Saturday, November 07, 2009

Lion truthin

Here's a little mind game I play sometimes when I'm having trouble falling asleep.  Rather than explaining the rules, I'll just give you some examples.  (Maybe you already got it from the title.)  I think you'll pick up on the pattern.  My kids love this too.  Ok, so here goes:

lion - truthin

badger - goodger

panther - potther

hyena - lowena

donkey - donlock

tick - tock

goat - stopt

Get the idea?  Feel free to add one (or more) of you own?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Homesick for Egypt

homesick for Egypt
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

I was taking pictures of Farka Lake, and this old Albanan man tending his cows and sheep watched me suspiciously. Finally he asked me what I was doing. "I'm taking pictures of the lake because it's beautiful!' I said.

"Yes, it's beautiful," he replied. "It was made by Enver; whereas these politicians we have these days don't make anything beautiful. All they do is destory things."

(For the uninitiated, Enver Hoxha was the murderous Communist dictator who ruled Albania from 1945 to 1985. Under his leadership Albania procliamed itself the world's first completely atheist state. His legacy was isolation, poverty and paranoia on such a scale that the tiny country was littered with 750,000 concrete bunkers. And apparently a pretty lake.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Albanian imam: "We would die for America!"

I was riding around today in the front seat of an Albanian friend's Yugo when he stopped outside village mosque to get out and greet his uncle, the imam. The imam wanted a ride into town, so he folded his tall frame into the back seat of the Yugo. He was older than me and at least as tall as me, so of course I offered to get in the back, but I knew full well that their code of hospitality would never allow such a thing.

The imam was carrying a two liter Coke bottle full of fresh milk, which he had obtained for his family's iftar (the evening meal to break the daily fast during Ramadan). "My nephew tells me your American," he said. "I'm going to give you this milk. Make sure to boil it well. We Albanians love America. We would die for America!"

I laughed and said, "I'shallah (God willing) it never comes to that!"

We had a good time on our ride into town. He hardly let me get a word in edgewise, but I enjoyed listening to him as he told me stories of suffering for his faith during the Communist years and his five years of study in Saudi Arabia. Of course I had to endure a bit of a lecture about the superiority of Islam, but that was ok too. He mentioned that the Koran endorses the Inxhil (Gospel), Tevrati (Pentateuch), and Zeburi (Psalms), so I asked him if he had ever read the Gospel, and he admitted that he hadn't. I pulled a New Testament out of my book bag, and he graciously accepted the gift.

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about his words, "We would die for America." He probably didn't mean to be taken literally, but I do believe that behind the boast was a deep and sincere gratitude for the help American has given to the Albanian people for the last hundred years or so. As an American citizen I can't help but be touched by the love and respect that most Albanians feel toward my country.* On the other hand, I'm aware that my home country like every human institution is fallen and therefore deeply flawed.

What about me? Would I die for America? Of course nobody knows what he would do in the moment of decision, but believe that I would be honored to die for the Gospel. I'm pretty sure that I would be willing to die for a member of my family. I hope that if it came down to it I would even be prepared to give my life for a stranger -- American, Albanian, Serb, Iraqi or whatever. But there's no way that I would willingly give my life for any nation-state.

*This is true of the vast majority, but not of everyone. I heard an Albanian radio station here claiming that it was the Jews who brought down the Twin Towers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bono a 3 point Calvinist?

"...U2's 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon, chimes in with,
'I was born to ring for you / I didn't have a choice but to lift you up, '
with the refrain,
'Justified until we die / you and I will magnify / the Magnificent. '
Who knew that Bono was at least a three-point Calvinist?"

from John Calvin: Comeback Kid by Timothy George in Christianity Today

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sept. 11: The right way to remember

When I was in the States I saw lots of bumper stickers that said: "9/11: We will not forget." I'm all for remembering, but I think that there's a right way and a wrong way to remember.

The book of Deuteronomy is all about remembering. Over and over God commanded the people of Israel not to forget. Among the things that they were to remember were their years of slavery in Egypt. Whenever they are told not to forget the evil that had been done to them it was usually in the context of a social justice command. Take for example Deut. 24:17,18: "Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord you God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this." In other words, "Don't forget what it's like to be under someone's thumb in order to make sure that you never turn around and do the same thing to someone else."

