Thursday, December 31, 2009

Growing in Athens

At 8:00 AM on New Year’s Day, 2010, I slid open the heavy glass door and went out on the veranda to check on the plants. The mild, typical Athens weather was comfortable, so my plaid pajamas were warmth enough. This open, exterior space is as close to the good earth as we are allowed from our apartment on the fourth floor in the old, Pangrati district of downtown Athens, Greece. The flower boxes, overcrowded by giant, venerable yucca plant trees that now reach to the neighbor’s veranda above, grant precious little space for a few plants to grow. Since we have just returned from a 2-month sojourn in the States, we are especially pleased that Ana’s good weekly work has kept most of the plants alive in our absence.

I also went outside to finish rooting that crawling, green, ground cover that I harvested on Christmas day, while visiting Sounio, at the southernmost tip of the Greek mainland. Although I have no idea what the name of the plant is or how to replant it, it seems hardy. I found it in what appears at first to be a non-hospitable habitat, crawling over the rocks and shallow soil close to the sea. With luck and enough care, I’ll be successful in transplanting it to the tiny, concrete flower boxes that give definition to our large balcony.

Like the green, crawling “stuff,” I, too, have been transplanted – at first from my native Mississippi southland to the booming metropolitan landscape of Houston, Texas; and then, after over thirty years, Janice and I moved, first to Tirana, Albania and then, to the ancient city of Athens. To take a “son of the South” from the Magnolia State to the Balkan cultures of Albania and Greece, by way of urban Houston, Texas is, perhaps as challenging as moving rock-crawling, green ground cover from the shallow, but damp seacoast to the fourth floor of an urban balcony. But, Janice and I have made that transition. With care from many, hard work on our part and not a little patience, we have moved ourselves and our many "foreign" mentalities to this busy, multicultural milieu. And, after almost seven years in the Balkans, we are feeling, if not fully “at home,” then, certainly comfortable. On our best days, we would even admit that we thrive in this place!

Likewise, our Albanian friends in Athens have been transplanted. From an isolated, neglected, economically lacking culture, ruled dictatorially by a suspicious mentality that brooked little opportunity and a truckload of fear, over half-a-million immigrants from Albania have now come to Athens. In the early days they came without the luxury of legal documents. Increasingly, today they come in the open air, seeking to abide by the ever-changing and often discriminatory legal procedures of their new host country.

Albanians in Athens, like everything that is transplanted or uncultivated, need lots of care. They need room to grow, water and other basic necessities, attention and nurture. As surely as Ana and I need to tend to the plants on the balcony, someone needs to care for Albanians in Athens. By God’s grace, Janice and I are honored to have that charge and, in 2010, return optimistically to that task.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And then again, Begin!

As the slightly cooler air signaled the close of a hot summer and insinuated, gently, the arrival of fall in Athens, Greece, I climbed the steps to the second floor of the turn-of-the 20th century house that holds the facilities of PORTA – the Albanian culture center. This stately, neo-classical house that once served as the surgery and private residence for the doctor who was the medical attendant to the King of Greece, now is my primary workplace. A tight grip on the circling, wrought-iron banister pulled my aging limbs and body upward to the place where students were already gathering. It was the first night of the Fall Session of the English-as-a-foreign-language classes which we offer through our center for Albanian immigrants.

Despite my weariness, I sensed renewed energy, a fresh wind, a new-found grace and an elevated hope within. Although I wouldn’t dare physically to leap up those stairs, my heart wanted to, because it was time for school to begin again. Breathless, I arrived upstairs with a few moments to reflect on all of those times in the past when I and some students somewhere have, together, faced the first day of class. Since 1968, with precious few exceptions, I have celebrated the autumnal commencement of learning from the professorial side of a university lectern. In such varied settings as a small town in northeast Mississippi, a moderate sized city in Kentucky, the megacity of Houston, Texas and now, in the old, Balkan, metropolis of Athens, Greece, I have welcomed the fall and the first day of class.

