Thursday, July 16, 2020

I WILL NOT be cheated! (Random personal thoughts on forgiveness)

I WILL NOT LET ANYONE TAKE WHAT IS MINE! (including my rights!)

A peak into the soul of a controlling man...

A recipe for bitterness and a brittle heart...

I wasn't always this way. I remember as a teenager working on a repair job with my uncle. He stepped off the ladder next to where I was working on the floor and stepped squarely on my fingers with his workboots. It hurt! But my response was reflexive - I apologized for getting in his way and almost making him fall... The other people in the room laughed at me (who apologizes when it is their fingers that got stepped on?!) but it seemed quite natural to me...

I remember maybe the day (?) when this attitude took root in my heart. I was in seminary but visiting at a relative's home. I had just had my car repaired and the mechanic had really hung me out to dry, overcharging and then not doing the job. I had worked myself up into a bit of a tizzy and eventually borrowed my relative's phone and called the mechanic and gave him "what-for" (threatening to stop payment on the credit card and eventually getting him to agree to fix the problem as he should have in the first place) while in hearing of the other people in the house. When I got back several people praised my assertiveness.

I'm a sucker for praise. Really.

That semester in my small group in seminary I brought this issue up several times. I was uneasy with my harsh solution - it didn't seem loving. Others in my small group gave me suggestions as to how I could have handled it in a more gracious way. But my brain chemistry was hung up on the praise I got for standing up strong and asserting myself and not allowing me to be cheated. 

I didn't make a conscious decision to become a jerk, but my emotions started setting down some ruts in my brain.

Did I mention that I'm a sucker for praise and for pleasing people? That praise felt good. And it left deep tracks in my brain that then, over the years, were trodden many times (often successfully - being strong is a pretty good way to get your own way which feels good which motivates you to do the same the next time and so on) and eventually became deep ruts.

Here's the issue. I'm not naturally assertive. Basically the only way I can usually "be strong" is to work myself into a frothing rage at the person who has (in my omniscient understanding and perception) mistreated me.

I have to "set myself against" the other person in order to be assertive.

And here's the real confession: I'm lousy at letting go. I never learned to truly forgive from the heart.

I have heard it said (Heb 2:6 - that's my way of not having to look up the actual citation) that there is nothing we do that is more God-like than to forgive our brother

I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. I would LIKE to be God-like in this aspect, but I find myself unable. Oh, I know the external steps - in fact, I'm somewhat of an expert on reconciliation and peacemaking and have often taught and preached on the subject. It's not the intellectual or the volitional (?) side that eludes me - it's my heart, my emotions. My heart has the grip strength of a boa constrictor and when it has latched onto a perceived offense... It. Just. Won't. Let. Go.

I've known this about myself for quite some time. A while back I dedicated the study theme of a calendar year to learning about forgiveness, reading books, listening to sermons and podcasts, etc. I increased my intellectual expertise on the topic by quite a bit. But my heart leaned up against the wall with its arms crossed - it wasn't interested in the slightest.

Fast forward to 2019-20 and my burnout. I spent time with a Christian counselor and with my sabbatical coach and both of them zeroed in on my anger and bitterness. (Among other things - don't be deceived into thinking that's the extent of how messed up I am.) They both separately suggested that I spend a prayerful afternoon or day coming up with a list of people I hadn't forgiven (sorry, trees!). Then the next suggestion was to write them each a letter. Not a letter to actually deliver to them, but a letter to get the thoughts out as a benefit to me. I spent days - weeks! - on these 2 exercises!

You see, in reconciliation and peacemaking one of the important concepts is after you have reconciled with the person you need to avoid "dwelling on" the offense - part of forgiveness is choosing not to talk about it or think about it. That's really good advice - the alternative is that you REHEARSE your anger and we all know that we get good at the things we rehearse...

So I made the intentional choice to not talk about and to try not to think about these offenses. The issue is that my Tricky, Troublesome Little Heart (TTLH * ) didn't get the memo. Week after week, month after month, sometimes year after year these offenses would continue to come to my thoughts in a burst of emotional anger and I would mercilessly squash them down because I had chosen not to dwell on it.

But I never let it go. Not that I didn't TRY to let it go. It's that TTLH - sometimes it just won't listen to the voice of reason and volition!

So my counselor and sabbatical coach both said that the issue was I simply had not allowed myself to process those emotions. 


(Ah, you haven't read Thompson's "Anatomy of the Soul," have you?! Great book - a bit of a wade, but it has been hugely helpful to me... I strongly recommend it.)

Emotions don't like being ignored. They (usually) don't have to dominate the discussion for an extended period of time, but if you don't let them talk when they want to then they will take it out on you in some way that you will NOT like in the future...

I've learned that when those offenses come to mind I can't simply "choose to think about something else." Maybe at some point I will get to the point where I can do that. But for now I need to respond differently, actually "listening" to what my emotions are saying. I might say something like this:

Yes, that was a rotten thing for him to do. Yes, that hurt a lot. Yes, I still feel that hurt, exquisitely at times. No, there's no justifying or rationalizing what he did. Perhaps he had a bad day or was struggling himself, but ultimately it is FACT that what he did was WRONG and HURTFUL and (unless I am completely misunderstanding) it was SIN. I recognize my hurt, I FEEL my hurt, and I accept/acknowledge that this person and his actions are the cause of my hurt. 

BUT I CAN'T STOP THERE! The above lets me process the emotion, lets it "be heard" but I'd better not stop there. Here's where I need to transition to:

So I've clearly established that he is a sinner. Just. Like. Me. I've clearly established that what he did was wrong and hurtful. Just. Like. Many. MANY. Of. My. Actions. Towards. Others. I've clearly established that he deeply offended me. Just. Like. My. Sin. Offended. God. (except my offense towards God was much greater.) And God forgave me. Now I *choose* to forgive this person (for me, these words HAVE to be spoken out loud... they just don't latch on otherwise). I choose to *bless* this person, praying that God will give success and joy to this person. And (most recent discovery) I pray that God will forgive this person. ** (all this is much better done out loud for me - if it's all in my head then it tends to skate across the surface of my mind whereas if I speak it out loud [preferably in a private setting to avoid straitjackets and padded rooms ūüėÖ] it leaves an imprint.)

