What You Can't Know About Your Country Until You Leave It


My wife and I took a brief road trip last weekend. I like road trips except for one thing: I get so sleepy behind the wheel. Enter the audio book. This time we chose a book that had been mentioned by a good friend. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight takes place in Southern Rhodesia during the time the nation becomes Zimbabwe. Since Becky and I spent two months in Zimbabwe just five years after the war of independence, we were immediately taken back to those life-shaping experiences as we listened. This enabled us to stick with what others might find a bit of a sleepy read.

Author Alexandra Fuller recounts with an incisive style a childhood reminiscent of the American West, where tough, white pioneers make a life for themselves amid punishing conditions in a tumultuous time and no shortage of adversaries. Hers wasn't an easy childhood. But one thing jumped out at both Becky and me at the same time: when Alexandra left Africa for England for the first time, she realized there were certain things she couldn't know about Zimbabwe until she left. So true.

There are things you can't know about your home country until you leave it.

In my case:

You can't know people in the South really are friendly, for the most part, until you've lived somewhere else. (A friend from New Jersey pointed this out to me.)

You can't know there is more than one way to do things, like flush a toilet. Or dry your clothes.

You can't know everyone doesn't have a choice of 78 breakfast cereals at the supermarket.

You can't know that you live in a country where way too much is taken for granted, as if we deserved everything we have.

You can't know that, in spite of all the pettiness, the infantile political wrangling and the frenzied climate, we still have a system that has been one of the most spectacular success stories in history...

You can't know you live in a place the world envies, and marvels at, and sometimes shakes it head at, but pays attention to ...

...until you've left.

Then you come back and everything is the same -- except the way you see it.

Stereotypical Stereotypes


I was at a symposium last night on Russian-American relations moving from the Obama years into the Trump era. While most of Dr. Mark Katz's remarks and the questions asked of him centered on Trump and Putin's relationship and speculation about what that might look like moving forward, one question was asked that got me thinking about stereotypes. The question was something to the effect of, "How fair is it for Americans and other Westerners to believe that Putin's strong man persona is representative of the Russian people and culture?" The question put its finger on a common and universal tendency: to assume that everyone in a given group or culture is the same. We would of course deny that we think in such base and ignorant terms, but most of us are guilty of this at one time or another.

In the case of Vladimir Putin, we might think that most all Russians only understand the language of power and force, as Putin's MO is widely believed to be. And it is true that there are many Russians who are glad to have a leader who stands up to the West and is committed to restoring Mother Russia to her former glory.

But there are probably just as many Russians who would like a "kinder and gentler" leader who doesn't enjoy provoking the West and suppressing dissent. The few Russians I know personally are kind, caring people who have mixed feelings about their president -- like most of the world feels about its leaders. Some will point out that Putin is a vast improvement over his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

We could think of other examples of stereotypes. Are all Germans super organized and efficient, with a hard exterior? Nope.

Are all Japanese workaholics? Nope. Not quite!

Are all Australians laid back? I don't think so, but I'm still looking for an uptight Aussie.

Aha. So here we see that there is often a kernel of truth to certain stereotypes. There is usually a reason why they were formed in the first place. The truth is that stereotypes can at times be useful, up to a point. If I were putting together an international team, I wouldn't be wrong to go to Switzerland or Germany to look for an administrative type, for example. International marketing firms will tell you that stereotypes based on studies and market research prove invaluable in their marketing strategies.

But stereotypes can just as often get us into trouble. Chances are, as soon as we allow the stereotype to take shape in our minds, one or more exceptions will present themselves.

In the current dialogue in the US about race, this is particularly dicey. It's a little too easy to assume all members of a certain race feel or behave the same way (racial profiling comes to mind). Polls and surveys and market research may help, but true understanding won't come until we sit down and listen to each other.

I'm going to have just such an opportunity on Jan 27, when I have been invited to moderate a round table discussion on the current state of race relations in the US, including in the American church. If you're in the Nashville area, we'd love for you to join us. Details here.

How to Turn a Vacation into a Pilgrimage


What comes to mind when you hear the word "pilgrimage"? Trekking your way over rugged terrain to reach a shrine? Traveling thousands of miles to meet up with thousands of other pilgrims at a particular time of year? Perhaps. But what if any time you stepped out of your zone of familiarity could become a spiritual experience? Here are some real life examples:

Happening onto a painting at the Musée d'Orsay that touches something buried deep inside you and leaves you filled and wanting more at the same time.

Wandering the streets of a medieval Italian town and stumbling across a secluded garden that feels like it was reserved for you.

Coming across a serene, blue glacier in the most utter silence you've ever heard, with not another soul in sight.

Sitting surrounded by the world's most beautiful stained glass and wishing you could know the king who commissioned it as an act of worship.

Sitting at a table with new friends and wondering how you could possibly have been there for three hours.

Climbing an extinct volcano in New Zealand and appreciating the challenge of the climb as much as the vistas from the summit.

A conversation with a stranger whose kindness cuts through the outer crust of your heart. You come to find out that part of his name means "peace".

Marveling at the mysteries of a lost civilization that left behind the glorious ruins where you now stand.

Being invited to share the meager rations of a refugee family who has lost everything, destroying and rebuilding your notions of hospitality and humility.

All of these, which I have experienced first hand, make the term "sightseeing" sound so mundane, so small. When you step outside to experience something or some place new -- even if it is one of the most touristy spots on the planet -- there are surely divinely orchestrated moments waiting for you.

Especially if you're open to them.

They can be little serendipities, or they can be moments of transcendence that alter your understanding of God.

We're planning a framework for late spring where such moments are sure to find you. All you have to do is show up.

Want to know more? Click here.

Cultivating Curiosity


We are all born curious. Show me a baby who isn't drawn to shiny objects or who doesn't believe everything is intended to be put in the mouth. Then the baby becomes a toddler and all of a sudden the entire house has to be childproofed. Everything at eye level is fair game to be explored and often dismantled.

As a young child, I was a voracious reader. We were living in Australia, where, at least at the time, there was no kindergarten like we have in the US, and children started right into Grade 1 at the age of five. I was already reading when I started school in Perth, and I remember my teachers scrambling to keep me stocked with books. Seems I couldn't get enough.

