Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Bureaucracy in Eastern Europe

I've written about this before, and I'm sure I will again, but one of the things most difficult to get used to in Croatia is bureaucracy.  Apparently, the situation was similar in Russia when Leo Tolstoy wrote Anna Kerenina.  His (autobiographical?) character Levin describes it perfectly:
...All this bustling, going about from place to place, talking to very kind, good people, who well understood the unpleasantness of the petitioner's position but were unable to help him - all this tension, while producing no results, gave Levin a painful feeling similar to that vexing impotence one experiences in dreams when one tries to use physical force.  He felt it often, speaking with his good-natured attorney.  This attorney did everything possible, it seemed, and strained all his mental powers to get Levin out of the quandry. 'Try this', he said more than once, 'go to this place and that place,'and the attorney would make a whole plan for getting round the fatal principle that was hindering everything.  Then he would add at once, 'They'll hold it up anyway, but try it.' And Levin tried, visited, went.  Everybody was kind and courteous, but it always turned out that what had been got round re-emerged in the end and again barred the way.  In particular it was offensive that Levin simply could not understand with whom he was struggling, who profited from the fact that his case never came to an end.  This no one seemed to know; the attorney did not know either.  If Levin could have understood it, as he understood why he could not get to the ticket window at the station otherwise than by waiting in line, he would not have felt offended and vexed; but no one could explain to him why the obstacles he encountered in his case existed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Spiritual Life

The spiritual life is first of all a life.
It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived. Like all life, it grows sick and dies when it is uprooted from its proper element...We live as spiritual [people] when we live as [people] seeking God.  If we are to become spiritual, we must remain [human].  And if there were not evidence of this everywhere in theology, the Mystery of the Incarnation itself would be ample proof of it...Jesus lived the ordinary life of the men of His time, in order to sanctify the ordinary lives of men of all time. 

If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives.  Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work appointed for us by the will of God.  Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God which surrounds us everywhere. 
- Thomas Merton from Thoughts in Solitude

Sunday, June 27, 2010

On Sabbath

Tom Foley is the CEO of CEO.  His job is to mobilize missionaries.  Petra and I are part of Christian Educators Outreach and we've found Tom to be a huge encouragement.  Recently he shared some thoughts about Sabbath on his blog Kingdom Travelin'.  It's worth a few minutes of your time.

On a trip to DC a few weeks ago, I heard a radio program while driving among the NoVa suburbs where our younger daughter works about sleep. The levels of sleep are several, from the light sleep where we are totally aware of our surroundings to deep sleep where we are virtually paralyzed in stillness. It is in this deep sleep that the body heals and has physical restoration. It is in dreams, the expert stated, that our mind goes through a daily ‘de-fraging’ (excuse the computer lingo). It is, therefore, in rest that we are renewed. Hence, Sabbath.
I’ve read a little bit over the last years about Sabbath. The philosophy I’ve developed about Sabbath comes from that. Once a week we are to stop. But God intends for it to be intentional, not random, like the train I was on yesterday slowed down and stopped. It stopped in the hottest part of the day and without explanation. It just stopped. After awhile people began to get restless. They looked out the window and wondered. Soon people began to get off! It was then that I figured that we were near the city. Indeed we were only about a km out of the city very near the outer train station. So I joined the folks who were rats from the stopped ship. And I made the walk into the city. This random stopping, in an uncomfortable situation, without preparation was not the best time for a rest. It was not planned, it was not intentional, it was not among loved ones, but among strangers. This was not Sabbath. But many people treat their “Sabbath” like this. With randomness. I’ll just take what comes! This is not scriptural. In Scripture, we read that God expects detail and panning and that which is supposed to consume one-seventh of our lives deserves thought and planning.

Sabbath, according to one writer should include delight. Intentional time to delight in God for He wishes to delight in His creation and we are made in his image, so we are made for delight. Delight in Him, one another, and in creation. This requires one to understand what we delight in. But this too requires an intentionality that is often missing in our work-a-day random world. What are the ways in which you delight in connecting to God, your loved ones, your own mind and heart? For we are all different and have different ways of going about things. We need to each identify ways of deepening our Sabbath.

In Others' Words

This week is Quote Week. 

I've noticed, as perhaps you have, that good writers usually quote other good writers.  In fact, I think you'd be hard pressed to read something that hasn't been influenced by someone else's thinking. 

