A Shepherd’s Voice

My Ebenezer


I have shared a number of light hearted stories recently, but today I would like to share about a time in my life that changed me forever and made me the person I am today. Quite a few years ago my life was miserable. It was miserable because I made it that way. Bad choices, runaway pride, and a total disregard for God’s leading in my life sent me into a tailspin that damaged everyone and everything in my life. This story, however, is not about failure—it is about redemption and God’s grace that is beyond my ability to understand. All I can do is accept it and be eternally thankful. An Ebenezer is a marker in life. It signifies that what was before  has been replaced by what is after. My Ebenezer came in a remote mountain village during an AERO Projekt in Albania.

I decided to participate in the project because that is what I had always done  during my summers for several years before. I knew I was running from God and not living for Him, but I still felt compelled to join a JESUS Film team. When I got to Albania I was assigned to be a team leader as in the past. My new team of Albanians had heard about me and were very excited to be on my team. What they didn’t know was that I was secretly struggling in a constant battle with God. And I was losing!

One night in our followup village—see earlier posts on what that entailed—I found myself sitting alone on a stone wall overlooking a deep valley surrounded by tall mountains on three sides. As I looked down the valley I could see the valley we were in flowed perpendicularly into a larger central river valley. The sun had set and my team was in our hosts home preparing a meal. I sat on that wall with my feet dangling over a cliff and my back to the courtyard of the house. I was in tremendous turmoil that night. I had run as far as I could and had no where else to go. I felt as if God had finally gotten a hold of me by the scruff of the neck and was giving me a good hard shake. After months of rebellion I began to pray in earnest to the God I had always wanted to serve, but had recently turned my back on.

Tears flowed and gut wrenching heart ache gripped me as I began to acknowledge my long list of sins, and ask for forgiveness. I know I was talking out loud to God and I soon felt His presence flow over me in an unexplainable peace as I realized that true to His word He had forgiven me. At one point my Albanian co-leader, Lawrence, came out and asked if I was all right. My team as it turned out knew something was wrong with me pretty much from the time we went into the villages, and was at that time in the house praying for me. I turned to Lawrence and told him I was getting my life back with God the way it should be. He told me they were all praying for me and left me alone again. I spent a full two hours sitting on that stone wall, but the Ebenezer was quickly to follow.

Lawrence came out of the house and told me that our host, Avni, had asked if I could go out and take photos of his son Mustaffa who had brought their sheep in off the mountain for the night. Mustaffa and his flock had spent several days and nights up on a high pasture and had returned to the village. I grabbed my camera, feeling like I belonged on this team for the first time since I had been with them. It is amazing what God’s grace and forgiveness can do. It takes you from a groveling failure to an empowered warrior for Him.

When I arrived I found the sheep had been first sequestered in a pen surrounded by a tall hedge of thorns tightly woven together to make a wall. Inside the pen was a stone building that had walls built up to about eight feet tall. Mustaffa was sitting on a low stool blocking a very narrow door into the stone building. The door itself was only about two feet wide. Mustaffa propped his foot up against the jam and I took photos of him and his sheep as they one by one went passed him into the stone building. I walked around within the outer pen with sheep brushing up against my legs, but paying absolutely no attention to me, and I snapped photos from different angles with Avni and Lawrence looking on.

After a time it suddenly dawned on me that Mustaffa was making noises with his mouth that sounded like chirps and lip flaps and clucks and clicks. I watched amazed as he made different sounds and specific sheep moved forward in line and went through the door. At one point he made a series of sounds and a sheep started through the door. Mustaffa pushed the sheep away and made the same sounds again and a sheep three sheep back in line moved forward to the door as Mustaffa moved his leg for it to pass. It was then that I realized that these sounds were actually the names of the sheep and each sheep had its own name and came into the fold in a specific order. This just about knocked me off my feet. These sheep didn’t have names like Fred, or Mary or Peter. They had names that consisted of lip and throat sounds from their shepherd. And this shepherd knew his sheep by name.

One by one the sheep entered in turn. Occasionally Mustaffa would milk a ewe that would come through the door before allowing it to pass through. When the last sheep entered the stone building Mustaffa stood up and said he was missing a sheep. Tears began to run down my cheeks in the dark. This was the parable of The Lost Sheep that Jesus told right out of Luke chapter fifteen. And I was living it! I thought of the verse that said, “My sheep know my voice,” and I had just observed that those sheep cared nothing for Lawrence and I, but only for the voice of their master, Mustaffa. He then asked Lawrence and I if we would go into the the night with him and find his lost sheep.

We went out, Mustaffa called out using lip and throat sounds again—different than any of the other sounds he had used earlier for the other sheep. After a while with no success, Mustaffa turned to Lawrence and I and said, “This sheep will come back on its own. It has done this before.” He then turned and walked back toward the house.

At this point the last bastion of my pride collapsed, and I fell to my knees in the dark and bawled like a baby. Lawrence knelt beside me and put his arm around me saying nothing. I finally said,”I have been running from God for a long time. God has given me this experience to show me His unending love. I am that lost sheep.” Lawrence simply said he and the rest of team knew I had been struggling with something since the day they met me, and they had been praying that I would allow God to work in my life.

When we got back to the house my team and the family came and embraced me. Even though they didn’t know any details they could sense that I had had a great burden taken off of me. Mustaffa brought the sheep dogs into the house, which was not the usual custom, so that they would not harm that one sheep that was out. The next morning, just as Mustaffa said would happen, we found that lost sheep quivering, cold and full of stickers at the gate of the hedge of thorns, but otherwise unharmed.

There was my life before that night, and there has been my life since that night. My Ebenezer. I have been so thankful for how God allowed a Bible story to come to life for me when I needed it the most. That special time has allowed me to live my life confidently, and whole-heartedly for God. I’m not perfect—I’m far from it and I still make a lot of mistakes, but I know God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life, and that life doesn’t include going one second with unconfessed sin, which proves over and over again to be so devastating and destructive.