I am certain that I favor the first of school because of the new beginnings which it celebrates and affords for all involved. There is something comforting, if also, somewhat artificial, about the academic penchant for beginning and ending seasons of learning. When the course of study begins again, there are fresh opportunities and renewed possibilities. Regardless of what has gone on before, one can begin again.

It put me to thinking about those distinctive lines from the first stanza of Matthew Arnold’s classic poem, Dover Beach. Written, some say, on Arnold’s honeymoon, against those beautiful white cliffs of Dover on the English seacoast, the poet reflects on the sights and sounds of the sea which was, perhaps, just outside his window. Perchance while his new bride slept, he first penned the words that speak of the regularity, the security, the melancholy and the comfort of the life’s predictability, where things end and begin:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.

Whatever Arnold might have originally intended these words to celebrate, this year, I am observing up close and respecting with great gratitude, just over thirty Albanian adults of all ages in Athens, Greece, who, despite the many obstacles in their pathway toward freedom and opportunity, are diving into the sea of knowledge again, seeking to learn how to speak English. With the rhythm of the sea, the actual sound and fury of which are no more than twenty minutes from their classrooms, they and their teachers are beginning again.

And, so am I!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It Certainly Is a Jungle Out There!

Living in Athens, Greece and choosing not to have satellite television coverage, we are somewhat limited in the English-language programming we can receive. Late at night, we get reruns of American-made movies, usually interrupted by 30-minute commercial breaks! Earlier in the broadcast day, we get reruns of such notable television series as “Hart to Hart,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Nanny.” One of our all-time favorites, however, is the on-going saga of the quirky, slightly mentally fragile, private detective, “Monk.”

Adrian Monk, formerly with the San Francisco Police Department, is the quintessential acute obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferer. His condition has been exacerbated by the murder of his wife, his unstable reaction to which resulted in his suspension from the department. Despite his emotional problems, however, he is a brilliant detective, styled along the lines of Sherlock Holmes with a little of Inspector Clouseau and Colombo thrown in. Monk has a record 312 phobias, chief of which are germs, milk, needles, death, snakes, mushrooms and elevators. He refuses to touch door handles and other normal objects with his bare hands, preferring to use sanitary wipes even after shaking hands. In addition, he is unable to eat food that other humans have touched!

Among the typical evidences of artistic genius in the development of this show, the people in charge chose Randy Newman’s ecological warning ballad, “It’s a Jungle Out There” as the theme song. Newman’s otherwise serious words of warning about the poisoning of the environment, placed against the backdrop of the slightly unwell Monk, are seen in a new light:

It's a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care
Well I do
Hey, who's in charge here?
It's a jungle out there
Poison in the very air we breathe
Do you know what's in the water that you drink?
Well I do, and it's amazing
People think I'm crazy, 'cause I worry all the time
If you paid attention, you'd be worried too
You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much might just kill you
I could be wrong now, but I don't think so!
'Cause there's a jungle out there.

The genuine irony about this TV series is that it is precisely Monk’s relative illness that is, at the same time, the source of his detective genius. While his fears may often be ill-founded, it is his attention to detail, his penchant for symmetry and his obsession with orderliness which so often help him to notice the clues at the crime scene. And this is how Randy Newman’s appropriate warning about ecological concerns and Adrian Monk’s obsessive behaviors actually come together for me.

It truly is a jungle out there! There are very sinister and powerfully authentic and ugly realities about which each of us should be frightened and careful, at a minimum, if not active and corrective, at our best. Despite the fact that some may label us alarmist, overly-cautious, or moral sticks-in-the-mud, this good world has, in many instances, gone bad! How, then, can we be appropriately aware of the presence of evil in the world? How can we take seriously the many indications that this creation has been warped and thrown off-course from the original trajectory of its divine designer? How can we live with courage and fear and face our own, as well as the cosmic demons that destroy life’s happiness for so many? How do we dare to confront the social, personal and global "germs” that so easily pollute our world?

Adrian Monk’s trademark method of examining a crime scene may help us here. In what Monk’s able assistant, Sharona usually refers to as his “Zen Sherlock Holmes thing,” Monk wanders through a crime scene with apparent abandon. He holds up his hands, as though framing a shot for a photograph. Tony Shalhoub, the actor who portrays Monk, explains that Monk does this because it isolates and cuts the crime scene into discernable pieces or slices. It allows him to look at parts of the crime scene, rather than the whole.