Maybe it would help if I put these steps into a numbered list:
  1. Acknowledge the hurt and validity of the offense (don't gloss over this! spend the time needed to actually feel what you are feeling)
  2. Remind yourself that you are the recipient of much greater forgiveness for a much greater offense
  3. Choose to forgive (and say it out loud)
  4. Pray a blessing (peace & prosperity & success - be specific to what you know about this person's situation!) on the offender
  5. Pray that God would forgive the offender
  6. Rinse and repeat every time God (or your TTLH) brings the offense to mind
May I finish with an encouraging story? There's a particular person in my life who is a family friend, someone who deeply offended/hurt me a couple years ago, a betrayal that at least in my lifetime trumps all others. I went through the external steps, but my heart has deeply struggled. This person has been at the top of my list for needing to figure out how to actually let my hurt and bitterness go. I've been going through these steps multiple times a day with varying people on "the list" (sigh. yes, it's a long list.) but this person is *always* part of every walk-thru, usually right at the beginning. The other day I was in a restaurant with my family and I noticed that the person in the table opposite us was the doppelganger for this person. I pointed it out to my family and we agreed it could be an identical twin and we laughed and the conversation went on. But I was left out of the conversation for several seconds as I sat in stunned silence, overwhelmed by the fact that for the first time in multiple years the thought of this person had entered my head and the anger and bitterness sat in quiescence. That TTLH that I've fought for so long? It just chuckled at the similarity of appearance and then went on without even bringing up the offense. I am 100% sure that I will continue to struggle and have to keep going through these steps, but it was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel - maybe even this recalcitrant TTLH will finally learn to LET GO and truly forgive...

* Tricky, Troublesome Little Heart (TTLH). Jeremiah 17:9 talks about our heart that is deceitful above all things. Obviously this is not in reference to our positional identity in Christ, but rather the old nature that we need to keep placing on the altar as we remind ourselves that this is not who we are anymore. But the emotions are not easily influenced by our pre-frontal cortex (volitional choice). And my TTLH is particularly prone to going a direction I don't like. I'm kind of fond of my heart (after all, it's the only one I've got!) but I do see us in a bit of internal strife about the direction we want to move...

** So Romans 12:19 talks about vengeance belonging to God. Galatians talks about doing good to those who hurt you and in so doing you will heap coals of fire on their head. I realized recently that before I added this step (praying that God would forgive the offender) I was treating God as my Celestial Hitman. I would go through all the external steps and then I would wait in gleeful anticipation for God to step in and ZOT the offender ("zot" is a technical term - if you aren't familiar with it then you aren't reading your BC comics enough). It doesn't take a genius to realize that wasn't exactly the kind of attitude that guides one's TTLH into actually letting go. Praying that God will forgive the person of this wrong obviously has plenty of Scriptural backing (Jesus on the cross, Steven while being stoned [not that kind of stoned, silly, the kind with big rocks that hurt you until you die!], and even verses like John 20:23 implying that our forgiveness somehow motivates/influences God's forgiveness). But, more importantly (in the context of my TTLH - probably not more important in the big picture), praying sincerely that God would forgive the offender requires me to take the next step in letting go the offense and actually desiring GOOD for this person. It's a step further along the same line that is started by praying a  blessing on this person.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

And Then There Were Four...

The exci tement of the trip, buying new items, thinking through what might be needed, arriving early to avoid the traffic, carrying suitcases and boxes and crates, watching and talking while he organizes things.

And then the excitement ends. Not slowly and gently but suddenly and loudly, like the sound of a guillotine slamming home.

A last meal. A last prayer with a tight voice and a quavering chin.

And then there were four.

A long, quiet drive home, a growing pile of tissues on the floorboards of the car. Periodic conversation gambits fumbled in the haze of sorrow.

This morning I got up as usual before the rest of the family. Usually I have to be careful which light I turn on because Christopher's room is a little day-room that looks into the kitchen. This morning I didn't have to be careful. No snarled sheets, no bed-head on that pillow.

Oops. Not "Christopher's room is" but "Christopher's room was"...

Words hurt. Even the tense of a word can hurt.

Tears flow. Again. Who knew one head could generate so much snot and tears. I suppose the resulting headache is complaint from the factory floor, unused to being in full-time, non-stop production mode.

Each day I try to take one simple concept from the Gospel and preach it to myself throughout the day. One of the streams in my reading plan has me going through John and so Jesus' claim, "I am the light of the world" was the concept for yesterday. At first it seemed a little dry and I was afraid I might have trouble holding onto it throughout the day. But then with our early morning departure He gifted us with a sunrise and a few minutes later a "column rainbow" out of nowhere. By evening when He gifted us with a golden explosion of sunset I was getting the message that had been knocking.

Family is a wonderful source of joy. Inside my head almost a fireworks display of fun and shared experience. But 18 years is not forever. (Just a really long time to get quite addicted to that source of light) Jesus is a source of light and joy Who will not be interrupted mid-blaze by needing to go to college.

He is my source of joy. He is enough for joy. I choose to hold onto Him as the tears flow.

My head knows that it is right and good for my son to go off to college. I've been raising him these 18 years so that he will be ready for this. This is A Good Thing.

My heart reminds me of other friends who have gone through much deeper pain this year or last. A right and expected transition is not the same as a death; my pain doesn't hold a candle to their pain.

(An interesting parallel bubbles into my brain - both the transition from home to college and the transition from this life to the next life are right and proper and a source of deep sorrow and yet bittersweet for the believer. Interesting thought bubble to ponder sometime...)

So I sit here outside the dayroom that is no longer Christopher's with my eyes burning and blurring yet again and I remind myself that change is not bad, just different. (Then I remind myself again ... and again -- my heart can be a little slow sometimes.) I pray my son will find good friends and that his launch will be the start of something amazing. I remind myself that joy has not been snuffed out - Jesus is the Light, not my son.

I know it's going to be OK. I know it's just a matter of time before my heart catches up... I know he's just a phone call away (even when we're on the other side of the ocean, these days).

And then I curl up on the couch, huddled around my heart, and we have another good cry together.

Good-bye, Christopher. I love you. I. Miss. You.  See you at Christmas...


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Gravy Recipe

I was going to post this on FB, but I realized I would have trouble finding it later and this is definitely a keeper...

My wife has gone off with some of her girlfriends for the weekend leaving me and the boys to fend for ourselves. Fortunately this is the week after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately Melodye decided to put the leftover turkey in the freezer for soup and I didn't know about it until it was frozen hard-hard-hard.

But we do have lots of mashed potatoes. (Thanks, Lori!) And carrots and carrot casserole (tastes like sweet potato casserole - if you've never had Melodye's carrot casserole then you are missing out on a thing of beauty and wonder!) and all those other good things.

But to properly enjoy mashed potatoes you need gravy.

"No problem," I thought, "Jen told me how to make gravy a while back." [Madly searches through viber, whatsapp, email, etc. and comes up with squat.] "No problem," I thought, "if Jen can make gravy certainly someone else in the known universe knows how and I can find it on Google."