As I've written and spoken about before, we moved back to the US halfway through my fourth grade year, and on the return trip my senses were assaulted by the sights and sounds of exotic lands and foreign tongues. Once again, I couldn't get enough.

Then something happened.

The thing is, I don't know what. Somewhere along the line -- perhaps it was puberty -- I lost my love of reading and the curiosity behind that love. Up to that point I remember loving to read about all kinds of things -- I was simply interested in the world and everything in it.

By my high school years my interests had narrowed to two main areas: music and foreign languages. I excelled in all my subjects, but some of them didn't require that much effort. I was indeed hungry to make progress in my two chosen areas, but I don't remember deriving much satisfaction from anything else.

I'm sorry to say my college years were not much different. Music and foreign languages still dominated my brain space (foreign language eventually gained the upper hand) -- along with an overactive social life.

I was well into my years living in Europe that I began to really notice things. To pay attention to a broader array of areas, such as world events and how they affect each other. Or how math and science cannot be entirely separated from, say, music or philosophy, or even theology. In fact, this growing sense that all things are somehow connected has become a driving force in (re)shaping my world view. And my fascination with how other cultures live and think plays right into this.

In this season of my life, I consider it not only an important aspect of my life, but a calling, to somehow create sparks that trigger curiosity in others -- especially curiosity about people from cultures or experiences unlike ours.

Regardless of your political persuasion or the outcome of the 2016 US elections, we all must admit that, now, more than ever, we are in great need of regaining and fostering cultural curiosity. Just as I allowed my mind to become dulled by who knows what -- teenage preoccupations, then too many college friends (yes, I think that's possible), we can as adults allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the familiar. Falling asleep in our own echo chamber.

Is it possible to make someone curious? Perhaps, perhaps not. But just as a parent provides toys, activities and games that appeal to the innate curiosity of a child, we can most certainly make things available to whet the imagination of those who are asleep...while continually feeding the imagination of those who are curious.

Season 2 of the World to the Wise podcast aims to do just that. Stay tuned! If you're already a subscriber, we would appreciate your taking a minute to write a brief review.

What adventures has your curiosity led you to?

Born Into Exile


Christmas with the family this year was one of the best we've ever had. As the patriarch of a gathering of thirteen people, I was filled with joy and gratitude to watch the love flow between my sons, their wives and girlfriend, and their offspring. It probably helped that our Christmas dinner was actually a relatively simple but tasty brunch, eliminating some of the stress of cooking. But for my wife and me, Christmas also carried with it a new dimension, shaped by our experiences last summer with the European refugee crisis. I thought I would share with you the contents of the note that accompanied the ornament, pictured here, we gave to each of our three sons and their families:

Last summer we were forever changed.

As the European refugee crisis began to gain more and more international attention, we began to realize how little we really knew about the complexities of the situation. We decided we needed to understand better, and up close.

Having very little idea what to expect, we signed up to meet up with a team from Servant Group International to work with refugees in Athens. “Work” is a relatively loose term here – if we did any work, it was nothing more than helping with some meal preparation and giving some English lessons. What we mostly did was observe and learn from the Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees we encountered. Some we met at the tent camps at the port of Pyraeus. Others we met at the “squats” – abandoned buildings such as schools, where they had set up tents in the classrooms.

We heard stories of heart-wrenching trauma. We talked to people who were successful, upstanding citizens in their home country before they were forced to flee and leave everything behind. We listened on the verge of tears to accounts of the harrowing, multi-leg journey to where we now sat together. And more than once we were on the receiving end of hospitality that put us to shame.

We quickly learned that many of the refugees we befriended had loves ones waiting for them in Germany, so we decided to follow two or three of the stories and look up some of these loved ones in Berlin. We were mostly successful, and gratified and saddened at the same time to witness the separation first-hand.

Being in Germany brought back a number of family memories, one in particular related to Christmas. Some time in the early 90’s we found ourselves in the so-called “Christmas Village” of Ravensburg, where we wandered, with Jonathan and Michael, through numerous shops filled with more Christmas paraphernalia than you can imagine. In one shop in particular, we walked slowly through a somewhat cramped and cluttered maize of merchandise until it suddenly opened up to a cavernous wonderland of toys, reindeer, winter scenes and countless lights. It was a Disney-esque, sensory overload, especially for a four-year-old. Said four-year-old was so overcome, he had no words to express what he was witnessing. “This is…this is…” and when no other words would come, he coined a word that would live on in Durham family lore: “FLYTUS!”

In Berlin we now found ourselves in a similar Christmas store. As memories of Ravensburg came flooding back, we made our way through the extensive stock of ornaments and other Christmas trappings, hoping to find something that would remind us at future Christmases of our impacting experience with the refugees. We were about to give up when we came across the ornament in this box. It spoke volumes to us:

The love of God become incarnate in Jesus, who along with his parents, began his life as a refugee. It reminded us that for all our efforts to understand the plight of the displaced, no one identifies more with them – or with any of us – than He.

And we will never be the same.

Explaining Christmas

Explaining Christmas
Explaining Christmas

I’ve found myself wondering of late what someone from a relatively unchristianized country might think of the American celebration of Christmas. The dialogue might sound something like this:

“Well, see, it’s like this. The two most important people at Christmas time are Santa Claus and baby Jesus. Which one is more important depends on who you ask. Christmas is the time we remember the birth of Jesus in a feeding trough around 2,000 years ago. (No one knows exactly when he was born, so we took an old pagan holiday on December 25 and turned it into Christmas.) That’s why you see so many scenes of a baby surrounded by animals and a few people. But none of them are wearing red suits with big black buttons — that’s Santa Claus, who they call Father Christmas in the UK and other Commonwealth countries. The story goes that he lives at the North Pole and makes a visit every year to hand out presents, coming down the chimney if your house has one. Parents of young children love to put their sometimes terrified children in the lap of an old guy dressed up to look like Santa. Most people don’t know where Santa Claus comes from, but rumor has it he is a devolved version of a man named Nicholas who lived in what is now Turkey many years ago and was apparently an incredible guy. Parents agonize over whether to raise their children believing Santa really exists and dreading the day they find out he doesn’t — or just telling them from the start that he’s no more real than Frosty the Snowman.”