I know I’m not alone. We all run from God, but His love never changes, and it never fails. My desire is for you to come to know this same love.

May God Bless you until next time!


You Left My Baby?!!!

A Journal Entry Too Far


In 1995, I took my oldest and one-month-shy-of-fifteen year old son, Josh, with me on my second AERO Projekt in the remote mountains of northern Albania. It was the same trip that I described in Travel Mercies concerning our bus driver who was driving without his headlights through the treacherous mountain roads at night. Josh did a great job on the project, and was a valuable member of our team.

Josh and I along with our team mates Petrit, Ben, Keta, and Stephanie went into three villages around the city of Kukës in northeastern Albania near the Serbian border. I have described the AERO Projekt in previous posts. When we returned to our base camp a number of factors played into the fact that nearly everyone, including Albanians, got a terrible stomach flu. Now I had been to Albania the year before and many of the Americans had gotten sick with illnesses that literally lasted for months afterward, so when I saw the illness beginning to spread from person to person the dread of a long illness was enormously frightening.

I was the first to get sick between Josh and I. It was terrible. To be sick away from home is bad enough, but to be sick in a remote camp with virtually no conveniences is even worse. Between frequent throwing up and diarrhea, and the knowledge that there was no way of getting home or even to a hospital, I was a very miserable camper indeed. Josh came to me at one point and asked how I was doing. I really just felt like it would be better for me to die, so I said to him, “Just bury me here, cut my heart out and take it home to mom.”

Fortunately the flu didn’t last for months, but was only of the twenty-four hour variety. By the time I started feeling better, Josh was in the midst of his gut wrenching throws. I went to his bunk and felt his forehead for a fever, and asked him how he felt. He said, “Just cut my heart out and take it home to mom.” We eventually both began to feel better, but for the rest of the trip we had  a weak feeling in our stomachs as did everyone else.

We made it back into our follow-up village to join our team less than a day behind them. The problem that kept us from feeling better faster was that it was constantly raining, and at such a high altitude the temperature was always chilly. So being wet and cold always has a way of damping ones spirits.

One day we decided to walk to another village that was visible from our host village, but was clear across the valley. We took off on our mountain trek, and true to normal conditions it began to rain on us. As we approached the village, Josh informed me that he was starting not to feel too well. The hike was strenuous, we were all wet and cold, and I was starting not to feel too well either.

As we got to the outskirts of the village Josh asked if he could just wait under a large tree we had passed. I realized that once we arrived in the village all the men would stop what they were doing and come to a  home that would host all of us. I knew from past experience that we would sit on the floor on sheep skin rugs or pillows around the periphery of the room with our backs leaning up against the wall. The Albanian culture was such that at that particular time and place every man in the room would also be smoking cigarettes, and since it was chilly and raining outside all the windows would be closed. I knew that a tobacco smoke filled room was not going to do Josh any good so I consented to let him rest under the tree.

Like a good father I left him with a poncho, water, an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), and helped him gather a pile of stones around him to throw at any sheep dogs that might take issue with him sitting there. I told him that we would be just up the road and we would be back in about two hours. As expected we were cordially greeted and invited into a home, and soon every man in the village was sitting against the wall on rugs smoking cigarettes with the windows closed. At this point I felt good about my decision to leave Josh under that tree.

As is the culture in northern Albania, we talked for a time, but then later there was just a time to enjoy each others presence without the need to speak. The rain began to beat furiously against the terra cotta tiled roof. I could hardly see across the room for the smoke, but everyone just seemed to be comfortable sitting and relaxing for a while so I pulled out my journal and continued to chronicle the events of the day.

I wrote,“…We then started up the other side. Very steep & winding path. It was a little too much for Josh who is better, but still a little weak. When we got to the top we rested again. It was a beautiful view. Josh decided he better stay there so we left him a poncho, water, food, & Advil. I told him to get a pile of rocks next to him to ward off sheep dogs. It will be good for him to rest. I hated leaving him, but I knew he would recover quicker in the fresh air rather than lug him into more smoke filled homes. It’s Wed. PM. We are sitting in a home out of the rain, that means Josh is under his poncho…”

Now, I have always kept pretty detailed journals of my travels, and it is always a special time when I come home and my wife Karen reads through them. I have to say that at this point in her reading she stopped, looked up at me with a look of shear terror that quickly transmuted into a look that no husband on the face of the planet ever wants to get from his wife, and said, “You left Josh?!!!” “Yes,  but…” “You left Josh in the middle of the mountains…in the rain…in Albania?!!!” . “Yes, but he did feel better…”. “I can’t believe you left Josh all by himself!” She shook her head and continued to read the journal, but every few minutes or so she would look up at me with disgust and shake her head disapprovingly.

I was in the dog house for a long time after that. I should point out that although it has only been seventeen years since that happened and Josh is now a husband and father of two, I am still in the dog house over this matter. If you want to get me in trouble just bring up that day in Albania. In my defense, however, when I got back to Josh later he had made friends with some shepherd boys who had shown him how to use a sling shot. Even though they did not speak the same language the boys played together like boys all over the world do, and were having a great time slinging stones at targets that included, but not exclusively, the poor hapless sheep. My thinking as a loving, caring, nurturing father was that I had just provided my son an important, and vital experience into his becoming a masculine, manly, man. I have to date not found one mother who agrees with me, although a number of fathers have given me subtle kudos—secretly, stealthily, very carefully so as not to let their wives see them do it. And as I am writing this, Karen has come up behind me and given me a squeeze on my neck with her icy, cold hands, and a playful snarl at the memory of that day!

May God Bless you until next time!