Have you searched the internet for recipes recently?

Recipe for chicken soup: start with a can of chicken soup and add water

Recipe for turtle cheese cake: start with the turtle cheese cake from Sam's Club and place it on a tray

Recipe for chicken cordon bleu: get a package of prepared cordon bleu chicken from the frozen section and heat it up


After several deep breaths I start over. I'm not a total dunce in the kitchen - I can do this!

(1) Tell your sons to stop contradicting you over the last sentence about being a dunce in the kitchen
(2) Get a medium saucepan and put it on the big gas burner
(3) Go get milk from the frig and come back to find the pan already sizzling. Move to medium burner.
(4) Pour in some milk. (How much? I don't know - what do they say in those fancy cooking shows "season to taste"? - add milk to taste)
(5) Go look for chicken boullon cubes. Don't get distracted trying to figure out how to spell boullion/bouillon/bullion - it just doesn't matter.
(6) Since you don't know where your wife keeps things like buollioun cubes just start in the seasoning, avoid spending too much delicious distracting time in the chocolate chips, and ... come up blank.
(7) Search in the other drawers that you've never had to open before. Finally find an old, old box of bullouion cubes (beef) that your wife would have thrown away if she knew they existed. That works.
(8) Throw 2 in the milk.
(9) Stir with a chopping motion to break up the bollon cubes (use the dirty pancake flipper from yesterday morning - it's good for chopping the bullun cubes into bits.)
(10) Periodically panic as the milk starts to boil over - quickly remove from heat.
(11) After several occurrences of (10) realize that you could, you know, turn the heat down. (Step aside, cooking-show-fanatics - I'm on the way to becoming an amazing chef!)
(12) Eventually the fun slows down as you can't find any more bits to chop or squish against the side so go looking for more ingredients.
(13) Find something vaguely reminiscent of the stuff you poured out of the turkey a few days ago. It looks awfully gross, but pour some in anyway. Gravy isn't supposed to look good - it's supposed to taste good!
(14) Stir some more. Get bored and go looking for more ingredients.
(15) All kinds of inspiration in the spice drawer, but the garlic is empty (She has a bag of the good stuff but who knows where that's kept?!). But next to garlic (alphabetically) is "Greek Seasoning!" Hurray! [Greek seasoning has a long and glorious history in my cooking] Dump a generous quantity in and then add half again as much just for fun.
(16) Stir until bored again.
(17) Get the flour and sprinkle it in while constantly mixing. Give up on the pancake turner and go ahead and get the whisk dirty. Keep doing this until it thickens up a bit.

It may have taken 17 steps, but that gravy was AMAZING!  My 13-year-old had this to say:

"99 out of 100 of 'Daddy's Creations' are horrible and should be thrown away. But this one recipe is amazing - the best gravy I've ever tasted. I hope you remember what you did because you've got to write down the recipe!"

Ignore the first sentence - he was obviously hit on the head during basketball today or something - but you are now the proud recipient of my first published recipe (well, web-published anyway).

Thursday, September 29, 2016

AirBnB messing with foreign currency - someone needs to call them on this

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Every time you use airbnb to rent a place where the price is given in a currency other than your "home currency" Airbnb will take more than 3% that, by agreement with Visa, they are not allowed to take.

I'd like to get a bunch of people contacting Visa and Airbnb to get pressure on airbnb to allow the option (which is already required by the agreement with visa) of charging in the currency of the customer's choice.

Here's a link to a form you can fill out and send to
Have you ever found a great deal on airbnb, saw just the price you were looking for, and then been dismayed that airbnb charged you in a different currency, at THEIR (worse) currency exchange rate, and (to add insult to injury) added a 3% exchange fee on top of that? In my personal experience I just lost over $50 making reservations for a conference - lost it by airbnb charging me for a currency exchange that was both unnecessary and in breach of their agreement with Visa!

My visa credit card is just as happy being charged in euros, in dinar, in leke, in lira, in rubles, or in yuan as it is happy to be charged in dollars. So why does airbnb feel the need to convert a currency that I don't want converted instead of just charging in the currency the transaction was negotiated in?! Visa gives me a great exchange rate and I want to take advantage of that rather than the highway robbery that Airbnb charges.

I have tried really hard to get airbnb to allow me to charge in different currencies. Previously you could twist your arm behind your back and bend over backwards and make it happen, but recently they have closed off all possibilities for this: they require you to pay in the currency THEY choose (adding the percentage for their bad exchange rate and their 3% exchange rate because ... well, that's money in their pocket).

After a little research I have discovered (as far as I can tell) that airbnb is actually in breach of the agreement with VISA when they do this. What they are offering is DCC (Dynamic Currency Conversion) and it is allowed, but only within very specific guidelines. (Have you ever gone to an ATM and they offer to convert the currency for you but when you do the conversion yourself you realize they are charging you a 10% fee or something? Same thing...) Here are the guidelines required by Visa (I'm re-wording for brevity and clarity - the actual link is below):

* It has to be optional - they can't require it
* they can't even make DCC the default option
* they can't disallow use of the local currency

All this means that Visa requires merchants (i.e., airbnb) to allow you to pay in the local currency where the transaction took place. If I rent a house in Euros then Visa requires that I be allowed to pay in Euros.

We need a bunch of people contacting BOTH Visa AND AirBnB to report this situation and see if we can't get airbnb to change their ridiculous policies:

VISA: +1 800-847-2911
AIRBNB: +1-855-424-7262
CAPITALONE: +1-800-955-7070 (you do know CapOne doesn't charge int'l transaction fees, right? and I got no kickback for telling you that...)

More details & links follow:
Here's the article that got me thinking about this (after my frustration losing more than $50 pointlessly):
If you want to read the Visa agreement, check out…/…/15-April-2015-Visa-Rules-Public.pdf
on page 370 and following (it's only about a page and a half and pretty clear).
Here's the definition of DCC, from Visa themselves: Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC)* occurs when the
merchant converts the purchase amount from the merchants’
currency to the cardholder’s local currency, based on the
cardholder’s payment card account number. The merchant
submits the transaction for processing in the converted
currency, and typically charges a fee or mark up on the foreign
exchange rate. (…/VBS-01-AUG-14-Optimize-Cross-Border-…)
From wikipedia: Visa Chargeback reason code 76 explicitly covers situations where the "Cardholder was not advised that Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) would occur" or "Cardholder was refused the choice of paying in the merchant’s local currency". Customers have a strong chance of successfully disputing such transactions, especially in situations where they pay with a credit card and where Verified by Visa or Securecode is not involved.
(in other words, if airbnb didn't give you the option to pay in the local currency you can probably get your money back - I'm not sure where this would stand ethically so I'm not going there, but it's significant that it's a big enough issue to offer this option)
A few articles about DCC in general:…/dynamic-currency-conversion--robber……/what-is-dynamic-currency-conve…/

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Holy, holy, holy. A Parable.

