Friday, December 14, 2012

Immigrant Jesus!

It was the final session of the term and the students in the Level One, English-as-a-Foreign-Language class had convinced their teacher to have a party. Although it usually doesn’t take much to get this particular teacher, (or any Albanian, really) to a party, the plan was to study for an hour and then, to have a Christmas party. Janice and I planned our schedule so that we could show up in time for the celebration.

As soon as our vehicle turned on to Dikaiou Street, where PORTA – the Albania House in Athens is located, we could hear the lively music, blaring away. Because this first-year class is larger than most, we offer it in the Gallery, where Albanian artists often display their works. A professional trio (clarinet, accordion & guitar) was providing the music and “the joint was rockin!”
As is too often the case, when we arrived, these adult students showed far too much deference to us, hurriedly making a space of honor for us at the head table. From out of nowhere, plates of delicious, home-cooked food began to appear for us. Raki, the traditional Albanian “home brew” was served and we did lots of toasting, all around.

Before us was an exultant crowd, dancing, partying and enjoying each other. Janice and I have come to know most of these people only since the beginning of the school year. I recognized that they come from a variety of backgrounds. Back in their home country, some were doctors, engineers and professional people, while others did not complete high school. Some have ancestral links to the historic Roman Catholicism of the north of Albania, the traditional Orthodox Christianity of the south or to the Islamic or Bektashi faith traditions from throughout the country. But today, few if any of them have any sort of personal faith of any kind, owing to the fact that, for half a century, their homeland was dominated by a dictatorial, radical, Communist ideology which required them to live as though there is no God. What unites these Albanians is that all are immigrants in Greece; they have come here in search of a better life, despite the reality that Greece historically, has been antagonistic toward immigrants - most especially Albanian immigrants.
The other feature that fuses these good people is that, despite their differing backgrounds, each has found help, hope and wholesomeness through PORTA. At a time in Greece when these qualities are in short supply, PORTA has literally been an open door of opportunity. Indeed, when Edi Rama, the former Mayor of the capital city of Tirana, Albania and the Albanian Socialist Party’s nominee for Prime Minister was recently in Athens, he referred to PORTA as “a bright, shining light for Albanian immigrants in Athens!”

When the music ceased and I rose to make an extemporaneous speech to this disparate, partying crowd, my mind raced as I thought about my improvised remarks, in this context. Albanians are tolerant of my limited fluency in Shqip, their traditional language. But, my anxiousness had more to do with content and context, than language.
We work hard at PORTA to respect all who come through its doors. Albanians know that we have come to them in the name of Jezusi. They understand that, although PORTA’s program includes many things, every, single thing that we do, we do to honor Jezusi! They also understand that we strongly believe in spiritual freedom and that we never attempt to push our faith on them. They know that we always want them to be free to decide for themselves where to place their personal faith. But the party was a Christmas party and I felt an honest urge to speak about what English-speakers sometimes refer to as “the reason for the season!”

But how does one speak of Jesus to a group of people with little apparent need for or interest in religion and even less information about him? I reminded these friends that, like them, Jesus came from an immigrant and oppressed family. Joseph & Mary were forced to abandon the familiar comforts of home at an awkward and inconvenient time when, under the pressure of a tyrannical, foreign government, they left Nazareth and travelled by foot to a destination that must have seemed a lifetime away from familiarity. Although Christians piously sing about this “little town of Bethlehem,” for them it surely must have been a strange place, where they found themselves not belonging, perhaps unprepared, surely unable to secure lodging, certainly unwelcome and definitely required to register for the patently unfair purpose of paying egregious taxes Even before any post-partum adaptations, the fragile, holy family, including the only recently-circumcised, infant Jesus, was coerced into becoming impromptu immigrants again and exiles-on-the-run, when they fled to Egypt, to escape the tyranny of Herod’s imposed, yet insecure power.
Despite the fact that most of these adults have little prior acquaintance with Jesus, my Albanian friends showed an almost immediate empathy and understanding, as I described Joseph’s family and the newborn Jesus in this fashion. The looks on their faces suggested that they had found a painful point of personal connection with this mysterious, incarnational narrative from long ago. They seemed to identify with Jesus and with his story, when described that way.

Of course, it was just one brief moment, followed quickly by the lonesome wail of an Albanian clarinet and the unspoken search for intimacy, hope and personal meaning embodied in traditional Balkan folk dancing. But, my sense was that the distant, bright-shining light from Bethlehem’s star had, once again, broken through the darkness. Hope so!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Cross-Cultural Christmas

Since Thanksgiving Day is a foreign concept in the Balkans, it is easier to get in the “Christmas spirit” earlier here in Athens, Greece. As the usually mild, Mediterranean weather turns cooler and November stretches its long, skinny legs, we’re “putting up the tree” because 2012 will most certainly be our last Christmas as residents of Athens. We’ll be out of the country next Christmas and will be retired and back in the States for Christmas, 2014. To commemorate this 2012 milepost Christmas, we’ll welcome our adult sons and wives and will share this holiday time against the backdrop of the dominant cultures in which we do our work.