Maybe that is what you and I need to do in this dangerous world. Perhaps we should stop easily ignoring and passing over the little evidences that our world is out of whack. Perhaps, we should give minute attention to the small evidences of discord, both in ourselves and in the cosmos. In all of the furor over health care, immigration, the economy and global peace, it might be Monkly wise of us to sense that something is way wrong, look at the small pieces of the puzzle and reflect on potential corrective scenarios, because, “It’s a jungle out there!”

Monday, August 17, 2009


I confess to a major value conflict! If you know me well, you know that it’s not unusual for me when one subset of my somewhat complex, personal value system collides with another subset. Ordinarily, I work at keeping my values compartmentalized, so that I can pretend ignorance of my inconsistencies. I am quite mentally flexible and have become adept at disguising the contradictions within myself. Occasionally, I am honest enough to admit to them and sometimes I even celebrate my value paradoxes.

But this one truly has generated a restlessness in my ruminations which I can no longer deny and which I find difficult to celebrate. Try as I might, I just can’t ignore the incongruity or rejoice over the inconsistency. I keep running the “pro” values up against the “con” values and I keep coming out conflicted.

It’s about the US government’s recent decision to follow the lead of other world powers by encouraging consumption as an escape route from the world-wide economic mess; specifically, our leaders have chosen, simultaneously, to stimulate the faltering auto industry and to take a stand in favor of more efficient and ecologically sound automotive engineering; they have done so by encouraging the public to trade-in their gas-guzzling vehicles. I know, I know! I get it! These automobiles are inefficient! They over-pollute our already over-polluted air! And, besides, the US auto industry is in the dumpster! Something has to be done to stimulate this essential enterprise and to entice the American auto-buying public to pretend confidence in the economy!

But, on the other hand (I just hate it when there is an “other hand”!), to this day, I regret it that so many great, now-vintage automobiles were too-easily consigned to the scrap yards, just a few decades ago. As a vintage auto admirer and sometime collector, I know that cars represent a particular era, that they make a statement about who we were “back then” and what we valued “when.” I know that it’s more than mere sentimentality that causes so many to reclaim and restore old cars. I know that refurbishing vintage vehicles is something akin to protecting the “living artifacts” of social, political and economic history. I’m just grateful that the vintage wheels that I have owned were spared the dreaded extermination by cruncher and, to this day, (most) remain alive and thriving on the streets.

I feel this way about the current crop of so-called clunkers, because I know that some of them, perhaps many of them, are in fine shape and don’t “deserve” to be so sentenced to the scrap-heap. I know it’s inconsistent of me, but I just wish there was some other way to gain a boost to the economy and make some progress on our pollution problems without the sacrifice of all of this vintage sheet metal!

More importantly, this treatment of autos reflects yet another one of my value conflicts – the way we treat older persons. I can’t help but notice that our youth-oriented, narcissistic, contemporary-dominated culture is inclined to treat older persons like we treat older 4-door sedans! We are far too quick to set some arbitrary age limit and, without thinking or admitting it, determine that anyone over that age is, henceforth, of little value and is prohibitively expensive to maintain. I’m certain that my view is prejudiced by the reality that, last week, I began the process of registering for Medicare. Half-way through my sixth decade of living, I sense significant, growing prejudice toward those of us who are “chronologically advantaged.”

So, now, I must own-up to yet another value conflict. “What shall we do with grandma or grandpa?” How shall we treat the aged with respect and dignity? How can we so construct a viable social system that is efficient and, at the same time, able to “afford” the “inefficiencies” required to protect and treasure those who are living longer each year?

A clunker conundrum, indeed!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"There's a Land Beyond the River!"

The old Gospel song speaks longingly of a life beyond this present life and, in so doing, taps into and gives voice to a soul wish that is pretty close to universal. Given the wearifying travail demanded as the price for a ticket to travel through this present world, who can blame the dog-tired pilgrim for hoping for a better place, “in that far off sweet forever, just beyond the shining river”?

