Thursday, December 25, 2008

Interesting intersection

The Prime Minister of Kosova announced yesterday with the unanimous backing of parliament that a major street in the capitol is to be named after George Bush.  George Bush Street runs into Mother Teresa Street and intersects Bill Clinton Street.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A violent variation on the Christmas story

(This is a piece I wrote for a Christmas newsletter back in '05, but I liked it so much I thought I'd try to put it back in circulation.)

I’ve got a great idea for a new kind of Christmas pageant. I would set up the front of the stage with all the usual elements — shepherds and star, sheep and swaddling clothes. For tradition’s sake, I would stick with three wise men, and even allow for some singing angels — though the Bible never tells us how many wise men there were and nowhere says that the angels sang.

Granted that there are more important points at which our familiar image of the nativity isn’t quite accurate. After all, childbirth at its best is a bloody, painful affair. I’ve been in the delivery room twice, and let’s just say I’m glad I never had to coach Lamaze in a barn! But just for effect, my pageant would feature the sweet, sentimental, sanitized version that we all know and love. At least at the beginning...

Then the curtain at the rear would open to reveal a scene as nightmarish as anything dreamed up by Stephen King. (Hey, since I’m merely imagining here, I don’t have to worry about budgetary constraints, right?) A woman in the agony of childbirth... A hideous monster poised to devour the baby... A fierce struggle between otherworldly beings with drastic consequences for the inhabitants of earth… Silent night indeed!

Front stage, the “Hallmark” version of the Gospel account; backstage, Revelation 12 in all its horror. So you’re still wondering what does Revelation 12 have to do with Christmas? Think of Herod’s genocidal jealousy as the precise point at which the spiritual reality of Revelation 12 protrudes into the flesh-and-blood reality of Luke 2. Superimpose the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem recorded in Matthew 2 onto the angels’ announcement in Luke 2 and suddenly “Peace on Earth!” sounds more like a war cry than a Christmas carol.

According to the last verse of Revelation 12, the war didn’t end when the Dragon failed to devour the baby. He has now declared war on “those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” (Rev. 12:17 NIV) Let us consider this Christmas a challenge to reenlist, a call to arms — but always with the weapons of the Lamb, never with those of the Dragon.

For the basic idea of the connection between Revelation 12 and the Christmas story, I am indebted to the book Wild at Heart by John Eldredge.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Worth watching! 

Thanks to Glen Davis for tipping me off to this:

P.S. One of you technically literate types help me out here.  What do I have to do to embed a Youtube clip in my blog like you all do?  

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Read here about the surprising way in which the recession could make Americans more like Macedonians.  Fascinating article!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

100 Years of the Albanian Alphabet
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Albanian Alphabet

Part III

(For Parts I and II scroll down.)

After Gjerasim’s death, his family and friends carried on his spiritual, educational and patriotic program. The movement that he was a part of came to be known as the National Rebirth (“rilindja”, sometimes translated “renaissance”, which is just the French word for “rebirth”). It is striking that Gjerasim and other key leaders who had experienced a personal, spiritual rebirth helped to make possible a national, cultural rebirth. Gjerasim’s influence on the Rebirth was such that his hometown of Manastir (Bitola) and his later base of operations, Korça, became twin epicenters of the movement.

The crowning achievement of the Rebirth was the Congress of Manastir, a gathering of Albanians in November of 1908 to establish the alphabet. Gjerasim had been dead 14 years by this time, but the conference was hosted in the Qiriazi family home by Gjerasim’s younger brother Gjergj. Their two sisters Sevastia and Parashqevia also participated as well as Grigor Cilka, the pastor of the church that Gjerasim had founded in Korça, and several other evangelical believers. In fact the only non-Albanian present was missionary Violet Kennedy. (She was an observer without voting rights.)

In a recent interview in the Albanian Tribune, scholar Reshat Nexhipi said that Manastir is for Albanians what Mecca is for Muslims. Here is how Dr. Nexhipi replied when asked why the Congress was held in Manastir: “Because, in addition to others, the patriotic Qiriazi family operated here, five members, three men and two women, each more patriotic and civilized than the other. Especially Gjerasim, without which Manastir probably wouldn’t have turned into a center for the National Albanian movement and the birthplace of the alphabet. The two sisters – Sevastia dhe Parashqevia – were the most emancipated women in the Balkans and beyond. They spoke 8 languages, Parashqevia was the only female at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.”

So what about the alphabet? How can it be that the alphabet wasn’t established until 1907 when Gjerasim was already distributing Scripture portions in Albanian in the 1880s – not to mention the baptism formula in 1462 and the Meshari in 1555? Of course Albanian had been reduced to writing long before the Congress of Manastir, but there was no agreed-upon standard alphabet. The language was sometimes rendered with Greek characters, sometimes with Cyrillic, sometimes with Arabic, and sometimes with Latin. Naturally there were competing interests advocating each of these options. And even among those who favored Latin letters, there was no consensus as to precisely which letters and what each one should represent.

The Congress ended up agreeing on a Latin-based alphabet with 36 characters, each representing a single sound. The choice of Latin characters was not without controversy. In the aftermath of the Congress, Muslim clerics in the city of Elbasan led demonstrations insisting that use of anything other than Arabic letters would make them infidels. (Ironically Turkey itself switched to a Latin-based alphabet in 1928 as part of Ataturk’s reforms.)

Although the Albanians are still divided by religion and by national borders, their unified alphabet has helped them maintain ethnic identity in the face of overwhelming pressure from fierce enemies. And the choice of a Latin-based alphabet was a gesture which revealed the delegates’ desire to place their nation in a European/Western cultural framework.


I want to be tentative here, because I’m expressing a conclusion that as far as I know is original to me – always a dangerous undertaking – and one that I have reached only recently. There’s a good chance that I’m overreaching here. If so, I’m willing to be corrected.

Christian missionary work has often been accused of being an arm of empire. This is a legitimate charge – one that we must not only repent of but continually guard against. But the story of Protestant missions work among the Albanians seems to stand in sharp contrast to this all too familiar narrative. Rather than being a steam roller that crushed indigenous culture, the Gospel seems to have functioned as a subversive force that undermined empire and fostered freedom for an oppressed people.  If this is true,  it's not because those  early missionaries to the Albanians had a healthier missiology than anybody else; in fact, it has much more to  do with the historical circumstances in which they worked.  The Gospel always seems to work better from a position of weakness than one of strength.

I can think of  a host of caveats with which to quality this thesis. Of course there were a thousand other forces battering the Ottoman Empire by that time. (Even if the Gospel played a significant role in the Albanian Rebirth as I am arguing here, that movement was only one of a multitude of nationalist movements.) Of course there is always a dark side to any nationalist movement. Of course the Protestant missionaries -- and Gjerasim himself -- had their flaws. But despite all of this, it’s a really wonderful story.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet

Part II

(Scroll down for Part I.)

Buzuku notwithstanding, during those 500 years of Turkish rule, most Albanians adopted Islam. Conversions at the point of the sword were the exception rather than the rule, but there was always pressure. Christians in Turkish territory paid much higher taxes and were treated as second class citizens. The empire was organized along religious lines, so that when an Albanian, a Greek, or a Serb converted to Islam, he was said to have become a Turk. By the same token, an Albanian who belonged to the Orthodox faith was automatically considered Greek.  

In the 19th Century as the Turkish Empire began to unravel, Albanians (along with the other Balkan peoples) began feeling intense ethnic pride and a hunger for freedom. In the case of Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks, for example, religion was a unifying factor in their struggle to break free. However, Albanians were divided among three faiths: Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. All three of these had been used at various times in history as a force for domination by foreign powers: Catholicism by Rome, Orthodoxy by Greece, and Islam by Turkey. None of the three allowed worship in the mother tongue at that time. For Catholics of course Vatican II was still 100 years away. The Greek Orthodox Church of that time alternated between denying that the Albanian language even existed and calling it "an accursed language." And Muslims must worship in Arabic to this day. In light of all this it's no surprise that many Albanian patriots came to see religion as a divisive and damaging force. A poet by the name of Vaso Pasha summed up the feelings of many of his fellow Albanians with the famous line, "The religion of Albanians is Albaianism." (Communist dictator Enver Hoxha would quote this to justify his decision in 1967 to make Albania the world's first constitutionally atheistic state.)