Quote Week is a tribute to authors, thinkers, friends, and family members who have influenced my thinking through their writing.  Every day I will publish a post that contains a quote - some short, some long - that has rubbed off on me in some shape or form.  It also will have something to do (though not explicitly) with culture shock.  For as I mentioned in the introduction, culture shock is not limited to cultural differences between countries.

Let Quote Week begin.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back and Forth

"Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  Seriously folks, I am more entertained by the shutters blowing in the wind than a 2010 World Cup soccer match.  In fact, the creaks and groans that come from my back door offer a greater variety of sound than those vuvuzela horns.  Two days into the tournament I am positive that my initial ho-hum reaction to this competition was merited."

I wrote the above a week and a half ago.  At the time, I had nothing else to write so I didn't publish it.  Then I sat down and watched Chile move the ball against Argentina in a much more exciting way that a European team ever would.  Then Serbia tied heavyweight Germany in their match.  Then I complained when the American goal didn't count as the decider against Slovenia (the most watched soccer game in ESPN history).  Then I read up on the tournament.  Suddenly I'm into this thing. 

Let me give you a brief history of my soccer knowledge:

- 6 years old; played soccer in Sioux City Iowa.  Scored one goal.  Retired.
- 23 years old; heard about a guy named Beckham on Sports Radio.  Turned off the radio when I realized they were talking about soccer.
- 26 years old and freshly married;  The country my wife loved was in the World Cup.  Tried to get into it until Croatia was eliminated in the first round.
- 28 years old; living in Croatia and no access to baseball.  Declared myself a soccer fan and watched every second of Croatia's involvement in the Euro-Cup. Croatia lost to Turkey on overtime penalty shots in one of the semifinal games.  Renounced soccer for the rest of my life. 
- 30 years old; Reread introduction to this post.

The funny thing is, I usually stick to my guns.  I've been a Cubs fan since '84, a Buffalo Bills fan since '90.  I haven't give up on those teams despite their depressing inability to win.  I am still a fan.  In addition, I will always love baseball and always hate golf.  It's as simple as that.

But I can't figure out how I feel about soccer.  On one hand, I don't understand how a team (like '08 Croatia) can look like the better team for 112 minutes (2 overtimes), lead the game 1-0 then see the opposition tie in the last second (122nd minute) and win the match on penalty shots.  The better team clearly can lose on any given day - even if they've been the superior team for the vast majority of the game!  How can a legitimate sport allow this to happen?

On the other hand, I love the idea of watching two completely different styles of play go head-to-head.  I'm fascinated by the international story-lines.  I'm drawn to watching a potential power-house get beat by a traditionally weaker team. 

So where am I today?  I'll be watching with interest when America takes on Algeria.  Whoever wins is guaranteed a trip to the next round.  A draw would make Group C even more interesting.  Landon Donovan may be the best American ever to play soccer.  Algeria has never made it past the first round.  There's plenty to keep me interested. 

How will I feel by the time the tournament is over?  I may be more disinterested than before. 

I know; back and forth.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is He worth it?

"It's only worth what someone's willing to pay for it."

That was the wisdom my father offered me back when I was an avid baseball card collector. 

Background:  My friend and I would wait breathlessly for the mail towards the beginning of every month when the baseball card price guide was due to arrive.  In it, we would find out if our latest acquistions had been worth the investment we had put into them - whether by trade, purchase or luck of finding the card in a pack.  And it's not even that we wanted to sell the cards.  We just wanted to find out whether we had struck gold and would be able to further build up our collections. 

But the quote stayed with me.  And it's been useful in understanding a story recorded in the gospel of John:

Background: Jesus is the guest of honor at Lazarus' house.  The dinner is going well;  Martha's preparing and serving, Lazarus is still taking strips of linen off as he and Jesus converse, when all of a sudden Mary pops open a bottle of perfume.  And it's not a cheap one.  My notes say the jar was worth a year's salary.  Before you can say "recession!", the contents have been poured on Jesus' feet and the house smells stronger than a french perfume shop in Paris.

But the act is a serious one.  It's not often that Jesus is the guest of honor.  Do we ever see another time in the gospels when his friends get together to throw him a party?  Mary, Martha and Lazarus are celebrating their close friend.  Mary goes to an extraordinary effort to honor Jesus. 

