Even When It Hurts?

Sometimes You Just Got To Keep Going

Have you ever planned to do something that you were just positive was the right thing to do only to find when you got started that nothing was going right? At those times you start to second guess yourself wondering if you misinterpreted the circumstances,  or were acting out a role meant for someone else. You contemplate cutting your loses and quitting, feeling deep down that if you were actually supposed to be doing this thing that it would be a whole lot easier, and without all the obstacles. It is what you do at that moment that is often a life defining experience. Whatever your decision is at this crossroad you will always have a tendency to fall back on that decision and repeat it. I am constantly having to be reminded of a Proverb that says, “A man of integrity will do what is right even when it hurts.” I have tried to instill this teaching in my kids, but ultimately it still falls to me to persevere when things don’t go as planned.

It would be best, at this point, to begin my story with how things were planned to go. The goal was to go by myself and set up a dental clinic in a Gypsy community in Korça, Albania with my friend Ardi who is an Albanian dentist from Tirana, Albania. I was planning on flying United to Chicago, and connect to fly to Washington D.C., and from there fly to Milan, Italy, and then into Tirana. From there Ardi and I were planning to drive to Korça in the southeast part of the country, which before the roads were improved used to take about five hours. That was the plan.

The plan, however, began to crumble before I even left Wichita. My wife, Karen dropped me off at the airport on a Sunday morning, and then went to church. I checked into my United Airlines flight to Chicago about two hours early as is customary when international flights are part of the itinerary, but when I arrived at my gate I noticed that my aircraft was not present. I didn’t think too much about it until I realized that there was still no plane and the departure time was in fifteen minutes. The aircraft finally arrived, people disembarked, hope was building. My departure time came and went, and finally after twenty minutes a United employee informed us that the flight was cancelled due to the fact that because the flight was so late the crew had timed out and could not fly again, and there was no other crew available. I had traveled enough to know that these things happen, but the problem was that I needed to catch a flight from Washington D.C. by 5 PM to fly to Milan. I casually stood in the now long line of fairly cranky people waiting to talk to the airline representative. When I finally reached the counter I did everything I could to remain calm and nice while I explained to her that I needed to catch a flight in Washington D.C. at 5 PM to Milan. She looked over my documents, and said she would do her best to get me to Washington on time. She then took my ticket and rerouted me through Denver, Colorado explaining to me that the flight for Denver was leaving in just fifteen minutes. From there I would have a ticket to Washington D.C. waiting for me at the United service counter.

I ran to the Denver gate knowing the chances that my luggage and equipment making this flight was pretty small. I was the last to board before the doors were closed. I don’t know about you, but I have always hated flying in the opposite direction from where I am going, and Denver is a little over four hundred miles in the wrong direction. When I arrived at the United service desk to get my ticket to Washington D.C. the United representative looked at me as if I had a booger hanging out of my nose or something. They had no idea of what I was talking about. It seems the Wichita person got so busy with other customers that she forgot to contact the Denver people and tell them I needed a ticket to Washington. This was before e-tickets. The Denver people politely informed me that they had no seats available on this flight, but that I could catch one later on in the evening. Of course that wasn’t going to work, but I remained calm and nice, and asked them to let me know if there was a cancellation because flights from Milan to Tirana were only a couple of times a week, which meant I wasn’t going to get to Albania until the end of the week.

It wasn’t the first time I had prayed, but I prayed at that moment that something would be worked out. The flight to Washington was beginning to board, and I looked anxiously toward the attendant who then motioned for me to come over. I was so excited when I was handed a ticket in first class, and thanked God immediately. As I was waiting in line in the gangway I heard my name being mispronounced in a way that I had never heard before from a United attendant who was pushing through the line from behind to reach me. He apologized profusely that a mistake had been made, and that I would not be sitting in first class, but—yes, you may have guessed it—in the very back row next to the toilets in the seats that don’t recline. At this point I was thankful for a seat, and barring any other problems I would make it to Washington D.C. in time to connect with my flight to Milan.

When I arrived in Tirana I found that my friend Ardi was not feeling well, but he was still game enough to go with me to Korça. I had left all the arrangements to him since he said he had a place to stay in Korça with an uncle. I had planned to meet the father of a friend of mine who was in our English Club in Wichita. His father, Qani (pronounced, Chany), lived in a town on the way to Korça, and Ardi and I were to meet up with him for lunch. I had spent time with Qani before and it was great to see him again. He was excited to hear news about his son and family back in the States. He wanted to take us to a restaurant along the shores of Lake Orhid so that we could eat Koran, a trout found only in this lake and one other lake in Russia. As we entered the restaurant Ardi began to feel even worse and asked Qani if he could take me the rest of the way to Korça while he went on a head to rest at his uncle’s house. This was perfectly fine with both of us. The only problem was that Qani spoke no English, and I only spoke a little Albanian, but we were both great at Charades. After lunch Qani said he had to do some business back in his town and asked if I could wait for him at the restaurant.

I waited for over two hours for Qani to return. I began to worry that something had happened to him. I began to realize just how vulnerable I was. I had no minutes on my cell phone yet, no automobile, and no command of the language. I prayed again, and finally Qani arrived and drove me the rest of the hour and a half to Korça.

I went into a store and bought minutes for my phone, and called Ardi. He still had a head ache, but was resting. He then asked where I was staying…What??? I said I thought I was staying with him to which he replied that since I had friends in Korça—again family members from my English Club—he assumed I already had a place to stay and when he said he would make arrangements he meant he would make arrangements for himself, and that I didn’t need to worry about him. Isn’t language differences GREAT! I quickly called my non-English speaking friend Imi, who has family in our English Club. Imi was surprised to hear from me since he had been told by his sister in America that I had made other arrangements. I told him of my predicament, and he cordially invited me to stay in his home. Ardi and I arranged to meet at a statue near his uncle’s house the next morning so we could go set up the clinic in the Gypsy community.

The next morning I walked to the statue and waited. I noticed that Ardi’s car was not in front of his uncle’s house, but I just assumed he had parked it off the street somewhere. So I waited… and I waited… and I waited. I finally called Ardi on his cell only to get his uncle who spoke no English, but I knew enough Albanian to figure out that Ardi had fallen down the stairs the night before, and was in the hospital, and that he would not be able to help me.

To say I prayed implies that I quietly implored the God I have put all my faith in to help me. So I won’t say I prayed. What I did was I sat down on the base of that bird-poop covered statue, and basically had a little melt-down to my Heavenly Father. I was speaking out loud and had many passers-by stare at me as if I was a raving lunatic babbling in a strange language. I vented that from the very beginning this trip had been a disaster, and that I thought God had wanted me to do it, but obviously He didn’t, and that if things didn’t get better, I was going to go home. I had no sooner finished my little temper tantrum, when another friend Dori, who worked with Campus Crusade for Christ drove by, recognized me, and asked if I needed help. I told him what I was doing and what had happened to Ardi, and that I needed a ride to the Gypsy village. I hadn’t even contacted Dori that I was coming to Albania.

WOW! An instantaneous answer to prayer despite my whiny attitude. But, hey, it is not about me. It is about God and His Glory—see earlier posts on that subject. Dori helped me set the clinic up. He introduced me to the leaders of the community, and he stayed with me until I was settled in. He and his wife, Sabina, even invited me to stay with them for the next three nights. As it turned out this was one of the most productive missions I have had. It was during this time that I was able to take part in the Gypsy music that one night I told the story about in the post, Under the Stars at Night.