This was the historical context in which a young Albanian man in the city of Manastir (present day Bitola in Macedonia) was introduced to a living, transforming connection to God by Protestant missionaries in his city. His name was Gjerasim Qiriazi, and he discovered in his new faith a relationship with the God who spoke his language. He went on to study at a Bible school in Bulgaria after which he was sent to Skopje (where I now live and work) to pastor a Slavic congregation. From here he went to work for the British and Foreign Bible Society, which three hundred years after the Meshari, had begun working to translate the Scriptures into Albanian. Gjerasim traveled throughout the Albanian lands to distribute the Word of God in his mother tongue.

In the course of his travels Gjerasim rejoiced with his fellow Albanians as, for the first time in their lives, they held in their hands the printed word in their own language. But he also lamented the fact that so few of them knew how to read it. These experiences awakened in him a new passion, which led to a new pursuit. In 1892 in the city of Korça, he and his sisters opened the first ever school for girls in the Albanian language. (The first Albanian school for boys had opened just five years earlier in the same city.) Gjerasim also planted a church in Korça and established the Albanian Evangelical Brotherhood.  

Gjerasim’s life motto was, “Friends for God; light for the people; blessings for the motherland.” His faithfulness to this course proved costly. In 1884 he was captured by brigands and held for ransom for six months. Their brutality left him with health consequences for the rest of his life. Just as Pharisees and Sadducees found common cause to oppose Jesus in his day, Greeks and Turks managed to unite in opposition to this seditious book salesman despite their hatred of one another. He had to fight fierce opposition at every step. In 1893 he survived an assassination attempt, apparently sponsored by elements in the Greek Orthodox Church. As it turned out, his enemies could have saved themselves the trouble; he died less than a year later at only 35 years of age.

To be continued...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet

Part I

Disclaimer: I recently helped to organize an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet. As I was writing a letter to my friends and supporters about this event, I felt compelled to help them understand its significance, but the letter I was writing was getting much too long and complicated. So I decided that I would write a blog post that would fill in some detail for those who were interested. Then when I set out to write this entry, once again it started getting away from me. I recognize a fundamental problem with what I've written here. If you're Albanian or someone who works with Albanians, you probably won't see anything here you don't know already know. If you're not an Albanian or someone who works with Albanians, you'll probably just find all this tedious. I guess I'm writing it for my own benefit as much as anything. I want to put into words what I've been learning. I'm no historian and no Albanolog, just a friend of the Albanians. If you disagree with my interpretation of events, or if I've gotten something flat out wrong, feel free to let me know.

I have a map of the Balkan Peninsula from the year 1850 -- an original, not a reproduction or photocopy. It was a gift from a friend in Taos, New Mexico, and I treasure it highly. The word "Balkan" or "Balkans" doesn't appear anywhere on my map; instead the title is "Turkey in Europe". That's what they called this part of the world back then.

One of the interesting things about my map is that it captures a snapshot of a very turbulent time when the Turkish Empire in Europe was on the verge of breaking up. On my map the southern part of Greece is not colored in because it was no longer part of Turkey in Europe; it had gained its independence in 1829. In the years that followed the rest of the Balkans would also tear away from Turkey.

By that time Turkey had ruled this part of the world for almost 500 years. At the very same time that the sunlight of the Reformation had been breaking through in Western Europe, the dark cloud of the Turkish empire was descending on the part of the world we now know as the Balkans.* The infamous battle of Kosovo Field, which is usually considered to mark the beginning of Turkish rule in the Balkans took place in 1389 -- just five years after Wycliffe's English translation of the New Testament.

But there were rays of light that reached the Balkans around this time. The earliest existing fragment written in the Albanian language dates back to 1462 and consists of the following words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" -- 5 centuries to the year before the Catholic Church officially decided to allow the liturgy to be recited in local langugages. And the earliest book in Albanian was the Meshari of Gjon Buzuki(the Missal) a prayer book completed in 1555. The Meshari contained excerpts from the Bible, Catholic liturgy and catechism translated into Albanian.

The Meshari was completed in 1555, just 38 years after Luther had nailed his theses to the Wittenberg Door. By this time the Counter-Reformation was in full swing, and the Catholic Church was busy banning books which dared to translate the Word of God into the vernacular. Nevertheless Gjon Buzuku, the Catholic priest who compiled it, had the foresight to recognize that if Albanian Christians were going to resist the Islamic tide sweeping their lands, they needed God's Word in their own language.

Here is his own explanation of his purpose found the in postscript of the Meshari: "I, Don John, son of Benedict Buzuku, having often considered that our language had in it nothing intelligible from the Holy Scriptures, wished for the sake of our people to attempt, as far as I was able, to enlighten the minds of those who understand, so that they may comprehend how great and powerful and forgiving our Lord is to those who love him with all their hearts. I beg of you from today on to go to church more often to hear the word of God."

To be continued...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ok, I really like Rob Bell and all, but is it just me or does he sound just like Kermit the Frog?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Most of the rest of the world is celebrating, but Macedonia is mourning.  There is a perception here that McCain is pro-Macedonia and Obama is pro-Greece.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


They tell me that this drive of mine to be accepted and respected is the result of a deficiency in my experience of God's grace.  Once I am profoundly aware and convinced that God loves me and accepts me unconditionally, this pathological desire to impress and please people will whither away, they say.  

But I'm not so sure.  What if, having secured God's favor, I am left longing for a challenge?  What if this acceptance through no merit of my own leaves me all the more desperate to claim some kind of achievement?  What if the very fact that God's grace is given so freely carries with it the temptation to treat it as cheap? 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Kosovar's critique of American culture

This is a piece that was originally posted to the facebook page of Genc Isa, a Kosovar friend of mine who spent some time in the US.  I found it pretty insightful, interesting, and even-handed. Sometimes we can see ourselves better through an outsider's eyes.  I thought this was worth passing on so I secured Genc's permission to reprint it here.  I thought it best to leave it completely unedited.  I hope you'll have the patience to read it through to the end.  (You'll see when you get near the bottom that I have an ulterior motive!)  I'll be happy to pass on any comments to Genc or put you in touch with him.

American Culture vs Kosova Culture

Hi everyone,

I was inspired by my friend Elisabeth Hansen to write her something about Kosova culture, economic issue, climate etc. I would like to share my experience in the US and how Kosova culture is different than it is in the US. 

Travelling to the US for a non US is the greatest thing that could happen. Why? Because they think that America will make their life better and fullfil their dreams. They are even to leave their families and community. There is no place in the world that you can be happy without your family. Family is everyone`s treasure. Unfortunately there are people who dont care about this.

While I was in the US, I was driving my bike and looking all these beautiful places, houses, mountains, cars, lakes etc. but something was missing on me. I was wondering how nice it would be if my family was here too. At that time I realized that there is no beautifil place in the world without your family.

Learning another language means learning another culture. In this case I have learned the American culture and now I can easily compare to my culture which is very different. Lets see how the family issue works in America comparing to Kosova:

Families in the US are separated all over America and maybe all over the world. Here families are very close to each other. Brothers and sisters of a Family in America are separated but here its the opposite. You have to live with your own brothers and sisters in one house unless you are rich and have another house to stay but still the youngest son has to take care of the parents til they die. In the US this never happens. You never see ten to fifteen people in one house. Families in the US dont make very often visits to their loved ones. They dont see each other for years. In Kosova they make visits very often. The husband in the family is the head of the house and the wife is responsible to take care of kids and jobs in the house and they would get mad if you enter the house with the shoes on. In the US you can go in the house with the shoes on. Most of the wives dont work because they have to take care of the house. Now it has become same for wives and husbands for work. There is no jobs for none of them. In America both of them work and there is someone else who takes care of the children, of course by paying for it. 

Now lets see friends relationships:
While I was in the US I made a lot of friends and they are all great. Sometimes they act selfish. I dont know why but maybe its part of culture. Here are some examples: while in the US one thing really bothered me. While I was going to work, I would see my friends coming in the same direction and they wouldn`t even say Hi to me but just pass making me feel invisible. In Kosova you would stop and sometimes shake hands with your known ones. This has happened many times to me. I would say Hi and they wont even reply. I was thinking whats wrong with him or her. Another thing is that people in America dont share when they eat something. In this case they act selfish because here in Kosova you always offer whatever you are eating to your known or unkown one. So, its very unpolite to eat something on your own and not share with others around you. Unfortunately, this did not happen in America. Its funny one time because when one of my friends was eating something and I was expecting to share it with me...ahaha. I was thinking she is acting selfish.