Living here in the Balkans I've seen first-hand the danger of the wrong kind of remembering. Members of every ethnic group have committed enough atrocities against one another that everyone has something terrible to remember; everyone can justify the hatred that his group nurses; everyone can see his people as the victims and the others as the aggessors. Remember when you were a kid and you got into a fight with your sibling and your parents intervened and you and your sibling both said, "But s/he started it!"? As a parent I know how tricky it can be to sort how who really started it and what exactly constitutes "starting it". Much of the debate among Balkans people seems to me to come down to a deadly, grown-up version of "Who started it?". Memories are the chips with which this high stakes game is played.

I want to be careful not to be misunderstood here. I'm not trying to suggest that all parties in the recent Balkan wars were equally guilty or that all atrocities were equally atrocious. I certainly don't want to feed that arrogant American attitude which says, "Those guys have been killing one another for thousands of years. If it's not one it's the other. Why should we care?" This kind of statement is not only unbearably smug but also historically inaccurate. The truth is that in the Balkan wars of the 1990s I believe that the Serbs were the primary aggressors, but the point I'm getting at here is that I don't think that we Americans are willing to admit how much we have in common with them. Both of us have caused a lot of devastation in the name of fighting Islamic fundamentalism -- and ultimately fueled its fires.

As September 11 rolls around again, by all means, let's remember. Let's remember the destruction, the economic disruption, the national trauma and humiliation, the suffering of thousands who were injured and maimed, and the anguish of tens of thousands who lost family members in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And as we remember let's repent of the fact that our very first response was to turn around and inflict the very same destruction and death on someone else.

I'll close with a 9/11 quote -- this one from September 11, 1915. It's by Stanley Frodsham, a Pentecostal pioneer and an early editor of The Weekly Evangel (the forerunner of Today's Pentecostal Evangel.)
When one comes into that higher kingdom and becomes a citizen of the ‘holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9), the things that pertain to earth should forever lose their hold, even that natural love for the nation where one happened to be born, and loyalty to the new King should swallow up all other loyalties. …National pride, like every other form of pride, is abomination in the sight of God. And pride of race must be one of the all things that pass away when one becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus. . . . When seen from the heavenly viewpoint, how the present conflict is illumined...The policy of our God is plainly declared in the Word, "Peace on earth, good will toward me." Stanley H. Frodsham, “Our Heavenly Citizenship,” The Weekly Evangel, 11 September 1915, 3, quoted in Shifiting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God by Paul Alexander.

As followers of the Prince of Peace, we must make sure that our remembering is not poisoned by national pride. If it is, we will only perpetuate the evil that was perpetrated on us.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

AK47 stories: A fright at night, a chuckle in the daylight

Once when we were living in Peja, Kosova I got into a heated discussion with the imam of our local mosque.  We were on our way home one night and stopped by a kiosk near our house to buy something.  There was a mosque just across the street, and the imam,  spotting the name of our organization on the side of my car, came out to speak to me.  I kept trying to lower the temperature of the discussion, but hewas really angry.  "Go back to America!" he shouted at me.

When we got home I went to bed and Mary stayed up reading for a while in the living.  The power was on that night, and the living room had a big plate-glass window facing the street.  Suddenly there was a burst of automatic gunfire on the street outside.  Of course gunfire was pretty common in those days, but this time it was so close it shook the windows!  Honestly, it sounded as though it were inside!

Mary is not a fearful person by any stretch, but her first thought was, "Uh-oh, Mark really ticked that imam off this time!"  Not wanting to present too tempting a target, she crawled across the floor to the light switch, switched it off, then joined me in bed.  

We didn't hear any more shots that night, and the next day Mary casually brought it up in conversation with a neighbor.  "Did you hear some shooting last night?"

"Oh yeah", the neighbor responded.  "The kid down the street got circumcised, so they were just celebrating.  

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

AK47 Stories

Peja, New Year's 2000 – Y2K, YWAM, and AK47s

Remember the Y2K hysteria accompanying the dawn of the new millennium? There were predictions of massive power outages; a total breakdown of communication, banking and postal systems; even civil unrest. I found the whole thing mildly amusing. The worst case scenario for our friends back in the States was just everyday life in Kosova in the aftermath of the war.

We were surrounded by danger and destruction, but it was a heady time. My friend Nezir asked me whether we would be traveling home to America for the New Year. “Why would I want to do that?” I asked him. “In America a number is rolling over. But for my Kosovar Albanian brothers, this is really a historic moment – their first New Year of freedom.” (This was all true, but I failed to mention another factor: traveling back to the States was totally out of the question for financial reasons.)