Travel Mercies Part Üς

Without Adult Supervision


Since it is still the holiday season and many of you are on the road I will continue with a travel story—this time from Turkey. Our foreign word for the day is Üς (pronounced ooch), which is Turkish for three. I have always tried to learn a little of the language of any country that I am going to spend time in. I have found that one of the characteristics of the Ugly American is our insistence that everyone in the world speak English. It is great when I travel and I do have someone who is fluent or at least conversational in English, but most of the time the people from the culture that I am visiting really appreciate my attempts to learn their language and are very encouraging. Even at times when I have butchered a phrase I usually am patted on the back with big smiles for at least trying.

I have written in past about my Turkish earthquake relief efforts. I talked already about a friend of mine named Charlie who was a retired Boeing worker and was good with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. Charlie helped me set up the clinic in two different areas of Turkey. One such trip was in August and I had already been to Turkey in January and May of that same year. Our August trip was to consist of going to Adapazzarι, Turkey where the original clinic had been set up and break it down and transport it to another area of Turkey along the Aegean coast.

Our first obstacle came while waiting in the check-in line at the Wichita airport. It was as we were waiting in line that the airline that we were flying on went on strike. Literally… on strike! There were three groups of people ahead of us and they were being hurried through and given vouchers to spend the night in a hotel across the street. Well, for Charlie and I, this was just the first leg of many legs to get to Istanbul, and the timing of the airlines flight schedules were such that if we missed this flight we would not get to Istanbul for four days.

As we approached the counter the clerk, who was very upset and wanted to leave and was doing everything he could to inconvenience everybody else by a quick hotel voucher distribution, decided that he was through with the whole mess and left us standing there. At this point a young girl who more than likely was still training for the job and wasn’t nearly as gung ho on the idea of a strike stepped behind the counter and asked for our tickets and passports. After typing vigorously for several minutes she finally looked up at Charlie and me and said, “Well, I can get you there, but it is a different route.”

She then took our tickets which were to Chicago, then London, then Istanbul, and reissued us tickets to Atlanta, then Brussels, and then Istanbul. We thanked her vigorously for hanging in there for us, and flew to Atlanta only a little later than our flight would have been to Chicago.

When we got to Atlanta we became the interest of every clerk from every airline in the international terminal in Atlanta. It seems that whatever the young girl did was not actually proper procedure, and by the response of all the clerks who came from their own kiosk to ours, her actions also seemed to border on illegal. It was described to us as if we had bought a car with someone else’s check book. We were not flying the same airlines as we had paid for, nor were any of these airlines partners. Long story short, knowing the dilemma we were in and through no fault of our own we were in Atlanta and not Chicago, our tickets were honored, but we got the feeling that girl in Wichita was in a lot of trouble. I wrote a letter to the airline thanking them for her efficient, courteous, service. The bottom line was we made it to Istanbul only six hours later than we had originally planned.

I never sleep well on airplanes. I’m six foot one inch, and as everybody knows, economy seats are made for people who are one foot six inches. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is I can only doze on flights. So by the time I reached Istanbul and only got to spend four hours in our hotel before we caught a bus to Adapazzaι the next morning, we were both pretty pooped.

Bus travel in Turkey is amazing. There are assigned seats for each ticket holder, and during the trip a nice porter with a white shirt and bow tie asks if you would like to have a beverage and a snack. The first leg of the trip was about two hours, and after arriving in Adapazzaι we met up with our friend Melda who let us into the clinic so we could disassemble the equipment for the eleven hour bus ride to Kushadιsa on the coast.

Melda had arranged our bus fare and travel and escorted us to the bus station so we could leave at the scheduled time, 10:30 P.M. Charlie and I had our tickets and boarded the bus and found our assigned seats and sat down. By this time we had been going with very little sleep for three days. Pretty much as soon as we sat down, we both fell asleep.

After we had been on the road for about an hour I was awakened by a gentle nudge of the porter in his white shirt and bow tie. He said something to me in Turkish which I didn’t understand, and repeating it didn’t help. I realized that Charlie and I were the only non-Turkish speakers on the bus because this bus was not a tour bus. It was a bus in the middle of the night through central Turkey for Turks.

Now to go back to what I said in the first paragraph, I had been trying to learn as much Turkish as possible, but at this point in my education I was still nodding my head and smiling, which is the universal language of the non-fluent. I went through my little mental Rolodex of Turkish words and phrases to see if I could recognize anything the young man had said to me. After an awkward moment of silence I assumed that the only thing the porter could be wanting at 11:30 in the middle of the night was to know if we wanted a beverage and a snack. I, therefore, chose the safest response and said, “No, thank you”. And yes, I said it in English because I could not remember one single word in Turkish at 11:30 P.M. The porter slunk his shoulders in frustration and shook his head and repeated what he had said once again.

Now the beauty of the Turkish language is that it has what is called vowel harmonies. Eight vowels that are arranged in specific groups so that the language actually has a certain harmony to it. It kind of sings when it is spoken. Which means a Turk can say an entire sentence and it sounds like one word to the untrained listener.

Charlie finally roused from his sleep and asked me what the porter wanted. I said, “I think he wants to know if we want something to eat.” Charlie looked up at the porter and said, “I don’t believe I’ll have any.” He had no sooner said this when the word for ticket, bilet, popped into my mind as a word within the phrase the young Turk had said to me. I said, “Ohhh… he wants our tickets,” and I began to pull them out of my pocket. The porter nodded his head vigorously, took the tickets from me firmly and deliberately, with irritation, and checked off our two seats on his clip board. Check. Check. Charlie and I looked towards each other and said simultaneously, “I don’t believe I’ll have any.”

We had a good laugh over it much to the chagrin of the poor porter. For the rest of our time in Turkey whenever someone said anything to us that we didn’t understand, we simply responded, “I don’t believe I’ll have any.” Since we didn’t have anyone watching out for us while we traveled, we dubbed that journey Our trip without adult supervision.