“Who’s that?”

“Oh, you don’t know Frosty either? He’s one of a thousand characters that make up the myriad of stories that are pulled out at Christmas time. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (Somewhere along the line Santa Claus acquired a whole herd of reindeer. And he has lots and lots of elves who help him in his workshop. I’m not sure how much they think about baby Jesus.)

You see, Christmas is about way more than Jesus OR Santa; it’s a time to feel all warm and cozy and watch schmaltzy movies and treat each other nicer than usual. We call that the Spirit of Christmas. We give each other presents — so many that Christmas shopping counts for 20% of American retailers’ annual profits. And giving to non-profits for one last tax deduction is part of that spirit, I suppose.

And we sing songs which we call carols. No idea why we call them that, but no other songs we sing throughout the year are called carols. They’re about the birth of Jesus, Santa Claus, other characters as mentioned above…and winter — especially songs that make you feel warm and cozy in spite of the winter cold. (Here in the States we don’t really think about the millions of people who celebrate Christmas on or below the equator — that just doesn’t make sense to us and would mess everything up.)

And of COURSE there’s food. Lots of it, especially sweets. Not sure how baby Jesus feels about the amount of weight gained in this country at this time of year. But who doesn’t love a slice of pumpkin pie or peppermint bark or bourbon bonbons or fudge or…I could go on. And somewhere, some time, someone decided that if two people were found standing together under some mistletoe, a parasite that grows on trees, they have to kiss each other. But you never hear mention of mistletoe at another time of year, so I’m not sure it counts if you’re looking to kiss someone.

On Christmas Eve, some people go to church, where most of the songs are indeed about the birth of Jesus. Then you go home to listen to the rest. It’s a time for families to get together, specifically around an evergreen tree decorated with all kinds of ornaments and keepsakes.”

“What does the tree have to do with the birth of Jesus?”

“Uh, no idea. In fact, the tree thing probably dates back to the pagans as well, but oh, we love our Christmas trees.

In fact, most of us love pretty much all of it.

Does this help?”

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy cover
Hillbilly Elegy cover

In my last post, I mentioned being impacted by J. D. Vance's powerful and tragic book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. My wife and I actually read it together -- sort of. I read aloud to her while she crocheted -- a favorite pastime of ours. Although Vance calls the book a memoir, he admits from the start that he's not old enough to call anything he writes by that name. The term 'elegy', a song of lament or mourning, was a harbinger of the emotion I was left with after reading the book. Vance, a Yale Law School graduate now practicing in Cincinnati, seems ambivalent throughout the book toward the subculture in which he grew up in Eastern Kentucky and Western Ohio. On the one hand, he is not afraid to call out the tragic flaws and shortcomings of what he unabashedly calls hillbilly culture; on the other, he is not ashamed to identify with them still today, using the pronoun "we" when referring to them, even though he himself has risen out of the struggling socioeconomic conditions he came up through.

The childhood Vance describes growing up in Kentucky does nothing to debunk the stereotypes most people have about Appalachia: much of it sounded like it could have been lifted right out of the Hatfields and McCoys. The towering figure in his life was his maternal grandmother, Mamaw, who was largely responsible for raising him in the frequent absence of his drug-addicted mother. The young J.D. lived in a constant state of instability, unsure when his mother would freak out, divorce her current husband and marry another, or come back begging for forgiveness -- or money.

When J.D. was a young teenager, he moved with his mother, sister, and grandparents to Middletown, Ohio, where it turns out thousands of other Eastern Kentuckians have ended up since the Appalachian coal mines began their demise. Even though Middletown was a larger town than his native Jackson, KY, there were so many transplanted Kentucky hillbillies and working class folks that his world view was hardly challenged. Because of all the unrest at home, J. D. almost flunked out of high school, but he somehow managed to graduate and, deciding he wasn't yet ready for college, enlisted in the Marines.

According to Vance himself, the Marines were the best thing that ever happened to him. He credits his two years with them with much of his later success, not to mention self-esteem and a host of other qualities. But the highest praise goes to Mamaw, his foul-mouthed, church-going, rough-and-tumble grandmother who never ceased to remind him that he could do and be whatever he wanted to, as long as he worked hard (a creed she apparently found easier to preach than practice).

The fact that J. D. Vance was able to graduate from college, let alone attend and succeed at one of the most prestigious law schools in the world, is nothing short of miraculous, given the many factors working against him. That story in itself would make for compelling reading. But his vivid and at times painful depiction of his family's dynamics and the culture they hailed from is an important window into a pretty broad swath of the American population. He places the shortage of well-paying jobs right alongside a streak of laziness and tendency to blame the government for what ails them. With the shrinkage of the white American majority and the changing demographic of the America they knew, he portrays a people whose religion is patriotism. But the America they once knew and loved seems to be slipping through their fingers.

I wish I could say I came away from this book with a new ability to relate to this piece of the American patchwork; I must say it left me as perplexed as before. What it did do is paint a powerful picture of a people group that, like it or not, makes up a substantial portion of the US population and, as it turns out, the electorate.

So, happy ending? Not so much. Only inasmuch as Vance himself reminds us, through his life experiences and personal successes, of what his Mamaw and Papaw taught him:

"Whenever times were tough— when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth— I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to make the good choices that others hadn’t."

That country is in desperate need of healing right now, and if it's going to happen, we must continue to seek to understand -- perhaps through reading about real people and real experiences as in this book -- but better yet, by engaging the very people we don't understand. Ah, there's the challenge.

Love Thy Other


In his book Cultural Intelligence (a phrase I happen to use quite a bit), David Livermore says the "first step toward becoming culturally intelligent is to become more aware of our own cultural identity." The last few weeks have shown me -- and us -- that we in the US don't know ourselves as well as we thought we did. It seems there were surprises at every turn during the (interminable) election season. My Friday morning breakfast buddy, David, and I would look at each other months ago and assure each other there was no way Trump would be elected. Yet here we are.