I learned a lot during that trip. For one thing I learned that I needed to learn more Albanian. I learned from then on that I needed to charge my cell phone with minutes as soon as I arrive in country. I learned how to keep my head in tough situations. I learned that I can never take anything for granted, and that I must always depend on God to accomplish His mission through me.  I also learned that God never promised that serving Him was going to be easy. In fact, He promised that it is going to be hard. My friend Ardi remained in the hospital for the duration of the time I was in Korça, but in the end he recovered completely. The adversity during this mission was just another building block in my foundation. I don’t think I would have wanted it any other way—except for Ardi getting hurt of course.

May God Bless you until next time!

Under The Stars At Night

Great Memories Can Help Sustain Us

My favorite time during the day in Albania has always been evening and night time. I am typically there in the heat of the summer, and the strain of meeting the villagers, setting up either a film showing or a dental clinic, and getting from one village to the next many times by walking has always made me look forward to the end of the day. Some of my fondest memories are times when I was sitting out under the stars with my team mates.

In 1998, I was on a Jesus Film team with Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as CRU, in the central hills of Albania. This was the same year I was in Albania at the time the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed, which I wrote about in a previous post, Protection/Albania. The year before, in 1997, Albania had suffered through a civil war after a pyramid scheme collapsed and 80% of the population lost nearly everything that they had. At that time a very large number of weapons ended up in the hands of the civilian population, and it was not uncommon to see people walking around with AK-47’s draped over their shoulders.

As we would be showing the film in a different village every night, our team often sat on the equipment boxes and gazed up at the stars in absolute awe of their beauty. That year, however, every night there could be heard the cak-cak-cak sound of the AK-47’s being shot off in neighboring villages, and surrounding hillsides. It was usually easy to locate the source by watching the streak of tracer bullets arching into night sky. Our Albanian team mates, Besi, Ari, and Lindita, would try to make Dennis and Terri, and me feel better by calmly commenting that the automatic weapons were being shot off at weddings near by. Of course we knew that no weddings were being conducting out in the middle of those hills, but I think the thought of the possibility of a wedding had a comforting effect on our Albanian friends as well. It is unfortunate that people actually were killed in those days by random bullets falling out of the sky. What goes up must come down, as the saying goes. But it did become a standing joke for us, that whenever we heard the shots and saw the tracer bullets we would nudge whoever was standing close, and knowingly exclaim with a nod of our chins in the general direction, “Wedding.”

The evening is also when the shepherds and children tending the cattle would bring their animals in for the night. The farmers were coming in from the fields, and everyone would be ready to kick back and enjoy the coolness after the sunset. It was at these times that I sat with the villagers and we would just talk. We talked about our families, and what life was like in America and Albania.  Sometimes we would talk about what I believed, and sometimes we would talk about what they believed. They would tell me of their religion, or superstitions, or local legends, myths, and old wives-tales. From these times I gleaned a great deal of information that I used to help me write my novel, Vale of Shadows, which is a suspense thriller with a supernatural twist set in the Balkans. You can check out the hyperlink at the top of the page.

Evening was also a time of singing and dancing. Many of the Albanian villages I have been to sang and danced as families, but I actually was privileged to take part in a sing and dance in a Gypsy community after I had closed up the dental clinic for the night. I went out and sat on a bench with a young Roma that had been helping me in the clinic. The moon was brilliantly full, the spring night air was soothing, and before long the clan brought out their instruments and played and danced. I never really got the hang of it, but I had fun trying. I don’t know how many other gadjos—non-Gypsies—have ever gotten the chance to experience that kind of fun, but it is an amazing memory.

One of my favorite memories comes from the summer of 1998. I was sharing the projector box as a seat with Besi during the film showing in one village. She was originally from Peshkopi, a town in the northeastern mountains, and she looked up at the star constellations and said that each of the stars of the Big Dipper represented a member of her family. Besi was seventeen at the time, and like the rest of us maybe a little home sick. She said whenever she looked at those stars it reminder her to pray for her family back home. It was, and still is a beautiful idea. That night I chose the North Star to represent my wife Karen, and I chose the five stars of Cassiopeia to represent my five children. On every mission trip I have been on since that time I  have always looked for the North Star and Cassiopeia to remind me to pray for my family back home. I later that night before the film was over pointed out a star in the Big Dipper, which is also clearly seen from my hometown, and told Besi that whenever I saw that star in the night sky I would remember to pray for her, and her family. Over the years different stars have been assigned to other mission partners of mine, so that when I see those stars I am reminded to pray for my friends around the world. To this day I will often be out running at night and I will look up and see these stars and think of my friends who live in so many different time zones. I will wonder how their day has gone, and how their families are doing, and I will pray that all is going well for them. It is a pleasant reminder of the good times we had together.

And now To my dear friend Besiana who lost her most influential star this week—the other night was clear and bright in my hometown. I went outside and found your star in the Big Dipper, and prayed a prayer for strength and encouragement for you and your family. I pray that the wonderful memories you have of your dad will ease your sorrow today. I pulled out his book of poems that he gave me. Another fond memory. I am grateful that I got to know him. With a grateful heart for your friendship over the years, Të dua shumë, motra ime e vogel.

May God Bless you all until next time!

Dispelling Doubt

I Almost Missed Out on a Blessing!

Following God is a process of developing a relationship with Him. Although His  gift of eternal life and forgiveness of sins through His Son Jesus Christ is free to us, we are the ones who must choose to accept it. We are the ones who must choose to believe it. When we do choose to accept it and believe it we must understand that we then begin a whole new adventure in trusting God that grows and strengthens throughout the rest of our lives. It doesn’t happen over night. There isn’t a magic formula. As we adjust our lives to be more obedient to Him we grow stronger and more confident in our relationship with Him. It is a process, and as I have stated before, I am very much still vitally in the process. What does this mean? How does this translate into my daily life? It basically means I do not know everything! I don’t have all the answers! I don’t have it all figured out! I still have doubts! But I am learning to trust in the One who is trustworthy. This story actually happened in a village in south central Albania. Despite my doubt and inadequacies God was glorified by His own hand, and that is what it is all supposed to be about in the first place.

One afternoon as our team was  going from house to house in a village to invite people to come watch the Jesus Film in the town center that night we came to a house that had a crowd of people on the front porch and on the front lawn. It was obvious that the house was also full. As I walked up through the crowd a man approached me and said that we could not come into the house because there was a woman dying inside. We gave our condolences, apologized for the intrusion and respected the man’s wishes and left. As we did so we said a prayer for the woman and the family, and then went on to the next house.

We had a great number of the villagers come to the film showing that night, and afterward our team was split up with the guys and girls in two different houses for a meal and a place to sleep. The next morning we were on our way to the next village with all of our equipment tied to the backs of two horses, and two young men from the first village leading us. As I walked along side one of the young men leading a horse I was excited to learn that the night before he had prayed during the film to become a follower of Jesus. He then stated that he was a friend of the family of the woman who was dying the day before, and that he was in her house when we arrived. He told me that the woman had wished that we had come in to see her because she was very afraid of death, and she wanted to here what we had to say. I asked him if she was still alive and he said that she was, but that they expected her to die at any moment. I felt this panic come over me like I had missed an important appointment. I immediately pulled our team together in the middle of the road, including the two young men, and we prayed that God would give the woman life until we could get back to the village. We had already been walking for nearly two hours and we were nearly to our next village, so we decided to trust God to honor our prayer and we went on.