The Israelites in the biblical story, however, were less concerned about the hereafter; exhausted, both from their Egyptian ordeal and from the rough road of desert emancipation and escape, they longed for a “promised land” in this very world where all that was wrong would be made right and all that was bad would be transformed into good. That land turned out to be somewhat less than the idyllic utopia that they imagined and it summoned them to change far more than just location in order to receive its benefits; on the other hand, it also was to be found literally “beyond the river” Jordan.

So, today, I am thinking of these treasured words, not in some super-spiritual, other-worldly sense; I am reflecting on their most practical and pragmatic meaning, as I have experienced them in my own life. I am recalling the profoundly challenging vision and also the terrifying reality that is caught up in this affirmation that there exists “land beyond the river.” It is so easy for me to build my little world around “my little world.” In my self-centered fashion, I can slip, unconsciously, into the notion that all that truly exists and all that actually “is” resides within the confines of “my place,” on “this side of the river,” if you please!

But, the current H1N1 virus scare that still threatens to become a pandemic has telegraphed its message to many citizens of the USA that there’s a land beyond the Rio Grande River! As the ancients in hilly Buda and those on the flat terrain of Pest, in Hungary felt differentiated by the Danube River between them, sometimes you and I live as though water were a wall. Often, people ask Janice and me what the people are like “overseas,” as if they were fundamentally different “across the pond.”

Please do not misunderstand. I would never deny the powerful reality of historical and cultural differences; as an expat American, living in Athens, Greece, I live with them every day! But, sometimes I just need to shout out loud, to myself, as much as to anyone else, that “there’s a land beyond the river” and it is peopled with people who are in so many essential ways very much like the people on “this side of the river.” Universal is their need for affirmation, their desire for security and their fear of the unknown; identical to ours is their hope for wholeness, their striving for freedom and their aversion to risk; catholic is their value in God’s sight, their beauty, their worth. Why must you and I consistently pretend that this is not true?

Everybody, sing with me now: “There’s a land beyond the river!”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Village Life!

“You’re the one with the red coat!” the woman proudly said to Janice, as she got down from her bicycle. The woven, straw basket strapped to the rear fender of her bike was filled with groceries because she was returning from the only grocery store in the tiny village of Limni, on the Greek island of Evia. She boldly curbed her vintage bike to interrupt the otherwise peaceful breakfast-by-the-sea of these strangers because, well, that’s what they do in Limni. Since early May is still a bit early for tourists and since the village is small, she and her neighbors had definitely noticed us when, the twilight before, we drove into the village, in search of lodging for the night.

We had driven three hours from Athens to Larissa, Greece, the day before, to pick-up some Albanian language books in preparation for upcoming marriage enrichment and singles conferences at PORTA –the Albania House in Athens. On the way home, on the spur of the moment, with no extra clothes, we decided to take the ferry boat across from the mainland to the large island that hugs the Greek coastline. As the fading sun set on the waters, we drove into the seaside town and were fortunate to locate lodging in a German-run inn facing the bay.

Perhaps, the lady stopped to make conversation because there is precious little else to do in Limni. It is distinguished, not only by its simple and pristine beauty, but by its miniature size. Everyone in town knows everyone else in town; and, I suspect that new arrivals are welcomed both because they bring the potential for trade and also because they are people. And people seem to be valued in this tiny town.

As we sat at a dinner table the night before, enjoying a classic Greek meal in a building that was proud of its 150 years, my weary, wound-up-tight, western-over-scheduled brain began to sense a change of velocity. Almost unconsciously, my internal gyroscope recalibrated itself, to calculate more correctly the ambiance and milieu of this restful place. Since all that we did in that precious get-away was done near the sea, the casual, predictable and repetitive come and go, give and take of the waves, washing on the shore and retreating seemed to set the stride for us. The water spoke softly to us, telling us to slow down. And we did, if only for the better part of one night and half of the next day.