The events and conversations surrounding this election, as well as other historic events such as Black Lives Matter, have had a way of revealing -- not creating -- some real gaps in understanding the Other, whoever that may be. Like a personal trial uncovers traits in us we may not have even been aware of, the same thing seems to be happening on a national scale.

One not-so-attractive trait I've discovered in myself is a tendency to paint people with too broad a brush. The truth is not all Trump voters are the same or voted for him for the same reasons, and the very same can be said of Clinton supporters. And all of these people are so much more than Trump or Clinton supporters. One of the toxic byproducts of this election cycle is the tendency to divide the country into those two camps -- as if we had no other way to define ourselves.

One thing Livermore says in his chapter entitled "The Average American" hit close to home:

"I've been gently challenged by friends in other parts of the world about my tendency to treat my fellow Americans with the same kind of paternalistic arrogance that I accuse them of using with others. One Asian friend said, 'But, Dave [bringing it even closer to home], might it be that the very things you accuse your fellow citizens of doing in relationship to people from other cultures is the way you're relating to them? Maybe the Other for you is a less-traveled, less-thoughtful American neighbor!'" (Bold print mine.)


So I took David Brooks' advice and read, with my wife, J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy, which I will review in a forthcoming post. Suffice it to say for now that it is a poignant and in some ways tragic depiction of a demographic that I am still trying to understand. (Do not understand me to imply that all Trump supporters are hillbillies; if you do, you're missing the point here.) I have to confess that I often feel I relate better to people from any number of foreign countries than I do to this subculture in which Vance grew up in Eastern Kentucky and Western Ohio and unapologetically calls "hillbilly".

Livermore reminds us that self-awareness is the starting place. Once we become more aware of what drives our own assumptions and values, we can begin to contrast these with those of the Other. And if you're anything like me -- and I know I am -- you have more than one Other to seek to understand.

I suppose Socrates had it right when he said, "Above all, know thyself."

Probably the best way to "Love thy Other."

Beyond Sightseeing


In my last two posts I've talked about the first ever partnership between World to the Wise cultural tours and Journey Arts Collective, where we took a group of thirteen creatives from the Nashville area to experience some of the magic of Western Europe. Not only did we have the privilege of introducing them to some of the world's greatest art and a couple of world class cities, but thanks to the leadership of Journey leader Brett Mabury, they were also led on a pilgrimage of sorts. Brett and I were introduced by a mutual friend some time in early 2015. He had been wanting to take creatives to Europe for years, and the mutual friend happened to know that's something my wife Becky and I do with World to the Wise. Brett and I began meeting together, and to his credit, he took a chance and asked Becky and me to help him put together a hopefully unforgettable experience for a dozen artists.


Brett is from Perth, Western Australia, where I happen to have lived for four years as a child. He is married to Keren, who is half Belgian and half Danish and grew up in Paris. The two met in Paris when Brett was studying music there on a fellowship. 

Upon our arrival in Paris, our first destination, each traveler was presented with a spiral-bound booklet Brett had personalized for each one, printing on the inside front page the sentence each person had written as their goal and expectation for this trip. The book contained a number of meditations Brett had put together, each one designed to be read at specific locations throughout our 12-day journey. Imagine the impact of sitting in a place of great artistic and historical significance, reading thoughts that both challenge and quiet your soul. Brett's thoughtful reflections included some of the history of each site we visited, and he used that as a springboard for taking the creative person to a place of introspection.

We were also intentional on this particular trip to connect this group of creatives with those of similar ilk in the cities we visited. In Paris, we drew not only on Brett's and my contacts, but also on those of my old friend Jim Beise, a creative catalyst who spent over a dozen years investing in creatives in Paris. We also had an unforgettable evening with creatives in our old stomping grounds of Lausanne, Switzerland. And we were treated to an outdoor concert on the Piazza San Lorenzo in Florence, where our friend Giorgio Ammirabile was featured directing and singing in front of his gospel choir. Not to mention the magic of the Tuscan countryside, where we stayed five nights, which is in itself a respite for the soul with its vineyards, olive orchards and gentle hills.

Ammirabile vineyard
Ammirabile vineyard

The result of all these experiences? Fifteen creatives (including Becky and myself) who came back not only having feasted on more beauty than can be described -- sometimes in unsuspecting places -- but also grew closer together than they ever expected, not to mention a greater and deeper sense of purpose.

Sign me up. Again.

A Gift from the Past


It seems each time my wife and I take a group to Europe, even though we visit many of the same places each time, there's always some new surprise that awaits us. Earlier this month, World to the Wise partnered with Journey Arts Collective to take 12 creatives to visit some of the world's greatest art, as well as meet local creatives and take time to reflect on their observations. After five full and rich days in Paris, we boarded the TGV (high speed train) for Lausanne, Switzerland, where we barely spent twenty-four hours before heading to Tuscany. Two special events were waiting for us: an evening with over 50 creatives from French-speaking Switzerland, including many old friends of mine from the six years I lived there; and the next morning, a private tour of the 800-year-old Lausanne cathedral.


A historian acquaintance of mine in Lausanne arranged this treat with the docent of the cathedral, a welcoming woman named Myriam. Twelve of us spent the next hour and a half in wonder as we were led first through the underground remains of the Romanesque church that originally occupied the site -- an area closed to the public. Myriam then led us around the nooks and crannies of the main level, and we ended up in the upper levels overlooking the nave, up close to the massive, world class organ.

Imagine you are a master craftsman such as a stone mason or a sculptor. You spend your entire career working on by far the most grandiose structure your city has seen or ever will see. And yet you  are fully aware that you will never see the finished fruit of your labors. This cathedral took 105 years to build in all its stages.

I've visited many cathedrals in my travels, but never I have I been given the gift of winding through corridors, up ancient staircases and ducking under beams where relatively few people have been. It was almost like being invited by the craftsmen themselves to admire their handiwork up close -- 800 years after they labored to produce it.