I used this story in my novel, Vale of Shadows, when my characters traveled by bus at night through central Turkey. Check it out at Amazon.com or bn.com, and find a synopsis at www.robdakin.com

May God Bless you until next time. Happy New Year!

Travel Mercies Part Dy

I Don’t Want To Travel That Way


I know that some of you may still be traveling for the Holidays. I hope everything is going smoothly, and that you have had wonderful times with your family and friends. To continue with the Travel Mercies Part Dy, which is the number two in Albanian—see you learned something new today already—I thought I would just stay in Albania for now. I have had so many amazing, crazy, scary, and death defying avenues from point A to point B in Albania alone that it could take up several pages.

     In 1994, my first summer in Albania one of our modes of transportation was to take a ferry barge up the Drin River in northern Albania. We left our base camp by Land Rover and traveled about two hours to a landing at the base of a dam. To arrive at the landing we first had to scrape through a rough cut tunnel with light bulbs strung along its walls and barely enough room for the vehicle to pass through without knocking off the side view mirrors.

     One of the first things that I noticed was that there was a pleasant breeze blowing down the river. It had been stiflingly hot in the Land Rover and had also been stifling hot at our base camp at King Zog’s old summer palace on the lake in Shiroka. So a breeze for this Kansas boy was a welcomed relief. Remember what I said about the jungle in Liberia?

     The ferry landing was a bustling enterprise with Albanian soldiers guarding the landing and the dam, and several kiosks and a café selling drinks and snacks, which by the way suddenly increased in price by three hundred percent when they found out Americans were present, and quite a large number of Albanians who were not part of our project who also were wanting to go up river. We loaded onto the ferry and found seats that were a wreck of exposed springs and patches of foam rubber with tatters of upholstery clinging stubbornly with rusted staples and twine. I am pretty sure I also saw pieces of crenated human flesh impaled on the spring barbs. But all this was part of the patina of the vessel.

     Being the back row Baptist that I had been raised to be I carefully mounted one of the so called seats in the stern compartment taking extra precaution to insure that I did not leave a token of my own flesh as a souvenir. An American named Doug, who had lived overseas all his life, passed by me as he made his way back to his seat after using the bano, or toilet, and said simply, “That goes on my bottom five list.” This amusing comment meant that the toilet on the ferry we were on, and would be for the next five hours, was one of the worst five toilets this man had every seen in the whole world. I decide to check it out for myself. I have now traveled, not as a tourist, to many parts of the world, and I still have that bano on my own personal bottom five list. Just opening the door tainted my clothing with the pungent odor of ancient, layered, human excrement. I chose at that moment to hold it for the rest of the trip.

     No one on our team could have foreseen the chaos that would ensue as the ferry began its long chug up the River Drin, and the maelstrom of unbreathable air that assaulted on the wind from that port side bano. The mass exodus to the bow area through the starboard gangway is something that I had never experienced and only witnessed in natural disaster movies. In the end the best seat in the boat was the roof of the ferry which was not meant for passengers, but hey, we were in Albania. The breeze off the river was strong and cool and breathable. Note—I used this ferry and the bano story in my novel, Vale of Shadows. Check it out at Amazon.com or bn.com, and visit my authors website at www.robdakin.com for a synopsis.

     Another time in Albania, years later, our team had to travel from a village in the plains to a village up in the mountains. We checked around and found a man who had a furgon, or van, who was willing to drive us to the mountain village the next day. As team leader I had the responsibility and privilege to sit in the front seat with the driver, who was probably about fifty to sixty years old at the time.

     We made our way slowly up the rutted, potholed, narrow road that was just barely wider than a sheep trail. Several times we were forced to make incredibly sharp turns to ascend the switchback trail. I looked out the window, remember I said you should never do that, to see the front tire slide precariously toward the abyss and certain death below. But believe it or not I remained calm because I knew that our driver was capable and competent, and he knew these roads like the back of his hand.

     At one point the furgon began to loose traction up the steep hill, so the driver put the vehicle in reverse and backed down the trail about twenty feet—we only had twenty feet one inch before we careened over the cliff—so he could take a new running start at it. The rear wheels spun, gravel and dirt sprayed the landscape, and the furgon fishtailed its way to the next plateau. At this point I looked out over the valley below and thought, This would be a lovely place to set my memorial marker. I should point out that Albanian roads are strewn with memorial markers of drivers who have found out the hard way that their automobiles could not fly, or at least had a limited flight pattern. Name, age, and dates, on a beautiful marble stone, even a photo in ceramic. Very nice.

     When we finally, and mercifully, arrived at our village I paid the driver the agreed upon amount of Lek, and we unloaded our equipment after of course we pried open our gnarled grips from the “Oh my gosh bars” that were mounted strategically about the cab. The driver shook my hand most vigorously and thanked me up and down for allowing him to bring us to the village. I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “I just got my drivers license yesterday. You were the first to let me drive. No one else in the town wanted to ride with me.”

I hope your travel arrangements are more to your liking. May God Bless you until next time!

Travel Mercies

There Is Always Room For One More


     As we approach the day that we commemorate as Christ’s birth, I know that many people will be traveling. Some people will travel relatively close to home, while others will “traverse a far.” For those of you who will be traveling I thought a few stories about travel from my mission journeys will maybe help you push through the temptation to dread and complain about your circumstances, and realize that just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse you are then smacked with that sinking feeling that it really can.

     Over the years I have been in Albania sixteen times. Traveling in Albania gave me a whole new perspective on what is acceptable when trying to get from point A to point B. I have flown in by helicopter to remote villages, walked over mountains with small Albanian horses or donkeys carrying the equipment, chauffeured by horse cart, open bed trucks, buses, taxis, Land Rovers, ferry barges, and vans.