There was a team of Youth With a Mission volunteers working in our town then, so we invited them to ring in the new millenium with us. Predictably the power went out early in the evening. We ate dinner downstairs in the kitchen where the wood stove kept us warm, then went upstairs to the living room to party, but it was just too cold to do much celebrating. We sat down on the sofas and covered ourselves with everything we could find – including the big fake sheepskin couch covers. We lit a butane lantern and sang praise songs for a while. Most of us ended up drifting off to sleep, but we all woke up just before midnight to the sound of -- You guessed it! -- AK47 fire. We all ran out on the balcony to watch the tracers lighting up the night sky.

We were discussing the danger of falling bullets* when a series of tracers came arcing over our house. All of a sudden we heard a loud THUNK as a metal object struck the car below us. We didn’t stop to ask what it was. We were all pretty sure we knew. We all ran back into the house saying, “Man, did you hear that? That was a close call!” We laughed and joked a bit about our narrow escape, but it really had shaken us up a bit. When we settled down a bit, the leader of the YWAM team, who was a great practical joker, pulled a AA battery out of his shirt pocket and said with a straight face, “Are you sure it wasn’t just one of these?” We laughed some more as we understood then that we had been had.

* I saw that episode of Mythbusters where they debunked the idea that a bullet falling straight down can be lethal. But it’s still a fact that when people start getting crazy and careless with AK47s, someone can get killed. In Albania in 1997 (See the earlier post.) the mother of a friend of mine was no her balcony cooking dinner when she was struck by a stray bullet. She died on the way to the hospital.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Putting things in perspective

I've got a couple more AK47 stories to share, but I want to pause today to commemorate the Fourth of Julyby posting the lyrics to Ben Shive's song 'The 4th of July" from his wonderful album, the Ill-Tempered Klavier.

The first star of the evening
Was singing in the sky
High above our blanket in the park

And by the twilight’s gleaming
On the 4th day of July
The city band played on into the dark

And then a canon blast
A golden flame unfolding
Exploded in a momentary bloom

The pedals fell and scattered
Like ashes on the ocean
As another volley burst into the blue

But the first star of the evening never moved

We stood in silence
The young ones and the old
As the bright procession passed us by

A generation dying
Another being born
A long crescendo played out in the sky


This nation, indivisible
Will perish from the Earth
As surely as the leaves must change and fall

And the band will end the anthem
To dust she will return
So the sun must set on all things, great and small

But the first star of the evening
Will outlive them all

Friday, June 26, 2009

AK 47 Stories: Peja, Kosova. Flag Day. Saturday, November 28, 1999.

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep…” Genesis 1:2

Kosova was a bit like that that first winter after the war – cold, dark, and chaotic. Mary was 7 months pregnant when we moved there. When it came time to give birth, we couldn’t count on heat and running water at the hospital near our house in Peja, so we went down to Greece. Luke was born by c-section at St. Luke’s Hospital in the town of Panorama near Thessaloniki. My parents met us there and came back to Kosova with us a few days after the birth.

We got back to find a thin dusting of snow on the ground. The power was out so I gathered bits of wood from the rubble of burned houses that choked our street to use as kindling to start a fire in the wood stove. My mom, who had grown up without electricity, had no trouble preparing a wonderful Thanksgiving meal – turkey and all.

Three days later was Albanian Flag Day. For Kosovar Albanians it was the first flag day of freedom, and boy did they celebrate! They didn’t have fireworks. (A lot of them didn’t even have houses; they were living in UNHCR tents.) But the one thing they did have was AK47s and plenty of ammunition. All day long there was uninterrupted gunfire.

The next day my dad was going to preach, and I was going to translate for him. We had decided to go through the sermon together ahead of time to make sure that I knew how to say everything that he intended to say. While we were doing this, there was a sudden burst of gunfire so close and so loud that it rattled the plate glass window that we were standing in front of. “Umm, would we be more comfortable doing this lying down on the ground?” my dad quipped.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Albania 1997 evacuation
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

AK 47 stories: Albania 1997

Mary and I had been in Albania 2 years. Lydia was 10 months old. In the poverty and instability that followed the fall of Communism a number of pyramid schemes had been flourishing in Albania. Money was pouring into the country in the form of remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Albanians who had fled to Italy, Greece, and elsewhere. Their relatives on the receiving end of all that cash were “investing” it in the new “companies”. As people saw the neighbors getting rich, no one wanted to be left out. This capitalism thing was turning out to be lot easier than anyone had thought. Then in the spring of ’97 it all came crashing down, and the nation was enraged. Many accused the government of having stolen their money.