Marriage Culture:
In America people get married in the Church. Here they dont get married in the Mosque (lol) unless you are a Christian. Many years ago, the bride was chosen by the family and you would marry her but now its like in America, you find your own soul. Anyway, the marriage is very different than in the US. The girls of the family`s boy and neighborhood sing for a week before the marrige is done. They sing about how good is the boy. Then, after a week singing all the village or the known ones of the boy go to take the bride with a lot of cars and bring her to the bridegroom. In addittion, they still sing til the time when the bride and the bridegroom go in the room. While the bride is the living room, she cannot sit but stand and look down only. This is how it works here.

Wearing Culture:
To me this is a very big culture difference. Girls here wear very tight clothes, long women boots and heels and a lot of make-up and thats why I dont like them, for those who wear like that. They are beautiful without make-up so I dont know why they do this. To me this is very disgusting. In the US girls wear very simple clothes and no make-up. For me this is a very positive thing. Boys wear normal clothes. Old men wear a special type of wear and a special type of hat. They never wear shorts even when its very warm during the summer. They wear always the same clothes. They wash them of course. Some of very few young women wear scarf because of their belief orientation but most of the old women wear it because they are old. In the US I have seen this differene where old and young women and men wear normal clothes as well as for boys and girls. Its very unpolite for an old man to wear shorts and T-shirts with colors and nice athletic shoes. Everyone would laugh and think he is crazy. I have seen this many times in the US but I did not laugh because thats the American culture, right?

Other culture issues:
Can you please help me? We dont use the word Please. People would laugh and look you strange because you are being too way smarter than others. I had an experience with this while in the US. I saw a friend of mine taking breadrolls so I asked him bring me one too. He comes in the living room with two breadrolls and I ask: "Where is mine". He says: "You did not ask please". That was a very shock time for me, anyway I learned through that. Now I use please all the time in the US of course and when dealing with Americans.

People dont tip here. One day my friend took me and my family to restaurant who is American. When we were done and heading home she left a tip on the table. I noticed that she forgot the money so I grab it and while they were leaving I say: "You forgot your money". Then she explains what tip means. I have seen in the US how people tip and I think thats great.

Animals are not polite to keep in the house for most of the people, mostly women because they think animals make their houses dirty. There is not a lot of people that have dogs and cats in the house. If they have, they keep them outside. People say that dogs and cats are not created for inside but for outside. They hate the thing to have an animal in the house. They are very rude to them beating and throwing stones at them especially kids unrespected with dogs, cats, cows, horses etc. I feel sorry now because I used to be like that. I used to throw rocks and beat animals when I was kid. I used to beat cows, horses, dogs and throw rocks at cats. Now, I love animals and would love to have one in my house. In the US almost every house has animals in the house. 

Now, let me switch the theme:
I have seen that people in America have lost their interest in missions around the world. We have missionaries here in Kosova and they need support from their brothers and sisters. There is a family from California who want to move. They have been trying to raise their fund for two years and now its only 50%. Arent Christian Missions part of Bible and part of the Gospel? Being a missionary and saving people spreading the Gospel is a part of what Jesus Christ, isnt it?

To conclude all this is that I have had a great experience and time in the US. Culture did not really bother me because I have warmly received the American Culture and now I can act in both cultures, Kosovo and American Culture. In the future I want to learn another language and another culture. I have learned many things from my trip in the US, mostly for myself.

If there is anything you disagree, please dont hesitate to criticize me!?

All my Love and Blessings to you brothers and sisters!

Genc Isa

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Luke's world class kids' soccer coach

Luke's world class kids' soccer coach
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

Luke is blessed to have gotten connected with Football Club Skupi. Coach Bedri Saliu (pictured right), is a local legend. Every year he takes his 12 year olds to Norway to particpate in the largest youth soccer tournament in the world. In fact, this competition is billed as the World Cup of youth soccer. Last year Skupi took third place; three years ago they beat a team from Sao Paolo to win the number one place in the world for their age. Luke is about to turn to turn nine, so if he sticks with it a couple more years, he has the chance to play on a truly world class team. (Pictured left is assistant coach Meriton.)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good article, bad title

Maybe we should blame God for the Subprime Mess

Bad theology has consequences!  Hat tip: Commonplace

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tetova apples
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

We went to a village near Tetova to visit an old friend and to wish him and his family happy Bajram (Id-al-fiter: the Muslim feast at the end of the Ramadan fast). In addition to the usual Turkish delight and bakllava, they served us apples from their orchard.

Tetova is famous for its apples. I'm not usually all that crazy about apples, but these were exceptionally delicious, and I said so. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than my friend's father excused himself from the room leaving me wondering why he had abandoned his guests so suddenly. (For Albanians, the guest is next to God!)

When it was time for us to leave he reappeared lugging a great plastic big garbage bag full of apples. It was nighttime, and he apologized for not having been able to see well enough to select the best ones.

So far I've made an apple pie, an apple cobbler, an apple coffee cake, and yesteday for breakfast apple muffins. We've still got plenty of apples left. I think I'm going to start the cycle over with another pie.

If you like apples and you happen to be in the neighborhood of Skopje, Macedonia, come over and help yourself. They really are delicious!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Gazi Baba Park path
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

Thanks to my sisters, my parents, and LInda Lofton for the new camera. I love the way it looks and the way it feels in my hands. I got it 3 weeks ago, and I'm just really beginning to learn what it can do.

Before I lost the old camera, whenever someone complimented one of my photos, I would always say, "Yeah, and just imagine what I could do if I ever got a real camera!" Now that I finally own a DSLR, I don't have anything left to hide behind.

That's one of the reasons it's taken me so long to post anything new to my flickr site. I haven't really been happy with the pictures I've taken so far. I'm holding myself to a higher standard, and I'm still hoping to produce and post pictures that far surpass the old stuff.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Here's an interesting link on Pentecostalism, politics, and Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The puppy who chose freedom

Saturday evening we had some American friends at the house, and we all walked down to the doner shop together for dinner.  As we settled down at the cafe tables to eat, a puppy was making the rounds begging for handouts.  She was thin but not emaciated, mostly brown with white socks on her front paws and black and white stripes on her muzzle.

The kids have been wanting a pet for quite a while.  We had some turtles for a while in Kosova, but they died.  We've never had the conditions to keep a cat or dog.  Since Luke was born, we've shared a yard with the landlord (minus the two years during that time that we were on Stateside assignment).  Another factor is that we've tried to keep our house welcoming to our Muslim neighbors, many of whom are disgusted by indoor pets.  Then there's the issue of our lives straddling two continents.  We stay in Europe for four years then go back to the States for a year, then back to Europe again.  What do you do with a dog when it's time to move back and forth across the Atlantic?

I offered the kids compromises.  What about a hamster?  A guinea pig?  A nice rabbit?  But they weren't interested.  We have some colleagues here in Macedonia who work with the same organization we do, and they keep a dog.  It turns that taking a pet between countries does require some extra work but nothing insurmountable.  I know that my kids are growing up, and deep down I guess I feel that their childhood would have been deficient if they never had a dog or cat.  So I promised them that when we looked for a house, we would try to find one that had a yard where we could keep a dog.

One of the first things I noticed about our present house the first time I saw it was that tucked among the weeds and trash was a crudely made doghouse.  This was clearly a yard where it was possible to keep a dog.  (It turns out that the former owner kept, not one, but four dogs.  I'm starting to gather that a lot of neighbors were grateful to see him go!)  

So there we were at the doner shop with the kids pulling that, "Please, dad, can we keep her?" thing, and I said ok.  The black and white stripes on her muzzle suggested a badger, so I proposed the name Bella after a badger character in the book I've been reading to the kids at bedtime.  

Lydia carried Bella in her arms for the five minute walk home.   I could see that it was a bit of  a struggle for her.  While the dog was far from fully grown, she wasn't tiny either.  Halfway there I offered to relieve Lydia of her burden, but she insisted on going the distance herself.  