A Creative Journey


What happens when you put 15 creatives in the same plane, train, bus, or automobile for almost two weeks, where they are not just sightseeing but being asked to reflect, observe, and create? My wife Becky and I have just finished conducting the first ever tour where our company, World to the Wise, partnered with the Journey Arts Collective, led by Brett Mabury. A professional musician, composer and arranger, Brett also serves as a mentor of other artists to accompany them on their…well, journey. Journey Arts Collective seeks to gather creatives into a community – not unlike some of the creative communities in days gone by (the Lost Generation comes to mind), helping them counter isolation and spurring each other toward artistic and spiritual growth. A mutual friend introduced Brett and me a couple of years ago, and I learned that Brett had wanted to take artists to Europe for years. When he heard of the World to the Wise cultural tours Becky and I have been leading since 2010, Brett wondered if it might be a good fit to partner with us on what could potentially be the first of several such adventures.

One of the challenges of taking any group to some of the world’s most interesting places is planning the time in such a way that people take in a full palette of sights and experiences without becoming completely overwhelmed and exhausted. Jet lag is not our friend in this regard. So even though we didn’t packed in as much as we might normally on one of our World to the Wise tours, the time with JAC has been exhausting but exhilarating.


Brett’s intentionality about making this trip a pilgrimage and not just a sightseeing tour made every stop that much more meaningful. He had prepared a booklet for each participant containing exercises and reflections to be done at strategic points throughout each day. From Sacré Coeur cathedral to Notre Dame, from Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny to the Musée d’Orsay, each artist was enriched and challenged in his or her creative and meditative life while marveling at the amazing sights and sounds of Paris.

My long-time friend Jim Beise was also on the trip, doing what he has done for over 15 years: mentoring creatives. His nine years of experience and contacts in Paris made our time there that much more meaningful, as he arranged a number of get-togethers where our group was able to interact with local creative – which in Paris means a number of internationals as well, not just Parisians.

Coming soon – Part 2, where we are invited on a private tour of a 750-year-old cathedral to see things that are never open to the public!

Esperanza en Colombia


I find it more than a little strange that there seems to be so little press coverage -- or interest -- in what is happening among our neighbors to the south. If Secretary of State John Kerry hadn't been in attendance, chances are the signing of a momentous peace accord in Colombia would have gone even more unnoticed. The fact is this has been the longest armed conflict in the history of the Western Hemisphere, and even a tentative end to it is a big deal.

This war has killed over a quarter of a million people in its decades-long history. It began as a ten-year period called La Violencia, sparked by the assassination of a populist leader named Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The conflict eventually evolved into one primarily over communism, with leftist guerrillas forming the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) against the anti-communist, American-backed government.

Some conflicts go on for so long that one generation hands the torch to the next, and eventually no one is sure why they're fighting any more. They just know they are against the enemy, whoever that is. Many FARC soldiers were basically born into the guerrilla army, and fighting against the government is all they've ever known.

Reforming these soldiers on the one hand and reforming the government on the other makes for a challenging road ahead.

Thousands of Colombians dressed in white on the day of the signing of the peace agreement, Sept. 19, 2016, chanting


Yes to peace. May it be.

What Is Patriotism?


I'm reading David Livermore's excellent book, Cultural Intelligence, where he encourages the reader to develop his or her "CQ" (culture quotient) "to engage our multicultural world". You may have heard me refer to Livermore before, and you certainly will again. My wife and I are developing and co-teaching a brand new high school course called Global Studies, and David Livermore is an invaluable resource. I relate to Livermore in so many ways. He has obviously spent a good amount of time overseas and is passionate about understanding other cultures. He rightly points out that part of the journey to cultural intelligence is understanding one's own culture better. And as we get to know ourselves better, collectively speaking, we'll be less likely to project our own cultural values on others. (Enter Socrates' "Know thyself" on a collective level.) I also relate to Livermore's experience of at times feeling great pride in his American nationality, and at other times great shame and embarrassment.

Wisdom, of course, lies in avoiding both extremes (again!). The truth is, "there are aspects of American culture we should embrace...aspects we should protest and redeem...and many aspects that are simply different from how other cultures live, neither expressly good nor expressly bad."

So what does it mean to be patriotic? Does it mean to trumpet your country's greatness and pretend all the flaws are not there? Is it possible to be patriotic and admit at the same time that your country has a lot to learn, and even a lot to be ashamed of?

With all the talk of making America great again vs. keeping America great, so many Americans are preoccupied with the question: Is America indeed the greatest country in the world? -- as if they're afraid of losing their place in some cosmic hall of fame or being knocked off some enviable pedestal by another contender. I'm reminded of the incredibly poignant opening scene of the HBO series "The Newsroom" (sensitive ears beware), where news anchor Will McAvoy lists lots of areas where America is NOT the greatest country in the world: 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, etc. A big collective ouch -- not to mention the shock factor of this respected news anchor actually speaking his own mind.

But what if we just set aside the whole question of whether the US is the greatest -- whatever that means -- and asked instead what would make her greater? What if we spent less time on rhetoric and more time on substance? On righting wrongs that we're already aware of? On being open to be shown our blind spots and then doing something about them?

Seems to me that might be the most patriotic thing we could possibly do.

"There's a whole world out there..."

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewing a dear Indian-American couple named Pravin and Fiona. They have been living in the US for a number of years, have two sons born here, and are themselves on the path toward US citizenship. (You can find that interview here.) One simple thing that struck me is something Fiona said in response to my question of what took her some getting used to about life in these United States. She said something to the effect of "Sometimes Americans don't seem to know that there's a whole world out there."


I suppose on one hand our navel-gazing is understandable -- there is so much going on in this country, not to mention in our daily existence, that many might say they just don't have time to learn about the world out there. And I get it. Plus, our country is so vast, with so many beautiful places to see, one could spend a lifetime just traveling within the United States.

world out there
world out there

Here's what I suggest: if you like a one-dimensional life, one single perspective on things, a single way of doing things, of viewing the world, and already completely understand why people are the way they are...

...well, then, you're probably not reading this blog! Because this is the place where we have turned up our curiosity, where we believe the world has more to teach us than we can contain, and where we KNOW we are richer for every single thing we learn and experience from the OTHER -- whoever and wherever he or she may be.

Did you catch my interview with Navajo Nation member Dale Tsosie (pron. 'sosie') last week? He had some powerful things to say about his identity as a Native American, and how reading the Bible is what gave him permission to fully embrace his Navajo identity.