What is it with this whole "holy" thing?! For all of eternity we're going to hear that word, repeated 3x over and over and over again, describing God. Doesn't it seem a little over done?

And what does it mean, anyway?!

We so often take it to mean "without sin". That does describe God, but is that what holy means? Or is that one of the "symptoms" or by-product or *results* from being holy?

My neighbor's cat is a mammal. By definition that means Happy is warm blooded and gives birth to live young. Happy is also a fierce predator, regularly leaving (largely unappreciated) "gifts" of dead lizards & birds & mice outside our door or under our neighbor's bed. Happy's mammalian nature contributes to her speed & strength as a predator, but being a predator is not part of what it means to be a mammal. (Just ask this couch potato sitting her pecking at a keyboard - I can't remember the last time I tried to catch a lizard in my teeth!) Don't confuse related characteristics with the base definition of a word.

Is this a call to sinless living? Or is this something so much more which only includes a call to sinlessness as one component?

Let me tell you a story...

Once upon a time there was a king, a great king. His kingdom was blessed for he ruled with strength and wisdom and justice and mercy. Most of his subjects loved him, as they should have. But there was one city in the kingdom that just didn't get it. Some who looked at that city were convinced that the citizens (if you could call them by such a civilized name) were suffering from mental illness, but whether it was rebellion or insanity their behavior was inexplicable.

The king's wise policies had ushered in a golden era of economic prosperity. Unemployment was virtually zero and poverty and hunger had nearly been eradicated. There were periodic editorials in the newspaper entitled "if it seems too good to be true.." and yet year after year, decade after decade the prosperity continued and eventually everyone, even the nay-sayers, had to admit that living under this king was as close to a fairy wonderland as they would encounter anywhere on this green earth.

Everyone had to admit it, that is, except the inhabitants of Muck City. "Muck City," of course, was not the real name of the city, but everyone had called it that for so long that hardly anyone remembered another name. Even the inhabitants of Muck City had begun to call themselves Muckites. You see, every one of the citizens of this town was obsessed with rolling in pits of Muck which were found in the plains outside the city. 

Now you may have encountered spas where they give mud treatments or mud baths and you may be thinking that this Muckite behavior sounds relatively normal. But these mud pits were not healthy by any stretch of the imagination. To start with the stench was nearly palpable! It caused a nauseating greenish haze throughout the valley. Even that could have perhaps been borne if it were not for the infections and sickness that it caused. Muckites were rarely seen in good health; their sickly pallor and weakly staggering gait was evidence of the damage the mud and fumes were doing inside them, but the grotesquely infected sores visible on any part of their body were simply pitiful. Gangrene was a regular occurrence and it was not uncommon at all to see even young people with amputated limbs due to these horribly infected sores caused by the mud.

When I said that they were obsessed with rolling around in these pits I meant just that - it was almost the only thing they ever did! The obsession was such that work had all but ground to a halt in all neighborhoods of Muck City - all they ever wanted to do was to roll around in these pits. As a result productivity was almost nonexistent, unemployment was astronomical, and many adults and children in Muck City suffered terribly from poverty and hunger.

The contrast between the rest of the kingdom and Muck City could not have been more pronounced.

The king had sent messengers on innumerable occasions to tell the Muckites that there was a solution. His engineers had mapped out a plan to re-route a nearby river through the plains with the mud pits. It was estimated that within a single month the mud and fumes would be removed and soil tests had confirmed that the resulting ground would be among the most fertile in the kingdom. The king invited the citizens of Muck City to join the rest of the kingdom in the ease and joy that was so prevalent elsewhere. But they refused. The thought of losing their beloved Muck baths was unthinkable.

Part of the king's laws within his own kingdom involved giving each city a reasonable level of autonomy and independence. As such the king could not force the Muckites to accept his solution without breaking his own law - even though it would be incredibly beneficial to them.

But that didn't stop the king from worrying about these Muckites. He laid awake many a night trying to come up with a way to convince them to accept his help. He even periodically took personal visits into Muck City, despite the stench, in hopes that even if he couldn't persuade the entire city to change at least he could find individuals who would see reason. But the Muck was just too attractive. Year after year passed and not a single man, woman, or child ever responded favorably to his overtures.

The king had a happy family his wife, the queen, and his son, the prince. As his grew to manhood he began to share the king's concern for Muck City. He began making visits himself in an attempt to persuade Muckites to leave. But it was all for naught - somehow the Muck had an almost addictive hold on the people and they spurned all offers.

But then one day the prince was riding through Muck City. His shoulders were slumped and his horse was barely plodding along, such was his discouragement. That very morning when he had brought food and clean water to the market square the people had responded by throwing handfuls of the noxious Muck at him as they jeered and booed. He had barely gotten away and was now wrestling with the weight of this problem as he plodded for home. As he trudged up the road he passed a young boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years of age. The boy was crying piteously as he held his badly infected arm with his other hand. The prince had seen this same scene repeated dozens of times and was simply too weighted down to try to help once again.  But as he passed by, agonized by the child's wailing, something unexpected happened. The child swallowed his sobs, sniffed loudly, raised his eyes to the prince's face, and tremulously addressed him:

"Mister. Can you help? My arm hurts so bad. I don't want them doctors to cut it off like they did to Sammy. And I'm so hungry. Please ... will you help me?"

In all the years the prince had visited Muck City he had rarely seen someone make eye contact, far less actually ask for help. In the blink of an eye his weariness and discouragement were gone and he was kneeling next to the boy, tears pooling in his own eyes as he poured clean water from his own water bottle to clean the boy's arm. The boy whimpered but obediently stayed still until the sore was cleansed. Then he looked up with a chin that barely quavered and sincerely thanked the prince for his help.

This was new territory for anyone in the king's family. Hardly any Muckites were willing to accept help from the king, far less allow Muck to be washed off, far less thank the one offering the help or doing the washing. The prince saw immediately that this boy might have potential to be saved. With eyes wide with sympathy and love he asked the boy about his family and, having determined that the boy was an orphan, the prince invited the boy to try something different. With halting words which gradually merged into a flow inspired by the beauty and prosperity of the rest of the kingdom, the prince told the boy what his life could be like outside of Muck City if he would leave with the prince. As the description of the kingdom did its work on this boy's tired soul his eyes grew wide and then began to shine with excitement. In the end he threw his arms around the prince and wouldn't let go.