When we got within sight of home, I realized that we had a problem.  The house is surrounded by an iron fence with big gaps everywhere.  Only a fairly large dog would be unable to crawl out.  I don't know how the former owner kept them in unless he bought them when they were big.  Or maybe he kept them chained up.  I just hoped that once Bella tasted the affection (not to mention the puppy chow) that we had to offer, she would choose to stay.

The kids (our two and six guests) and Bella romped and played for hours that evening.  Lydia went to the grocery store on the corner and bought dog food, and we were amazed at how quickly the puppy wolfed it down.  It soon became evident that we were going to have to teach Bella some manners.  She nipped at the heels of the little ones and made them cry.  But overall we all found her very charming. 

During the course of the evening she darted in and out of the fence a few times but always came back. When our guests left and Lydia and Luke had to go inside for the night, Bella cried and whimpered at the door for a while as if to say, "Please come out and play with me some more!  Please don't leave me by myself!"

I awoke the next morning with apprehension.  Would she still be there?  She was waiting in the yard, and she wagged her tail enthusiastically when I walked out the door.  We had crossed the first big hurdle.  We fed her again and left for church hoping against hope that she would still be there when we got back.  She was.

After lunch I announced that Bella was going to get a bath. We decided that I would hold her down while Lydia would hose and shampoo her.  She firmly disliked the water and detested the shampoo even more.  It was all I could do to hold on to her while she wiggled and whimpered.  When it was done she shot through the fence and ran a little ways down the road where she rolled and rubbed on the asphalt trying to rid herself of the stench of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. That was the last we saw of her.

The kids didn't cry or anything.  The good thing is that they had had less than 24 hours to get attached to her.  On Monday afternoon Lydia was moping around the house, and she suddenly said, "Dad, is it ok if I go take a walk?"  

"Where are you thinking you want to go?" I asked.

"Oh, you know... down by the doner place."

I understood.  "Of course it's ok," I said.  

She was back in a very short time.  I knew before I even asked that Bella wasn't there.

We'll get anothe puppy eventually.  I still don't know how I'm going to do it.  We can't afford to put up a new fence even if our landlord would allow it.  I know that in the US you can string wires underneath the permiter of your yard and outfit your dog with a special collar, but I doubt that that is available here.  After having read Shiloh out loud to the kids last year, none of us wants to be the kind of person who keeps his dog chained up.  Maybe we'll build a puppy pen inside the yard -- just until our he or she gets too big to fit through the fence.  We'll figure something out.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's so great about sliced bread?

Life in the Balkans certainly has its deficits, but going out in the morning to the corner bakery to pick up a loaf of bread still warm from the wood-fired oven is not one of them.  Having to slice it myself is a small price to pay.

In our early days in Albania there were sometimes bread shortages and consequently long lines at the bakery.   Let me rephrase that; there were never really lines in the strictest sense of the word.  More like a rugby scrum.   Then there was the time I chipped a tooth on a rock in a loaf of bread.  Someone later explained to me that the rocks get in there when they sweep the flour off the floor.  But none of these traumatic experiences -- having to fight for my food and having to go to the dentist -- were enough to put me off Balkan bread.

I got to talking about bread the other day with a friend from this part of the world who spent a little time in the States.  Overall I think that he was pretty overwhelmed with a lot of his  experiences, but our American bread made a lasting impression on him.  "I put in the fridge and forgot about it," he said.  "A month later, it was exactly the same!  It hadn't changed even the tiniest bit -- for good or for bad!"

I realize that the old saying, "the greatest thing since sliced bread" is probably a weak target since most people use it with a certain amount of irony.  Speaking of old sayings, remember the line from the Lord's prayer:  "Give us this day our daily bread"?  Here in this part of the world, that still makes sense.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sworn Virgins (not to be confused with American teens who take a chastity pledge)

Here's a fasinating article about Albania's "sworn virgins" -- a unique and little known cultural phenomenon. 

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Redneckism as a global phenomenon

So I’m hanging out with my friend Gary from Michigan, right? And he keeps referring to certain of his co-workers as “rednecks” – which leads me to assume that they must be transplants from the Deep South, but no, it turns out that they’re native Michiganders.* Well I’m wondering whether someone shouldn’t sue somebody -- like Greece sued Denmark to keep them from selling white cheese and calling it “feta”. Don’t we have proprietary use of the word “redneck” south of the Mason-Dixon Line?

Fast forward a year. We’re here in the Republic of Macedonia, and we’ve found the house where we hope to live for the next four years. The current owner is a surgeon and the ex minister of health**. He bought the house about a year ago, but he has never lived in it. He claims that he bought it just because he liked the location and that he didn’t even bother to look inside. I’m sure he’s exaggerating, but I can certainly see why he wouldn’t want us to assume that this house reflects his taste. As we get to know the place, I feel like I’m getting to know the ex owner, and I’m starting to believe that redneckism really is a global phenomenon.  

You know Jeff Foxworthy’s, “You might be a redneck” routine? Well there’s one that goes something like, “If the last time you mowed your yard you found two cars you didn’t know you had, you might be a redneck.” When we first rented this house, the yard was a jungle. Let’s see, how can I describe how bad it was… I mean I was like expecting a rhino to come charging out at me or something. Let me interject here that it’s going to be a really nice yard. It has grape vines, apricot and plum trees, and rose bushes. But you would never have known that before we started hacking, sawing, and chopping. Actually I didn’t find any cars, but I did find a rusty truck bumper, a rotting basketball backboard, a toilet tank and numerous other assorted objects in various states of decomposition. 

“So what?” you say. “Just having junk in an overgrown yard doesn’t make you a redneck.” Well hang on, I’m not finished yet. This guy’s idea of interior decorating was to glue parquet flooring to the walls in the entry hallway and dining room. I thought it was pretty innovative of him (though I do wish that he hadn’t left the edges so raggedy and crooked). But it really makes Mary want to climb the walls. (Get it? Climb the walls…) And did I tell you about the garage? He had some kind of pit rigged up in the floor – apparently for changing the oil.

Still not convinced? Just wait. When we were touring the house with the realtor, we noticed that the kitchen was smaller than some closets we’ve seen. We also noticed a strange floor to ceiling depression in the dining room wall about a foot wide and a foot deep and covered with a locking wrought iron door. Have you guessed it yet? Yep, a built in gun cabinet! So I would like to propose the following addition to Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck routine. “If your gun cabinet is bigger than your wife’s kitchen, you might be a redneck.”***

I have to say, I’m starting to feel truly at home!

*That’s really what you call them. I asked someone from Michigan and that’s what he told me. Which raises the question in my mind whether the female of the species should be referred to as a “Michigoose.”

** Kind of like their surgeon general. Except that the Republic of Macedonia only has two million people. So maybe it would be like the surgeon general of New Mexico. Does anybody know if New Mexico has a surgeon general?

***For those of you too redneck to recognize hyperbole, no, the gun cabinet is not literally larger than the kitchen.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Notes from Skopje, part2 – taxi drivers, ethnic etiquette, and a lost camera

Then there are the taxi drivers who wait in front of the hospital. Since our car is in storage in Kosovo right now we use their services several times a day, and some of them now count us as friends. In fact, a number of them have really taken to heart our hunt for a house. Every time they see me, they shout out: “So have you found anything yet? I just heard about a place over in Gazi Baba. Do you want me to take you to see it?” One of them ran up to me yesterday with an advertiser newspaper. “Hey, I bought this just for you. Look, it’s got lots of good houses!”

It’s hard to explain to them why we would prefer to live on the north side of the Vardar River where Albanians predominate. The streets tend to be dirtier, steeper, and more twisted over there. There are spots where one could be awakened at the crack of dawn by the call to prayer ringing out from three or four different mosques at once. Even Albanians have quietly expressed reservations. “You’d be better off on the south side of the river. They’re more cultured than we are.”

I shouldn’t give the impression that the river is some kind of solid barrier between the ethnicities. There are plenty of mosques on "the Orthodox side" and churches on "the Muslim side". There have always been Macedonian families among the Albanians on the north side; and as the Albanian population grows, upwardly mobile Albanian families are increasingly buying houses on the south side. It would be nearly impossible to find an ethnically pure neighborhood in Skopje anymore.