Driving home through the mountains on the island, passing idyllic mountain streams, I asked myself: How can I learn to slow the tempo in the hurly burly of my “normal life” on the streets of Athens? Lacking the island inducements to reflection and the “natural” village life incentives that entice one toward the larger perspective and the slower pace, what prompters can I locate in my urban existence that will put my worries on “pause” and help me to step back from the angst of anxiety?

While I have few easy answers to those questions, I am convinced that seeking both answers and places of emotional refuge are vital for me. And I have returned to this old city with a fresh desire to savor the little moments that this good life gives me, even those that may be filled with diesel fumes, motorcycle noise and Greeks shouting at everyone, anyone and no one. Look for the wistful, glassy-eyed guy in the Athens traffic!

Friday, March 27, 2009

“ONE SENT” to the Hardware Store!

Any expat or missionary will tell you: practical, everyday matters, which are easily taken for granted back home, are often among the most difficult aspects of cross-cultural living. Finding and training a barber in a foreign setting, for instance, is not as simple as it may sound. Locating a trusty auto mechanic can be a challenge when the native tongue of the area is not your native tongue. For me, ranking right up there with schooling a barber and locating a reliable motor master is the challenge of befriending a good hardware store guy.

Those big box home improvement stores are beginning to appear in our city of Athens, Greece. You know the type; everything you need to repair the stopped sink or install the busted fuses can be found; I stand for hours, trying to decide whether to buy the $50 shower nozzle or the cheapo, $19.95 version. Unfortunately, the Greek teenagers who work at the place know less than I do about the eccentricities of home repair; and that, my friend, is precious little!

What I have been looking (and praying) for is that handyman guy who operates a little neighborhood hardware store – the one with screws of every different size, ladders and pieces of chain; the guy should also know a lot about how to do things around the house. I need an unpaid consultant, you see, who is willing, at no extra charge, to take me under his skilled wings and lead me, step-by-step, through the truly complex process of something like removing the broken potty seat and replacing it with the shiny, new one. I need someone who feels called to help out the lame-brained, mechanically-challenged and less fortunate – and who is available 24/7, exclusively for me!

Well, glory hallelujah, I have found him! His tiny shop is just around the corner! The shop is no bigger than a good-sized, four-door, American automobile, with cans, hangers and shelving reaching to the ceiling; you have to back-out of the place when you leave, but, this guy has everything! And he speaks impeccable English! And he is a super nice guy!

This week, I went to him in the ostensibly futile (for me) effort to repair the hinge mechanism on the bathroom cabinet doors. I showed him the broken piece that I needed to replace or repair and looked pitiful. Immediately, he swung into action! He took out some sort of measuring device that calibrated the diameter of the broken piece, turned quickly to that myriad of tiny drawers behind him, announced triumphantly that “What you need is a number 6!” and pulled open several drawers, each of which proffered several versions of number 6 nuts, bolts and washers. “Choose which one you like!” he said, as if I had the slightest idea how to make such a momentous decision. Finally, he gently suggested, “Why not take this one!” followed by “How many do you need?”

I felt like I had died and gone to heaven! There he was, in my neighborhood, with everything I might possibly need and the knowhow to guide me in how to use it! And guess what? I took the stuff home and installed it! And it works! Now, Janice thinks I’m a mechanical genius!

Somewhere, back there in my early childhood, perhaps in what was then called “Training Union” at church, I was taught that the word, apostle came from the Greek word (apostolos) for “messenger” or “one sent.” We were told that Jesus sent out every one of His followers, to show Christ-like love and to care for others, in His name. Although there were some people in the Bible who were referred to as “apostles,” as in the “Acts of the Apostles,” we Baptists were taught that all followers are “sent” by Jesus, not just the preachers and missionaries. We learned, back in those golden “olden” days, that although clergy represented a specialized version of that universal calling, they were no more special than the non-clergy who were farmers, bankers, brain surgeons, business persons, school teachers or taxicab drivers, yet recognized that Jesus had “sent” them to their work, as “apostles,” in His name. Since my parents were devout lay persons who took their faith in Jesus to work with them, and since no one in our family had ever been clergy, this was not a hard concept for me to grasp as a kid. I just figured that everyone who served Jesus was an “apostle” of His, no matter what work they did!