In this week's podcast I have the pleasure of introducing you to a wonderful lady named Sarah Lanier, whose book, Foreign to Familiar, is a fascinating and readable look into how different people behave based on the climate of the culture they live in -- hot or cold. You won't want to miss this!

There Ain't No Good Guys


I've been reminded so often of the 70's Dave Mason song called "We Just Disagree". In an already polarized culture, most of us are tempted to think in terms of good guys and bad guys. Another terrorist attack -- that's clearly a bad guy. Which, of course, makes us the good guys. My favorite candidate is the good guy, which of course makes the other candidate the bad guy. Just yesterday I was talking with some friends who were grappling with the whole situation in Turkey, where certain elements in the military attempted to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. How are we distant onlookers supposed to process events like this? Again, we often default to the question of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

If only life were that simple. Understand, I am of course in no way condoning or excusing terrorist attacks just because "we're all human." But life is sticky. And more importantly, we are all capable of the very best and the very worst of human nature. Take the Syrian war, for example. Now put yourself in the place of the US administration and Departments of State and Defense and try to imagine choosing sides. Do you support the rebels fighting against the tyrant, only to discover that they too are beheading children?

But back to our polarized culture. It turns out we're not the only ones. Brexit has not caused but revealed a deeply divided Britain, as the coup attempt in Turkey revealed the same. The us against them mentality only serves to perpetuate this polarization, and, as usual, the voices in the middle are often the faintest.

For me, it comes down to the fact that I am responsible for me, and the way I view those unlike me. And if I do a little appropriate self-examination, I quickly realize all the evil in the world is not out there somewhere.

I often think of G.K. Chesterton's response to the London Times survey question of "What is wrong with the world":

 "Dear London Times,

    I am."

In many cases, it's not so much I'm right and you're wrong, but

 "There ain't no good guy

    There ain't no bad guy

    There's only you and me and

    We just disagree."  

(lyrics by Dave Mason)

Living on the Edge of the Inside


I heard a friend of mine yesterday reference one of my favorite columnists/commentators, David Brooks, on an article I had missed. Brooks calls it "At the Edge of Inside," borrowing from Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and writer. And then I came across this quote from Seth Godin, whom I quoted just last week. Rohr and then Brooks talk about three groups in any organization: the insiders, the outsiders, and the ones on the 'edge of inside'. Those at the core of the inside are those who are the loyal diehards -- and perhaps know nothing other than that organization. The outsiders have it easy in the sense they can lob bombs from the outside without much concern for the wellbeing of the insiders. Those on the edge of the inside know, love and understand both the insiders and outsiders. Their loyalty and commitment are sometimes questioned by the insiders, but the "edgers" are in a unique position to evaluate and critique the organization.

...or the culture. If you have been exposed to other cultures (or subcultures), you have hopefully learned something not only about the new culture, but also about your own (sub)culture. This gives you an objectivity that is badly needed if positive change is going to happen within the organization or culture. You are sometimes misunderstood or disregarded because you are not on the core inside. But this does not mean you have nothing to say or that what you have to say is not valid or important. Many times it's about how you say it.

Maybe you are an insider who is feeling the need to broaden your horizons a little. Let me encourage you: step outside. You'll only be the richer.

Do I find myself in this group? You betcha. How about you?

A Tide of Nationalism


Very few saw it coming. We were in France when it happened. We had spoken to a number of Brits from multiple generations before the day of the referendum, and they were unanimously in favor of #remaINing in the European Union. So it was as much a surprise to us as to anyone that Brexit became a reality. It reminded me of the Trump phenomenon in the States -- I don't actually know anyone who voted for him in the primaries, but someone obviously did. It would be mistaken and simplistic to point to one single motive behind the results in favor of Brexit; ever since there was such a thing as Britain, there has been a prevalent island mentality. (The word "insular" comes from the same word as "island".) Great Britain opted out in 1992 of adopting the euro as its national currency, even though it was a part of the newly formed European Union. There has always been a sometimes comfortable / sometimes uncomfortable distance between the UK and the European mainland, in spite of the fact that the 31 miles between Dover and Calais has not changed recently. 

But there was more at play here. The working class north of England, as well as Wales, has apparently been feeling disenfranchised and unheard. But the wave of migrants flooding the European continent, already in progress before the Syrian war even broke out, then overflowing because of said war, has certainly played a role in this 52% to 48% vote. There is concern, some of it understandable, about migrants taking British jobs. (This has been going on for some time -- in my experience, chances are very good that your order in any British pub or cafe will be taken by a foreign national from another EU country.)

Combine this situation with a rising tide of nationalism -- not only in the UK, but in many European countries -- and you have a volatile mix. There is a circle-the-wagons mindset taking hold across the continent. Not unanimous by any means, but significant. The day after the Brexit vote, the Dutch anti-immigration leader called for a similar referendum in the Netherlands. Greece has long had a major chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the EU, as my wife and I heard first hand during our recent time there.

It's anyone's guess exactly how Brexit will play itself out, and some of our distraught British friends may decide in the future that they over-reacted on June 24, 2016. I don't pretend to be an economist or an expert on international affairs; but I am concerned about the growing resistance to anything foreign, whether in the US or Europe. It is a little too easy to take legitimate concerns about jobs and terrorists too far and turn them into irrational, fear-driven conclusions.

With all the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from both sides of the Atlantic, I can't help wondering what the Native American community must be thinking. Do they laugh or cry to hear white-dominated Americans deciding who can and who cannot land on these shores?

On this Independence Day 2016, may we realize our DEpendence as well. Our interdependence. In the 21st century, there is no more such a thing as a pure American than there is a pure Briton or a pure Frenchman. Not that we can't celebrate our national identity as we do today; but we must not forget that our strength is not in our sameness, but in our diversity.