Those of you who keep up with me on flickr or facebook will know by now that I lost my camera. We went out on Saturday morning to meet a friend, and there were only a couple of taxis in the usual spot. I didn’t see anyone familiar, so we got in the first one we came to. As always I looked up at the rearview mirror to try and determine the ethnicity of the driver. Most Macedonians display a cross or an icon, whereas Albanians often hang prayer beads or Koranic verses. In this case, there was nothing. That would tend to suggest that he was Albanian since Albanian drivers often avoid overt religious symbols when working on the south side of the river so as not to warn away Macedonian customers. He looked a little bit Albanian – to me at least – but I’m not that good at telling them apart. However, the radio was tuned to a Macedonian station. Mixed signals.

I greeted him and told him our destination in Macedonian, which is always the safe thing to do when you don’t know. If it turned out that he was Albanian, and I switched to speaking in Albanian, he would be delighted. But if he was Macedonian and I started in Albanian, he might be offended. After a minute Mary asked him outright, “Are you Macedonian?” But she used the feminine form of the word, so it came out like, “Are you a Macedonian woman?” He didn’t seem to mind much. He chuckled a bit and said, “Yes, I’m a Macedonian”, using the same word she had used. After that I didn’t bother to try to make conversation since my Macedonian is very limited. I kept my head down and fiddled with my new mobile phone. When we arrived at our destination, I was concentrating on the phone so much that I forgot all about the camera sitting at my feet on the floorboard. I didn’t even miss it till a half hour later.

Since then I scan the faces of the drivers in front of the hospital every time I step outside hoping to see him again. Apparently he isn’t one of the regulars here. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that I would recognize him now if I saw him. If the driver had been Albanian, I’m pretty sure that I would have gotten my camera back by now. We would have chatted along the way, and he would have known where I’m staying so that if he were honest he could have brought it to me. And even if he weren’t honest, I would have known where he lives, how many kids he has, etc. – enough information to track him down.

Of course I tried to enlist the help of the other taxi drivers. “What was the name of the company?” they asked me. “What kind of car was it?” Unfortunately, I didn’t remember anything useful. “Well that’s what you get for just hopping in the car with just anybody!” one of them finally said in exasperation. “You need to learn to ride with your friends!”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Notes from Skopje - part 1

 We still haven’t found the right house. Time is running out.  It's starting to look like we’re going to have to take one of the wrong ones.

 We’ve gotten to know a lot of nice people while staying here at the Hotel 7 across the street from the government hospital -- Mehmet, the Turkish guy who runs the doner shop below us, for example. There are Turks here in Macedonia whose ancestors were left high and dry when this part of Europe broke free from the Turkish Empire 100 years ago, but Mehmet isn’t one of them. He’s a businessman who came over from Turkey, and he works 7 days a week, 16 hours at a stretch, shaving pieces off of a huge hunk meat that slowly spins and diminishes as the day passes. (Doner is the Turkish equivalent of Greek gyros, but if you’ve only had gyros at the food court in some American mall, you’ve been sold a cheap imitation; this is good meat, not processed pieces-parts.) The temperature outdoors gets almost up to 100 F sometimes, and Mehmet stands there all day in front of the grill slowly cooking with the meat. But he always has a big smile and a friendly "Merhaba!" for me.

Once when there weren’t many customers Mehmet invited me to sit at an outdoor table with him and drink a cappuccino. He is more comfortable in Macedonian, and I’m far more comfortable in Albanian, so we had to keep switching back and forth between languages in order to communicate. Sometimes we turned to his workers, all of whom are Albanian and are therefore fluent in both languages, for help with translation. He told me with sadness in his eyes that he hadn't been home to Turkey a single time in four years. His wife and daughters live with him here in Macedonia, but given his work schedule he doesn't see much of them.

 Mary, the kids and and I often sit at one of Mehmet’s café tables with our laptops to do internet. When we booked the apartment online, Hotel 7’s website promised wireless internet. Unfortunately the two-room apartment we reserved is actually on the 5th floor (that’s by European reckoning; I would call it the 6th.) of an adjacent building, so the wireless signal doesn’t reach us. But the doner shop is right outside the hotel office, and I kind of enjoy sitting at a table on the sidewalk and sipping a Coke or cappuccino while surfing the net. We make quite a spectacle since open laptops in public places are not a common sight here.

 We had stayed here at the Hotel 7 a couple of times on earlier visits to Skopje and had a good experience, so we decided that this would be an ideal place to be based while we shopped for a house. It’s clean, comfortable and there was the promise of wireless internet. The price was a bit steep, but they gave us a deal when we reserved it for a month. It was just before we left the States that the hotel management sent us an email informing us that they had made a mistake. The apartment was already booked for three of the days that they had promised it to us. They offered to move us to smaller rooms for those three days and not to charge us, and we accepted.  Moving our bags back and forth was a lot of work, but the real problem turned out to be that the air conditioner was broken in one of the rooms, and Skopje was in the throes of a terrible heat wave those days. The kids got the room with the working a/c of course, and Mary and I toughed it out.  

One morning I woke up soaked in sweat. The sun was pounding into our room, but my body clock was telling me it was only 2 a.m.  The sounds and smells of the doner shop downstairs drifted up through our open window.  I really enjoy eating doner under normal circumstances, but this time the odor of roasting meat was very heavy, almost nauseating.  As I got up and started moving about the room Mary called out, “Mark, you need to put that food in the refrigerator!” After a moment of bewilderment I figured out that she was talking in her sleep. Later on when I mentioned it again she didn’t even remember having said it. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My year in the U.S.

We’ve been in Skopje for a little over a week. Before I start blogging about life here, I wanted do a retrospective on our year in the USA. I traveled more than 40,000 miles (65,000 km) visiting those who support us with prayer, money and whatever else. That’s the equivalent of more than 5 times around the earth! (And that’s only counting official travel – not trips to Wal-mart or my sister’s house, for example.) I dipped my toes in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans; and I went as far north as the Canadian border and as far South as the Mexican border. For the first six months Mary and the kids traveled with me in a Dodge Caravan, which was made available to us by my home church in Slidell. In January I was able to buy a car of my own so that the family wasn’t obligated to live on the road with me.

Here are some of the year’s highlights:
· Renewing acquaintances with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years.
· Working with Katherine Paterson, the author of Bridge to Terabithia, on her new book, Country of the Heart. (See this entry.)
· Getting to know my nieces and nephews.
· Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. (My daddy made that!)
· Fishing, especially at my parents’ house in Bush, Louisiana. They’ve noticed that since they built the house on the lake, they see a lot more of me.
· Preaching at an open air service for the homeless in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. This weekly outreach has been going on for 12 years straight, and it was thrilling to meet some of the people whose lives have been transformed.
· Sharing the Gospel with a Kosovar woman at the home of friends in Florida.
· Speaking to the recovering addicts in the Teen Challenge program in Pascagoula, Mississippi. I’ve never had a more engaging and receptive audience than these ladies!
· Challenging Chi Alpha students to line up their lives with God’s story. The campuses I visited included Stanford, Tulane; U. of L at Lafayette, La. Tech; SE Louisiana U.; Grambling; Alabama, U. of Arizona; and U.C. Davis.
· Seeing Luke emerge as a soccer sensation in a small package.
· Daily walks along the banks of Patton Creek behind our apartment. (Check out the Alabama set on my flickr page for pictures of the snakes, otters and other critters I’ve encountered there.)

It was a year filled with blessings, but still it’s good to be back in the Balkans where we belong.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fourth of July or Fifth of May?

I ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant today, the Fourth of July.  Is that subversive, or what?  By the way, the restaurant is located in the part of Hoover, Alabama that has come to be known as Guadala-Hoover.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Remembering my life as a plumber's helper

I recently had breakfast with an old friend and former boss.  Jeff is a third generation plumber. Back when I worked for him, he was working for his dad.  We were both poor back then. (I still am.)  Admission to the local cinema was $1 on Tuesdays, and Jeff used to call me sometimes after work and say, "It's plumbers' night at the movies!  Wanna go?"  When his dad retired Jeff and his brother split the company, and both of them have done exceptionally well.