By the time we got back to the woman’s house it was late in the evening of the forth day since our initial visit. I went with only my co-leader, Arnida, and when we arrived at the house we found four people sitting on the front porch. We approached timidly, but an elderly man beckoned for us to come up and sit with them. He said that they had been expecting us. This in itself was mind-boggling to say the least. The man was sitting with his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, and his wife. All stood and greeted us in the typical Albanian fashion except for the wife who remained motionless under a heavy pile of blankets. As Arnida and I sat down across from her we could see that her complexion was pale and ghastly, and she had very dark circles around her eyes. Her husband explained to us that she had an inoperable stomach cancer, and the doctors had sent her home to die. He went on to tell us that she had stopped eating several days ago. He then repeated what the young man had told us on the road, that she was afraid to die. With tear in his eyes he asked if we would pray for her to be healed.

Now this is were the story shifts to my own lack of trust. I have read over and over again about how Jesus healed people in the Bible. I have read about how His followers also healed people in Jesus’ name, and I absolutely believe every word of it. My problem was in knowing my own weakness and failings, and feeling like why on earth would God chose to use someone like me. I was at a real crisis of belief. I didn’t want to promise the man something that I could not deliver, nor did I want to get his hopes up if his wife was going to die anyway. As you can see even though I have been a follower of Jesus for many years I am still a mess. But… the great news is it is not about me! It is about God and His glory!

I looked over at Arnida who was watching me expectantly. I said to her, “Arnida, I need to have you translate my prayer word for word.” She nodded her affirmation, and I turned to the man and said that I could only pray that God’s will would be done. I then watched as everyone present, including the dying woman,  immediately bowed their heads. I paused for a moment which made Arnida squint up at me with one eye open and say, “You need to pray NOW!”

I am not going to repeat my prayer because there were no magic words, just a simple plea to Almighty God to heal this woman for His glory, a simple prayer broken into short phrases for Arnida to translate. After I finished I was too afraid to look up at the woman, so I slowly opened my eyes and turned toward the husband. I had no sooner done this than he grabbed my hand in a vise like grip. I saw his mouth drop open and his eyes grow wide as he stared in the direction of his wife. I slowly panned the brother-in-law, and sister-in-law before my gaze came to the woman. Arnida’s response was Lavdi Zoti, which means Praise the Lord in Albanian. There in front of us was the woman sitting up from her slouch. The blankets had been tossed off. Her complexion was clear and the dark circles were gone from around her eyes. She ran her fingers through her hair and exclaimed, “The breeze is so pleasant coming off the river this evening.

The husband leapt to bis wife and embraced her with tears running down his cheek. They all hugged and kissed and cried, and then… turned their attention to Arnida and me. The husband said, “You must tell us more about God. We were told that there is no God, but now we know the truth. I was overwhelmed. I was speechless. The power of God that I had had faith in since I was a kid was tangibly manifested right before my eyes. I suddenly felt foolish and ashamed for my own doubt, and my own selfishness thinking that the out come had anything to do with me.

We talked until well after dark. The couple wanted a Bible, which we had back in our gear at the house we were to staying in that night. The husband asked if we could come back tomorrow with a Bible at 8 AM. I really don’t remember the rest of that night. Arnida and I were absolutely buzzing with excitement. She went to the home of the women and I went to the home of the guys to find that villagers  who were followers of Jesus had been praying the whole time that we were at the woman’s home. WOW!!! God has a plan to bring glory to Himself. What a humbling honor to get to witness His power.

The next morning Arnida and I walked up to the house with several Bibles under our arms. We found the healed woman wearing a dress, her hair was done up, and she was sweeping the front porch. When she saw us she stopped sweeping and came down the steps and hugged and kissed Arnida and me. Her husband bound down the steps—yes, bound down the steps—and embraced us and begged us to come into his home. He proudly pointed at his wife and said, “She ate a good supper last night, and a good breakfast this morning. God has been so good to us!”

We entered the home to find the living room packed with relatives and friends—some who had come from other villages. The husband introduced me as simply Robi, and then said, “They have come to here about God.”

I don’t know why some people are healed and why some people are not. All I know is what I witnessed that day. God chose to heal this woman in this small village in south central Albania, and because He did a whole lot of people became followers of Jesus. My process of developing a relationship with God and trust in Him completely took a huge leap forward that day. I pray that you too will see your life in the perspective of God’s Glory.

May God Bless you until next time!

“Nakedness Causes Creativity”

Making Do With What You’ve Got

Kazakhstan, Kenya, Liberia, Turkey

First of all I want to thank my loyal fans of this weblog. I now have readers from many different countries, on every continent in the world except Antarctica. If you live in Antarctica, I am sorry— please let me know anyway.

The other day I needed to find out how to change the batteries in my car’s key fob. It wasn’t obvious just looking at it so I decided to try and find out how to do it on the Internet. I found a great video made by the manufacturers of my car, and I was able to easily change the batteries. I made the comment to one of my team members at my office, “How did we ever live before the Internet?” There are a lot of things that are easy for me, living in America, that I know are not so easy for many of my friends in other parts of the world. I do not take that for granted! I have never claimed to know everything, but I do claim that I am a student, and as such I have learned so much from people of other cultures, and it has made my life better. And one of the biggest lessons has been that there are sometimes a number of ways to get a job done.

I had gone to Kazakhstan to set up a dental clinic in a number of places. My equipment is very efficient, and what I call “donkey-able”— meaning that it is portable enough to tie to the back of a donkey. I bought it in the U.S.A., which meant that I needed to use a step-down transformer to run my 110 Volt equipment on the available 220 Volt in Kazakhstan. The first morning that our team began seeing patients we burned out all of our fuses we had for the step-down transformer. We would no sooner get started when another fuse would blow. Realizing that these fuses were not available in Kazakhstan we asked our Kazakh friends if they knew where we could get another transformer. They shrugged and said no, but they believed they could fix the transformer that I had. They quickly stripped a wire down to the copper filaments, and then removed the burned out fuse from the transformer. Carefully they wound three copper wire strands around one end of the fuse and then threaded it to the other end wrapping a few loops and then pressing their modification down into the fuse receiver of the transformer. We crossed our fingers, actually we said a quick prayer, and flipped the switch. To our amazement the equipment sparked into life. We patted the guys on the backs with much adoration. One of the Kazakhs casually said, “Nakedness causes Creativity.” He went on to explain that under Communism they had to make due with what they had, and that caused them to become very creative in regards to fixing things. Now I know that all they really did was by-pass the fuse, which is not exactly safe, but it bought us enough time to finish with the patients that had already come to the clinic. We later found some Kazakh equipment that didn’t need a step-down transformer.