The Jungle, Part II

image2 (2)
image2 (2)

(For Part I, click here.) Once we had been waved through, we had to decide which of two dirt roads was the more passable in order to get to the small cluster of makeshift buildings marked by a couple of signs saying "Ecole" or "School" on the edge of the camp. There were a few other cars parked, all with French license plates. Our eyes landed on a white, middle-aged woman talking to a handful of dark-skinned migrants. She was a local volunteer, giving several hours per week to teach French to anyone who asks. It was immediately evident that she has given her heart and soul for the people of the Jungle as she answered our questions. It is in many respects a small city. Although there are some tents, many of the dwellings are makeshift houses, although that word is really saying too much. There are shops, of sorts. (As you look at the photos, remember all our observations were from just outside the camp.)

truck hopping
truck hopping

There are a lot of reasons the Jungle feels different. For one thing, none of the camps we visited in Athens come close to the number of people all in one place. But the biggest distinction is that the migrants at the jungle can almost SMELL their desired destination, just 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) away. That makes their quest seem a little more dramatic and perhaps a little more urgent, with almost daily attempts at hopping a truck.

We were chatting with Dominique, the first French volunteer teacher we met at the school, when we  were invited inside for a video presentation by a young lady from a performance art company from the  city of Nantes. She does advance publicity for a traveling street performance called Long Ma, or “horse dragon” in Chinese. The company builds huge mechanical figures in the form of a horse dragon and a giant spider, and they draw huge crowds on the streets of European cities as well as on other continents. It was her idea to interest as many of the Jungle inhabitants as possible, which we agreed would be a great diversion from their daily existence in the camp. When she found out I was a French teacher, she asked if I would be willing to interpret for her in English. I found myself wishing that more from the camp had heard about the presentation, but I’m sure the word about the street show traveled.


After the presentation, we were standing back outside when we suddenly saw and felt our first ever tear gas attack. All of us were immediately seized with burning and tearing eyes, coughing, and stinging nostrils. Becky and I thought about making a run for the car, but quickly realized that would be no escape. So we ran back into the makeshift schoolroom to wait out the worst of the gas and its effects. The French volunteers were saying they had never experienced tear gas in all their time of coming here.


And yet, it is apparently not all that uncommon. The riot police have their orders: to contain the migrants in the camp and prevent them from attempting any more stowaways. As we eventually got in the car to leave, the visual was striking: the police in full riot gear in a face-off with several dozen migrants. I was reminded of the video a Palestinian refugee from Syria showed me in Athens of Turkish police with knives boarding the inflatable boat they were in with orders to puncture the boats. Like the French riot police, they were following orders to stop the flow of migrants leaving their shores.

In spite of the contrasts between what we experienced in Greece and France, the parallels are undeniable. The great majority have crossed water under perilous circumstances, be it the Aegean or the Mediterranean. Most of them have someone waiting for them in a prosperous European country, having gone ahead to seek a better life. And most of them still in the camps have nothing left.

Our oldest son and his brother-in-law, also a dear friend of ours, wrote a song about the plight of the refugees in this latest wave of the past year to two years. I leave you with a rough audio recording, along with the lyrics, below.

We did not come away from our experiences with specific ideas or strong opinions about what should be done to stop the Syrian war, or solutions for solving the massive challenge facing Europe at this time. What we did come away with is a renewed awareness of the senselessness of war, as well as not one but dozens of stories — stories that put a face on this crisis and have left an indelible impression on us. We know we cannot remain indifferent — including to those in our own city.

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by Jonathan Durham and Brian Beise

So the plan has changed, so we quit the land,

So we lost our home, I still have your hand

So the dark is deep,  and our vessel shakes,

I will call your name, and the day will break

See there's the sunlight;  it was never really gone

It's travelled far and it has farther still to go

The wind has died but we will set our sails, love

There is no tide so we will row

So waves of our friends crash onto the shore

Everyday we choose another last resort

So the borders close and the waters rise

We will ride these boards and find the sea's good side

See there's the sunlight; it was never really gone

It's travelled far and it has farther still to go

The wind has died but we will set our sails, love

There is no tide so we will row

We haul on frozen ropes, salt-soaked to the bone

But when you say my name you and I are home

(c) 2015 Brian Beise and Jonathan Durham

image1 (1)
image1 (1)

A Day in the Life of the Jungle


We didn't really know what to expect. We had been following an organization called "l'Auberge des migrants" on Facebook for several weeks. It is a UK-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers -- largely from the UK, but from other countries as well, including a few Americans -- to sort clothes, cook and deliver meals, teach English lessons, and generally help meet the daily needs of the roughly 4,500 migrants that find themselves in a place called the Jungle.

I'm not at all sure who gave this refugee camp that nickname. In a way it seems to me to dehumanize what is already a cauldron of needs, hopes and aspirations, not to mention abhorrent living conditions.

Becky and I wanted to visit the camp, even for just a day, to observe and compare this situation with what we encountered in Greece. We decided to apply as volunteers for a day with the Auberge (which means "inn"). Not having heard back from them (it turns out they only accept volunteers for a week or more), we decided to just drive to Calais and see what we could see.


On a tip from the staff at the restaurant where we had had lunch, we drove to an area near the port of Calais, where hundreds of vehicles line up every day for the car ferry that will take them across the English Channel. Not surprisingly, the Jungle is right there, below the overpass leading to the ferry, although it took what seemed like forever to figure out how to get there by car. One young man at a nearby animal shelter, where we stopped to ask more questions, told me where I could find the warehouses where most of the volunteers work.


Under a chilly drizzle, we arrived at the warehouse, given away by the number of British license plates on the cars parked in the street. We were welcomed by a smiling young man from  Manchester, wearing a high-vis raincoat. Dozens of other young volunteers scurried about, many of them finishing up a coffee break and getting back to sorting supplies, setting up donated tents to make sure all the parts were there, and loading a large truck with clothes. Mostly English was spoken, with a little French or German here and there.

After a few more minutes of asking questions of whomever was available, we were told that we couldn't actually go inside the camp, but that if we showed up at the gate at 6:00 pm, we could visit the makeshift school on the edge of the Jungle, where anyone can go and volunteer their time to give lessons in English, French, and other things.

We arrived at the entrance to the Jungle, guarded by a strong contingent of police. Having set aside my natural reluctance to ask strangers questions (I suppose I'm becoming a self-styled journalist in my old age), I struck up a conversation with one of the troopers while his colleague was running my passport through the system. He told me this unit is part of the national riot police, called in anywhere in France where there is a need to restore order. It wouldn't be long before we would see part of how this is done.