Christmas celebrations in Albanian culture are relatively new, at least from the perspective of recent history. Since the Apostle Paul preached the Gospel “as far as Illyria” and since Albanians are descendants of the Illyrians, they celebrated Christmas in some fashion from the beginning. But, thanks to 500 years of Ottoman domination, Christmas celebrations were replaced by Islamic traditions. Then, from the mid-twentieth century, Albania was ruled by a paranoid, isolationist, Communist dictator who insisted that there was no God; churches were closed and Christmas celebrations not allowed.

When we lived in Albania, despite the fact that Communism had fallen a decade earlier, a revisionist version of the holiday “myth” still remained. Ingeniously, the atheistic culture captured the essential social functions of a modern Christmas story and rewrote the script from a secular standpoint. By merging the popular Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve narratives, children anticipate the arrival of the “Old Man of the New Year” - a cross between Father Time and Santa Claus - who brings gifts to good children. Since few Albanians are Christians, the Good News of the coming of the Christ Child in Bethlehem is celebrated by only a small number of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and evangelical believers in Albania.

Until recently, Christmas day in Greece was a minor holiday, when compared with Easter. The pervasiveness of the Orthodox Church, with its preference for celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors (December 8), where presents are exchanged and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6), where young men dive into cold waters to retrieve a cross that has been blessed by a priest, makes December 25 less important.

On Christmas Eve and sometimes later, children travel from house to house, singing “kalanda,” Christmas carols. With small triangles and drums, they receive sweets, figs, nuts or coins. Greeks attend midnight mass and return home for a big family meal. Lamb and pork are roasted and “christopsomo” (Christ bread) is made in large, sweet loaves, with various shapes and decorations, reflecting the family profession. The main symbol of the season is a shallow bowl with wire suspended across the rim, from which hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Water is kept in the bowl. Once a day, the mother dips the cross and basil into holy water, sprinkling every room of the house, to keep away the “kilantzarof,” (bad spirits) which appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to Epiphany.

In recent years, secular Christmas, with trees, Santa images, bright lights and retail sales has arrived in Greece. The largest Christmas tree in Europe is now erected in Syntaugma Square; unfortunately, due to riots, the tree was burned a couple of years ago!

When our kids come this Christmas, we'll attend the Christmas Eve service at our Greek Evangelical church and will sing hymns, read Luke’s account and hear the old, old story of how God loved us enough to come and dwell among us. In Greek, we’ll wish them “Kala Christougenna” and in Albanian, we’ll say “Gezuar Kristelindje!” “Merry Christmas!”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Holy S**T!

In Athens, we are quite accustomed to leaving the church house on Sunday morning and being met by beggars, hoping to “cash in” on the generosity of folks who have recently been thinking about God, compassion and the call to care for others. Often, a young girl waits near the church gate, asking for money or trying to sell Kleenex. But last Sunday, something novel took place on the sidewalk in front of the church building.
I missed it, because I had to depart early, to make some time-sensitive deliveries and return to pick up Janice in time to make our next Sunday assignment. She was still laughing as she got into the car and said, “Do you see the young man with the rolling cart? He is trying to sell things to the worshippers.”  “Yes,” I said, waxing historical and analytical, “that is happening more and more these days. It is another consequence of the hard economic times in Athens!” 

“But, did you see the shirt he is wearing?” Janice asked. “No,” I responded. “What’s so special about his shirt?” As I looked closer at the man, I saw it on the front of his shirt; as big as Dallas, were these words: HOLY S**T! The desperate and hungry man had stationed himself in the traffic flow, hoping to make a few coins by hawking several small items. Somehow, the language on his shirt seemed a deliberate turn of phrase, intended to enhance his marketing for the church crowd.
It got me to thinking: What exactly is “Holy S**T” anyway? Now, keep in mind: I have an earned doctorate from a reputable seminary; I have done post-doctoral study; I have studied theology and taught it for many years. And, what is more pertinent, I have had much practical experience with S**T, both inside and outside the church, But no one has ever told me what qualifies as Holy S**T.

Was our sidewalk entrepreneur actually trying to target his potential customers by wearing that shirt? I honestly doubt it. Was the shirt his not-so-private estimate of the quality of the merchandise that he was selling? Probably not. Was he using that phrase in the way I hear many use it today, as a kind of Robin-to-Batman-like way to express astonishment and amazement!
Or (and I suspect this is more likely the case) did this non-English speaker have any idea what his shirt was “saying”? Perhaps he bought the shirt because of its cheap price or its color. Perhaps, the shirt was a charity item that was given to him. In this Greek language setting, we often see non-English speakers wearing T shirts with messages on them that they themselves are unable to read. My guess is that this is what happened here.

