Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Letter Jacket

A few weeks ago I came across my old high school letter jacket while looking through some items in storage.  It was fun to find.  I don't think I have worn that thing since my senior year of high school.

For those of you who don't know, letter jackets are a common practice in many high schools where I grew up.  They are a jacket in the colors of the school with a big letter often sewn over left breast.  The letter is usually the first letter or letters of your school.  In my case, it's a big black S for Stillwater Area High School.

The letters on the letter jackets are not just given out or sold.  They have to be earned.  Through achievement in some extra curricular activity or activities you can get a letter and various patches to show what you did well that earned you the letter.  Some people, like me, had simple letters with just a few patches.  Others had ornate coats with dozens of patches and awards.  Many in our school never earned a letter.  Yet all of us have one thing in common.

Regardless of how many patches and awards we got, none of us wear our letter jackets today.  If we went to our jobs, or the store, or on a date with our spouse wearing our old high school awards, we would be seen as foolish and be snickered at.  No one in the adult world boasts about meaningless awards and prizes they got in high school.  Yet when we were in high school we all worked hard to earn them.

I wonder how much we will look back on our lives someday and think the same about all the awards, prizes, and gains we worked to earn throughout our lives.  We strive for status because we believe it gives us value.  We strive for promotions or awards.  We strive for accomplishments that will make others think we are important because we crave the praise of people.

Yet, I suspect that the day will come when we realize that all we have struggled for is foolishness.  At the end of our lives, when we look back on all we have accomplished, will it amount to a jacket full of awards that we will never wear again, or will our life have real value?

Centuries ago, a great and wise king who had accomplished much pondered a similar thought.  He came to the conclusion that everything he had done was meaningless.  He gave great reflection on his life in search of true value and meaning and came to this conclusion:

"The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgement with every secret thing, weather good or evil."

Some of us are real estate agents, some of us sell tools, some of us are professors, some of us are musicians, some of us are in ministry.  We all have something that we do for a living.

Many of us earn rewards along the way.  Some of us get trophies.  Some of us get raises.  Some of us get PhD's.  Some of us get respect.

We find our value in our accomplishments.  We sell more than our coworkers.  We write more books than our peers.  We pastor a church with 500 members.

None of these things are bad.  The problem comes when we fool ourselves into thinking these meaningless matters really matter.  At the end of our lives when we enter into our eternal home, I suspect we will look back and view these accomplishments that seem so amazing and important now in the same way we view school awards.  We think it means something now, but in the long run, it means nothing.

When you work toward a goal, ask yourself why you are doing it.

Are you trying to gain respect?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Are you doing it for your pleasure?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Are you doing it because you want others to like you?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Are you doing it because you want to be in control?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Are you doing it because you want power?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Are you doing it to gain God's favor?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Are you doing it for yourself?  Then in the long run it will mean nothing.

Everything you do to put another patch on your life's letter jacket is ultimately meaningless.  Anything you do in obedience to God has real meaning.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cute Little Beggar Kids

Recently I read the US State Department's TiP report for 2014 on Bulgaria.  TiP stands for "Trafficking in Persons."  The report gives information on human trafficking in Bulgaria, so naturally I wanted to read it.

One of the things I found interesting was that begging is considered human trafficking.  At first this does not seem to make sense, but when you think about it, who could possibly pass up a little kid asking for money?  Especially if that kid looks dirty, poorly clothed, and starved.

In our neighborhood in Sofia, there is a constant flow of young children wandering around with an adult nearby but not too close.  The adult may be the child's parent, or may not be.  Either way, the adult is the one who takes home the proceeds from the little beggar children.  The children do not get much out of the deal.  These kids are essentially enslaved to their adult caretakers and exist to get them money.