     The most striking feature of Albanian travel is that you can always get one more person in the vehicle no matter how many people you already have. One morning our team of six needed to travel to a town that was about two hours away by bad road. We were told that a furgon or van was going to be in the village at six in the morning and that we could hitch a ride. When the furgon arrived we discovered that it had already made a stop or two in other villages and by American standards was already full. Actually it was more than full. You might even describe it as unsafely stuffed. But true to Albanian hospitality and the mentality that there is always room for one more, the driver and the other passengers wouldn’t hear of us missing this scheduled stop and quickly loaded and lashed our equipment to the top of the van and made way for us to sit inside. The twenty-two of us squeezed into this eleven passenger van, and bumped and jarred our way down the mountain road.

     I know many of you are probably trying to figure out how twenty-two people could fit into an eleven passenger van. I really can’t describe it and give any kind of justice to it, but just to give it a meager try—one passenger squished into the seat on the left of the driver and held the door as best he could against flying open which it frequently did with every jolt of the potholed road. I should also add that that passenger had to operate the brake pedal because the driver was nearly straddling the stick shift and could only reach the accelerator pedal. I, at this point must make one thing perfectly clear—it is best to never look.

     On another occasion in Albania, another team of six had to travel in similar fashion from one village to another village about two hours away. This time, however, our team was one of the first stops early in the morning, so when we pulled into another village just down the road the boarding passengers squeezed into our already full furgon. In this case I had a little old shepherd man sit on my lap for the next two hours. I couldn’t really complain because everyone who had boarded previously got to have someone sitting on their lap. At one point I looked over at one of my mission partners named Mosa who was squished up against me and had a little old lady of her own sitting on her lap. I said to her, “Don’t touch me! I’m tired of being touched.” Mosa looked at me puzzled for a moment and then caught the humor in what I said and translated it into Albanian for the other passengers. We all had a good laugh and my little old man showed particular fondness by patting my leg and smiling at me.

     Personal space issues that most Americans have I have found just really don’t exist in many parts of the other world. There is no bubble. And it just doesn’t matter that you are all hot and sweaty because everybody else is maybe even more hot and sweaty. A definition that I remember from my physiology days is, “The olfactory is highly exhaustitory.” Meaning that your sense of smell can get used to an order fairly quickly. Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. There has never been a time that I have had enough water in a village to take a bath, so I would, along with everyone else, go days or even a week or two or three with a waft of foul, odious, putrescence in my wake. In other words, I blended in.

     I was hitch hiking in central Albania one day with an Albanian friend. We had been in a village that was just off the main highway from Durrës to Tirana. A furgon stopped to pick us up and I could immediately see that they already had way too many people riding in that van, but that of course didn’t mean that we were not to hop right on in. I sat on the small arm rest of a middle seat and tried to balance myself against the jarring of the road. That was before major construction made the road the very nice highway that it is today. On that day it was full of potholes.

     At one point we came up on a police checkpoint. The driver slowed and turned and said we had too many people and that he could lose his taxi license. I was amazed that he even had a license, but to help him get through the checkpoint without being stopped, I and the other four surplus people above the fifteen passenger limit laid on the floor and, unfortunately, for the legal passengers to look normal they had to rest their feet on us. The ploy worked and the driver was waved on through the checkpoint. I and the others crawled back into place with much thanks from the driver and pats on the back from the other passengers. I went the rest of the day with little, dusty shoe prints from the lady that was sitting next to me stamped proudly on my back.

     On another occasion in Albania we traveled in an old beat up school bus from the airport in Tirana to the northeastern city of Kukës. Again that was before they had a nice highway built. That trip was about seventy miles as the crow flies, but it took us ten hours to travel it. Winding switchback roads through the steep Balkan Alps. This was shortly after the fall of the communist government and many Albanians who were now driving had very little experience with driving or automobiles in general. We noticed that the driver was driving with the buses headlights off. It had become very dark and the roads were treacherous, and he was driving with no headlights. When asked about it, he said he didn’t want to run down the battery. It was explained to him that there is an alternator and a generator that recharges the battery when the engine is running. He stopped the bus, popped the hood and we showed him the alternator and the generator by the light of one of our flashlights. He was very pleased to learn this, having never heard of this before. As we continued our journey he turned and exclaimed, “I can see!”

     As I have written these stories about modes of transportation I realize that I have many, many more from other travels. So for the sake of the season and your attention span I will post a continuation later. For now, however, I hope you have a more light-hearted perspective as you make your own holiday travel plans, and are thankful for the opportunity to visit loved ones.

Merry Christmas, and may God Bless you until next time!

Culturally Acceptable

Now There’s Something You Don’t Hear Everyday in Church

Liberia- June 2008

     This story is a little more light hearted than some of my previous stories, but it is a great reminder that the world is full of people and people express themselves in culture. I love differing cultures. I think it is God’s way of showing His immense creativity.

     I joined a medical/dental team with Hospitals of Hope going to Liberia. My daughter, Aubrey and her college room mate, Stephanie came with me to help out in the dental clinic. We worked mostly with children and staff of a boarding school called Rick’s Institute. Our little dental team worked in the same clinic as a medical team from First Baptist Church of El Dorado, Kansas, which had a long standing relationship with Rick’s Institute since the end of the civil war in Liberia.

     On one occasion the team packed up in a bus and went to a village out in the jungle, and along with us came a couple of Liberian pastors who were church planters. We set up the two clinics in a church building with a corrugated tin roof and bullet holes in the walls from the war. The dental clinic was on the stage on one side of the pulpit and the medical clinic was on the stage on the other side with the pews being used as a reception area for people waiting in line. The sanctuary part of the church was really the last part of the line, which was always full of waiting people, but an even longer line of people waited out in the hot sun.