In any event, this T-shirt sermon reminded me of the awful and persistent devaluation of words, these days. In addition to the too-frequent use of profanity and other language previously classified as “dirty words” and the pernicious spread of hate speech, it concerns me that we use words in a most careless manner in this modern day. It seems so easy, in a Face Book sort of way, to be trite and use well-worn expressions, to overstate one’s case or to exaggerate. Some seem only capable of saying what they have heard others say. When we misuse, overuse or otherwise abuse the language, without thinking about it, words always lose their capacity to communicate content and emotion accurately and precisely. When we call ordinary things “holy,” then nothing is “holy.” When we call everything “S**T,” then nothing is “S**T!”

Saturday, October 6, 2012


It falls to me each year about this time. Others who could do it as well, perhaps better; but each year, it falls to me. While at least four teachers of English-as-a-Foreign-Language at PORTA – the Albania House in Athens are busy welcoming adult students to their classes and orienting them to the year ahead, I have the dubious distinction of giving examinations in our book-lined library. Wannabe students, late arrivals show up with eager hope that this exam will demonstrate that they possess sufficient knowledge of conversational English to place them in an upper level English class. Because they appear after classes are full or during the “drop/add” period, they strive frantically to find a coveted place on our waiting list or, perchance, to score well enough to gain entry in levels two or three.

The filestar (beginner) class is always the most crowded and always the first to exceed the quota. So, each year, students who have only a passing, street-level, acquaintance with English (or less) purport to be “advanced” and strive to prove it on the qualifying exam. At PORTA, as with any educational institution, we have rules and expectations: we have a limited time for registration, a maximum number of students in each class and only two weeks for late entry students to begin classes.

The economic crisis in Greece hits immigrants like these impoverished Albanians first and hardest. Many have lost the two or three part-time jobs they had just a few years ago. Many now have time on their hands. Many see developing a fluency in English as a hedge against the perils of the crisis and a help toward a better job. And, so, in recent Septembers, I have been administering even more placement tests at PORTA. Because we do not charge for these classes, many see them as the “great deal” that they are.
A couple of years ago, when I told Ilir (not his actual name) that there was no room for him in the class, he insisted (Albanians often insist) that “there is always room for one more.” When I said that all chairs in the room were filled, Ilir said, “I’ll bring my own chair!” This year, we have purchased 20 new chairs and now, without doubt, we have no more room.

It is difficult to say “no” to adults who want so anxiously to learn. The unacknowledged messianism which runs beneath much of what I do cries out against ever saying “no.” But I must; for the sake of those recently-admitted to the classes; I must, for the sake of our returning students; I must, for the teachers’ sake; I must, for the sake of acceptable pedagogy! The fire marshal says I must!
While these would-be English students say that they are seeking entry into an English class, you and I know better. We know that their search is actually for something far more fundamental and important than merely fluency in the world’s most popular language. Like Albanian immigrants almost everywhere, they are in search of what, in their native tongue, is referred to as mundesira – opportunity. Repressed and isolated under a dictatorial Communist regime, a desire for mundesira is what led these Albanians to leave their impoverished homeland in the first place. Mundesira accounts for the statistical reality that more Albanians live outside the boundaries of their motherland than within them.

Mundesira is also what has brought us to Athens. Because we are blessed to have it in abundance and so many are not, we have come here out of a fierce compassion and a heavenly obligation to be the presence of Christ among Albanian immigrants. Indeed, it is because, in Jesus Christ, we have discovered God’s love and because that love has opened infinite doors of mundesira for us that we are here, teaching English, giving placement exams and doing a variety of other things through a center named PORTA, which, fittingly, means “door.”
Mundesira, for some may be unevenly distributed or woefully delayed by the pragmatic, human realities of budgetary, time and space limits. Mundesira, at least for now, may be easily limited by one’s English proficiency or the lack thereof. Mundesira is often curtailed by the pressing reality that, as human beings, no one, not even well-intentioned and highly motivated Christian workers, has an unlimited supply of it.

For now, at least, we comsole ourselves by the acknowledgement that the mundesira of God’s unmerited favor is spread without limits to all people who are willing to accept it and live in light of it. And the only placement exam necessary is the willingness to ask for it and to trust God to give it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

She Said!

This week, while making conversation with the smiling young woman behind the counter at the fast food place, I noticed that she was working all alone. I do not know whether her colleagues failed to show up for this work shift (not so likely) or whether management had cut the work force down to one person (more likely). All I know is that she was required to do it all; while I talked to her, she worked non-stop -  taking orders, taking money, frying chicken, pouring soft drinks, cleaning tables, going to the supply room for more ice and frozen fries, pouring out used grease and deploying new grease. When the other customers left the counter and she presented me with my order, I said to her, “I can see that you are very busy. Thank you for your excellent service. I hope you get a chance to rest.” With something like a combination of shock and appreciation, she looked at me and said, in her broken English, “What we can do?”