Here's the story of how I got the job.  Jeff and I went to the same church.  He was helping lead the youth group that I was part of.  On Wednesday after the regular youth meetings a group of us would meet for prayer.  I was about to graduate from high school and was planning to attend the University of Southern Mississippi in the fall.   I asked my friends to pray that I would get a good summer job.  Jeff asked us to pray that he would find a good Christian helper.  We all prayed fervently and somenow it didn't occur to any of us that our prayer was already answered.  A couple of weeks later my mom suggested, "Why don't you ask Jeff if he's hiring?"  I took her suggestion and ended up getting the job.  It was quite a while later that we remembered the prayer meeting, put it all together, and laughed about it.  We imagined that God was up there saying, "Ok guys, what do I have to do to make this more obvious for you?"

I ended up working for Jeff that summer and off and on through my college years.  I dug trenches, busted concrete, soldered pipes, and ran out in the truck to pick up supplies.  I've never had a knack for working with my hands, but I worked hard and learned a lot -- though not necessarily about plumbing. For example, I learned to appreciate coffee while drinking the free stuff out of little styrofoam cups at the plumbing supply houses.  (Associative logic rabbit trail:  Reminds me of the W. C. Fields quote:  "A woman drove me to drink and I didn't even have the decency to thank her.") I learned to recognize the smell of marijuana.  I had had almost no contact with that kind of kids in high school, but many of my co-workers on the construction site were toking at work in those days.  One of them was doing community service to pay for a drug conviction, but that didn't stop him.  And that wasn't the only new lifestyle I was exposed to. We installed the plumbing in some rich folks' houses, and I was intrigued by the glimpse that it gave me into their world.  

As Jeff and I reminisced together last week at the Broken Egg (a fantastic little restaurant near the Lakeshore in Mandeville, by the way), we found a lot to laugh about.  For instance, I reminded him of the time that he asked me to blow on a copper pipe to get the excess moisture out so that the solder would seal up the joint.  The pipe was still hot from his torch, and as soon as I touched it to my mouth I yelped and jumped back sporting a bright red circle around the center of my lips.  Once the pain subsided enough for me to see the humor of it, I said, "Wow, I've never been kissed like that before!"

Jeff has experienced heavy heartache and abundant blessings during the last 20 years, and I'm always encouraged when I get together with him to see that he's still faithfully following Jesus. It was especially thrilling to me to hear his powerful testimonies from a recent missions trip he took into the Amazon jungle. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Good company?

A list of famous preachers' kids from  Wikipedia's "preacher's kid" entry.

  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Carl Jung
  • Alice Cooper
  • Denzel Washington
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • Marvin Gaye
  • The Wright Brothers
  • Malcolm X
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Ingmar Bergman
  • Tori Amos
  • Nicola Tesla
  • Nat King Cole
  • Jessica Simpson
  • Phil Jackson (both parents)
  • Mark Few

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Can Christ followers be democratic leaders?

This article in Slate put into words a long-held conviction of mine: "In its wisdom, America has devised a presidential election system that actively selects for egotistical megalomaniacs: You simply cannot enter the White House if you aren't one."  

On the one hand, to be a serious presidential contender in America it's almost a neccesity to profess Christian faith.  But if you read the list of qualities that Christ said would characterize his followers in Matthew 5:3-12, you have to conclude that anyone matching that description wouldn't get very far in our political system.  I doubt that my brothers who are eager to "take America back" have really grasped just how peculiar a people we're supposed to be.  (My dad would be quick to point out that the word translated "peculiar" in the King James Bible means "specially chosen", not "strange."  But I would contend that if we're going to take seriously the teachings of Jesus we'll be peculiar in the most fullest and most modern sense of the word.)

I don't mean to suggest that our democratic system is any worse than any of the available choices.  In fact I personally would agree with Winston Churchill in choosing democracy as the least bad option in our fallen, broken world.

Nor do I mean to say that it's impossible for a Christ-follower to participate in politics.  In fact, I can think of two very good biblical models for Christian political leadership -- Joseph and Daniel. These two Old Testament rulers serve as examples for us for two important reasons:

1) Given the extent to which the values of the Kingdom of God fly in the face of the values of the world in which we live, it would take an act of God every bit as miraculous to place a Christ-follower in power in a democratic system as it did for Joseph in Pharaoh's Egypt and Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon.

2) Once in power Joseph and Daniel had to exercise authority in one nation while retaining ultimately loyal to another nation.  They weren't spies; they were working to be a blessing in their places of power without betraying their own people.  A Christ follower in political office today would also have to navigate torn loyalties, to negotiate living and leading amid the tension of dual citizenship.

Friday, June 13, 2008

This video has all of my buddies back in the Balkans and me ROTFL.  Definitely worth checking out.  

Reminds me of a time when I was in Honduras back in '86.  Some other American college students and I were doing children's activities.  We were resting in a church after a program, and we noticed some kids just outside the open window laughing hysterically.  We watched discretely to see what was happening, and we discovered that one young comedian among them was listening to our conversation then turning back to his friends to imitate the gibberish he was hearing.  They were all loving it up! We got a big kick out of it too, besides learning a valuable lesson in cross-cultural communication.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Love and tolerance

Thanks to my fellow Cajun and Chi Alpha man Glen Davis for this post.  You rock, Glen!  My evening at Stanford was one of the highlights of this year back in the States.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Heron supervising Long Beach harbor
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

I recently received the following message concerning this photo:

"Congratulations! Your photo has been selected to be on view in the Water: A California Story exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The exhibit will open to the public on July 19th, 2008
Preview opening reception for Museum Members & exhibition collaborators (that’s you!):

Selected photos will be presented in a digital slideshow in the gallery."

Lydia read this, and exclaimed, "Wow, dad are you going to go?"

I quickly assured her that I wasn't going all the way to San Diego, California just to watch my picture flash up on some screen for a second. But I am excited and honored nonetheless.

The photo evokes fond memories for me because I took it while visiting my sister Rachel and her family at Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Jesus came to liberate us so that we could die up front and then live. Jesus Christ wants to take us to places that only dead me and women can go."
Erwin McManus in The Barbarian Way

This quote reminded me of another quote. A prisoner condemned to die was asked what he wanted for his final meal, and he replied, "Mushrooms." When asked why, he said, "I've always been afraid to eat 'em."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

ghost chair
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

My parents have built a nice house out in the country near Bush, Louisiana. The house is on a pond with excellent bass fishing, and they've noticed that I make it down to see them more often lately. This photo was taken on the neighbors' pier. In the springitme whenever they get a good rain the pier gets submerged.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Working with Katherine Paterson

Some months back I got in just before midnight from a meeting in Huntsville.  I glanced at my emails before going to bed and saw one from some lady who said she was writing a book about a family of Kosovar refugees and wanted to know if I would advise her.  Without even reading the email thoroughly I quickly dashed off a reply saying that I would be happy to help.  After replying I glanced back at the email and noticed that its author had included this url in case I wanted to check her out, so I clicked on the link.  

Imagine my surprise to find that I was corresponding with the author of Bridge to Terabitha!  If my mother, my wife, or any of my sisters had been the recipient of the email, any of them would have recognized the name of Katherine Paterson instantly, but I wasn't very well-versed on children's literature.  She is one of the leading children's authors in the nation and a two-time winner of both the Newberry Medal and the National Book Award.  In addition to Bridge to Terabithia she is the author of Jacob Have I Loved, The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Master Puppeteer, and many others. Interestingly, I learned that Katherine was born in China to missionary parents.  As an adult she served four years as a missionary to Japan before marrying a Presbyterian minister and embarking on her career as an author.

It turned out that Katherine's church had sponsored a family of Kosovar refugees, and she had written a series of fictionalized articles based on that family's story.  Her publisher had suggested that she turn the articles into a book.  However, she felt that she didn't have enough knowledge of Kosova to attempt to write a book about a Kosovar family.  She had located me through my flickr site and decided to contact me to see if I would be willing to serve as a kind of consultant.  

As someone who has devoted his life to being a friend to the Albanians, I would have been willing to help anyone who wanted to write a book portraying them in a positive light. But it has been especially thrilling to work with Katherine.  All of our contact has been by email.  She has been sending me drafts of the chapters of the book, and I have been making suggestions and corrections based on my experience in the Balkans.  Also, I sent her several long letters with various bits of information about Kosovar Albanian customs, language, dress, etc.  This part of the process is now complete.  Just today I received the complete manuscript for a final review-- this time a hard copy by post.  

