In comparison with the flood-like conditions and my lack of experience last year, this year’s added experience plus perfect weather and the number of leaders supporting our effort, convinced me that this would pass without difficulty. 

Then came Sunday morning. The finish line was ahead of us. Our award ceremony/church service would conclude the weekend and I felt okay. But as I began watching the slideshow summary of the weekend with the rest of the congregation tears began to well up. “What’s this?” I asked myself, stepping out of the sanctuary to collect myself before giving a report of the weekend.

I stood up to say how overwhelmed I was with thankfulness and nothing came out. I choked. This had never happened to me, in public or private. Another leader quickly took over and the show went on. But after the whole camp was over I had to process the whole event. 

In retrospect, I had been pushed to my limit. Physically I hadn’t slept more than five hours a night for the last six nights - a very unusual occurrence for me. When I stepped on the scale on Sunday afternoon I realised I had lost three kilos - six pounds - since Thursday. Although I hadn’t run or physically exerted myself as much as I have at other times, various things took their physical toll on me. 

Mentally I was spent as well. From preparing lectures and workshops to simply trying to give directions to convey what needed to happen in my second language was more of a burden than I expected. 

Spiritually I had been seeking God’s help more than I have in a long time. How would these details be taken care of? Would everyone be safe? What if this happened…or that? The responsibility of 38 people fell on my shoulders for the first time in my life and I pleaded with God for help much more often than I normally do. 

Finally, I had been pushed to my emotional limit. Throughout the weekend I had witnessed the growth of several of the young teenagers I work with. Additionally, leaders had come from Germany, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and the other side of Croatia to support our efforts. God had rained down his mercy upon this camp in the very practical forms of leadership, experience and support. And when I saw the evidence of it at the end, I couldn’t hold it in.

The point is, I was pushed to the limit. 

Isn’t that what we need? As a church, I believe we’re at our worst when we’re comfortable. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are called to serve the Lord with their heart, soul, mind and strength. How do we do so without being pushed to the extreme in each of those areas from time to time? Royal Rangers is a wholistic ministry aiming to equip men and women of God physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. Part of this equipping means challenging each individual in all four of these aspects of their life. 

In the end, I consider the training session a success. All of our goals were met, and teenagers and adults alike had been trained. And because of the number of eager leaders, beautiful weather and lack of unexpected obstacles, it was an enjoyable experience for many of us. 

But the greatest success was that many of us were pushed to our limit. This, I believe is an invaluable part of becoming and making disciples of Jesus Christ. 

“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14)