Later that same day, I shared our apartment elevator with the Russian woman who lives upstairs. Before we reached my floor, I asked her, “How are you doing in these difficult times?” With a smile on her weary face, she responded, “I am fine! Crisis is for other people. I am optimist!”

Within just a few hours, presented to me were two quite common responses to the economic crisis that is shaking everyone in Greece. These responses mirror so much that characterizes our lives in this dysfunctional culture at this time. For many, there is resignation in the face of overwhelming difficulty - “What we can do?” And, for others, there is an intentional, personal decision to face the challenges with optimism – “Crisis is for other people. I am optimist!”

Of course, there is both truth and falsehood in these responses. My Russian friend is not “fine” in so many significant ways. She has had her wages cut and her taxes increased. Her future is uncertain. Much of her savings, if she has any, has been eroded by the economic instability and dysfunction of her adopted country; an increasing percentage of any discretionary income she might have is being used to meet daily expenditures. It is, of course, not true that the crisis is just “for other people.” Every person in Greece, including relatively privileged American ex-pats and marginalized Albanian immigrants, is powerfully and practically affected by the rising prices and decreasing opportunity of the current predicament. Everyone I know has asked the existential question in recent months – “What we can do?”

Laying aside these realities, however, I was encouraged by the hard scrabble responses of these two women. My friend at the fast food place has chosen to work harder and to maintain a smile. While this cannot entirely replace lost money or economic potency, it is an admirable response. Likewise, my Russian friend has recognized that attitudes are behavior tendencies. With a positive attitude, one is already leaning in the direction of a redemptive response to difficulty.

In both of these instances, my sense is that these women do not have a personal faith or a believing community to undergird their good responses to the current calamity. May God grant me the courage and discernment to demonstrate respectfully for them the Good News of a God who knows where they are, cares about their circumstances and is willing to strengthen them in their daily struggles!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Operating Margin!

In 1903, when Ernest Pfenning, a Chicago dentist, paid $850 for the first Ford automobile ever sold, he probably thought he was buying a red, newfangled “horseless carriage,” with a two-cylinder engine, no roof, a seating capacity of just two persons and a top speed of 28 miles per hour. What he did not know was that he was singlehandedly rescuing the struggling Ford Motor Car Company from going “belly-up.” When Henry Ford and his fellow investors started their business, they garnered a treasure chest of $28,000 – a good-sized fund for the time, especially when one considers that these monies were all devoted to such an untested notion as a gasoline-powered, private automobile. What Pfenning did not know was that by the time he “ponied up” for that first car, Henry and his investors had spent all of their venture capital except $224!

I wonder how things might have turned out differently if Dr. Pfenning had decided that day not to spring for the car, but to go home, think about it some more and talk with his wife about the idea. What if, when Ernie reached the house, his wife reported to him that the kids needed braces and that he should hold off on spending money for a while. Well, okay, since Ernie was a dentist, maybe it wouldn’t have been braces. Maybe his wife’s mother was soon to move in with the family and they would need to spend money remodeling the place. But, you get the idea. What if, in the family council, Dr. and Mrs. Pfenning had decided that “the time was not right” for investing their hard-earned money in some fantastic contraption like an automobile? Not only would Ernest Pfenning have lost his “place” in history and been forced to walk to his office, but it is at least possible that there would have been no more Ford Motor Company!

My point in all of this is that we often do not know how significant our “individual” decisions may be for ourselves and for others, in the “long run.” Neither do we know how close to the edge other individuals or companies may be at any given moment in time. While some think sociologists somewhat naïve by their basic notion of the “social contract,” the truth is that every one of us is intricately interrelated to many others persons and our ultimate fate and fortunes are tied together in powerful and unacknowledged ways.

This topic interests me, especially at the moment, since I live in Athens, Greece, where the economic stability which one often takes for granted is routinely up for grabs, what with the economic crisis, Greece’s dysfunctional way of doing things, the visit of “The Troika,” talk of Greece’s return to the drachma and other items of concern. It helps me to understand why my landlord recently agreed to lower my rent, in deference to these perilous times. Now I understand why my barber has lowered his price for a basic cut by 2 Euro.

The truth is, from time to time, every culture and every person is somewhere perilously close to the end of his/her resources, financial and otherwise. But, we rarely acknowledge it. And the lives of every one of us are intricately related to those of others, but our pride and stubborn and misplaced sense of independence often blinds us.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Only Slightly Eccentric!