When you give money to beggar children, you are insuring that their life will not improve.  They will not go to school because they are too busy begging for their so called guardian.  They will remain a cute little beggars until they are no longer cute.  Then they will most likely move onto something else.  It may be prostitution.  It may be crime.  It may be that the exploited will become the exploiters.  As long as people keep giving beggar children money, the cycle will continue.  What seems an act of compassion is actually depriving these kids of an education and ultimately of liberty.

What can be done?  I would not presume to give advice on every situation in every context, but I will tell you what I do when little kids come to me begging in Sofia.

1)  Treat all beggars like people, especially the children

Listen to them.  It may be they are not asking for money at all.  One day a cute dirty little boy in ragged clothes saw that I was throwing out some old toys.  I was actually hoping these toys would be found by one of our local dumpster divers, so I had no problem giving them to him.  In exchange, he offered to take my trash to the dumpster for me.  I tried to take it myself and showed him that there was nothing of value in the trash bag, but he wanted to take it anyway.  I was glad I listened to what he wanted.  He wanted toys and he was willing to work for them.  This is not begging.

Another time a little girl about 7 years old was out with her mother.  I was entering a grocery store, and she asked me to buy her alcohol.  I did not give her what she wanted.

Often times they ask for money.  For this, I have one response.

2)  Ask to see their mom or dad

Sometimes they claim that their mom or dad is not around.  This is usually a lie.  The guardian is almost always nearby.  They do not want to lose track of their money maker.  When I track down the dad or mom or sometimes the "brother," I give them a stern talking to.  I also make sure the kids know that they need an education to improve their lives.  I do not give the kids money.  This only makes them valuable to their owners, and continues the cycle of slavery.

And that is exactly what it is.  It is slavery.  These children are stuck as slaves to the adults who use them for their money making skills.  This will not stop when they grow up.

I do not give them money.  No money makes them valueless to their owners.  If they have no value they will no longer be used in such an abusive way.

It is a complex problem, and one that I do not have a full solution to.  It is a problem of society as a whole.  We need to find a full solution.

This is one of the many reasons the ReachGlobal Sofia team needs more teammates.  Perhaps you can help us find the solution.  Perhaps you can really make a difference in the lives of these children.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why Bulgaria?

A lot of people ask me why I live in Bulgaria.  Why not somewhere else?  Naturally, I have several spiritual and strategic reasons for living in Sofia, but today, I want to give you my top 10 reasons why anyone would love Bulgaria.

10)  Bulgarian Produce:  Peppers, grapes, plumbs, and peaches; Bulgarian produce is fresh, healthy, and delicious.

9)  Diversity in Vehicles: On the same street on the same day in Sofia you can see a Ferrari, Honda, and horse drawn cart.

The Ancient Plovdiv Amphitheater

8)  History:  You can find remnants of 5 major empires around the country.

7)  More History: In downtown Sofia alone you can see structures from three millennia.

Ancient Thessaloniki
6)  Even More History:  You are just a few hours from many well know Biblical sites.

My old running path.

5)  Green Spaces:  In a city of 1.2 million people, you are never far from a forested area.  I can walk to one from my home in one of Sofia's biggest neighborhoods.

4)  The Black Sea:  By far, the best body of water I have ever vacationed on.  (Sorry Lake of the Ozarks.)

3)  Linguistic Advantages:  If you learn Bulgarian you almost automatically learn Macedonian which means you learned two new languages for the price of one.  (And you can tell your friends you are trilingual which for an American is very cool.)

Yes, this is actually what it looks like in Sofia

2)  Every morning you wake up in Europe surrounded by mountains:  This one almost took first place, but the beauty of Bulgaria's mountains can only be passed up by the beauty of #1

1)  Bulgarians:  They are a warm friendly beautiful people.  Also they tend to like Americans which is nice for people like me.  It is great to just sit down and spend a few hours talking to my Bulgarian friends and neighbors over a cup of coffee (or boza if you have the stomach for it).

Did I peak your interest?  Is Bulgaria calling to you?  Do you want to learn how you can serve God in this beautiful country?  Write to us at sofia@efca.org to learn more.