Unrest began in the South of the country and began spreading towards the capital Tirana where we lived. For some reason disgruntled citizens decided to express their discontent by looting the military arsenals. Suddenly the country was awash with weapons. Teenagers were taking tanks for joy rides. Children were playing with hand grenades. And of course, there were a lot of AK47s floating about – hundreds of thousands of them.

Our team leader Rodney Tilley had the foresight to get the moms and kids on our team out before things really got out of control. Mary, Lydia, and others flew to Greece and were taken in by AoG colleagues at a campground outside Athens. A few of us stayed behind hoping things would settle down.

March 12, 1997 was the most memorable birthday of my life so far – the day that the rising tide of anarchy engulfed Tirana. Instead of birthday candles I witnessed the terrible beauty tracer bullets arcing across the evening sky like bright red shooting stars in reverse as everyone in town tried out his new toy. It didn’t take long before the game turned deadly. During the weeks and months that followed there was widespread looting, rape and murder. However, there were many more victims of stray gunfire than of criminal intent.

Rodney decided that those of us who were still there needed to join our colleagues in Greece. Our passports were worth thousands of dollars on the black market; AK47s, by contrast, were selling on the street for $5, and ammo was free. Some of our Albanian brothers would probably give their lives to defend us if necessary, but it wasn’t fair to ask that of them when we could just leave. When Mary and Lydia had left they had taken only an overnight bag apiece. Not knowing when (if ever) we would be able to return, it was quite a challenge to whittle my luggage down to the airline’s allowance.

Then someone started taking potshots at airplanes coming and going from the Tirana airport, and the airport shut down. At this point the U.S. government decided to send the marines in to get Americans out. I was told that they would allow only a single carry-on bag per person. The airline's limit suddenly seemed generous. I stuffed my one bag with personal documents, photographs (This was before the digital era.) and a change of clothes.

Our team leader ordered me to move into the international church where I had been doing youth ministry. With a tall iron gate and a full-time security guard, he felt that the church was a lot more secure than my house. That evening the security guard called me to share his dinner. I politely declined at first. “You have to!” he insisted with a twinkle in his eye. “We’re fellow war veterans now.” We sat down together in the big empty church and ate bread; strong, white cheese; and a boiled egg apiece.

Later that evening some guy in California called to check on a friend of his who worked with the International Church. He was watching on CNN as the British navy was preparing to conduct an evacuation from the port city of Durres, about 45 minutes from Tirana. He urged me to make my way to Durres, assuring me that the Brits wouldn’t refuse to take an American passport holder. I declined, preferring to stay in Tirana and wait on my own government to get me out.

Not that I felt all that safe there. The church had computers and lots of musical equipment, so I was expecting looters to show up at any time. Eventually a young man with an AK47 did show up at the church, but he wasn’t a looter. He was the rebel of my youth group. (Anyone who’s ever done youth ministry knows that there’s a rebel in every group.) “Hey Mark, would you like to shoot my gun?” he asked. I refused. “Well why don’t you come home with me?" he said. "I’ll protect you!” Again, I refused. (The church was eventually looted, but it happened weeks after I left. Surprisingly, most of the stolen items were eventually recovered.)

I set up a cot in the attic, but I didn’t get much sleep. The chorus of AK47 fire swelled and fell but never ceased. It reminded me of a chorus of dogs barking all over the city, calling out to one another and answering. There on the attic I could hear the occasional bullet pinging off the roof. It occurred to me that it would be a terrible night for any poor bird trying to fly over the city.

This was before the era of cell phones (at least in Albania), and the missionary community relied on 2-way radios for communication. I listened in horror as a nightmare scenario unfolded on the dock in Durres for those who had participated in the British evacuation. The landing craft was overwhelmed by Albanians, who were just as desperate to get out as anyone else. It ended up being forced to pull back leaving a mix of frightened ex-pats and angry locals on the shore. The British government had organized a convoy of vehicles to transport its citizens from Tirana to the port, and all these vehicles were taken as a consolation prize by local thugs who had failed to get on board the ship. With their cars gone and their rescue boat unable to dock, the Brits and other foreigners spent the most terrifying night of their lives there on the dock. One missionary was grazed in the head by a stray bullet. I talked to others who had to be treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the experience.