I haven't really begun to dig into it yet, and of course I'm not going to give anything away -- with one small exception.  The dedication page reads as follows:  "This book is for Muhamet, Saveta, Elez, Yllka, Almedina, and Aridon Haxhiu whose family planted the seed and Mark Orfila without whose help it would not have come to fruition."  Can you believe it?

As it now stands, the book is called Country of the Heart.  I don't know when it will be published, but I'll be sure to let you know as soon as I find out.

Addendum:  The book should be available for sale in September 09.  I know, that's a long time.

Friday, April 11, 2008


The following quotes were gathered in Blood Against Blood, a book written by prominent Pentecostal leader Arthur Booth-Clibborn and published in 1916:

"War is hell."

General Sherman

"I cannot fight, for the spirit of war is slain within me."

George Fox, when offered a captaincy

"God is forgotten in war; every principle of Christianity is trampled upon."
Sydney Smith

"Our religion teaches us that it is better to be killed than to kill."

"Shall Christians assist the Prince of Hell, who was a murderer from the beginning, by telling the world of the benefit or need of war?"
John Wesley

Booth-Clibborn's quotes, I would like to add one more.  This one comes from Anthony Swofford's book Jarhead:

Already, I recognized the incompatibility of religion and the military. The opposite of this assertion seems true when one considers the high number of fiercely religious military people, but they are missing something. They're forgetting the mission of the military: to extinguish the lives and the livelihood of other humans. What do they think all of those bombs are for?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Like having a baby

"Deciding to start blogging is like deciding to have a baby. Once you've got it you've got to feed the thing."

A good friend of mine explaining why he doesn't blog.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The psychology of fishing

A couple of posts ago I wrote about what I see as the connection between photography and fishing. My sister commented with a question: Doesn't fishing require more patience?

In fact, the way I practice both pursuits might look like patience to someone who didn't know any better. If you watched me stalking a butterfly or a snake trying to get the perfect pose you could be forgiven for thinking me patient. But the dark truth is that I am no more patient than the gambling addict who sits in front of a slot machine all night hoping for a payout.

Back when my wife was in college she learned in her psych coure that the behavioral reinforcement of fishing is very similar to that of gambling and that fishermen often make compulsive gamblers. I've never tried gambling, but I don't doubt that this is true.

Let me explain it like this. It's very difficult for me to quit fishing once I start. If I'm catching 'em, I can't stop till I've caught just one more. If I'm not catching 'em I can't stop till I catch something. It's not patience, it's compulsion. Fortunately the addictions of trying to capture a fish or a photograph are relatively harmless (except to the fish of course). And I make sure not to go anywhere near the casino or the racetrack.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I picked up Rags near Meridian, Mississippi not far from the spot where I picked up that guy who singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union. Rags was as polite and pleasant a traveling companion as that other guy was pugnacious and paranoid.

He told me his real name, but I'm going to stick with "Rags" here -- the name by which he was known during his long career with the carnival and the name he continues to use in his new business detailing big trucks. He is a diminutive man, wiry and weather-beaten with piercing blue eyes. He was carrying a pup tent, a sleeping bag, and a backpack.

Rags told me that he got his start in the carnival when he was 12 years old. Here's his version of the story: "I had this pet goose that I kept at home. I used to cluck my tongue a certain way, and that thing would follow me wherever I went. So one day the carnival came to my town, and my parents took me to the show. There was this game with a live goose, and you had to try to throw a wooden ring around the goose's neck. They had a big stuffed bear, and I decided I wanted to win that bear for my mama. When it came my turn, I clucked at that goose just like I did with my pet goose back home, and it just walked right up to me. So I just layed the ring around its neck easy as you please. The guy who ran the game said, 'I don't know how you did that! Nobody's ever done that before.' And he asked me if I would like to help him out with the game.

Rags fell in love with carnival life. For the next four years anytime the carnival came anywhere near his town, his parents would take him there on weekends, and he would help out with the games. When he was 16 he quit school and went on the road full time with the carnival. He continued full time on this career track till last year. He is now 56 years old, so that makes 39 years that he lived on the road as a carny.

When asked what the skills are that make a good carnival game operator he laughed a kind of embarrassed laugh and said, "Being a good thief!"

"Are you serious?" I asked. "Is it really all rigged?"

"Not so much anymore," he said. "Nowadays they've got special policemen that dress up like ordinary folks and come play the games. There's a book out there that tells you how to win at carnival games every time. These policemen have read that book, and they know how to play. So if they lose you're in trouble. But in the old days, you didn't win unless I decided you would."

I pressed him to tell me some the tricks. He described a target shooting game in which the targets were marked with red. He said that he kept a tube of lipstick hidden under a counter. Whenever he took down a target to show the shooter his results Rags would touch his finger to the lipstick then to to the target. He told about another game which involved releasing a mouse onto an enclosed area with holes and betting on which hole he would dart down. Once the bet was made Rags would secretly dip his finger into ammonia then touch one of the holes. The mouse inevitably chose the hole with the scent of ammonia. He said that at first he didn't mind but that over time he became ashamed of ripping people off, especially children.

According to Rags, drug and alcohol abuse is less prevalent among carnival workers than in the past due to the widespread practice of random drug testing. Carnival work can be dangerous, and a drunk or high employee, especially one working with the rides, can endanger more than himself. Rags admitted to having been a heavy drinker in the past, but he says he quit some years ago due to health problems.

Speaking of danger, he said that he has seen quite a few people get hurt through the years. The most gruesome was a case in which the operator of a Kamikaze darted under the ride to pick up change that was falling from the pockets of riders. For a handful of change the man's head was knocked from his shoulders. Rags says the he witnessed this first hand. (I did a little hunting on the internet and couldn't find a report of anything like this, so I don't know.)

The carnival season generally starts in April and lasts till Thanksgiving. A lot of carnivals try to head to Flordia for the winter to keep on working, but intense competition makes it hard to turn a profit. Rags eventually took to detailing trucks to make ends meet through the winter, and he came to realize that he could make more money by making the chrome on trucks shine than he could under the bright lights of the carnival.

But this career change hasn't meant settling down. Rags still lives on the road. He travels from truck stop to truck stop to carry out his craft. Sometimes he sets up outside the truck stop with a handheld cb radio and make his sales pitch to drivers as they approach. Other times he walks among the refueling trucks holding high a bottle of polish. He says that he usually makes $70 for polishing 6 wheels and the fuel tanks, but he can make up to $300 for doing the entire truck.

Even though he hitchhikes, Rags sometimes fears for the safety of those who pick up people like him. He told a story about a lady with a small child who gave him a ride once. "Ma'am, please don't misunderstand me," he told her. "I really appreciate the ride. But please don't do this anymore. You're putting yourself and your child in danger."

"My daddy told me that whenever I saw the ones with the bedroll and all I could trust them," she said.

"Maybe it was like that when your daddy was little, but it ain't that way anymore," he told her.

Of course the hitchhikers are at much greater risk than the drivers. He mentioned the case of a serial killer who has been killing hitchhikers. Sometimes the danger comes from unexptected sources. He claims to have spent 13 days in jail in Hammond, Louisiana without ever being charged with any crime.

When I asked him how I could pray for him, he said, "Just that I'll be safe on the road."

Monday, March 31, 2008

Blight and delight in downtown Jackson
I doubt it would make a silk purse, but it does make a passable sandwich
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

This past weekend I attended a conference at the Edison Walthall Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. The conference was good, but the once elegant hotel, located almost within spitting distance of the governor's mansion and state capitol, has really gone to seed. I've stayed in a lot of lousy places through the years, but even I was shocked at how poorly the Edison Walthall is maintained and managed.

Anyway, a friend at the conference, knowing my proclivity for off-the-wall foods, recommended that I try the pig ear sandwich at the Big Apple Inn, a soul food joint on Farish Street just around the corner from the Edison Walthall. My lunch at the conclusion of the conference was covered in the conference cost (which was generously paid for the Mississippi District of the Assemblies of God), so I elected to eat a club sandwich there at the Edison Walthall first.

"I'm looking forward to trying the pig ear sandwich, but I want to fill my belly first in case I don't like it," I told my friend.

"Oh, don't worry! You'll like it," he assured me.