While Karen and I were on our first dental trip after the earthquakes in Turkey in 1999, I realized that I was not going to be able to find a dental vacuum system to use during the dental procedures. As we shopped in the city of Adapazzari we found a wet/dry Shop Vac. We bought it and I modified the main hose with little holes along the length of it to reduce the amount of the suction. I then attached the dental suction tube to the end with duct tape. Now I know what you are thinking—that sounds like a really dumb idea—and it was…admittedly. For one thing the noise of the motor was terrifyingly loud. It also had an enormous amount of suction despite the holes along the length of the hose. We tried to use it with only two patients before we came to the conclusion that it was a bone-headed idea, and we abandoned our foolishness. It was everything Karen, who was my chair side assistant at the time, could do just to steady the contraption with both hands. The whole experience was startling to say the least. If it wasn’t sucking up the patients lips and tongue, it was sucking up the bib around their necks. It was actually pretty funny, but we realized that these poor people had been traumatized enough by the earthquake, and they already had a phobea about being in our dental clinic, so we were certainly not helping by using this vacuum of the devil. We finished out our time in Turkey improvising with the good ol’ two cup standby. One used for rinsing and the other used for spitting. This method was far less terrifying, but we did have to be sure that the patients didn’t mix the cups up. “Now which one did I just…”

When I was in Liberia we set up a medical and dental clinic in a building that had no electricity. I asked if we could find a generator to use, and the Liberians said, “No problem.” I was thinking of trying to find a portable 800 Watt generator, but the next thing I knew the Liberians were climbing trees and running wire from the huge 45000 Watt generator a quarter of a mile away that operated the whole school compound. Without giving it another thought they chiseled a whole in the brick of the building and ran the wire through to the room I was going to be doing dentistry in. I told them that they shouldn’t have gone through so much trouble, but their response was, “You have come all the way from America. We want to make sure everything works.” I gotta tell ya, I love that kind of attitude.

After our meetings at a restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya this past December with the chief medical and dental officers about developing a permanent, full time health clinic in the Mathare Valley slum staffed by Kenyans, we came out into the parking lot to find that someone had parked directly behind our car blocking us in. The offensive vehicle was parked perpendicularly to our car, and none of the valets seemed to know who the driver was or where the keys were. After waiting in the hot sun for a few minutes, Keith who lives in Nairobi and was part of our meetings said simply, “Let’s move it.” He then called over four Kenyan business men who were having a conversation under the shade of a tree across the parking lot. They agreed to help and nonchalantly removed their business jackets, I likewise removed mine, and the seven of us got positioned under the front of the car and heaved it 45 degrees from its original resting place with the back tires squealing as they were dragged sideways across the hot pavement. I looked at Keith and said, “Does any one else think this is a bad idea?” He responded, “This is how we get things done over here.” Wallace was then able to eek his car through the gap with a quarter of an inch to spare on either side. There was no anger. No getting upset. No loss of temper for being inconvenienced. Just a clear cut decision to do what had to be done. I would have loved to see the face of the guy who parked that car when he came out to find it moved askew like that, but we didn’t wait around.

I do believe that nakedness does cause creativity. It can inspire a “can-do” attitude when you have to learn to make do with what you have, and you take the initiative to take care of the situation yourself. I have learned a lot from my friends around the world, and I believe it really has made me a better person.

May God Bless you until next time!

God Answers Prayer to Glorify Himself

I Need A Wife


My team went to a village in central Albania and was invited to have lunch in the home of the young mayor. This village was situated on a high hillside over looking a vast plains. It was a difficult village to get to, in fact it was the same village I wrote about telling the story of the man who had just got his drivers license in Travel Mercies. 

We sat in the mayor’s living room and talked about his village, and his family, and about our families. I was the only American on the team, and I was trying hard to learn Albanian from my team mates Thaol, Ida, and Alma. The mayor’s wife soon came in and brought us a typical Albanian lunch with tomatoes, and cucumbers. I asked if I could pray a blessing on the food and on their family for extending to us their hospitality, which had been my custom everywhere that I went. The mayor half-heartedly agreed to my request, but I could tell that he was a little nervous about the idea of praying at all. Ida translated my prayer into Albanian as I prayed in English. It was a simple prayer just asking God to bless the family for their hospitality to us.

As we spent time with the mayor the rest of the day we found that the village was tucked up under the lip of the crest of the hill, and because of the way the wind currents blew the village almost never got any rain. The wind would curl the clouds like waves forcing them out over the valley before they could drop their moisture over the valley below. The village also did not have a well. This, as you can imagine, caused a great many problems for the villagers. The mayor’s job was to travel with his horse and cart to the village at the base of the mountain and fill large barrels with water and then haul them back up the mountain for the villager’s drinking water, animals, and crops. This was a daily chore that consumed most of the mayor’s day.

After lunch Thaol and I went with the mayor on his trek by horse cart and helped him with the water barrels. As we were coming back up to the village I realized what an arduous  job this was, and I said a silent prayer that God would give these people rain.

We left the village the next day after showing the Jesus Film the night before, with an open invitation from the mayor to come back. [ For more information on the Jesus Film project—AERO—see previous posts]

We returned three days later by Land Rover, and were dropped off at the school, which we knew would be the quickest way to let the villagers know that we were back because the children would spot us and herald our coming. The village itself was built upon the steep slopes, and spread out across the hillside, but the energy of those mountain kids seemed to be unending as well as their willingness to spread the news.

We waited in the shade of the school for several minutes when an old man leaning on a knotted staff walked slowly up the hill toward us followed by a half a dozen of his sheep. I had not met him before, and I stood to greet him. Instead of just clasping my hand, the man pulled me into an embrace and alternately kissed me twice on each cheek, and said, “You are most welcome in our village.” He then greeted Thaol, Ida, and Alma cordially and proceeded to tell us that he was the father of the mayor, and that the mayor had told him I had prayed a blessing on their family and village. He said, “The day after you left we got rain. It was enough rain to last us for the rest of the summer.” He took my hands again and patted them fondly with tears in his eyes, and repeated, “You are most welcome.”

I looked around the village and saw what I had failed to see before. Cart and horse tracks were brimming with water along the path and roads. The play ground at the school was soggy, and I could see some of the crop terraces from were we stood pocked with water puddles. Our excitement nearly matched that of the old man. I quickly told him that it was God who had blessed their village with rain. He simply smiled and said, “I know. We are very grateful. Come.”

He then led us back to his son’s home. Our reception there was much as it had been at the school. We were invited to stay with the mayor for the next three days. In that time we met with some of the adults and children who were interested in hearing our stories about Jesus. Because of the rain nearly everyone in the village came to our story times at various times during the day.

One evening I was playing soccer, or fotbol, with some of the kids in the evening. The sun was beginning to set and the men began to come in from working in their fields or tending their livestock. I had not paid attention to what was going on behind me, but after a time I realized that I was being watched, and I slowly turned to see thirty men standing and observing me curiously. I greeted each of them, nervously with Ida by my side. The man who seemed to be their leader approached me after all the proper greetings were performed, and said, “So tell us how following Jesus has made your life better.”

I couldn’t believe he asked me that. So straightforward, and to the point. It was like a question out of an evangelism text book. I gave him my personal testimony, and then asked if he had questions. He said he had many questions and wanted to sit. The group of men sat in a circle with Ida and I in the place of scrutiny. They informed me that they were Bektashi Muslims, and that they wanted to know more about The Bible and what I believed. This curiosity  stemmed from the prayer of blessing and God’s answering with the uncommon rain the next day. We ended up talking for over three hours. We talked about Islam and Christianity, The Koran and The Bible, and about many issues that we all faced and had in common as men with families despite our different religions and cultures. By the time we had finished talking the group of thirty men had collapsed into a tight group with a  man sitting at my back leaning against me and I him, and a communal promise that we would meet together again the next night at the same time and place.

