Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Thought that Counts

Croatia generally does not celebrate Halloween. Sure, you'll occasionally see cafes or clubs advertising Halloween parties, but the tradition of trick-or-treating has its equivalent in February here. Being outside America and analyzing how others celebrate holidays has led me to take a more critical stance on how I celebrate. So last year, while we were visiting America and anticipating Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I asked myself this question:

How are we as American Christians supposed to celebrate the various holidays our culture emphasizes?

I think the decision should begin by making a distinction between participating and celebrating. For Halloween last year, my wife and I decided that our family would participate by allowing our kids to dress up and go trick-or-treating. We had several conversations before the event because we didn't want to do something simply because everyone else was doing it. Nor did we want to reject it simply because it's not a "Christian holiday". Our goal was to make a thoughtful decision knowing that this might create a precedent for other times we're in America during Halloween.

Surprisingly, I had quite a few reasons for allowing our kids to participate in Halloween. One of the reasons was because it seemed like a Jesus-like thing to do. For one thing, it's an extremely relational event - especially in the American context. There is no other time in America when it's ok for a stranger to knock on another strangers' door expecting to be fed. And even though the exchange that takes place is usually short, it is sometimes longer than the typical "hihowareya" strangers often engage in. There's potential for new friendships here.

Plus, even though Jesus took time to withdraw, he often went where the people were. Now, I wasn't taking my kids out with the goal of evangelizing Massachusetts through trick-or-treat. The only point I'm trying to make is that when I ask what Jesus would do, a harvest festival isn't the only answer. Jesus wasn't one to hide away while the crowds engaged in their social activities.

On the other hand, I don't want to simply dismiss the question I wrestle with many other believers; If there are such Satanic tendencies and traditions tied up with this holiday, why in the world would I participate?

I realized that like any religion, Satanism - or more relevantly paganism - is about a constant practice. If one is a Satanist once a year, that person packs no more punch than a Christian who engages in some sort of Christian activity once a year. Nominalism, regardless of the religion, says more about what you don't believe than what you do believe. If I allow my children to participate in Halloween for one day out of the year, the only rituals they are learning is that of dressing up, visiting strangers and eating more candy than usual.

But couldn't Halloween be a gateway for engaging in Satanic/Pagan practices? Could participation lead to celebration? Yes. But, there is nothing in life that is not a potential gateway for evil, overindulgence or excess.  If we are going to truly live, we will be tempted to celebrate all sorts of things that will prohibit us from living abundantly.

As soon as Halloween ended, Christmas advertising began. It increasingly became a way of life for anyone who turned on the television, went into a store or got on the internet between Halloween and December 25th. A habit has been formed. We have to buy. We so easily become slaves to the consumer mentality when it comes to celebrating Christmas right. And the climax to this two-month way of life is Black Friday.

Here the participate/celebrate distinction is important. By choosing to celebrate Christmas last year, my family chose not to participate in the American version of Christmas. In order to celebrate, it's important, I believe, to think about what I can do to try to reproduce the original intent of the holiday. Therefore I see Christmas as a time to thoughtfully engage in gracious gift giving.  Buying became a last resort.

Why? Because buying and consuming is not Christmas. Outside of the American tradition, they're not even related to Christmas! But here is where we get back to celebrating. By giving a gift to my son or grandmother, I am celebrating the fact that I received the most valuable gift from the Divine. That's a big deal! What can I give that will celebrate this fact? Or, even more importantly, how can I give that will celebrate the incarnation. Last year, the answer was for my family to divorce ourselves from the American culture of buy, buy, buy.

I am thankful for my mother and my wife for initiating conversations to this effect last year. After talking about it, we decided to only re-gift. Second-hand stores were the only places we could purchase anything. The other options were giving something that was already in our house or making  something. In the end, it made for a very creative, original and joyful Christmas celebration.

Certainly this isn't the only way to celebrate Christmas, but that's the point. I don't think, in our time and place, that there's only one right way to celebrate. Rather, we should continue to thoughtfully and critically allow our faith to inform how we are involved in those things the people around us celebrate.

What are some other ways we can go against the tide? How have you participated/celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas differently?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Drinking Coffee Religiously

Good morning!

I've never been shy about how much I love coffee. In fact, soon after I started this blog, I posted a New York Times piece that offered plenty of reasons why coffee is healthy. Just the other day, another article surfaced, maintaining that there are at least 11 reasons why I should drink coffee everyday.

Needless to say, I'm convinced.

That's not to say I don't tweak my coffee drinking habits from time to time. For awhile, my father-in-law has been appealing to my faith to get me to add milk and honey to my coffee like he does. "It's the only biblical way to drink coffee!" he tells me frequently when we're gathered around the coffee pot.

I finally tried it a few months ago. And then again. Now, I drizzle in a teaspoon of honey and mix in some milk just about every time I drink coffee at home. I'm not going to say that I've noticed any changes in my health yet, but research says that there are many, many, many health benefits to honey. With all the coffee options in both America and Europe, I wonder if any shops offer honey as an alternative to sugar?

Regardless, whether in reference to the Promised Land or John the Baptist, there's no doubt that honey is both a symbolic and dietary theme throughout the Bible. As a convert, I appeal to my coffee drinking friends with all the wisdom of Solomon“Eat honey, my son, for it is good."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Eye for Signs?

