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.