Oh, I forgot to tell you. The Greek guy at the hardware store? My latest, best friend? His actual name is APOSTOLOS!

Thursday, March 12, 2009


The Hopi or “peaceful people,” now centered in the northern portion of the state of Arizona, claim an ancient heritage and think of themselves as the records-keepers of American Indian lore and truth. Their traditions exhibit a fierce concern for “Mother Earth,” the recognition of a mystical “higher power” and a generalized caution against most forms of modernism.

I have been impressed with the lines reputed to be from the Elders Oraibi, of the Arizona Hopi Nation. Utilized by some American politicians recently, these words should be heard beyond the histrionics of the campaign:

"You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.
Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.
And there are things to be considered:
Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader. This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!
Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we've been waiting for."

For the people with whom I now work very closely, Albanian Immigrants in Athens, Greece, these words could be of help. The ancient wisdom is also relevant for many in America, beset by a seemingly unending economic meltdown and the loss of trusted sources of personal and corporate security. For that powerless feeling imbedded deep within us and the tendency, in the face of adversity, to be overwhelmed by uninvited forces and tempted to beat a safe retreat, to wait for reinforcements to arrive, the Hopi insight speaks directly.

Indeed, “this is the Hour!” We must live with a keen awareness that, despite the challenges of this hour, this is the time in which we are called to act. This is not the time to run away or to regress. This is the time to step forward, fully alert, active and ready to give back our very best in this time that has been given to us. We could pine for an easier hour; we could hope for an hour like safer hours we have known before; we could yearn for a blissful, imaginary hour that is not yet to be. But “this is the Hour!”

Who can disagree with the Hopi that our present day is one in which we are in the midst of a fast-flowing river? Some want to hold to the shore when the waters begin to swirl around; but staying ashore is no option for those who are already in the boat and in the water. We must navigate the rapids, channel the forces and position our life craft in such a way as to capitalize on the momentum of the waves, lest we be overtaken by them. Even amateur boats-men understand that resistance to the waves adds a greater danger. When one is in the fast moving stream, tis better to focus on steering than to abandon ship and strike out for the supposed safety of the shore.

I recall John Updike’s classic book of literary criticism, entitled, Hugging the Shore. For Updike, who excelled at both fiction and literary analysis, “writing criticism is to fiction and poetry what hugging the shore is to sailing the open sea.” While I am no literary critic, I resonate strongly with Updike’s contention that human beings are often like ocean-going liners who were meant to sail the open seas, but who, in fear of the depths or the force of the waves, choose to “hug the shore.” Although the Hopi imagery is that of a fast-moving river, rather than the ocean, the instruction is the same: “We must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.”

How wise of the Hopi, also, to encourage us to “see who is in there with you and celebrate.” Times of difficulty and challenge should send us toward each other, not away from each other. Knowing that “we are all in the same boat” should help us to treasure each other, rather than trying to compete against each other.

At last, with the Hopi, we must conclude that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” Some Albanian immigrants in Athens, Greece, beset by a legacy of poverty and the modern-day nemesis of powerful prejudice, believe that someone else holds their destiny. With too much passivity and too much resignation, they too easily surrender themselves to doing nothing and waiting for someone else –the European Union, the United States, or some humanitarian organization – to bring them deliverance.

Likewise, some Americans are so stymied by the economic malaise that they have convinced themselves that they can do nothing. The wait for a “stimulus package,” an extension of unemployment benefits or the election of the “right” political leader or the “right” political party before their liberation is at hand. Like native islanders who once witnessed the arrival of sailing ships, loaded with material goods from a far superior and more technologically advanced culture and concluded that their only hope was to stand on the shore and wait, it is easy for some moderns to develop a “cargo cult” mentality in these days of challenge.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I recognize and believe firmly that the only true hope in this life and the next is in God. But, unlike some religions, Christianity asserts that individuals have the power and the responsibility to choose for themselves their eternal destiny and, to a considerable extent, their temporal outcomes as well. Followers of the One who went to Calvary understand that the Spirit of the Christ is in this with us, redeeming the difficulties and giving us the strength to face them, if not rescuing us from them. We must choose to believe, trust God and take the actions that are open to us. Relying on the Almighty to help us, we must claim the truth that, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Root Beer, Please!