Happy belated Aphelion Day! On July 5, a small group of people celebrates this day when our earth is the greatest distance from the sun. Come on! Admit it! Didn’t Thursday feel just a tiny bit cooler to you?

As a part of the recent, festive, out of this world celebration, I was reminded that this old, round ball of dirt and water that we call “home” travels through space in a slightly squashed orbit. I’m certain that Mrs. Davis, my third-grade teacher, back in Stevenson Elementary School in Meridian, Mississippi taught me this, but I have slept since then, learned lots of other, more important “stuff” and have forgotten almost everything that I once knew!

 Indeed, I have been recently reminded that, like the “wheels on the bus” that "go round, round, round,” every one of the sun-girdling planets certainly travels predictably around the sun. But, have you heard? None of them does it perfectly, or in what can be referred to as a “concentric” pattern. They actually orbit the sun, for sure, but they do it in, to lesser or greater extents, imperfect ways. And so, ipso facto, it is most linguistically correct to say that every planet, including our own, is “eccentric”!

I looked it up in the dictionary. Yes, “eccentric” may mean “unconventional” or “slightly strange.” Sometimes this word means “a person of unconventional and slightly strange behavior.” BUT, this word may also mean “of a non-circular orbit.”
Still in the afterglow of the Aphelion Day partying, I have been thinking a lot about eccentricity. If all of the planets are eccentric, maybe I should not deny my own irregularity. I don’t know about you, but I have always sensed that my own personal orbit was slightly squashed, flattened at places. While I try my best to be conventional and normal, I also find points in my life when I must stray from the prescribed circuit. When, after a successful twenty-year career in higher education, I left the warmth and familiarity of academia to become a local church pastor, some said, “He certainly is eccentric!” When, at the end of my fifth decade of life, Janice and I moved our lives from that comfortable home on the lake and all of the pleasures of middle-class, suburban living to a third-world country, with two foreign languages and cultures to learn, at least one person must have said, behind our backs, “Wow! Eccentric people!” Maybe “eccentric” was one of the nicer comments?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in “concentricality”. (My made-up, “eccentric” word!) I always must orbit my life, not around the sun, but around an almighty, compassionate God Who has made Himself most completely known through Jesus, the Christ. But, I honestly do not expect that I shall follow that ambit exactly or precisely, for two reasons. 1. I am a limited human being and I make mistakes – what the Bible calls “sin;” despite that reality, I have been accepted by God, not by my concentricality, but by His all-encompassing grace. 2. I am a unique, one-of-a-kind, human being, created distinctively and individually by that same loving God and given the lifetime challenge of being no one else but myself.
So, if I “march to the beat of a differ drummer,” blame it on Mrs. Davis, if you must. If you think me in outer space sometimes, I’m just travelling with my fellow eccentrics, the planets!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pigeon Poop!

On Friday, I paid five Euro, picked up the blue blazer at the cleaners and figured I’d wear it to church on Sunday. Although in this relaxed, Mediterranean culture, few people “dress up” for church, I decided, for old time’s sake, to wear the blazer, with contrasting khaki pants and a button-down collar, white shirt, but without socks!

Come Sunday morning, we did our usual thing: I let Janice out at the church door and went prospecting for a parking spot, within a reasonable hiking distance of the church house. Parking in Athens is always tricky, but especially on Sunday morning, when most everyone is still sleeping-in and few have moved their vehicles from their overnight resting spaces. Remarkably, I found a parking space just one block from the church.

Feeling unusually blessed (That’s always a bad sign, for me!), I stepped out of the vehicle and confidently swung the jacket around my shoulders, managing, in one movement, to get my right arm in the sleeve and to position the left one for entry. As I turned my head slightly, to ensure that the second arm made it into the arm hole of the jacket, both my peripheral vision and my nostrils picked up something nasty on the left shoulder of the jacket. Did I tell you that I had just gotten that jacket out of the cleaners on Friday? Did I tell you that I paid five Euro to have that thing cleaned?

Well, you can just imagine what I said (to myself) when I realized that, in the split second between getting out of my car and swinging that coat over my head, a pigeon had dropped a generous load of poop on my backside. Oh, the nastiness of it all! Oh, the indignity! Oh, how sick was that pigeon! That “stuff” was splattered across BOTH shoulders and some of it made it down the middle of the back of my freshly laundered blue blazer!

I must tell you; an experience like that doesn’t do much for my readiness to worship an all-knowing, gracious, all-loving and providential God! Aside from my angst, I was, of course, immediately presented with a practical question. What does one do with a boat load of pigeon poop on one’s shoulders when approaching an imminent hour of worship? Does one call off personal worship entirely? Does one simply leave the unclean garment in the vehicle? Or, does one approach the altar of God, in the words of the old hymn, “just as I am”?