There was such a different feel between the camps we visited in Athens and the Jungle here in Calais. A majority (by how many I'm not sure) of the migrants come from Africa, notably Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. There are also a number from other African countries, along with Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Many have attempted to jump aboard a truck bound for the ferry. Some of those waiting in the Jungle are following legal procedures for applying for asylum, but their chances are usually slim. And now with the Brexit, many in France are calling on England to protect their own border -- in other words, to relieve France of the responsibility of holding them back.

If many of the refugees in Athens have family waiting for them in Germany, many of those in the Jungle have people waiting in the UK -- hence the hope of somehow making it across the Channel.


In Part II, you'll read about the surprise that awaited not only us, but some of the volunteers who happened to be at the Jungle at the same time....

Following the Stories to Berlin

Abu Ahmad
Abu Ahmad

If you've been following us the last few weeks, you know we had quite an eye-opening and moving time in Athens, Greece, where thousands of refugees are suspended in a sort of no man's land, hoping for a life where their own lives are not threatened. Most of them have lost friends or family members in one of the many conflicts in the Middle East; many have family members already waiting for them in Germany. Although we were there less than two weeks, we will not soon forget the warmth with which we were welcomed every time we visited one of the camps. Most of the people we met were Syrians, but there were also Afghanis, Iraqis, and Palestinians.

Since we were planning on Berlin as our next stop on this European odyssey, we offered to visit the fiancee of one young Palestinian man who grew up as a refugee in Syria. His fiancee is in Berlin with her family -- one of the few intact families we've met. We also arranged to visit the 17-year-old son of a Syrian father (pictured above) of nine in the Athens camp, who is in Greece with another son and two daughters while his wife and other children are scattered across Germany. (We still don't fully understand why family members are so often split up in different cities in their host country.) In this account, we are using made-up names to protect the identities of the people involved.


Adara, a 19-year-old Syrian girl with large brown eyes and long, beautiful hair, lives with her parents and two sisters in a plain apartment building in a southern suburb of Berlin. I had reached her father by phone to arrange the meeting, but he was away visiting his brother in the hospital when we arrived. After handing over my passport to the guard at the entrance to the shelter for asylum seekers, Becky and I waited until a young man in his thirties arrived to welcome us. With a kind manner and very good English, Abdul introduced himself as Adara's uncle. He took us to the family's small, no-frills apartment, where Adara greeted us at the door. She was not wearing a hijab (head scarf). Abdul and Adara led us to a bedroom, where we sat on twin beds facing each other, with a small table in between. This was the only room we saw in the apartment. But it was an apartment, complete with plumbing and electricity -- not a tent. Becky gave Adara the card written by her fiancé, Jalal, along with some chocolates and flowers we had picked up in Berlin. She fought back tears after reading Jalal's brief note, and went on to offer us glasses of water -- even though it was Ramadan, and neither she nor her uncle would have a drop of water or anything else until after sundown. She then brought us glasses of some kind of tasty grapefruit soda. (We've learned by now that it does no good to say no, thank you.)

We spent the next few minutes in a trilingual chat with the two of them -- speaking German to her and English to him, and he sometimes translating into Arabic for her. She was warm, poised, and gracious, just like all the other Syrian women we had met. She spoke of her intensive German language study, never letting on that this is probably the biggest ordeal she's ever been through. (Note: this week's podcast will include the aspect of German language learning as an important part of new immigrants' cultural integration.) Abdul, whom we took an immediate liking to, talked mainly about how grateful he was for the option of being safe in Germany.


After 30-45 minutes, Adara's parents arrived from the hospital. The dad was much larger in every way than his brother-in-law, Abdul -- more outspoken, more demonstrative -- a big teddy bear of a man. His wife was young-looking, all smiles, and wore the traditional hijab. Our time, by then, was unfortunately growing short, as we had to reach the opposite end of the city for our next appointment.

After photos, we said our goodbyes a little earlier than we would have liked, and headed back for the train station. I had set up our meeting with young Nabil with one of the social workers who staff the group home where he lives along with other under-age immigrants. It is a fairly nice-looking building in a quiet northern suburb, although we didn't see the inside. Not seeing a main entrance, I rang a buzzer and was answered by a male German voice, who said Nabil had gone out to run errands or do some shopping -- even though it was now the agreed upon time of our meeting. A little discouraged, we walked a few feet down the sidewalk and discovered an entrance we hadn't seen, and there was Nabil taking his bike out. Although his father had shown us a photo of him, we needed no photo to recognize him. He had much the same handsome face as his younger brother (pictured at the top) whom we had befriended in the Athens camp.


Nabil has been in Germany about a year, which means he was sixteen when his parents sent him ahead to find some kind of new life for himself, and hopefully his family would follow. This is an apparently common strategy. As we talked with this soft-spoken young man with broken German, I could only imagine what it was like to come to a completely foreign land as a sixteen-year-old, not speaking a word of the local language and entirely dependent on survival skills and the kindness -- or not -- of the German staffers who handled his case. It turned out that the staffer I had spoken to, a young man named Robin, who joined us a few minutes later, was indeed kind and works for a private nonprofit to integrate under-aged immigrant arrivals.

Nabil was reserved, and because both his German and mine were limited, our communication was not great. I was frankly not even sure he was glad to see us, although his father had told him to expect us. He did manage a weak smile from time to time. God alone knows what this young man has been through and the survival mechanisms he has had to put in place. As we parted ways after no more than half an hour of chatting and trying to understand more of his story, Becky and I came away with more questions than anything else. How long would it take for Nabil to be integrated into German culture? How long before he could be reunited with his mother in the eastern German city of Leipzig, not to mention his father and siblings still in Greece? Coming from a group-oriented culture and then left on his own for so long, how would his eventual reunion with his family go? No one knows. Again.

The refugee situation in Europe, and indeed on other continents such as North America, is so complex that it is pretty much impossible to get your mind around it. What we can get our minds around is stories -- stories of families and individuals whose lives have been permanently altered.

Stay tuned for the next post, where we share a song that captures much of this tumult and uncertainty, written by our son and his brother-in-law/bandmate.