It was a “Southern Living” Christmas for us! Set against the luxurious ambiance of finely crafted, antique furniture, enhanced by impeccable decorator touches and several lifetimes of family love, the two-story, five bedroom home, recently inherited by my daughter-in-law, is situated on Main Street in Henderson, Texas. (To be more precise, the home is located on South Main Street, since, emanating from a perpendicular intersection on the downtown square, there are actually four Main Streets – South Main, North Main, East Main and West Main!) Given the inviting atmosphere of this well-maintained home (built in 1929; restored about 10 years ago) and since our family is now scattered in Los Angeles, California, Alexandria, Virginia and Athens, Greece, we decided to celebrate our first Christmas since both of our sons have married in “beautiful, downtown, Henderson, Texas.”

The two and a half hours from the nearest large airport and urban center provided blessed time to depressurize and un-wind, in anticipation of the slower pace of small-town life. Beyond the Wal-Mart store, Bob’s Barbeque and its prominence as the county seat of Rusk County, Henderson, Texas is famous as an “oil town,” a railroad center, the home of a syrup festival and certainly, enough warm hospitality to soothe the most cynical city-dweller.

By the time everyone in my family had arrived and we were making final plans for the “best Christmas ever,” (every year, it gets better!), my mate remembered some vital elements that she had forgotten, so I was dispatched to the grocery store. (Some things never change, whether in Henderson, Texas or Athens, Greece!) I found the Brookshire Brothers grocery store remarkably busy for this late in the pre-Christmas season. Apparently, others had likewise forgotten those “must have” ingredients for the upcoming feasts and fests!

Inside the store, checking-off the items which I had been sent to retrieve, I passed the soft drink section of this modern supermarket. I was prepared for a generous selection of beverages, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the reality that Rusk County is a “dry county” - alcoholic beverage strictly prohibited! But, I was totally unprepared for what I saw in the middle rows of the expansive cola collection.

Seven different brands of root beer! Not seven different versions of the same brand (regular, diet, caffeine, non-caffeinated, etc), but seven different brands! Hendersonians must love their root beer! Hendersonians must love their root beer choices!

I have lived in Houston, Texas - population 5 million; I have lived in Athens, Greece - population 5 million; I have lived in Tirana, Albania – population 1 million! I have been to a couple of goat-ropings and a few county fairs. But, I have never seen seven different brands of root beer – all for sale in one place! And, if you’ll pardon my effete snobbery, I never expected to find such root beer options in Henderson, Texas!

Well, I am reminded that small-town life is not what it used to be. Modern technology and communications, yea, aggressive contemporary marketing, have shrunk the size of our world, with the result that most among us live in many ways the same lives, whether the setting is Henderson, Texas or Los Angeles, California. Perhaps we should celebrate the freedom and liberty represented by this week’s worth of beverage choices.

I intend no disrespect toward root beer; I love nothing better than that decadent delight in a frosty mug – perhaps with some vanilla ice cream in the mix! Maybe it seems impertinent of me to question vaunted capitalism and the machinations of modern marketing. But, I dare to wonder out loud: with all of the problems facing humanity, how does it come to be that our world (or the world of Hendersonians, at least) needs seven different brands of root beer? I understand that “there’s no accounting for taste,” and, as our government officials are learning, I am certain that it is very difficult to control private enterprise.

But, think with me here: what would our world be like if the energy, ingenuity, infrastructure and pizzazz associated with getting seven brands of root beer to the shelves in Henderson, Texas could be tapped and channeled toward the solving of some of the great conundrums of modern life, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the intractable spread of AIDS, or the prevalence of diet-related diseases among the desperately poor on the planet? How might this old, broken-down cosmos be improved if we could tap the forces utilized to satisfy individual tastes or cater to eccentric whims and redirect them toward what Abraham Maslow taught us, years ago, were the more basic needs of humanity?

