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!”