His heart light with hope and his arms strong with joy, the prince lifted the boy onto his horse and they trotted off towards the king's palace with the boy hanging on tightly behind him.

Needless to say the entire palace was agog that a Muckite had left Muck City and the Muck behind and the king and his family were beside themselves with joy. After all these years ... the now aging king was almost overcome with joy. Every time he passed the boy he would gently squeeze his shoulder or pat his head, as if to prove he was real and to express the love that had been dammed up for so many years and now was overflowing to this young boy. The queen was positively radiant.

In the joyous celebration that ensued, the king and queen were seen with heads bowed, deep in conversation at the head table. At the end the king stood up and called for everyone's attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen of my kingdom, thank you for joining us in our joy. This young man represents the fulfillment of one of my greatest hopes over my entire reign. Let us lift our goblets in a toast to this young man who has left Muck City and to the many that we hope will follow him."

The sounds of clinking glasses and hearty shouts of "hear, hear" were heard throughout the banquet hall.  After a moment the king raised his hand for silence again and went on,

"My heart is filled with love for this boy and after consulting with the queen we have decided to take an unprecedented step. We are adopting this boy as our own son. From this moment on he is a child of the king, a prince. I give him the name Adam."

The crowd gaped in astonishment and then broke into raucous cheering and the volume at this joyous celebration was turned up many fold.

Days turned into weeks and Adam learned what it meant to be a son of the king. At first the hardest thing was just learning to bathe regularly, but he gradually got used to the feel of being clean. His arm healed completely, leaving only a small scar. He had to learn to dress himself in the finery as befitted a prince and he had 5 years of book learning to catch up on. Horseback riding and fencing were sheer fun, but the hardest thing for him was learning manners and etiquette. It seemed like there were an endless list of do's and don't's.  One day he started complaining about it to the eldest prince:

"Everything is 'Do this!' and 'Don't do that' and 'Say it this way' and 'Do it that way'! Why do there have to be rules that tell us what we have to do in any and every situation?!"

The elder prince smiled with a twinkle in his eye, remembering a similar conversation he had had with his mother when he was about Adam's age. He responded with wisdom:

"It's not 'what you have to do' - instead it's 'who you ARE now'... Since we ARE in the king's family this is simply how the king's family thinks, lives, eats, plays, and loves... Don't think of them as a list of what you have to do or cannot do - realize that now that you are in the king's family you will WANT to behave in a way that shows the dignity and nobility of your family.

"Can you imagine if an eagle complained because he always 'had to' fly? Or if a cheetah complained that he always 'had to' be fast? Or if a fish complained that he was 'never allowed to' walk on land? No - these animals do what makes sense according to their identity and the result is wonder on our part at the dignity and majesty of these animals.

"And you are the child of the king! Think about it, Adam!"

Adam got a thoughtful look on his face and wandered off to consider those words.

The eldest prince was walking outside a few days later and to his surprise saw Adam rolling in the muck in a ditch. Adam gave a guilty start when he was caught and then said, "I know, I know - rules, rules, rules and more rules. Now you probably want to tell me what I CAN'T do just so later you can tell me what I HAVE to do. I am so tired of these rules!"

The prince cocked his head to one side and his eyes crinkled into a puzzled expression.  These are the words that came out of his mouth:

"But it's not rules at all, Adam... It's identity. That's just not who you ARE anymore... You're not a Muckite anymore - you're a child of the King! Did you not understand? Your whole identity has changed. You are not who you used to be. Your worth is now nestled firmly and unchangeable in the fact that you are the king's son. You cannot find more self-value in anything else and so it only makes sense to invest everything you are and have into bringing honor to the king. It's not what you HAVE to do, Adam - it's what you WANT to do because of WHO YOU ARE!"


Sometimes when we talk about "Holiness" we use words like "set apart" or "other" or even "otherness" to help us understand.

One time a friend of mine was speaking to a group of us about God's holiness and he made us all lay on our backs with our feet straight up in the air. We felt (and I'm sure looked) like fools. He said looking at the world from that "other" perspective would give us the tiniest understanding of how "other" God is.

Most of us are pretty comfortable with this concept in reference to GOD - His holiness means He is totally "OTHER." But then when we talk about our own holiness we drop it back down into the "sinlessness" camp and define it purely (and "small-ly") as our behavior.

No, when God tells us to be holy He is telling us to recognize our new identity and BE WHO WE ARE. He in full reality has SET US APART and our new identity is already complete. We are not who we used to be! We are OTHER from anyone else who is not in the King's family. And that identity is the key to understanding and being holy.

Don't get stuck on the rules and the do's and the don't's. They are there not to restrict you or repress you - they are there to help you understand how to live in the full dignity and nobility of your new identity. Be PROUD of who you are - you are a child of the KING!

Now take that attitude, that perspective on your identity, and change your "have to" into "want to" and see if a fuller understanding of holiness can transform your life!

Monday, March 16, 2015


I preached a sermon a few weeks ago in which I destroyed 2 pieces of electronic equipment: a computer keyboard and a cellular telephone.


Yes, literally destroyed. I took a big ol' hammer and just went to town on both of them. Someone held a clear shield to keep the audience from getting plastic splinters in their eyes, but there were pieces all over the front of the church!  And I'll admit it - it was fun. I had a blast! I just got this silly grin on my face and kept slamming that hammer down - what JOY!!

Why?! Do you have something against electronic equipment?!

No, I destroyed them IN PROTEST!

I was protesting all the many unnecessary conflicts they have caused. All the divisions that have occurred between brothers and sisters as a result of these 2 pieces of equipment.

You see, computer keyboards are used to compose EMAILS and FACEBOOK MESSAGES and cellular telephones are used to compose SMS MESSAGES. And I am convinced (by experience both as a conflict participant and as a conflict mediator) that a disproportionate number of interpersonal conflicts are caused by our society's over-reliance on electronic communication.

A disproportionate number of interpersonal conflicts are caused by our society's over-reliance on electronic communication.

What are you? Some kind of luddite?! Are you against technology, against progress?!i

No, actually I am a total geek!  I rarely find a problem that can't be solved, whether appropriately or inappropriately, by the application of some kind of technology. People laugh at me for my over-reliance on technology!

But I STRONGLY RESIST the use of technology when it comes to dealing with conflict or potential conflict.

Electronic messages are almost always brief and sterile. They are completely divorced from tone of voice, body language, and any of the other ways that we communicate. They come across as cold and are devoid of shades of meaning. The person reading these messages is completely free to imbue the message with whatever tone and emotions they wish to ASSUME.