Enter Judas the Party Pooper.  Straight from the Law, Judas recites how God's people are to provide for the poor:  "Therefore I command you to be open-handed to those of your people who are poor and needy in your land." 

What a nice law-abiding citizen Judas the Just has turned out to be.  I'm sure Martha and Lazarus thanked him for the reminder.  Jesus also must have turned to Judas, red from embarrassment, and apologized for not stopping the thoughtless woman from committing such a foolish act. 

No, of course not.  Because rather than being open-handed to the needy, Judas the Thief reached inside that money bag whenever he got the chance and snatched whatever he wanted.  Jesus knew that and so did the author of the Gospel of John (Lazarus?).   Judas' concern wasn't the poor.  Just the opposite.  He looked for money wherever he could find it.  Hence the irony of the story and the lesson we're supposed to learn. 

Think about this:  The amount of money Judas The Traitor will make by betraying Jesus (30 silver coins) is close to a four month salary.  Compare that to the yearly wage Mary gave up (300 deneri) by pouring the perfume over Jesus' feet and you've got yourself two completely different reactions to the same guy.  It couldn't be any simpler.

Don't get me wrong.  We're not talking about the value of salvation or earning grace.  Nowhere in this story does salvation even come up.  Rather, we get a glimpse of how extraordinarily valuable Jesus Christ is to Mary.  And we see that through the sacrifice she makes. 

Is he worth it?  Mary gave up a year's salary, Zacchaeus 4 times what he had cheated, Stephen - his life.  But Judas gave nothing - because he had no use for Christ in his life.
Isaac Watts summarized it well in When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Don't Rain on My Parade!

Back when I played in the Marine Corps Band at Parris Island, we participated in a lot of parades.    Even since we've moved to Croatia I've played in a few.  But Sunday marked the first time in a long time that I've attended a parade as a spectator.  I'll tell you, it's a lot more fun to stand in the shade with your kids and take pictures than it is to dress up in a stuffy uniform and march a couple miles. 

Orahovačko Prolječe is the annual celebration of our town.  All the grade-school students march in the parade, making it a traditional event most everyone attends because they were in the parade when they were a kid.  Even some traditional folk groups from other parts of Croatia participate. 

The last couple years, it started raining just as the parade started.  But this year we had clear skies.  Here are some pictures from the 42nd Orahovačko Prolječe parade:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Five Years!

Today marks five years that Petra and I have been married.  Our lives have changed since then, with our move to Croatia and the arrival of two wonderful boys.  But I couldn't imagine my life any other way.
Honeymoon, Summer 2005

Summer 2007

Fall 2008

Fall 2009

Spring 2010

Thank you Petra, for 5 amazing years. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Acerphobia - The Fear of Sour Milk

At the risk of downplaying the trepidation with which some who have been diagnosed with acerphobia pour their milk, I would suggest that many Americans who have experienced the shocking zing of sour milk would admit that the next few times they see the milk out on the counter they exert a phobia-like reflex to get it back in the fridge ASAP.  At least I do.

Not so in Eastern Europe.  Here in Croatia, most milk cartons, like the ones below, have the words "trajno mlijeko" written somewhere on it.  The adjective "trajno" means "lasting" or "permanent".  Pretty revolutionary when it comes to describing milk huh?

So what does this mean? It means that when you go to the grocery store all of the milk is unrefrigerated.  It also means that once you buy the milk, it has a long shelf life. The stamp on the milk I opened this morning indicated that it would be just as good on October 12th as it is on June 1st. And that's still outside the fridge.

Thirdly, it means that even after you open it, the milk won't go sour for many hours, possibly even days - again, without being refrigerated. 

Don't ask me how or why this is.  I have no idea. 

But I do know that this phobia is directly related to the one Eastern Europeans have. People don't drink their drinks cold here.  Sodas, juices, water, etc. etc. generally remain outside of the refrigerator all the time.  Ice is not used.  Room temperature is the recommended warmth to drink your drinks by doctors and grandmas alike.  So it's no surprise that milk comes unrefrigerated and remains unrefrigerated - to accomodate this mindset. 

How do I drink my milk?  Cold.  Do I put it back in the fridge afterwards? Yes.  Will I continue?  Yes. 

I am an American with Acerphobia.