Monthly Archives: November 2011

Above the Clouds

“Are you Jewish?” the man asked me in the cramped but hospitable mountain hut.  This question, following his query about whether I was a Mormon,  sent myself and four ladies  into hysterics of laughter.

When a friend invited me to join her ladies hiking troop in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, I jumped at the chance.   Sadly, it took years after the war before anybody felt safe enough to hike—the fear of mines a real danger.  Now however, we encountered many groups as we huffed our way up the steep incline.  Since most of the same groups hiked every week, I felt as if I had entered an extended community.  Greetings and conversations were shared as we passed by and stopped at various huts for refreshment.  Our group— five women hiking together without men— seemed to be a bit of an unusual event.

Crisp and clear high in the hills,   a winter haze  lightly rested on the city below.  Although fields and trees bore the yellowish breath of winter, bushes laden with bright red berries added surprising splashes of color to the landscape. I breathed in great gulps of clean air, feeling invigorated at  being back in the mountains’ quietness.

M. grew up hiking in these mountains. Although she was over 60, her tiny frame pranced up the mountain, an indomitable and unstoppable force, while the rest of us sweated our way up.  “What do you think?” she would ask me, frequently stopping to remind us of the view, proudly pointing and naming each surrounding mountain, as if she was introducing us to dear friends.  In the true spirit of a mountain guide, she continually checked in with us as well as providing constant amusement with her quick wit and hilarious observations.

Because this culture prioritizes social interaction and community, usually while drinking coffee, stopping at huts for refreshment is a vital part of the hiking experience—a practice to which I could easily grow accustomed.  At the second hut, M., who insisted on paying for everything, went inside to negotiate either a picnic table in the sun or a seat inside.  I plopped on the grass, taking in the view of the surrounding mountains.

“Melody, no, please, no.” M. saw me sitting on the grass and came running over with a cushion, insisting that I sit on it.  In this culture, there is a strong belief that women can freeze their ovaries by sitting on cold surfaces.  I had no objection to complying with her request—why sit on the hard ground when someone is offering you a cushion?

Finally, we chose to sit inside, and steaming bowls of rich, veal vegetable soup were placed in front of us.  I savored every bite, dipping  crusty bread and drinking my homemade cup of yogurt.  After asking his random questions,  our new friend at the next table pointed at my Capri exercise pants, very concerned that I might be cold.  I had a hard time understanding his Bosnian, but after he looked over at a basket displaying handmade woolen slippers, he switched abruptly to English:  “Trust me, I know what I am doing, ” he said and held up a pair.  “Only 100 Euros!” he shifted back to Bosnian, his half-toothless grin irrepressible.  The ladies around the table giggled.  “Where are you from?”  he asked me.

“Oregon.”

“Is Oregon like Bosnia?”  This sent the women off into another peal of laughter.  “Well, kind of.” I said.  “We have hills and mountains….”

After two hours in the hut, we realized we would be fighting the coming darkness, so we hurriedly put on our packs.  “See you in Oregon,” the man said, grinning, as we exited the hut.  With an overly full belly, I felt like rolling down the hill, but I enjoyed even this slightly uncomfortable descent.  A glorious day of cultural experiences and new friends. Who could ask for more?

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Give us this day our daily bread…

As soon as I left the building, I realized I had made a serious mistake in my clothing choice.  Clearly we had entered into the winter months, and I was shivering within a few blocks. I was in a small, primarily Muslim town in Bosnia, on the way to dinner with two new friends.  Perhaps it was the rapidity of the season’s change—overnight, fall had descended into to a gray, biting cold—but I sensed an oppression over this small town that shrouded my spirits in a murky fog.

“In some ways, things are harder here than right after the war,” and American woman, M.,  who has served and worked in the town for 14 years told me.  “After the war, people had hope that things would change and get better. Well, 14 years later, nothing much is different.”  Unemployment hovers around 70% in this small town, high even for Bosnia where the national average is about 43%.  Putting food on the table, paying the electric bill, and having enough wood to heat one room in the house for winter remains a constant stress. Terrible memories of the war still haunt many, illustrated by the fact that it constantly comes up in conversation.

My friends live in a house similar to many others—without central heating, the majority of daily life happens in the main room with the wood stove. These women serve in a small, young church in the town.  There is nothing easy about working with a church here.  Even though many people are merely nominal Muslims, the war further cemented the inextricable connection between their ethnic and religious identity, thus creating some significant psychological, social, and emotional barriers to the Good News.

“Many of my friends and family no longer talk to me and some are angry with me,” said L., a believer of 4 years.  M. had prayed for him for 10 years before he encountered Jesus, an encounter that so visibly changed him in the space of an evening that a visiting team of Americans serving the community could not help but notice.  “Did L. meet Jesus or something?” one asked after seeing his face the next morning.

Despite the challenges of friends and family, his  joblessness, and struggle for money, L. was anything but despondent when I interviewed him.  He told me story after story of God’s incredible provision through unlikely sources and means.

“God is amazing,” he said, his face wreathed in a smile.  “One day I was at a men’s conference in Croatia, and I only had enough money in my pocket for a hamburger from McDonald’s, which I had been really looking forward to.  When the offering plate came by, God told me to put all 7 kuna(about $1.50) in the plate.  There was a big internal battle, but I did it.  Later, when I met my friends at McDonald’s, one of them had already purchased a hamburger for me.  ‘This is for you, L.,’ he said, handing it to me.”

Amidst the economic, spiritual,  emotional, and social hardships, God’s daily provision is an equal reality.  I was amazed by my new friends’ endurance—a tenacity that I liken to pushing a heavy boulder up a steep, icy slope.  It is possible only one shuffling step at a time, and often one slips back several paces.  Such a feat would seem impossible, but God’s spirit blows powerfully from behind, enabling one to stand upright and keep moving forward. This is the difficult, pioneering work of softening  resistantly rocky soil, and my friends are persevering faithfully.

Please go to Prayer Points/Bosnia to see how to pray for this town.  Stay tuned to hear more about how God is working in this town—evidenced by His ardent and irrepressible pursuit in Q.’s story.