     We used an old chair for a dental chair, and leaned it back against my lap after we seated each patient. Aubrey and Stephanie took turns assisting me chair side. Unfortunately all we could do was extract teeth due to their poor condition, which is always discouraging because I usually try to save teeth whenever possible with fillings even on my mission trips.

     The lines were long and seemed to be unending. I sweated out fourteen pounds during my time in Liberia. It was about 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity, being the rainy season in June. And did you know that there is no wind in the jungle? Being from Kansas I am used to strong winds. I spent a great deal of time praying for just a little breeze. There is not one picture of me that I am not drenched in sweat. I never complained about it, but one of the Liberian pastors read my body language one day and said, “Africa is for the Africans.” And then he came me a friendly jostle. At that point I was inclined to agree with him.

     I had no idea what time it was because our day was jammed pack with people in dental pain who had never been to a dentist before and some of them didn’t speak the same language as our Liberian friends. So an endless parade of people sitting in my makeshift chair meant that lunch time came and went and before we knew it, it was already mid afternoon.

     It was Pastor Wade from El Dorado who finally noticed that none of us had had a break for several hours, and so he talked to the Liberian leaders to have us take a quick lunch break and eat our sack lunches that had been brought from our base at the school. Several chairs had been placed on the dental side of the pulpit so the whole team gather to eat there while the villagers sat in the pews and watched us.

     It was decided that the opportunity for Pastor Wade to share the Gospel while the villagers waited was too good to pass up. It had begun to rain and the arrhythmic plunking of the rain on the tin roof was nearly deafening inside that little church. As is always a challenge in these kind of situations, Wade’s sermon had to be translated into the local dialect by one of our Liberian church planters. There was a lot of restlessness in the pews as the humidity went from bad to worse.

     A baby being held by a woman sitting on the medical side of the pulpit began crying. Soon the crying escalated above the din of the rain on the tin roof and the restlessness of the people in the pews, and very quickly annoyed the translating church planter who was frustrated beyond words already. After a couple of unheeded angry glances back at the woman with the baby, he finally turned and said, “Cood sumbudy shut dat bayby up. Geev it a tiddy dare.”

     We all on the stage eating lunch were shocked mid-morsal, and turned looking at each other saying, “Did we just here what we think we just heard?” It must have worked because very quickly the baby stopped crying.

     I knew from that moment on that none of us would ever hear a baby crying in church again and not think of that time in the village. The story continues, however, as on the way home Aubrey and I got to sit together in the side seats on the flight from Monrovia to Brussels while Stephanie sat in the middle seats next to a Liberian mother with her toddler and infant. Stephanie being the caring person that she is was helping the young mother with her children when at one point the mother took her toddler to the restroom and left Steph holding the baby. The baby soon began crying, and Steph looked over at Aubrey and I and said, “What do I do? She won’t stop crying.” I looked at her firmly and said, “You know exactly what to do!”

    God bless you until next time!

Wrapping Up in Kenya


Nairobi, Kenya-December 2011

     I have one last story that is happening now before I leave Kenya. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to even post stories while I was here, but here I have now had two opportunities. After traveling and meetings, and then more traveling and getting back late we have usually been pretty tired at night so I haven’t taken the time. There are many stories that I want to tell about Kenya, but let me tell one that relates to my first story about the orphanage in Kazakhstan.

     Karen and I were on our way with Peter to visit an orphanage in the Ngong Hills. I couldn’t help but think of the opening line to Karen Blixen’s story Out of Africa, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” You should read the book, but can’t you just here Meryl Streep saying that line. I can. I guess I’m kind of a romantic, but as we came into view of the Ngong Hills (pronounced, GONG) I think the beauty would make anyone a romantic.

     We arrived at this eleven acre complex funded by Norwegians, which was perched high on the hillside over looking the plains below. We met with the Director Joyce who just happens to be the cousin of a friend of mine in Wichita who is the wife of a Kenyan dentist friend of mine.

     The children were waiting on us and presented us with several songs and dances, and then we were given a tour of their vegetable gardens, and animals that they raise to sustain the orphanage. Cows, goats, chickens, and rabbits gave milk, eggs, and occasionally meat, but also cow manure was mixed with water and compressed to make biogas that was used for fuel and fertilizer.

     The thing that was so impressive was that the children in the orphanage each have a job working on the farm. They learn how to take care and harvest what is given by the animals as well as learning how to garden. The children are also taught how to cook and knit and clean their own cloths. The facilities are very clean because each child has a job that they are expected to do each day.

     Karen and Peter and I listened to their stories about what they knew how to do, and what they wanted to do when they graduated from school. Joyce and the rest of her staff have instilled in each child the drive to succeed, and not to look at their past and allow that past to cripple their future.

     A slogan that was repeated by Joyce and the children several times in the course of their stories was, “I refuse to be poor because in my hands is…(then all the children finished the phrase)… money.” The children are being taught that if they want something better than they have been given, then they are going to work for it, and work hard. Life has been unfair to them, but they are not going to let that stop them from moving forward and becoming better.

     I thought about this lesson that can and should be learned by all of our children. I know I have been as guilty as the next person in giving my children things that would have been better for them to have worked harder for. Some of the things Karen and I thought our kids could not have lived without may never have entered their minds that they even wanted them if those things would have come at a higher price, that is our kids own sweat.

     I am not talking about child labor here which definitely can be abused, but the children at Good Hope Academy in he Ngong Hills of Kenya don’t expect anyone to do something for them that they cannot do for themselves. They have been taught to knit, boys and girls alike, so that they can knit their own sweaters and scarves ( it gets pretty chilly at that altitude).

     What a contrast to what we were told in our meetings by Kenyan healthcare officials earlier in the week. It goes along with my previous posting. One Official said that they had tried to do the same thing we are going to do in Mathare Valley, in the Kibera slum, but because of the culture of expecting handouts in that slum the project had failed.