After a few moments of serious sidewalk situation-analysis and seminal self-argument, I decided to head for the nearest rest room, inside the church building. After all, if a true believer cannot attempt to clean-up in preparation for worship within the cloistered confines of a church potty, where else can one turn? For those worshippers in America, accustomed to spacious church buildings with expansive and generous restrooms on every floor, I must inform you that our church in Athens has but a single “one-holer” toilet on the main floor. So, carefully holding my coat, I waited until the pre-teen girl came out of the potty and hurriedly rushed inside.

As generously equipped as our church rest room may be, it quickly became evident that the task which confronted me was far greater than the supplies at hand. Water – oh, yes, I had plenty of water! Paper towels – not so much! Flimsy toilet paper – well, on an ordinary day, the place was amply stocked. But this, of course, was no ordinary day! Almost fifteen minutes later, I emerged from the rest room with the back of my coat glistening with the sheen of fresh water and pock-marked with microscopic bits of soluble, white tissue. The elderly lady, who had been waiting impatiently to use the restroom, glared at me with condemnation, as if I had committed the unpardonable sin. A part of me wanted to explain my situation, but another part of me recognized that this was not a “teachable moment” for her. So, I quickly got out of her way, as she barrelled past me!

I finally rejoined Janice, sitting now with our friends and singing the congregational hymns, near to the front of the sanctuary. Thankfully, they were not singing “There shall be showers of blessing!” After a few seconds, Janice looked at me with that, “What happened to you?” look. Her eyes seemed to be saying: “Where have you been? You look like a pigeon just pooped on you!” As all husbands learn to do in times like this, I turned to her and said, “Don’t even ask! I’ll explain later!”

By the time the preacher began his exceptional sermon, I was frankly distracted. Glancing furtively over my shoulder, I noticed that my “wash-job” was insufficient and the brown stuff was making a re-appearance in worship. The lines from that old song made famous by Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots kept racing through my head. I now know that Ella and the boys borrowed some of the lyrics from none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Henry said and Ella sang: “Into each life some rain must fall.”

And, right there, in the cool, quiet meditation of personal worship, I resolved to keep moving in my urban life in Greece. I prayed silently to God my own impracatory lament and personal resolution: “Into my life some pigeon poop must fall!”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


I remember it like it was yesterday, despite the reality that it is now almost fifty years since my college debate partner, in his second affirmative speech, referred to me as his colleague. I had made the first affirmative speech, outlining the problem, defining terms, hinting at our proposed solution and sat down. The first negative speaker, following the standard protocol for university argumentation, had sharply critiqued my presentation. And then, as expected, my partner rose to defend me and present our proposed case. In the routine fulfillment of his assignment, my debate partner called me his colleague. I felt all warm inside! I almost lost my concentration and drifted away from the serious mental preparation for my next spot in the debate – so focused was I on the elegant affirmation captured in that simple word, colleague. I guess it was the very first time that someone referred to me as a colleague. I felt almost “grown up” and professional like. From that day until now, I have held this word high in the hiearchy of my own exemplary words. Both the word and its meaning have always been special to me. To be a colleague and to share the status of colleagueship with another is, to me, one of life’s great blessings and, at the same time, one of its most challenging assignments. I have come to the place where I can affirm the importance of colleagues in my life. The narrative of my life contains many characters. But these powerful persons are far more than mere cast members, stage dressing or incidental props in my life’s drama. They are an essential part of its plot. Indeed, the peculiar prose and poetry of my personal passage is the fruit of not a few primary writers. It may well be true that I have never had an original thought, but I have unquestionably been surrounded by several seminal thinkers. If I am the protagonist (from the Greek πρωταγωνιστής protagonistes, "one who plays the first part”) and hero of my own Greek drama, there have been any number of deuteragonists and tritagonists and a small number of genuine antagonists. My novel, in the end, will turn out to have been a joint enterprise, co-written by a consortium of co-creators and colleagues; my song will forever remain the joint result of several collaborators. I have welcomed a few co-conspirators and the colors of my life painting reflect the brush strokes of many artists. If I have contributed any unique design in my world, it is because I am surrounded by many fellow designers. These thoughts hit me like a cool mountain breeze last week when, with my World Personnel Services colleagues, I toured the beautiful and historic monasteries of Meteora, Greece. Many years ago, nobly motivated, individual ascetics largely removed themselves from human contact, fashioned dwellings on the side of and at the top of perilous monoliths and devoted themselves to God. While I have not been summoned to such a life and notwithstanding the lasting contributions of such highly focused piety and such splendid solitude, I am reminded that, except in rare instances, even these monastics lived and worked in community. Indeed, they shared the “higher” calling with colleagues who, though rigorously limited in social contact, were nonetheless integral to their devout lives. Remembering the words of Holy Scripture in one of its earliest passages, I can hear the Almighty say that “It is not good that mankind should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). Today, I thank God for all who have shared my professional journey and to whom I can respectfully refer as my colleagues.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Songs Sung Blue!