The main reason I started my series on signs is because I find it fascinating that Europeans depend on pictures to convey important messages while Americans simply spell it out. Of course, the simplicity of European signs sometimes make their meaning harder to decode.  Since I've lived here though, I feel like I've gotten used to the traffic signs, and have noticed visual patterns on the other signs that help me understand what the sign is saying even if it's a new one.

...Until I saw this sign in Osijek the other day.
I looked around for context and found this set of signs close by. Even though I can guess what the signs on the adjacent glass window are trying to convey, they don't help me understand the first one. Notice they all have the black border and similar illustration style. They must be related, but I can't figure out how.
What is sign number 1 is trying to convey? How is it related to the four signs in the second picture?

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Zagreb Marathon and Family

As the countdown began I got a little emotional...osam, sedam... Here I am, one of  thousands of runners listening to the countdown in Croatian. tri...dva...jedan... Then Olympic gold medalist Sandra Perković shot the pistol. We slowly walked forward, then began to jog, walked, jogged, and then...freedom. I was off!

But where in the world was I?  The last time I was running in an individual effort to achieve a certain time was 12 years ago as a U.S. Marine qualifying for my PFT in South Carolina. Now, here I am, on my way towards a lifelong goal of running a marathon, but fully settled down in a foreign country. And now there are five more Bohalls - all of who came to Zagreb with me to support me as I ran the half-marathon.

That's when it hit me. Living in a foreign country would be much more difficult if it weren't for my family. Obviously, most credit goes to my wife whose help has been invaluable. She has done her best to help me flourish in Croatia - yesterday being a perfect example of her support.

There have been times I've thought twice about including my family on this blog as much as I do. But they are a major part of why I keep this blog going. My family has done more to cure the symptoms of culture shock than anything else. 

I have one piece of advice for anyone hoping to live in a foreign country: Make sure you have a support team. It's virtually impossible to know what life is going to be like when you get there. But if you're with someone with whom you share mutual support, adjustment will be infinitely easier. There's no more important way to blunt the effects of culture shock than having someone to share your experience with. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

An Air of Satisfaction

Her straggly blond hair streamed behind her and pointed towards the blue sky and perfectly placed clouds. But it was her wide eyes and growing smile that highlighted the exhilaration she felt as she came back to earth. Mid-70's, slight breeze, sun, a few clouds and a beautiful two year old who laughed more enthusiastically every time I threw her in the air. The swallows swooping around us accompanied our joy like a beautiful melody on the 12-string. This is it, I said to myself.

This is the moment you dream of before you become a parent. These are the memories you long for after they grow up. And already there are times my heart groans when I realize that these days won't last long. Maybe that's how I justified the offensive thought that came into my head the next time I threw her.

Is there a way I can toss her, grab my smartphone and quickly take a picture while she's in the air?

Of course, the danger of such an attempt, especially in light of the growing distance between me and her on every throw, was enough to make me think twice before I reached towards my pocket. But still, what did this initial thought say about who I am, what I think about and how I live my life?

We could talk about how access to cameras, internet and facebook all from one handheld device have changed the way we live our lives. Or we could discuss the concept of sharing - is sharing always good? Are there times not to share pictures, videos and memories? But these kind of conversations, as necessary and relevant as they are, already exist.

For me, the problem was my dissatisfaction. During those few minutes, everything was as it should be. All four of our kids are healthy. We have everything we need and are surrounded by friends and family. Circumstances allowed for me to take a walk alone with Emily while the other three were being well taken care of. This was the first time since she's learned to walk that we've walked together without her siblings or mom with us.

And for a few short minutes there was nothing else in the world she wanted to do more than be with her father. She pointed out the possible danger of falling in the ditch - "fall down!". She invited me to run with her, quickly asking to "wait me!" when I got a couple steps ahead of her. Then she pleaded with me to throw her "up high". My daughter was completely taken by her father, but her father wanted something more. He wanted to capture the moment, share it and have the chance to relive it again.

Even as I write, this incident seems trivial. Yet I'm convinced that this momentary temptation to want more than the perfection I already had is indicative of the human tendency to be dissatisfied. And technology hasn't made it any easier on us. Sometimes we forfeit some of our freedom to enjoy life when we buy into artificial opportunities to enjoy it more.

Of course, technology isn't the only tool in the shed of dissatisfaction. Emily quickly pointed that out after we began our walk home. She wanted to walk on the street when I told her she had to stay on the sidewalk. She wanted to chase the cat when I told her she couldn't go in someone else's yard. She wanted to enter the house from the front door when I took her in through the garage. Dissatisfaction knows no age.

As a Christian I believe that I am called be content in all things until that day when it will no longer be a struggle. But our culture operates under the assumption that there is a way to be completely satisfied in this lifetime. This is a strong theme in both countries I've lived in. In America it's about achieving satisfaction through money and hard work. In Croatia, I've found that a search for satisfaction usually involves completely strapping oneself to tradition, or totally fighting against it in one way or another.

Regardless of where one lives though, dissatisfaction is a human condition that affects all of us. The cure isn't easy. But I think it begins by practicing thankfulness. Unlike dissatisfaction, thankfulness most often does not come naturally. It's a discipline we have to cultivate - often at those times when it is most difficult. Thankfully, I was reminded of my tendency towards dissatisfaction at a time when I wasn't struggling. It won't always be this way though. There will be more obvious and drastic moments of dissatisfaction in the future.

In the meantime, the best thing I can do is remember this moment in hopes that my mind is more quickly drawn towards thankfulness rather than technology when I'm tempted to want more than that which I've been graciously given.