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!