The lonesome, nasal wail of a b-flat clarinet fills the concrete canyons of an anonymous back-street in the Pangratti section of Athens, Greece. Three street musicians stroll by: a fat man, his cheeks puffing against a licorice clarinet; a shabbily-dressed, older man, his shoes run-down on the heels, squeezing against an ancient accordion; and a tall, slender man carrying a tambourine which is more beggar’s offering plate than a musician’s instrument. These three ply their trade, carrying their sad songs to the frightened masses, in search of a few Euro pennies in return. Few residents come to their verandas, testimony to both the cooler weather and the cold reality that acknowledgement of the music carries with it the obligation to throw money down to the uninvited music makers.

Beneath the shrill notes of the music, an air of despair seems palatable. Greeks of all walks of life feel the squeeze, more powerful than an accordion’s pressure, of the European debt crisis and its multiple impacts. Into this relaxed, “Mediterranean” culture, financial stressors have recently become familiar, yet unwelcome guests, showing up at the front door of everyone, regardless of how stringently one pays taxes or how effectively another routinely avoids the citizenship obligations of normal social intercourse.

Despite the non-response, the musical trio proceeds down the street. What else can they do? They stroll past small shops recently closed, due to the economic crisis. Here a small green grocer’s shop; there a butcher’s shop; over there a ladies lingerie boutique; all shuttered tightly with fresh graffiti embossing the pull-down doors. In another neighborhood, closer to the Parliament's Syntaugma Square, they will walk past burned-out buildings, the most recent legacy of violent civil protests.

Less talented beggars now have appeared on many streets in Athens. For decades, poverty, homelessness and street-side begging were the exclusive prerogative of the immigrants here. Greeks, with their proud family system intact, were much better able to hide their poverty. But now, perhaps as many of 30,000 Greeks are actually homeless in Athens. Many are showing up at charitable feeding stations whose clients have traditionally been the foreign-born.

And, so the tune has changed and few are dancing. The vaunted tourist image of some happy-go-lucky Zorba, dancing and jumping with traditional glee and light of both spirit and foot, in celebration of all things Greek, has been replaced. Today, the picture is of deep, dark brown eyes that look furtively about, black hair on heads bowed down and tired feet that more shuffle than sparkle. Indeed, the proud image of this country is being humbled by the publicly embarrassing world-wide acknowledgement of her all-too obvious deficiencies.

Like street musicians in Pangratti on a cool morning, most Greeks are helpless to do anything but what they have always done. A vaunted classical past and a reputation as the birthplace of democracy offer little actual help for an economic system that is hopelessly dysfunctional and routinely in denial.

“Songs sung blue. Everybody (here) knows one! Songs sung blue, every garden (here) grows one!”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Public Bathrooms & Private Barcodes

As you no doubt know, there are powerful, yet unspoken rules and societal norms associated with public toilets. Among them is the strict requirement that men, shoulder to shoulder before stand-up urinals, must always keep their eyes straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the persons on either side. More about this and my violation of this taboo in a moment.

Late in 1949, when Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland filed a patent for Classifying Apparatus and Method, the era of the barcode was born. When David Collins of GTA Sylvania developed the Kar Trak method of keeping tabs on railroad cars in the early 60’s, this movement and the science back of it began to pick up momentum. By June 26, 1974, after the National Cash Register company installed a test system at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, Clyde Dawson lifted a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum from his shopping basket and Sharon Buchanan, the check-out clerk, scanned it; the pack of chewing gun is now in the Smithsonian Institution, since it signals the initiation of what has come to be called the universal product code method of product inventory. Although conspiracy theorists and some fundamentalist Christians initially viewed this development with alarm, as a potentially threatening and intrusive surveillance technology or the “sign of the beast,” in reality the barcode method of machine-readable representation of data has been booming, ever since.

Barcodes are now used all over the world to identify, track and evaluate products and procedures of all kinds. Barcodes are, after all, remarkably proficient. They enable the recognition and storage of mountains of data in just a few seconds. With one swipe, one can record data and store it for retrieval at a later time, often for purposes unknown to the consumer/user. Somewhat disconcertingly, these tiny lines and numbers also help the check-out person to record your purchases, update the store’s inventory, calculate individual and total prices, add the appropriate taxes, delete any available discounts and even electronically wish you a happy day - all without ever thinking, adding, subtracting, making eye contact or interrupting his/her personal cell phone conversation!

On the Athens side of our recent three-month visit to the States, I am busy filing receipts and the various bits of paper associated with this international traveling business. In many instances, barcodes accompany my paper records. How easy and convenient has this magical, digitally encoded and computer recognizable, but illegible to the human eye recording system become. Where would we be without barcodes and what would we do without them?