The mayor took us back to his house where supper was waiting, and he had invited two of his closest friends to dine with us. We sat on the mayor’s porch and Thaol interpreted for me. The first friend told me a story of his life as a good and hard working man who did not participate in criminal activity. He said he had three sons, but he had always wanted a daughter and had been praying for a daughter for a long time. He said he didn’t understand why, if he was a good man, his prayers had not been answered for he and his wife to have a daughter. He looked at me expectantly. I missed the cue. He continued to stare at me to the point that I was wondering if I had something wrong with me. He then shrugged, and spelled it out for me. He said that everyone in the village and surrounding area had heard about me praying a blessing on the village, and then it rained next day. He looked straight at me and said, “I want you to pray for me to have a daughter.”

I said I would, but I couldn’t promise he would have a daughter. I said, “If it is God’s will you will have a daughter, but I will pray for this.” I was still a little bit adle-minded from the three hour conversation before, and I have to admit I was a little dense. It didn’t occur to me the immediate sincerity of the man until I watched him bow his head right there in front of me. I stammered for a second, and Thaol nudged me and said, “So are you going to pray or not?” Thaol translated my prayer of asking God for a daughter for this man. I slowly opened my eyes, and found him staring at me gratefully. He stood up and said he had to take his sheep to pasture the next morning at 4 AM. We said, “Naten e mirë.” He thanked us happily, shook our hands and walked off into the darkness.

The mayor sat back down next to me and patted me on the back giving me an approving smile. We all sat in silence for a moment, when the other friend of the mayors’ in his early thirties cleared his throat to get our attention. I looked at him expectantly. He kept his gaze on his folded hands in his lap, and simply said, “I need a wife.”

I have never been back to that village, but if I were to go, I would fully expect to find that first man with three sons and a daughter, and the second man with a wife. God will often answer our prayers when it brings glory to His Name. You know if you think about it, many of Jesus’ miracles were not done just for the sake of His followers, but for the sake of those who had not yet believed in Him.

May God Bless you until next time!

I Don’t Think I Would Have Said It that Way

“Oh, no!” A Cell Phone Tragedy

Albania, 2003

I tell these stories to share a little bit of the extraordinary experiences I have had. Some are humorous, some are serious, and some are just down right  embarrassing, but as I promised from the start they are all events that have been taken from my travel journals.

I was going to Albania fairly frequently. I participated on Jesus Film teams in the summer, and at other times during the year I was going back to do dentistry in the villages. I felt it was necessary to finally get my own cell phone in Albania so that I could be a little more independent, and not be a burden to my friends. In other words I didn’t want them to have to “baby sit me.” I was learning the language, the customs, the country, and I felt I could handle some of my own arrangements while my friends continued to take care of other matters.

In 2003, I went on the AERO Projekt, which I have described before as the Jesus Film outreach to the villages. AERO stands for Albanian Evangelical Rural Outreach. Karen and I, and friends Dennis and Terri, and Edis had started an English club with Albanians who had moved to Wichita. That summer I took my wife Karen, and our youngest son, Joe. I went on the project and they went to the city of Korça to stay with the family of some of our Albanian friends who now live in Wichita.

I was staying in the home of a man who lived in a mountainside village. I woke up one morning about five o’clock and couldn’t go back to sleep so I went out on the front porch and read my Bible by the light of my small Mag Lite. This particular morning also just happened to be my birthday. I figured that at some time in the morning Karen would be calling me from Korça to wish me happy birthday, so I put my phone in the front pocket of my T-shirt. The sun was just beginning to create an amber sliver along the horizon of the mountains to the east when I felt the need to use the banjo (pronounced bon-yo), or toilet. Now this particular banjo was an outhouse set on the slope of the hill built up with stone pillars on the down hill side of the structure. The actual facility was what is referred to as a Turkish toilet, which means there is a hole about four inches in diameter over which you squat. The idea is for the business to fall through the hole, and in this case increase the mass of the mound of business that was piled on the slope of the hill beneath the banjo.

There is a ritual that must be performed before you squat and that is to check all pockets to insure nothing falls out during the squatting. In the darkness of the banjo I performed this ritual obligatorily and leaned forward to prepare to squat. I had failed to remember my cell phone in my T-shirt pocket, however, and gravity and simple physics launched my phone in a perfect trajectory right at that hole. The phone hit the brim and then fell into the dark abyss below. I said, “Oh… no!”, and quickly dropped to my knees and peered into the depths. Fortunately the impact with the brim of the hole had caused my phone light to turn on, and it had landed face up on the top of the pile of manure. Determined to be ready to get my ‘Happy Birthday’ phone call from Karen, I reached into the hole to retrieve the renegade cell. At this time in my life I was weight lifting regularly and my biceps could only be described as “GUNS”. Well, kinda sort of. The point is my arm had to be squished into the hole, and the pile was deep enough that I had to extend pretty much up to my arm pit. The only saving grace was that the phone had landed with the light on and face up so I didn’t have to grope for it. Once I had the phone, I extracted it and my arm from the hole to find I had a nice gooey  circumferential brown arm band ringing just at the juncture of my deltoid muscle into the biceps and triceps. The arm band was  easier cleaned off than my phone, but I did have it ready when Karen called a few hours later with my Birthday wishes. I must admit that the reception was kind of crappy though. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist).

I went back to my base camp a couple of days later in a town called Permet, and told the story to Gary who was a friend from our church in Wichita and who had been a member of another team. I told the story to him much as I have told you. At the end Gary rubbed his chin and said, “You know. I don’t think I would have said Oh, no!” I said, “Well, as a matter of fact I didn’t say Oh, no.” Gary smiled and said, “I thought not.” Later after supper I came back to our room where Gary had been writing in his journal. He said, “Tell me if this is right,” and he proceeded to read to me the story I had told him. At the end he read, “I said to Rob that I don’t think I would have said Oh, no!, and he said, ‘Well as a matter of fact I didn’t say Oh, no!'” We both laughed and went on with the evening.

A few days later after we had been back out into the villages, and then returned to the base camp to prepare to come back to the States, I met a friend that had been with Campus Crusade for Christ in Albania from the beginning years named Cori. She had come to Permet for meetings or something, and she said, “Rob, I was just told the best cell phone story I have ever heard.” I quickly recited the story as before. At the end she said, “You know, I don’t think I would have said Oh, no!” I said, “Well, as a matter of fact I didn’t say Oh, no!

You may be wondering what I did say. Well, I said what probably ninety-nine percent of the people in the world would have said seeing their cell phone fall into a hole of manure. My desire is to have only wholesome speech come out of my mouth, but I’m not perfect, I’m just forgiven. There are times when that explicative just fits, and that was one of those times.

I did immediately thank God, however, that the light had turned on and that the phone had landed face up so that I wouldn’t have to go fish for it. I believe that God is more honored and worshiped when we humbly ask forgiveness for our failings, rather than pretend that we don’t make mistakes, or that we would have reacted to a situation better than someone else. I still have that phone, by the way. I and others have used it for many years. Which I think is a good object lesson here—regardless of our mucky past we can still be used effectively by God if we are willing.