     It all goes back to kind, generous people willing to give, but going about it in a harmful way without realizing it. This giving has created an almost insurmountable problem within Kibera. That problem is that a culture has been established in Kibera that seeing a white person or Muzungu automatically means that a hand out of some kind is coming.

     This is damaging in several ways. First, it removes the initiative of the people to help themselves out catastrophic poverty. They are in a hopeless spiral downwards into deeper poverty and despair because they are not expected to, or given the chance to make improvements for themselves.  As an example of a good way to help, the children at Good Hope were not given sweaters and scarves—they were given the tools to make their own. Those children in telling us their stories were proud of the fact they could make their own clothes which in turn gives them a marketable way to make money with their own hands in the future.

     Secondly, the perpetual handout has crippled other worthwhile organizations that are not in the business of handing out. Or friends Wallace and Mary who are directors of Missions of Hope in Mathare Valley have had to discontinue needed projects in Kibera slum because of the handout mentality.

     I am just thankful for dedicated people like Wallace and Mary, and Joyce who have dedicated their lives to helping others in a positive long term, sustainable way. I had the privilege of seeing the same attitude while working in Liberia, a country in west Africa. The slogan in that school and orphanage was, “Don’t help us, hope us. Give us hope that we can do it ourselves.”

     I know we don’t mean to hurt other people when we give, but lets be sure that when we give it gives hope for a future that is free from long and dangerous mobs waiting for a handout. Lets give in order to teach people how to develop skills of their own. Let’s give in order to supply materials that can be used to propagate necessities such as seeds, and animals. Joyce shared with me that someone donated a cow to the orphanage which not only gave milk, but also as produced more cows—they now have five.

     See what I’m saying? We can and we should give, and we will make a huge difference in the world, but let’s do it with a better understanding of who we are dealing with. We are dealing with people. People just like you and me, that if given the chance would desire the ability to provide for their family rather than relying on someone else to do it.

     Now that being said, I realize that solving the worlds poverty doesn’t mean an immediate cessation of providing relief, or to have people stop giving, but relief must be immediate and temporary and then move as quickly as possible into development. I also realize that there are some people who would rather take the handout, but that is a separate issue.

     There is a great book that I would recommend by Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, which goes into more detail about helping in a harmful way, and how you can reverse a dangerous trend.

     May God Bless you until next time!

I’m in Kenya

Healthcare Development in the Mathare Valley slum of Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya- Now, December 7, 2011

     This is not a normal story from my past journals. This story is taking place as you read it. I and Karen are in Nairobi, Kenya working to develop a full time permanent healthcare facility in the Mathare Valley slum. In this slum are over 800,000 people crammed into a one square mile area. No running water, no electricity, open sewers, disease, child pregnancy, 99% unemployment,  and no affordable access to healthcare.

     One thing that is there is a people who are eager to improve if they are just given the chance. A people born not as lucky??? as you and I. A people who have love to give if someone would just be willing to give them hope.

     It is heartbreaking to hear their stories and see their despair and hopelessness just because they were born some of the poorest of the poor. They feel shame when they shouldn’t. They feel inferior when they have as much to give as anyone.

     Can this cycle of impoverishment be broken? Maybe not. This is the world we live in. But I think, at least for myself, I’ve got to try to do something. Remember the story of the starfish?

     So with this quest in sight we are here. Not to do anything single handed, but to simply join God where He is already working. To help develop long term healthcare where there is none. To encourage Kenyan healthcare professionals to take the lead.

     You see the problem is that so often we look at the solution as just giving the poor something. When in reality they need to be empowered. We fill their empty hands from our abundance, but the long term effect is dependence not freedom. Relief is extremely important, but if it is not immediate and temporary it takes the poor’s initiative away. The longer we keep them in a state of relief, the deeper into dependency they become. And the cycle goes on and on.

     You have heard the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Sometimes we may have to provide the fishing pole and the bait, but what the poor need, and in my experience want, is a way to provide for themselves and their families. This breaks the stranglehold of shame and despair, and gives them a hope for a better future.

     Going beyond the relief work model and getting into the development model means we approach the disparity of healthcare in the slum not with the needs based approach, but with an asset based approach. The question is, What assets do the Kenyans possess that can alleviate this problem? And the answer is, “They have everything they need to alleviate the problem.

     The Kenyans have high standards for their healthcare professional. The problem is in the distribution of these assets. That is what my proposal is all about, and I am very pleased to say that the head medical and dental officers loved the proposal and have officially “caught the vision” and as of yesterday are pursuing the development of permanent healthcare in the Mathare Valley by qualified Kenyan professionals. Yea!!!

     It’s going to take time, but it has got to start somewhere and this week is one of those red letter days. I am extremely grateful, and humbled, to have been able to be a part of it. Karen and I couldn’t keep our eyes dry when the senior medical officer in Nairobi said this was a great vision and she would promote it, and then the next day she said that she had been dreaming about the proposal all night and had begun the process of mapping out a time table. WOW!

    Now when we bring medical and dental teams for short term mission trips it can be what the Kenyan medical and dental officers referred to as “skills sharing” and be far more productive.

     Encouraging children in the highly successful Missions of Hope school system in Mathare Valley to set high goals for professional careers is also part of the proposal. I have already had the chance to meet with a young ninth grade boy named Alex who is a top student in one of the best high schools in Nairobi, and a Mathare kid, to pursue his long time dream of becoming a dentist. He said when he gets done with dental school someday, he wants to come back and help in Mathare Valley.

     WOW! Now that’s empowerment. That’s a brighter tomorrow not only for him, but for his family. And what does this do? It gives him a goal to strive for. It gives him a hope that his parents never had. It gives him a sense that he can make a difference one starfish at a time. I told him that next time I bring a team he will be helping. His eyes got huge, and he said, “ME?” I said “Yes, YOU, because you can do it.”