Although you may think it a bit ineloquent of me to share this, I recently observed barcodes on the urinals in the men’s restroom at a Texas airport. While I am not certain exactly how and why they were being used in that precise location (Perhaps it has something to do with original shipping or recording how often the toilets are serviced, etc; I’ll check it out on Wikipedia!), I am convinced that these easy-to record electronic ink blots stuck on the top of urinals have something to do with the presumption of enhanced efficiency.

Barcodes and universal product codes provide a reliable and speedy assessment for everyone. And, after all, isn’t everyone interested in accurate and swift assessments – the better to do our “personal business” and move on with our lives?

Although our human brain does not (yet) have computer chips and scanners to enable swift and easy assessments, for millennia, long before digital and cyber developments, humans have been using short-cuts to help assess the value and “place” of other persons. We often too-easily fall back on ethnic, racial, gender or age stereotypes and, by scanning the “data” from our previous prejudices and limited experience, we evaluate, assess and store unthinking and often overly-generalized “facts” about another person.

While I may be unable to avoid using barcodes and universal product codes, I am praying that, in this year ahead, by God’s grace, I can be a little better at making eye contact with others and seeing them for all of their uniqueness and value – in the supermarket lane and, perhaps, even in the public toilet!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Harry! Neil! Hands! Sweet!

A disclaimer: The following is nothing more (or less) than my unadorned confession of a few powerful streams of subconsciousness occasioned by my recent travels and observations. Although it may not make unmitigated sense to the reader, I write anyway. I pound the motherboard with as much clarity as I can because this sentence string and these feeling sequences apparently have been travelling beneath my conscious awareness; at last, they have rapped on the door of my sleep, waking me in mid-slumber in the small hours of New Year’s Eve, 2011, demanding cognitive recognition. Perhaps I also write because this tiny discipline may offer a small glimpse into the incomplete, but hopeful ruminations of my soul as I have journeyed through the recent holidays in America and as I look, with a mixture of trepidation and optimism, toward the approaching year. First, some background:

Three-days before Thanksgiving, we were in the Chicago O’Hare Airport, waiting for our Southwest Airlines flight. Financial considerations dictated that our air-hop from Nashville, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi should be routed through the Windy City. While awaiting our flight, Janice grabbed a crusty, fried serving of “fast food” in the Food Court and I waited for my allotment of nourishment at Harry Caray’s airport eatery. With a touch of family pride, my own Riley daughter and I sat next to the Reilly’s Daughter pub, conversing, with food in our mouths, over the airport noisy-ness. And, then, ….

Late one night just after Christmas, we had returned from our glorious Christmas family celebrations with our children in Austin, Texas and were flipping channels. Watching television in the Trinity Baptist Church of San Antonio, Texas guest residence was an unexpected luxury, largely unavailable in Athens, Greece. By a fortunate accident, we came upon the broadcast of the most recent Kennedy Center Awards. The crooner & pop star, Neil Diamond was among the honorees. We had presupposed that our interest would be peaked by the award given to the superb actress, Meryl Streep, but it turned out that Diamond may have made the most lasting impact. Finally, ….

On the eve of New Year’s Eve, with Jerry and Rita, we travelled to Fredericksburg, Texas for a performance at the Rock Box Theatre. The very professionally done rock & roll tribute featured, among many others, an additional recognition of Diamond’s musical talents. So now, the recurring melody of Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” keeps showing up on the back-lots of my mind. That chorus about “Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you!” sings its way through the open spaces of my cerebral cavity and runs laps on the treadmill of my feeble (and out of shape) mind.

In Harry Caray’s Chicago pub, there is an homage to the baseball announcer’s legendary practice of leading Chicago baseball fans in a stirring rendition of “Take me out to the ball game!” in the “seventh-inning stretch” of every home game for many years. While waiting for my lunch order, between flights, I was reminded of the potent human need to rise and sing together; although we routinely do it at church, Harry led it in the middle of “America’s pastime.” And then, through the Diamond tributes, I recalled that in sports events across this American nation, fans often sing together Diamond’s signature song, celebrating the “reaching out, touching me, touching you” that seems, when you think about it, such a soul-blessed response to an equally human need.

While I return to sleep, now, the demon of my subconscious at least temporarily surfeited, for a while, I leave you with but one thought, brought courtesy of Neil and Harry and the subterranean environs of my mind. Wouldn’t it be nice if 2012 could be marked by a massive universe of humanity who, for a “seventh-inning break” from the usual rivalry and competitiveness, would put aside the differences that so easily separate us, chose to make open our greedy, angry or gesturing fists and decide to reach out to others and make personal contact! This old world of ours so desperately needs to connect and to lift our voices.

Here’s my hand! Sweet!