May God Bless You until next time!

“It Tastes Like Chicken”

Don’t Ask. Just eat It!

I am a fairly adventurous eater. I will try almost any kind of food particularly if I know that someone else in the world actually stays alive by eating it. I am not overly squeamish, but like any other human being I can at times display a gag reflex. I have learned over the years that there are only four tastes distinguishable by the human taste buds—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. A fifth taste is now on the scene called Umami which is a loaned word from the Japanese language meaning “pleasant savory taste”. So our taste buds can detect savoriness as well. Flavor on the other hand is determined by the combination of the chemical senses of taste and smell. Interestingly there are thousands of flavors due to our sense of smell. Have you ever wondered why when you have a cold and are all stuffed up that you can’t detect the flavor of your food? It is because your sense of smell is blocked. This is an important fact to remember as I tell the story of my food and drink adventures in various parts of the world.

It has been a standard joke, and a tool of parents for generations who have tried to get their children to eat something off their plates that the child did not want to eat, by saying, “Eat it. It tastes just like chicken.” Surprisingly many exotic meats do arguably taste like chicken, but… some do not. Goat’s brains, for instance, tastes nothing like chicken. In fact it is very hard to describe what goat’s brains do taste like to the un-indoctrinated. The closest I have been able to come is to describe it as a salty fishy taste—that is, a salty fishy taste from a fish that should have been eaten on a Friday during the last Lent season.

I have had goat’s brains on a number of occasions. Each time it has been awarded to me as an honor for my position as team leader. Each time I have felt that the brains actually grew in size with every bite instead of shrinking. Each time I have fought back the gag reflex as best I could, but let’s face it—a reflex is a reflex and can’t be fought! So in the midst of my face turning beet red, the veins in my forehead bulging dangerously, and my eyes bugging out of their sockets I have prayed this prayer, “Lord, please help me to get this down. Please help me not to kak.” It should go without saying that God knows what kaking is, and in His mercy helped me swallow the wonderful honor bestowed on me. I was always able to soldier up and finish my goat’s brains as my host would look on expectantly, and then afterward offer me a portion of goat’s intestines as a reward for finishing my brains.

In a village in south central Albania a school teacher that we were staying with said he wanted to kill a goat for supper in honor of us being in his village. This village was very remote and by the testimony of everyone who lived there, they almost never had guests so I had no moral problem with them killing a goat just for my team and I. I didn’t realize at the time, however, that I was going to be an integral part of the whole process—from the picking out of the goat, to the holding of the goat while it was being slaughtered, to the skinning and cleaning of the goat and the ultimate cooking of the goat over hot coals after it had been spitted from fore to aft with a long pole. The word for this in Albanian is hell, pronounced hail, and I thought that it was and is a pretty good description and translation of the whole process. The teacher, my teacher, stuffed handfuls of salt in various places within the muscles and tissues for flavoring before cooking it. After a couple of hours the goat was ready to be served, and although I would have preferred to simply sit at the table and be served, the fact that I was a part of the entire process made the honor even greater. No portion of the goat was waisted. For the next two days while in the teachers home we ate everything from the meat, brains, stomach, heart, intestines, kidneys, you name it everything was eaten. The pelt was also used for other utilitarian purposes. And truthfully the brains are not so bad when accompanied by the right portion of raki (see last post What Proof Was That Again?)

In Kazakhstan I had heard that two common beverages are fermented horse and camel’s milk. Now it is very cold in Kazakhstan. We were there in late November and the temperature had dropped to negative ten degrees Fahrenheit. I remember in one of my college biology classes my professor saying that the fat bunny survives the winter to breed in the spring, and the skinny, athletic bunnies freeze and die in the winter. So people who live in cold regions are looking for ways to put insulating on not take it off. Camel’s milk and horse milk happen to be high in fat so it is a good beverage for cold climates. I decided to try the fermented camel’s milk. I was informed that the milk is fermented, but has no alcohol in it and was just for drinking because…”It is good for you.” I took a pretty good sized swig of it. I am not always a look-before-you-leap kinda guy so I dove right into it. The word for today is No Bueno. I decided after the initial assault that this was going to be a once in a life time experience. My team mates Karen, Dwayne, and DeAnne asked me how it was. We were sitting in the back of a dark van at night traveling to our host village so they had not seen my facial expression. I assured them that it was good, in fact I made a yummy sound and said it was great, and that they should try it—after all who am I to say that they wouldn’t like it if it was not previously prejudiced by me? Upon sipping the fermented camel’s milk, the others informed me that I had lost their trust.

My oldest son Josh was with me in northern Albania when he was one month away from turning fifteen. I shared the story of leaving Josh on a mountain top in an earlier post, You left My baby?!!!. One morning Josh and I woke up in the home of our host family. The young boy of the house walked into the room we had been sleeping on the floor in, and had his shirt tail rolled up and full of crab apples. The boy fanned out his shirt tail and the apples caming tumbling out and rolled onto the floor all around us. This was to be our breakfast—freshly picked off the tree. We each picked up an apple and began eating the very sour apple, thankful that we had anything to eat at all. The boy stood over us and watched as we ate. As I bit into my third apple I noticed that there was the stubby half of a worm in the tracks of my teeth marks. I leaned over to Josh and said out of the side of my mouth, which by the way does not conceal your conversation from anyone, and said,”I just bit into a worm!” He said out of the side of his mouth, “Nah-uhh.” I rolled my apple discretely toward him, and let him see the carnage for himself. His eyes widened, and he said out of the side of his mouth, “What are you gong to do?” I said, “I don’t want to offend our host. I’m going to finish it.” Which I did. The apple was so tart, however, I couldn’t taste the worm, and knowing that there are people who eat worms in other parts of the world, I didn’t let it bother me. A few days later we were in another house in another village and the same scenario was played out with freshly picked crab apples being served from the shirt tail of another young boy. Josh informed me out of the side of his mouth, “Dad, I just bit into a worm!” He rolled the apple bite toward me for me to see the half eaten worm.” I said, “What are you going to do with it?” “I’m going to finish it,” he said. Ahhh… a father’s pride.

As I said earlier, flavor is present with the combination of taste and more importantly smell. Have I been guilty of holding my breath, or worse, holding my nose when eating certain foods in different parts of the world? I have to admit, YES! But I have never not eaten something offered to me in hospitality. Because after all, it is all about building relationships. And sharing culture expands your universe. Just have the anti-acids ready.

I will share more food stories later. Until next time, may God Bless you!

What Proof Was That Again?

On The Subject of Raki


My early life was lived in a very conservative fashion. That was the way I was raised. I was never tempted by alcohol as a teenager, nor as a college student, nor as a young adult. In fact my very first beer came while I was in a village in northern Albania—I was thirty-eight years old.

There is a moonshine made in the Balkans called Raki. It is made from distilled wine, usually from grapes, but sometimes from plums or other fruits. If it is really good quality it is distilled twice, and if it is from grapes it is a clear liquid that is indistinguishable from water. The difference between Raki and water, however, is that Raki has an average proof rating of 120 to 160. For those of you who were raised like me in a conservative non-alcohol environment that means Raki is between 60 to 80 percent alcohol by volume. For an added kick sugar is often added which makes it a blinding, staggering, headache just looking for a place to happen. Raki is made in nearly every village, and often is rated as good or bad by the locals depending on what provence from which it comes.