We had a facebook-caused conflict a few months ago in church. Someone asked for music lessons on a certain instrument. The answer back from one musician was a simple, lighthearted "I'd have to learn that instrument before I taught you!"  Sounds reasonable and downright innocuous, right?  But another musician (who specializes in the given instrument) took offense, assuming that the first musician was implying inability on the part of the second. A quick 1-sentence message resulted in multiple hours of meetings to reach reconciliation.

Ridiculous? Absolutely! But just what I expect from electronic communication.

I live my life through email. I probably spend 4-5 hours a day reading and answering email. And my wife probably spends another hour a day reading the emails I am about to send!

Listen to the refrain that is sung by yours truly so beautifully many times each day:

"Honey, can you read this email before I send it -- I'm not sure if she will think..."

A Word to Writers of E-Communication

If the topic you are writing about is already in a conflict state, don't write an email or FB message or SMS. Just don't! Go and sit down with them and resolve it face to face.  Can't do that? Then call them on the phone!

If the topic you are writing about is just a little tense and you sense the potential for misunderstanding, don't write an email or FB message or SMS. Just DON'T! Go and sit down with them face-to-face and talk it out. Can't do that? Then call them on the phone!

If the topic you are writing about is completely tension-free and stress-free, still read over your email again with your empathy-glasses well focused. Try reading it out loud and look for areas that might be misunderstood. Read it to your wife or another friend to be sure it sounds OK. If you have the slightest hesitation, then do just that - hesitate. Don't press until you have slept on it; then come back and read it again through those empathy-glasses and think carefully and pray earnestly before hitting that button. If you are still hesitating then go and talk to them in person or at least give them a call on the phone.

Think if you have had any tense conversations or the like recently that your recipient might have foremost in their mind as they read your message - is there anything that could be misunderstood with that context? If so, go and talk face to face or call them on the phone.

[cue lulling music] Do you have a topic that is just too sensitive for you to bring up in person? It would be so much easier to send the message at arms length by email, wouldn't it?  [cue crashing cymbal, cut the music dramatically]

HAVE YOU NOT BEEN LISTENING TO ME?! DON'T DO IT!!! If you think the subject is too sensitive for face-to-face communication then it is WAY, WAY too sensitive for e-communication! Don't take the coward's way out - go and talk to them! At least that way you have a CHANCE of still being friends afterwards!

A Special Word to Leaders

If you are a leader then you are twice as tempted to jot off a quick email and you are twice as likely to be misunderstood because you have added weight of authority mixing things up.  If at all possible, do your business with those responsible to you in person. When that's not possible then give them a call on the phone. And when that's not possible, well, go ahead and press but you may as well CC your favorite mediator in the same email because there's a good chance they're going to be reading it pretty soon anyway!

If Solomon were alive today and writing Proverbs I am pretty certain he would have a lot of cautions about using email and FB messages indiscriminately. You were presumably chosen as a leader because someone thought you were wise, right? Well, use that wisdom. Take your hands off the keyboard and really talk with the people God has entrusted to you.

A Caution About CC and Reply-To-All and email history

Ah, what a wonderful invention carbon copy paper was back in the day. When I try to explain to my boys the source of that "CC" in their email they look at me as if I were a caveman.

CC is a great way to keep people in the loop with what you're saying.  But, wait, is what YOU are saying the only thing you are copying? What about that email 4 down in the thread that is still hanging on underneath your signature?

Before you hit take one more look at your address list and look to see if you have email history that shouldn't be included. 

And it's not just the email thread down below -- if you are complaining or rebuking or just writing a mean letter -- does it really need to go to anyone else?!

Several months ago I spoke in confidence on the phone with someone as they asked me for a candid evaluation of someone else. They took copious, exhaustive notes (including some misunderstandings!), put it all in an email and sent it out to about 12 people. I am still dealing with the fall-out there and it may have permanently destroyed a relationship! At the very least he should have written me individually first!  Those CC's caused the harm.

Use your CC with discretion - it's a sharp tool and sharp tools can cut deeply!

A Word to Readers of E-Communication

Here's areal conversation in our home about 3 weeks ago:

[strident, angry tone of voice]
"Melodye, did you read this?! Can you believe she would write something like this?! Here, look at this..."

[pause, punctuated by impatient foot tapping]

"Can you believe it? ... Oh, you're not done? ... yes, I'll wait ..."

[more foot tapping]

"Isn't that terrible? Who does she think she is?!"

"What? It doesn't sound bad to you? What are you talking about? Did you read the same email I read?"

"OK, I'll read it over again.  See, right here she says ... oh, I see ... but down here she ... oh, no, I guess that's not what she was saying."

[in a much more cheerful, even light-hearted tone]
"Never mind - no problem."

What you need to know is that this email was written by one of the sweetest young ladies you will ever meet!

Here's the take-away - Assume the Best!

Assume the best about the writer! Would the writer have said something like that to you in person? Does that sound like the person you know? No? Then don't assume the worst interpretation - look for the positive way you can interpret the e-communication.

What's that? There's no positive way THAT email could be interpreted? Then go to the person with it printed off, show it to them, and ask them if they can explain what it is they meant.  (Did you notice that special little word "ask" in that last sentence? Go back and read it again... Don't accuse - ask!) And keep an open mind until they have explained it!

And on to SMS

Whatever problems emails and FB messages have, SMS messages on your cellular phone are even worse. Where an email often includes enough words to explain what you mean even if the tone isn't there, the SMS doesn't. Do you know what the first S in that acronym means?  That's write - SHORT. That means there's plenty of room to get yourself into trouble but not nearly enough room to get yourself out of the trouble before the end of the message.

You've already got your phone in your hand - wouldn't it be easier to just call them up?

E-communication is a beautiful thing and it does have a place. But that place is not when tensions are high or conflict has already spilled out. That place is not when a relationship is struggling back from a precipice. Use technology, but use it wisely - and more often than most of us tend to do that means getting our nether regions out of that office chair, taking our fingers off that keyboard, and crossing town to meet face to face for some REAL communication.

If you find you just can't resist whipping off that quick email, I have a permanent solution for you. You can borrow the same hammer I used in church and let loose on your keyboard for a while. Not only will it keep you from sending that iffy email, but think of the satisfaction you'll get!!!

"Honey, before I publish this blog entry, could you read it over to make sure it's OK?"