There is some reason for hope on this topic. Bono and others, with their “Red Campaign,” etc., are helping us to learn how to channel the often unrestrained forces of capitalism away from simple selfish satisfactions toward the resolution of truly global, humanitarian needs. These days, it is becoming more fashionable for major corporations and their captains to engage in benevolent work and the trend toward eco-friendly actions and corporate largesse seems to be on the up-tick.

We capitalists, especially, must learn how, without abandoning our work ethic and even our incentives toward profit, to make appropriate use of the levers of power available to us for the sake of the often overlooked “common good.” If there is a clear lesson arising from our current economic “melt-down,” it is certainly that self-interest cannot be the sole motivation for human activity.

The next time I have a root beer float, I’m going to sit back, take a “swig,” and ruminate on that!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Canned Humanity

How many of us were on-board that ordinary flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles? I didn’t have the luxury to count. All I know is that every seat and every inch of storage space was filled. Sacred, personal space easily became shared, contested space. That metal cylinder reminded me of my expanding waistline – snug and stretched, unexpectedly taxed! In this limited, confined territory, I was involuntarily moved closer to mankind!

That Lufthansa daily “milk run” could have just as easily been the Starship Enterprise, with our all-knowing captain, cross-cultural crew, the blinking, buzzing machinations of modern technology, occasional space-speak gibberish, an upper level window on the universe and the silent, almost ignored, “power station.” Stuffed into that stress-tested, aluminum tube, I hurtled with apparent ease through the upper reaches of my itinerary!

There were all types: bigger ones, smaller ones, lighter-skinned ones, darker-skinned ones; happier ones, sadder ones, distracted ones; those headed towards something, those running from something; the energetic and wide-eyed novices alongside the weary, shade-covered veterans; wealthier ones, poorer ones! We were connected, yet separate, alike, yet different!

My life-mate and traveling partner sat next to baby Michel – a little hand in a much larger one! I winced when I was reminded that the price for the privilege of bulkhead seating is always proximity to infants. But my mate, in her grace, saw opportunity in this serendipity. Michel cried out and his bedraggled mother fed him what we call “baby food.”

Sharing the journey forces some, sometimes to be somewhat humane; others, consistently refuse to rise beyond the lowest level of humanity! Most know that the journey is a means to an end, yet others view the costly venture as an end in itself!

We had left behind, in Athens, the dangerous and destructive rioting in the streets, as well as the centuries-old prejudices. How thin is the layer of civilization! As this autumn’s world-wide economic meltdown has unquestionably reminded us, we are, all of us, vulnerable to forces beyond our control. Routinely, we naively move through frightening and deadly atmospheres. A screen tells me that we are over Hudson Bay, headed toward Calgary and are traveling at speeds I cannot comprehend, 2345 miles to our destination and minus 54 degrees, just outside my window! A thin, aluminum sheeting and a layer of plexi-glass separate me from the frigid and foul environment through which I move with careless ease.

We consume precious resources because we can and because our adopted lifestyle demands it. We are connected by the Internet, yet, also alone in the cosmos, with our thoughts and fears, waiting for the red, “occupied” sign on the astronautical “porta potty” door to change to green! We are powerful, yet vulnerable! Just hours ago, I stepped on board a space-ship, yet I was forced by a stranger to abandon liquids, take off my shoes and have my laptop wiped and swiped! What powers we have! How impotent we are! On an earlier flight, we were forced to do a “go around” at Frankfort, because …, I know not, why.

On a screen, a cartoon-like, electronic view of the world gives me a glimpse, ostensibly, from above what is assumed to be our privileged perspective! We see where the sun begins and the darkness ends! Oh, the gift, to come from the darkness into the light! Will it be that way when we land? Will I walk upright on the earth, in the daylight, or in the dark? Freed from this artificially-enforced intimate connection with humanity, removed from this precious introspection, will my life reflect the conquering compassion of the Christmas season in its first incarnation or the capitulative competition of the Christmas season in its contemporary manifestation?

Sometimes I don’t want to unbuckle my seatbelt!