After lunch, another friend and I walked over to the Big Apple Inn. Although it really wasn't far from the hotel, at first I wondered whether I had lost my way. Farish Street looked abandoned. No, worse than abadoned. It looked like a war zone -- and believe me, I know what a war zone looks like! Maybe worse than a war zone --like a scene from some apocalyptic movie. On the left side of the street we walked past a row of buildings with every door and window smashed, leaving the rubble-littered interior on display to passers by. Drops of dried blood on the sidewalk formed a trail leading to a thick congealed puddle in one of the entryways of the ruin. Not a soul was stirring on the street. I doubted the directions my friend had given me, and even if he was right, surely the place had long since shut down. But we eventually found the restaurant, heavily fortified with iron but still inviting with its bright red sign and awning.

Inside there was a friendly young lady behind the counter and a couple of kids running around and playing among the bright orange and yellow plastic chairs. The menu on the wall listed the following: smoke sausage, pig ear, hamburger, hot dog, and bolonga -- all one dollar, tax included; hot tamales -- $5 for a half dozen or $8.50 for a dozen; pops, chips, and two kinds of beer.

I ordered my sandwich and got a grape soda from the pop machine to wash it down, which seemed somehow the appropriate accompaniment to a pig ear sandwich, but I don't know why. Everything was available in "hot, mild, or no hot." I chose hot. After all, I'm from South Louisiana. My mama put Tabasco in my baby bottle!

So how was it? It was ok. It was midly spicy but not unbearably so (at least not for a South Louisianian). The bun reminded of the ones they use for those little Krystal burgers we used to call "gut grenades" when I was in college. It stuck to the paper when I opened it. The texture of the pig ear was a bit gelatinous. Overall, I would say that it's something you eat for the experience, not the taste. But it wasn't bad.

The restaurant is located at 509 Farish St. For another blogger's experience with the same restaurant, click here.

I picked up a fascinating hitchhiker today. But that story will have to wait for another post. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Photography and fishing

I visited an old childhood friend over the weekend. My friend is a country vet in Mississippi who keeps a few livestock, and his cow pond is loaded with big 'ol catfish.

Note that I have the camera case strapped around my chest and the fishing rod in my hand. Photography and fishing are my two thrills. I may offend both photographers and fishermen by saying this, but I see a link between them. I've noticed since I started posting to flickr that one of the most common compliments paid to photographs is "nice capture". For me, that comment defines the common thread between the two pursuits: the thrill of the capture.

In an earlier entry I wrote that I wanted to cultivate photography as an act of worship. So which is it -- the thrill of the catch or the glory of the Creator? Hmm, I'll have to think about that. Maybe the first of these is my real motive and the latter the motive to which I aspire. Or maybe the two of them really are compatible somehow.

Which one's uglier?
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

Sunday, March 09, 2008

came across this
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

I was going through some old photos to put together a slide show and I came across this. I wonder why I didn't think it was worth posting back in August of 06 when I took it. Maybe it's because whenever you post a flower picture there are already 500 kajillion other ones out there just like it only better. (Same thing with sunsets.) On the other hand, maybe the real question is not, "Why did it escape my notice before?" but "Why did it catch my eye this time?" I'm pretty sure I know the answer. So far it's a cold, blustery March here in Birmingham, and I'm hungry for some signs of spring.

Friday, March 07, 2008

My man, Gerti Gjoni

Gerti is a good friend of mine who was in the youth group of the International Church during my time in Tirana (95-97).  He is a very gifted singer, and he really loves Jesus.  I just have one  criticism: Personally I wish he would sing more Albanian stuff rather rather than doing Sting and Phil Collins impersonations.  (I've got a recording of a demo of an Albanian song he wrote himself, and it rocks way more than what he sings on TV!) Anyway, these clips on YouTube are definitely worth checking out. 

Monday, March 03, 2008

Check out this for a delicious little foretaste of Rev. 7:9-10.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Christopher Hitchens on Kosovo

As a Christian and a pacifist, I suppose I'm an unlikely candidate to be reading Christopher Hitchens, but I faithfully  follow his column at I usually find his writing entertaining, often find it informative, and on rare occasions I actually find myself agreeing with it. In his recent piece on Kosova, he stated the case for independence much more eloquently than I have seen it anywhere else.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Congratulations and a challenge for Kosova

I called a bunch of my Kosovar friends today. Here's how the conversation went:

Me: "Hey, this is Marku calling from America."
My Kosovar friend: "Hey Mark! How are you?"
Me: "Well, I'm ok but to tell the truth I'm pretty angry at you!"
My Kosovar friend: "Really? Why?"
My: "I waited 10 years with you guys for this moment, and you couldn't even wait another 4 months till I come back so we could celebrate it together!"
(This followed by racous laughter from my Kosovar friend.)

This really is a bittersweet moment for me. I wish I could have been there to share the joy with the people I love. I want to take this moment to publicly congratulate my Kosovar friends -- and also to issue them a challenge.

It is often said, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." (a slight misquote of George Santayana). From my experience in the Balkans, it sometimes seems that it's the remembering that dooms people to repeat history. History is often rehearsed in such a way as to stoke the fires of hatred and to insure that the current generation of victims will become the future generation of perpetrators.

(Not that the Balkans has a lock on this kind of thing. I often wonder if there isn't a similar sentiment behind the "9-11 - We won't forget" bumperstickers.)

Nevertheless, I think that remembering is important. In the Bible, we read how the people of Israel suffered for 400 years as slaves in Egypt. When God set them free through Moses (Hazreti Musa), He commanded them to remember their slavery so that they who had once been oppressed would never become oppressors.

I wish to say to my Kosovar brothers, "Please do not allow yourselves to become what you hate. You have an opportunity to create a state where everyone -- Serbs, Gypsies, Turks, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox can experience justice, peace, and freedom. You know what it is like to be refugees; please don't force other people to flee their homes. You know what it is like to be treated with contempt; please treat the minorities among you with respect. You know what it is like to lose loved ones; please don't make more widows and orphans."

I hope I don't sound condescending. I know that we Americans have our own ugly history and our own challenges in the present. I will keep praying for God's blessings to flow through Kosova like the rivers flow down from the Albanian Alps to water the Plain of Dukajgin. I hope to be back among you this summer.

Friday, February 15, 2008

One of the things that I love about Albanian culture is the blessings that they use for specific occasions.  The Albanian language actually has a distinct verb mood that is used only for blesses and curses. (The closest English equivalent would be to the use of the word, "May" as you'll see in the examples below.)  Here are some of the more common ones.

- “May it be good for you!” - If you see someone eating, or if you serve someone food (especially if the guest thanks you or blesses you for the meal.)

- "May the Lord give you a harvest." - If someone gives you something to eat or drink.  (This is one of my favorites.)

- “May your hands rejoice!” – If someone makes something nice with his/her hands. This would include food but could include anything else made with the hands.
- “May your mouth rejoice!” – If someone says something wise or sings beautifully.
- “May your feet rejoice that they brought you to visit me!” –

- “May the Lord give you a harvest!” – If someone shares food with you.

- “May the Lord leave you healthy!” – to someone who has lost a loved one
- “May you be healthy!” – the reply

- “I worship to your honor!” – This is the literal meaning of the Albanian version of “Thank you.”
- “May you be with honor!” – You’re welcome. (In response to “Thank you.”)

- “May your honor increase!” – Another way of saying thank you, most commonly used when someone offers you a cigarette. (One shopkeeper used to thank me for my business with a slight variation: “May your salary increase!”)

- “May you wear it with health!” or simply “With health.” – When someone has a new item of clothing or a new haircut.
- “May you have health!” - the response

- “May you be inherited!” – When someone engages or marries a son or daughter.

- “May your work go well.” – Used most often to get the attention of a busy shopkeeper.”

- “Marshallah!” – Used when admiring someone or something – a baby, a pretty girl, or even a nice fat cow.  Many Balkan people believe strongly in the evil eye i.e., that they can unwittingly curse someone by admiring them. This blessing is used as an antitode.

- "May you live to be 100!" - To wish someone happy birthday.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Organic fertilizer

I came across the following quote while listening to a Soularize podcast.

"There is good and bad soil. And the Bible’s not silent about where you’ll find each, and one of our phrases that you’ll hear a lot is, 'Bad people make good soil; there’s a lot of fertilizer in their life.'"
Neil Cole