My first year in Albania we were advised not to drink the raki in order to set our standards apart from the standards of the villagers. I went along with that way of thinking without a problem because as I said I was raised that way. We had been picked up from our second village by helicopter later than anticipated so we arrived late to our third village and barely had enough time to meet with the mayor and set up our equipment for the Jesus Film. We had not eaten since the night before and by the time we got back to our host’s home it was very late.

As is the custom, we sat and talked until well after midnight and I began to realize that I was not going to have anything to eat that day. About 12:30 AM, however, the sons of our host, who was a very old man and who had fought against the Nazi in WWII, brought in a cloth and placed it on the floor in front of us and then brought in a wonderful feast of chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers. In front of each of us was also placed two cans of Amstel beer. My Albanian partners quickly popped open a can and took a swig. I asked, “Is it OK that we drink this beer?” I was thinking of the raki taboo. One of my partners said, “Oh, yes. This is a very great honor that they have shared this with you. It is a four day walk through the mountains to get to a road so they can hitchhike to the nearest town to buy the beer, and then another hitchhike to the trailhead and another four day walk to get back here. Someone in the family carried this on their back.” So I took a split second to think about it and realized that someone had to walk for eight days to get this beer here to this very remote village, and they were willing to share it with me, their guest. I picked up the Amstel and popped it open, drinking the first beer I had ever had in my whole life. I must admit that I had no second thoughts about the second can.

I have come to recognize over the years that different parts of the world have very different ideas about a lot of issues. It is called culture. And as I have said before I love culture. Another time in Albania I was working with an Albanian dentist friend of mine, Ardi, in a northern Gypsy village. It is the same trip where the boy ran out of our clinic buck naked—see earlier post Perseverance . We had been working with a young Albanian pastor by the name of Mondi. After we finished our last day in the village, Mondi said to Ardi and I, “Today you will come to my home.” Which is an invitation to accept his hospitality. Ardi asked, “Will we drink raki?” Mondi staunchly replied, “No! I am very much against alcohol. We will drink beer.” What more needs to be said?

I found that even though I have never changed my beliefs or compromised the message of the Gospel, when being invited into a home it always opened doors to share our story if we at least accepted the hosts invitation to have a small glass of raki. Many times it was the hosts own batch, and they would be eager to see how we liked it. I would usually take a sip and smile and try desperately to hold back the vicious cough associated with the chemical cauterization of my lips, tongue, throat, nose, eyes, and esophagus. I would reply simply, “Hmmm.” and nod my head idiotically while mumbling under my breath, “Please don’t expect me to take another.” Fortunately they never understood my English and I never repeated it in Albanian.

Arguably the craziest encounter I have ever had with raki was during a visit to a village in central Albania with my second son Jeff. Jeff at this time was an adult and a valuable member of our team. One morning we woke up in the home of a mayor who was very pushy and actually scared our female team mates to the point that we had to find other accommodations for them. The next morning I woke up and was very congested and achy and I knew from the feel of it that my condition was going to degenerate into an all out head cold. Our host, seeing that I was struggling with my breathing, informed me that if I would take just a little raki in the palm of my hand and snort it up one nostril at a time, that my head would clear and I would feel better. Jeff at this point played the devil on my left shoulder saying, “Do it! Do it!”, while commonsense on my right shoulder said, “Don’t be stupid!” My left shoulder prevailed and accidentally poured at least twice as much raki into the palm of my hand as I should have, and before I could change my mind I snorted the raki vigorously into both nostrils at the same time. If my mom or my wife Karen had been there they would have chided that I got what I deserved—blinding, debilitating, pain ravaging my skull to the back of my brain with incendiary furor. I vaguely remember the mayor pulling at his hair and shouting, “O bobobo!” Which I am pretty sure is Albanian for, “What a nincompoop!” I also vaguely remember Jeff rolling on the futon holding his side because he was laughing so hard. His first comment to me after the flames abated from every body part above my shoulders was, “Dad, you are one crazy dude!” Strangely, though, I was no longer congested, nor did I have any more problems with my breathing the rest of the day. WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

There are many more amusing stories on this topic that I will share at another time, but for now may God bless you until next time!

The Wedding Of A Friend

When Keeping a promise Becomes Tough

Turkey-September 2001

Karen become really involved in overseas missions when she went with me for the first time to Turkey in the winter of 2000 right after two terrible earthquakes devastated the Northwest regions of Turkey in August and then again in November of 1999. I have mentioned before our friend Melda who had been such a big help in setting up our clinic. Karen and Melda became fast friends almost immediately, and we are still in contact with each other. We have been to Melda’s home and she has traveled to the United States and spent time in our home.

Karen and Melda’s friendship progressed into the type of friendship that remains strong even though they have different beliefs and customs. We are Christians and Melda is Muslim. We have had some lively debates and lengthy discussions as we have shared our faith with her and she has shared her faith with us, but at the end of the day we have actually become stronger friends not weaker. In this regard, Melda became interested in a former classmate of hers and talked to Karen about him, and over a period of time Karen offered her motherly/sisterly/friendly advice about Melda’s growing relationship with this man.

We were thrilled for Melda when one day she told us that she was getting married. We were even more thrilled and honored when she asked us to come to her wedding in her home town. Karen and I and Melda are confident that God put us in each others lives for a purpose, so with that in mind we made a promise that we would come. Karen and I made all of the arrangements and were planning on taking a couple of extra days in London since Karen had never been there. Melda’s wedding was September 22, 2001.

We joined Americans everywhere in grief and fear and anger from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. We prayed, we mourned, we reacted like every other American. And throughout the next few days we went to special prayer meetings for the victims and their families. Like every other American we were proud of the heroes that emerged on that day and the days to follow.

Melda had e-mailed us that day asking if we were OK, and to express her and her family’s deep sadness over those attacks. We didn’t even think about attending the wedding until a couple of days later when she e-mailed again and said she understood that we could not come to her wedding. As I am sure you all remember all flights where cancelled for a week after the attacks. I made a comment to Karen that if we could still go we would as long as the government didn’t prohibit it and the flights began again.

On the following Saturday Karen and I got up and started the day in a pretty good mood compared to the days previously, but then as the minutes ticked by Karen began to get more and more agitated, and throughout the rest of the day she was very upset with me. And true to husband conduct I had no clue what was bugging her, but through out the day I could’t do anything right and glares were all I could get out of her. As we went to bed I asked her what was going on. I knew she was upset about Tuesday, but this attitude seemed to be more personal. We laid there for a moment staring at the ceiling, and then she finally said, “Are you sure we should go to Turkey?” I put my arm around her and let her rest on my chest as we talked for over an hour.

We realized that we probably were not going to be able to go because of all the flights being cancelled, but we decided that if we could—we would. I reason boiled down to our promise to our friend that we would if we could. We also realized, based on our long talks with Melda and others, that part of what has fueled the antagonism between our two faiths was not just doctrine, but a total lack of trust. We concluded that this could be a way to show that we would keep our word even if it hurt. We prayed for along time together that night. I woke up an hour later, and felt Karen’s tears still running onto my chest. It was tough, but the doubt never rose again after that night.

On Tuesday the following week my travel agent called me at my office and said, “Well, I can get you there, but it won’t be the way we planned. You’ll fly to Chicago instead of Dallas, and take a Turkish Air flight straight to Istanbul instead of going through London.”