(By the way, years later I hosted a short-term team from the States, and the team leader turned out to be the guy who had called from California and urged me to join the British evacuation. I had the chance to tell him in person what bad advice he had given and how thankful I was not to have taken it!)

The next day the rebel of the youth group showed up again and invited me for a coffee. Amazingly, we actually found a cafĂ© open. We were sitting there under an awning sipping our cappuccinos when the American helicopters came flying over. They were enormous, very loud, and flying very low. They looked like ships crossing the sky, one after the other. Everyone stopped shooting and whatever else they were doing and stared at the sky. I turned to my friend and said, “I think my ride’s here. I’ll see you later.”

The evacuation was conducted from the US embassy housing compound, the perimeter of which was well secured by heavily armed young Marines. The order and discipline inside was in sharp contrast to the fiasco in Durres the evening before and the chaos all around us. Before loading us on the helicopters, the Marines offered us juice and doughnuts, diapers, and medical assistance for whomever needed it. They also put a stamp in our passports which required us to reimburse the government for the expense of airlifting us out. If we failed to do so, our passports would become invalid. All things considered, it wasn’t a lot of money – about $300 if my memory serves me correctly.

One of Marines was carrying a big rocket launcher or some such thing on his shoulder, and a fellow evacuee asked him, “What’s that?”

“Sir,” he deadpanned, “That’s in case we need a large hole in something.”

The helicopters dropped us off on the USS Nassau, which was waiting in the Adriatic. There was a table set up for registration and orientation, and there were even postcards for sale with a picture of the ship. Amazed, I asked the guy who was signing me in, “How many evacuations have you guys done?”

“This is the first one, sir, but we practice this all the time!” he replied.

The ship docked in Brindisi, Italy. From there my teammates and I made our way by ferry then bus to join the rest of the team near Athens. After waiting there a couple of weeks it became apparent that the situation was going to remain unsettled for some time. We decided to return to the States for fundraising a year earlier than we had planned. But before doing so, we made an exploratory trip to Macedonia, which would become our next place of service.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

AK 47 stories

Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

Last time I went to get my hair cut, my barber told me that he had seen a clip of me on the internet shooting an AK47 assault rifle. This came as quite a shock to me. I did shoot an AK47 once, but I hadn’t been aware that the incident had been filmed. I have a couple of photos on my laptop, which I’ve shown to friends, but I’ve been very careful to keep those pictures off the web. My barber said that he found the clip by googling “AK47 kallash”. (“Kallash” is the Albanian nickname for the AK47 Kalashnikov.) I tried this and didn’t find anything, so I don’t know whether or not the incriminating footage is really out there or my barber was mistaken. Anyway, this incident got me thinking about my AK47 encounters here in the Balkans. I’ve decided to post some of those stories, so keep watching this spot in the days to come.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mavrovo church

Mavrovo church
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun

God outlives the houses we build for Him.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Deja vu from a Muslim sermon

When I was a child, family devotions was a daily ritual in our house.  My father, who has most of the New Testament committed to memory (Seriously!) was really big on memorization.  In addition to scripture memory he sometimes had us memorize poems -- like this one for example.  Another of the poems I remember learning was called "If Jesus Came to Your House." Click  here to read the text.

Last Friday I was riding around in my new STL car listening to a Muslim sermon on a local Albanian radio station.  Preaching just as passionately as any Pentecostal I've heard, the imam posed a strangely familiar question: "What would you do if Muhammad came to your house?" Although this version wasn't delivered in rhyming couplets, the similarities were almost too striking to be coincidental. 

"Would you put away your worldy magazines and blow the dust off the Qu'ran?" the imam asked.

Would you hide the alcohol?

Would you switch off the soap operas?

Would you turn off the techno music? (At this point in the sermon I turned to the young Albanian riding with me.  "So Muhammad doesn't like techno?"  "Apparently not," he chuckled.)

Would you change your modern European clothes?"

Both the Christian and Muslim versions seemed to reflect a fairly shallow spirituality.  But to give credit where credit is due the Muslim version at least gave a nod to social justice, challenging the listener to consider whether he would help the poor neighbor that he had heretofore ignored. I looked back at the text just to make sure, but the Christian version is sadly lacking any reference to loving the neighbor.