Saturday, December 20, 2014

An ISIS Exegesis of Christmas

What is Christmas really about?
  • Christmas Trees?
  • Decorative Lights?
  • Cheerful Music?
  • Betrayal!
  • The Self-Sacrificing Love of a Father!
  • A Ransom Paid!
This last week I read several articles about families whose children ran away to join ISIS.  Knowing the atrocities and the violence and the brainwashing and the trauma most of us find the idea of joining ISIS completely repugnant.  And obviously the families in these articles that I read were similarly shocked that their own children would have chosen to go and join such a group.  They were repulsed and could not believe that their child would do such a thing.  Many of them were under age but had gotten hold of their passports by deceptive means and in many cases they had stolen money from their family in order to finance their travel to Syria or Iraq.

One article told of two young girls who had left their home in the United States and were caught by the police in Germany before they were able to make it to ISIS.  Another article used the words of one of the children to describe how difficult it had been to telephone their parents to tell them they were not coming home.  One article in particular caught my attention since 2 girls aged 15 and 17 from the same family both ran away together; their family was horrified and sent their older brother to try to bring them back home.

As I thought about this story I realized there are a number of parallels between it and the story from the Bible that I want to tell this morning.  But in order to make it work I had to change the story quite a bit - so, with apologies to the family in question, here is a story I have made up but based on a core of this true article.

In this particular family there was 1 older son, Besnik, and 2 younger daughters, Alba and Anila. They lived in Tirana, Albania.  The mother had died many years before, but the father, Arjan, was a very loving parent and in many ways was both mother and father to them.  They were a wealthy family and the children were well cared for.  With the passing of time as the children got older, the daughters got into high school and were befriended by a young university student named Miri.  He seemed like a nice, respectful young man and the daughters only spent time with him when they were in a group of friends. Everything seemed good. But what the father and the older brother did not know was that Miri was a member of ISIS and he was doing his best to indoctrinate all of these high school students into radical Islam. He moved slowly and was adept at twisting words.  He told them to not speak to their parents because they wouldn't understand, but gradually they began to sympathize with ISIS more and more. They began to think of ISIS as being good and those that opposed them as being bad.

Imagine - thinking that a group that murders children and beheads non-combatants is GOOD! It seems unimaginable and yet with the flowing words from the handsome young university student, these girls eventually were completely indoctrinated.

With Miri's help and advice Alba and Anila convinced their father that they needed their passports since they had lost their ID cards. Then, knowing where their father kept his money, they sneaked into his room while he was gone and stole 2000 euros from where it was hidden.  Their father trusted them and it never even crossed his mind to check.  The next day they left as if they were going to school, but instead of going to school they met Miri and 2 others of their friends and got on a bus to go to Greece and then on from there.

That night Arjan and Besnik were frantic when the girls didn't return home. At first they thought it was just traffic or maybe they had stopped to have a coffee with their friends.  Eventually Arjan started telephoning the parents of some of their friends while Besnik went to look in the kafene where the girls often spent time with their friends.

When Besnik returned home Arjan was sitting on the couch, distraught. He had found the missing money and the missing passports.  Clearly the girls had planned on traveling.  And as Arjan and Besnik looked more carefully they found evidence of a secret mobile and a secret facebook account that had messages that showed exactly where the girls were.

Days passed. The bus arrived in Greece and they got on another bus to take them to Istanbul. Arjan and Besnik spoke with the police, with Interpol. Nobody could help. More time passed. The girls and Miri transferred to another bus which took them over the border into Syria.  They were told to call their family and tell them where they were and that they would not be returning. And they began training as soldiers. The first time Alba and Anila were part of a battle it sickened them. Only Alba had managed to shoot someone, but that person was an old woman who was defending her home. And afterwards both girls had watched the beheadings and the rapes and the stealing of the children in horror.  

Meanwhile Arjan and Besnik had no idea how to contact the girls since that 60-second call.

After more weeks passed Anila, the younger girl, simply could not go on. Every day she was sickened by what she was being asked to do. And now increasingly Miri was talking about the fact that she would need to marry a soldier and bear his children. As she looked around at the men in ISIS with her she was appalled at the idea of marrying one of these psychopaths that laughed as they murdered children. She resolved that she would return home at all costs. 

Ironically her plans to leave ISIS were eerily similar to her earlier plans to run away from home.  She was responsible for cleaning the commander's tent and she knew that her passport and a good deal of money was locked in a box inside. And she had seen where the commander hid the key.  One afternoon when she was all alone in the tent she opened the box, took out hers and Alba's passport and enough money to get home and a mobile phone, carefully locked the box and replaced the key where she had found it.  She put the passports and the money in a plastic bag and buried it in the corner of her tent.

Alba was looking increasingly fragile and frightened day by day. Her eyes that had danced with joy before now seemed dead and listless.  Anila was certain that she would agree to return home with her and so the next night she waited until the sisters were alone and then in a frightened whisper outlined her plan. She knew how to get to the nearest bus station and when the bus left for Turkey; she showed the passports and the money; and she explained that this afternoon was the only chance they would have before their unit was transferred even further away from the border.  In tears Anila held Alba and reminded her of the atrocities they had witnessed and pointed out that it would not get any better. Alba sat still and stiff like a block of wood. Her eyes were wide and seemingly almost frantic. Eventually she started shaking her head and saying "No, no, no, we mustn't go - do you know what they will do to us if we try to escape?!" and ran out of the tent.

Anila, at only 16 years of age, had no idea what to do. She realized she had to leave and she realized now that she was not going to be able to do it herself.  In a panic she texted her father and her brother telling where she was and where her unit was being transferred and that she feared for her life.  Then she buried her sister's passport and half the money and crept out of the tent.  As she rose to her feet preparing to escape to the safety of the bus station, someone stepped out from behind a nearby truck - it was Miri with a sneer on his face.  Panicked, she turned the other way and 6 soldiers stepped out from behind another truck.  Miri strode towards her and raised his kalezhnikov. The last thing she saw before the butt of the rifle hit her in the head was her own sister stepping out behind Miri. This was not the way she wanted to die.

Later she awoke, bruised and bleeding. She hurt all over and didn't even want to imagine what had happened after Miri hit her. From the darkness around her she heard sobs and moans. She tried to speak, to ask where she was, but the other girls around her quickly silenced her with a fearful shush. Then, in a barely audible whisper, Anila learned the truth about the camp prison. She had been told that enemy soldiers were kept there, but now she found that this was where the kidnapped girls were kept for the pleasure of the ISIS men. She heard stories of rape and torture and found that many of the girls were just like herself - they had been part of ISIS but had decided to leave and been caught.  In her already weakened state Anila simply collapsed, now even more horrified by the idea of living in this hell than she had been horrified by dying earlier in the day.