I went home that night and Karen sat our five kids down and told them we were going to go ahead and go to Turkey. My kids and the rest of my family have always been very supportive of our mission work, but this time we had no support at all for our decision. Zero! Nada! After a long discussion they finally said they understood our point of view even though they did not agree with it.

That next Wednesday morning was the first day that air traffic began again. We flew to Chicago without incident, and for the first time waited in long security lines to board. After we were seated we watched every passenger board with scrutiny. After a time Karen leaned over and whispered, “They all look like Arabs.” I said, “They all are Arabs. We are the ones sticking out like a sore thumb.” Now I am fully aware that not everyone of Middle Eastern decent is Arab, but sometimes we still catch ourselves falling into stereotypes. The flight was full, which was another first for us. Many people from the Middle East were basically ‘getting the heck out of Dodge.

We arrived in Istanbul on schedule and met with some of our friends who were living in Turkey. The general atmosphere was one of deep concern, and sadness for America. Everywhere that we went people would ask if we were British and when we said we were Americans they would come out from behind their Kiosks or counters and hug us or shake our hands. One Turkish man said that Turkey wants to remain a secular republic, but their neighbors want them to become Islamic states. He said America was like a big brother that could always protect them, but when we were attacked it was like their big brother was beaten up by a bully that would be coming after them next. He said they had been living in fear of this since the attacks, but when he saw Karen and I walking through the market he knew that everything was going to be OK, and that America had been hurt but not beaten. He thanked us over and over, and I lost count of how many kisses he gave me. We hadn’t really thought about being that kind of ambassador, but we had several similar experiences during our time in Turkey.

When we went to Melda’s wedding that Saturday about sixty miles east of Istanbul, we were quickly surrounded by her family and many of theTurkish people we had worked with for earthquake relief. After the wedding Melda and her husband came to us. With tears in their eyes and ours she said,”I can’t believe that you came. We had been praying that you would, but we didn’t really believe that you could.” Karen simply said, “We love you. We couldn’t miss this.” Melda and I had always been friends, but out of respect for her culture we had only shaken hands in the past, but on this day I got a big hug and we all shed many tears.

That night after Karen and I traveled back to Istanbul we took a ferry across the Bosphorus back to the European side where our hotel was. It was a beautiful September evening and the breeze was pleasant coming off the water. Karen sat close to me and we held hands. She said reflectively, “You know? I don’t think there is anywhere else on the face of the earth that we should be right now other than here.” I looked at her totally amazed, and in total agreement.

I shared a story recently about a major marker in my life with a shepherd and his sheep in Albania that redefined me as a man and I have never been the same since that night. This wedding set a similar marker for Karen and I as a couple. I don’t really know what God has in store for this friendship between Melda and Karen and I, but I know it is not usual and I know that it is not passing. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for us.

God Bless You until next time!


Thank You As a Verb


I have had the privilege to be in some pretty remarkable places and to work with some truly remarkable people. My best memories are not so much of the places that I have been, but of the people I have met in those places. I have already mentioned the excitement that I have when I learn about, and observe other cultures. This excitement drives me forward to the next encounter with culture, and the fundamental need that I have to learn something new everyday. For this reason I am almost never bored, I rarely find offense in someone else’s culture, and I find myself blending into my new surroundings in ways that seem to make some people uncomfortable.

Having said this I should point out that I have standards, and strong convictions and I don’t compromise what I believe. But my world view is such that I believe God wants to have a personal relationship with me as He does with every other human on the planet. By this world view I recognize that God created people, their cultures, and their diversity. So I have long since put off the notion that my culture is better than someone else’s, which has allowed me to enjoy the differences with, at times, a child-like awe.

One such cultural manifestation that I not only found fascinating, but also deeply appreciated was in Kazakhstan in the way that the people thanked us for coming to their village or orphanage. My first encounter was when a woman walked into our make-shift clinic in the home of a man that was hosting us in his village. My team was working in two shifts, and was made up of Karen my wife, Mark, Dwayne, DeAnne, Luba, Dr. Igor, and Timor. The woman had been to our clinic a couple of hours before to have a toothache taken care of, and now was returning to thank us. I was actually seeing another patient when this lady stood in the middle of the room and announced that she wanted to thank us by singing a song for us. She then proceeded to sing a very beautiful opera in  Russian. I mean she sounded like a diva—folded hands in front of her, erect posture, and it didn’t matter that she was only three feet away from us—she sang as if she were trying to reach the back row of a great hall. It was amazing, and we were all speechless. After she sang for about ten minutes, she thanked us, bowed, and left the clinic as if she were walking off a stage.

Our word for today is СПАСИБО, which is Russian for thank you, and is pronounced SPA-SEE-BOW. But in this particular case thank you was a verb in the form of a beautiful aria. We all loved it. And you know? You can’t put a price on that. From the simplicity of that woman’s life she gave us what she had, and it touched us more deeply than anything else she could have offered.

At that same time in Kazakhstan our team had been working until very late every night, but one night we had a group of community leaders who wanted to take us to dinner. It had been snowing all day, and by the time we were finished at the restaurant it was snowing heavily. At least it seemed heavy to us Kansans, but to the people who only lived about three hundred miles south of Siberia it was probably considered just a light autumn dusting. Our drive was going to take about two hours. As we drove back to the village where we were staying we saw a woman walking along side of the road. In Kazakhstan everyone hitchhikes—we had actually done it earlier in Almaty. After the lady had settled in with us she asked if she could thank us with a song. Just like the other lady in the clinic this lady sang a-cappella for the next thirty minutes. And just as before it was beautiful. When we arrived in her village she got out thanked us again and we drove off down the dark, snowy, northern Kazakh road.

Every where we went in Kazakhstan the people sang their thanks to us. The children in the orphanages had prepared musical programs for us and sang to us at every meal. A number of Kazakhs invited us to their homes, and sang to us with their children joining them in full voice. It was great! Several times instruments were used, but mostly it was just a nice blend of vocal harmonies. What amazed me the most was how natural it was for the children to sing to strangers, both in the orphanages and in the private homes. Another amazing thing about their singing was that these were not just little ditties, they were well rehearsed, nearly full concert performances.

Our last night before we were to go to the airport and fly out about 3 AM, we went to an Uzbek doctors home. We sat on the floor, which was the custom in every home we went to, on pillows with the walls covered with intricately woven tapestries and rugs. After a huge supper with many courses, the doctor pulled out his guitar and sang to us for nearly an hour. He even taught us a few songs that we tried, pitifully I might add, to sing. My only sadness with this custom came from our own unpreparedness to sing to them, which they asked us to do every where we went. We sang a little, but I told my team next time we come to Kazakhstan part of our team preparation in Wichita will be to practice a few nice tunes and to learn at least one song in Russian to sing to them.

I think sometimes we feel that we have to go out of our way, or spend a lot of money in order to show our appreciation or gratitude to someone. My time in Kazakhstan showed me just how special a gift of thanks can be when it is a simple gesture such as sharing something that is a part of who we are. When we share with each other our talents, and gifts, or let others get a glimpse of our culture through an act of thanks we make the world just a little bit smaller. It can help us decrease our circles of thems and bring them into our circle of us’s. And that usually can only be a good thing.

May God Bless you  until next time!