     I then had him write his name in my journal and the name of his school. I then wrote a description of him underneath his name:

Wants to be a dentist someday.  

He watched over my shoulder as I then wrote:

Wants Will be a dentist someday.

The smile on his face was absolutely priceless.

     There is no end to the potential of a child who is given a dream!

     Until next time. God bless you. And when He does why don’t you think of a way you can turn that blessing into a blessing for someone else.

On My Way To Kenya

Hi everyone, Thank you for checking into my mission stories. I hope you are enjoying them. I will be in Nairobi, Kenya for the next ten days. Karen and I are going to present some ideas for healthcare development in the slum of Mathare Valley. I’m not sure how much access I will have to the Internet, so I may not be able to post any new stories for a week or so. The good news is I will have more stories to tell! Yea!

Protection / Albania

A Taste of Heaven? Oh, yeah!

Albania-AERO Projekt-1998

     As I described before, I was part of the AERO Projekt for ten years. The summer project of 1998 has always been one of my favorites for a number of reasons that I shall share in future stories. But the story I want to tell now was one that has had a tremendous impact on me from that time until now.

    My team of six was made up of Dennis, Terri, Besiana, Lindita, Ari, and myself. We had a great first three days of the cycle as we showed the Jesus Film in three villages on consecutive nights. We then went back to our base camp and prepared our team to go to the village that had the best response to the Film, and then go back for three days to do follow-up with the villagers.

We spent the next two days in training and on the third morning we were to go back to our village of choice. We had decided to go back to the third village because of their enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus, and also because before we left they had begged us to come back to their home. Our teams schedule to leave for the village by Land Rover was to be at 8 o’clock that third morning.

     All of the teams in the base camp were buzzing and eager to get back out into the villages. Everyone was ready way early to load up at their scheduled times. Our team was to be one of the first to leave since our village was relatively close to the camp. Our time of departure came and went without any teams leaving.

     After about a half an hour past our departure time, and with no other teams leaving I began to get the sense that something was wrong. I walked across the court yard and saw the soon to be appointed national director, Dan talking with some other CCC staff. I thought, “Well there’s Dan.” I hadn’t seen Dan in the base camp since I had arrived in Albania.

     Nearly an hour late, all the internationals (Americans, some Dutch, and a Swiss) were called into the meeting shelter. No one had any idea what was going on. Dan stood before the group and informed us that the United States Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya had just been bombed, and that a threat had been made against the U.S. Embassy in Albania. Dan said that the State Department had issued a warning stating that we were in ‘grave danger’, and that they high recommended we leave Albania. Dan said that Land Rovers would take us to the airport as soon as they could arrange for us to leave. He went on to say that he and the rest of the international staff were going to stay. This decision was based on the situation a year earlier when Albania went into a state of civil war forcing all the internationals to leave for a period of time. They felt like they had abandoned their Albanian team mates and they had no intention of being run out again.

     The news of the bombings was very upsetting for all of us. After the initial shock, tears, and heartache we needed to decide what to do next. The grief quickly turned to anger from me and many of the others. I felt that the first half of the cycle for every team had been such a huge success, and this was a distraction by the enemy to get us to quit before we were done.

     I asked, “What if we don’t want to leave?” My thinking was that we were in remote villages among a people that loved and cared for us while we were their guests. The danger was for groups of Americans, not one or two scattered in hard to reach mountain villages. Everyone in that meeting quickly voiced their desire to stay.

     Dan said if we were going to stay, then we were going to have to sign a document stating that we had been informed of the potential danger, and against the advice of the State Department, and despite the fact that we had heard that the Embassy was going to evacuate some of its personnel, we were choosing to stay. We all quickly looked for pens and signed the document.

     Afterward our Albanian team mates came into the meeting shelter and sat with us by team. They were still buzzing and excited about the follow-up cycle, and had heard nothing about the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. When my team sat next to Dennis and Teri and I, they could tell something was weighing heavily on our hearts.

     Dan then began explaining to them what had happened in the Albanian language. He hadn’t gotten far when the Albanians burst into tears and cries and crowded around each of us as they began holding us  closely, and rubbing and patting our backs.

     Besiana tried to speak with tears running down her cheeks as she stood up and hugged me tightly saying, “Oh, Robi, you are going to have to leave us?” I was too emotional to say anything.

     Dan continued in Albanian, and then held up the document we had all signed stating we were staying. What happened next was the most remarkable explosion of emotion I had ever witnessed. The place absolutely erupted with cheers, and praises of thanksgiving, gratitude, hugs and hand shakes, and weeping uncontrollably, but this weeping was for joy. I had never, ever experienced such an out pouring of love as I did that day by those wonderful Albanian friends.

     I knew that we had been blessed with a glimpse  of what heaven was going to be like . All it took was an audacious faith in an Almighty God and not to concentrate on our circumstances. We were cautious, but as it turned out the second half of the AERO cycle was even more successful than the first—but that is for other stories.

     The Albanian villagers did go out of their way to protect us. They were actually thankful we stayed. The home we stayed in was high up on a mountain over looking the central plains of Albania and we could see the main road from Durrës, a major port city to the capitol, Tirana. For the rest of our time there we watched Italian Army convoys heading for Tirana. At the same time, Serbians were attacking Kosovars not far away and NATO planes and helicopters flew over head frequently, but we were never in danger.

     Our attitude was that God would protect us, but even if He didn’t protect us, at least in the way we commonly think of protection, we knew that His will was for us to continue what we had been doing in the villages.

     I have since been to Nairobi, Kenya and seen the sight of where the U.S. Embassy used to be. It is a stark reminder that evil thrives in our world. We who are able should try to make the world better so that when evil arises it will not have such a devastating foot hold.

I am thankful for God’s provision and strength, and I am truly thankful for my Albanian friends who I refer to as my ‘loved ones’.

May God bless you until next time!