What she didn't know was what had happened in Albania as a result of her text. When Arjan received the text earlier in the day he had called back, but the phone rang unheard in the tent as the men beat Anila into unconsciousness outside.  But Arjan did not give up - he continued to call and call and call - and about an hour later a curious soldier wandered into the tent to find out where the noise was coming from, answered the phone, and Arjan was able to convince him to give the phone to the commander.  Several tense hours of negotiations followed. Arjan was truly a wealthy businessman, but the terms of the ransom would beggar him.

He didn't hesitate for a moment.  In a matter of hours he had sold everything he owned at a staggering loss but had managed to raise all the money that the commander had asked. He placed the money in a suitcase and after a heartfelt good-bye he sent his son, Besnik, on a plane on his way to the rendezvous point in Syria.

The next morning Anila awoke in a fog of pain and despair. The other girls were filing out, staggering as they wree manhandled by the soldiers standing on either side, but Anila was left alone. Standing on tiptoe she could just see out the single small window in the cell and she saw her sister staring at the prison, tears tracking down her cheeks.  Nearer she saw Miri arguing with the commander and realized it was that noise that had awakened her.

"I tell you, she's mine! I went all the way to Albania to get her and the deal was I get to do whatever I want with the first one that tries to run," Miri angrily demanded.

"No, I have a different plan for this one," the commander answered.  "You just make sure the sister is prepared to give the right answer and I'll let you have her when we get back."

As Miri got increasingly angry the commander struck him once full on the face and motioned 2 soldiers to push him over to where Alba was standing, gaunt and hollow-eyed.  Miri staggered to where she was and, in front of Anila's horror-struck gaze, grabbed Alba by the hair and began dragging her away, hitting her again and again. Anila had never felt more helpless or hopeless in her life.

But all that day nobody came. Nobody gave Anila any food, but at least no-one came to visit untold horrors on her. She waited in an agony of terror and the anticipation gradually became as bad as the torture itself, but still nothing but silence echoed from outside her cell, periodically punctuated by a distant moan or scream or the sound of a gunshot. Hours passed. Late that afternoon the commander of the ISIS unit came and tossed a bundle of clothes through the bars of the door and left. Anila recognized with surprise that they were the same clothes she had worn when she came to Syria in the very beginning.  Not knowing what was going on but recognizing that these clothes were in much better condition than her ripped and bloody ones, Anila dressed hurriedly in clothes that still smelled of Albania. She was almost overcome with a wave of longing for home.  

At that moment the commander returned and opened the door and 2 men came in and dragged her behind him out of the building. As she was pulled into the dazzling desert sun she heard the voice of the man she had come to fear just in the last 24 hours - Miri was crouched over a broken form on the ground, shouting in anger.  As Anila's eyes adjusted she realized that he was standing over Alba shouting as she huddled in fear.  The 2 girls were unceremoniously dumped in the back of a truck and they started bumping over the rough desert road.  Anila moved over closer to Alba but Alba wanted nothing to do with her and struck out at her with hand and foot whenever she approached.  Anila finally gave up and huddled miserably in the opposite corner of the truck bed, eventually falling into a fitful doze.

In the middle of the night the truck skidded to a halt and the 2 girls were jerked out and thrown on the ground.

And then came a sound that Anila thought she would never hear again. Both girls raised their eyes in wonderment as they heard the voice of their beloved brother, Besnik, arguing earnestly with the commander.  They were standing over an open suitcase and the commander was greedily thumbing through the stacks of bills - more money than Anila or Alba had ever seen in their lives.  Eventually the commander gave a grunt of agreement and motioned for the girls to be brought over.

Besnik looked like he was ready to attack the commander with his bare hands when he saw the blood and bruises on both girls, but the soldiers aimed their guns and he brought himself under control with difficulty.  Then he knelt next to his sisters and gently explained that a ransom had been agreed on and had been fully paid and they could go home.  As he mentioned the word "home" Alba's eyes rolled in panic and she frantically looked around to see where Miri was standing.  Although he was standing several meters away it was obvious from his posture and facial expression that he was listening furiously to every word and communicating daggers with his eyes at Alba. She cringed in fear.

Besnik reached out his arms to each of his sisters to help them into the car he had hired.  The commander barked an order and the kaleshnikovs were raised once again.  Besnik almost screamed in frustration but once again mastered himself and stood up to ask what the problem was.  

But it was Miri that spoke instead of the commander.  "Noone takes anyone away from our unit unless it is by choice! These girls are part of the glorious Islamic State and we will allow you to take them away only if they choose to go."

Anila could hardly believe her ears.  Choose to go?! Who would want to stay with psychopaths like this?  She spoke up before Miri had even finished his sentence, saying loudly and clearly, "WE CHOOSE TO GO!"

Miri ground his teeth in rage and took a step forward as if to hit her, but Besnik stepped in between and said, "You heard them - they want to go."

Miri stepped back and curled his lip in a way that Anila had found endearing before but now she knew was his expression when he was holding back his natural violent nature. She nervously stepped further away from him as he spoke, "I didn't hear 'them' speak - I heard only one of these girls speak.  She can go if she wants - she doesn't have what it takes to be one of us anyway.  But this one" - he motioned to Alba - "will stay here unless she speaks for herself."

"Woman, do you want to go back to your soft life with these unbelievers or do you wish to stay here with the mujahadeen and fight in our jihad?"  As he said these words, he stepped around Besnik and approached Alba, standing threateningly above her.  

Alba cowered before him and stumbled over her words, "No, I don't want to go. I want to stay. No, no, no, we mustn't go. Please don't hurt me again."

Besnik saw Alba's terror and stepped between them again.  This time Miri didn't hesitate - he growled two simple words, "She chose," and pulled out his pistol and shot Besnik. His blood splattered through the air as he spun around and fell to the ground.

Anila screamed - not Besnik! This couldn't be happening. She ran to his side and saw that he was clutching a wound on his chest but was still conscious.  In panic she dragged him over the car as Miri laughed derisively.  With the last of her strength she maneuvered his body into the car and then she jumped into the back. The driver sped off in a cloud of dust.

Anila looked out the back window and as the dust cleared for a moment she saw Alba. Miri was standing over her again, but she didn't look afraid now - her eyes were wide and empty and dead again.

Besnik's wound was not fatal - it had missed his heart by centimeters. A Turkish hospital was able to stop the bleeding and get him stabilized.  A week later Besnik and Anila arrived back in Albania and were met at Mother Teresa Airport by an overjoyed Arjan.  The 3 of them had a joyful reunion, marred only by the sad knowledge that part of their heart was missing - Alba was not with them and they had no idea where she was. Arjan had tried to trace her through the location Anila had given him, but the unit must have been transferred elsewhere and nobody would talk to him.