We used our sabbatical to travel to Athens to help serve refugees. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the way we were shaped by being there. The purpose of our trip was not to have a particular experience or receive a benefit. The motivation was concern for those in crisis and a desire to do something. But service is never one way. When humans encounter each other in relationship we are all changed. Just because we went as volunteer helpers does not exclude the potential that we would benefit also. In God's economy we are all beggars helping other beggars to find bread. It is not surprising that service would be the place that he meets us and changes us.
Athens was different. It was different in ways that were hard and ways that were good. It offered a different perspective on life. Because of that, I think that I became more aware of the pitfalls of secular western life. The pitfall that I keep thinking about most is called control.
One of the defining features of life in America is the expectation that we should be able to control things. This has some benefits, but it also has some toxic side effects, many of which are hard to see. Life in Athens was one big experiment in having no control over things. It was frustrating at first, but it was a climate in which healthy spirituality could flourish.
I think that the crowning belief of all secular culture is that humans are the primary agents of control. With God out of the picture, we have no one to blame but ourselves and our political opponents when things go wrong. This has the benefit of stirring people to action, but without the boundary of divine authority the impulse to control can become all consuming.
American culture chants the mantra of self determination with rhythmic regularity. "You can do it. Follow your dreams. Make it happen. You can do it..." When you live inside of it you seldom see it. As they say, "If you want to know what water is like, don't ask the fish." But life in Athens exposed all of my control impulses. A different rhythm played in my head and challenged me in a new way. Instead of the drumbeat of self determination, I felt the repeated blows of powerlessness.
At the beginning of the trip I wrote about my experience of entering a "squat" (an unofficial refugee housing unit) and feeling the nagging sense of powerlessness. I wanted to do something. Fix something. Bring something. But there was nothing to do, or fix, or bring. I could only be there. And listen. And pray. And smile. And receive a cup of diluted tea in a small Styrofoam cup. Instead of control, God's purpose was for me to be present with someone in their suffering.
Other aspects of life warred against my illusion of control. The entire Greek economy is out of control. They are a small nation who feels blown about on a stormy sea. Their resentment towards Germany probably stems from the feeling that Germany controls their destiny more than they do. Unemployment is high and domestic life is challenging. Life is spent waiting for subway trains to show up. And sometimes when the operators strike they don't show up at all.
The refugee crisis as a whole is beyond control. The millions of displaced people who are living in terrible conditions around the world are the result of layer upon layer of sin and violence. There are no easy solutions. If you gave me a magic wand and told me to change any policy right now, I don't have confidence that I could make things better.
On a small scale, most of our refugee friends are waiting for someone else to tell them what will happen in their life. Waiting to find out where they will go. If they will go somewhere. Waiting for a border to open. Waiting for the refugee service to answer the phone. Waiting for food to be served. Waiting for a seemingly endless war to end. Waiting. And there is nothing I can do to fix it.
Our refugee friends usually mark each future hope with the Arabic saying, "If God wills", and each statement about their current condition by saying, "Thanks be to God." It is a verbal reminder that they do not control their lives. Greeks speak differently and, of course, have very different beliefs but they also are far more likely than we are to believe that life is uncontrollable.
There are many negatives to this life outlook. It discourages activism and can lead people to be passive in the face of injustice. If my ministry was in a different place, I would probably need to think a lot about the ways that the Bible teaches the dignity of human responsibility and our call to act under God as responsible agents for change. But that is not my ministry. The American view of human dignity is no longer something that exists "under God" and as such our quest for control knows no constraint. Crawling outside of the water that I regularly swim in has helped me to see the ways in which our insistence on human control produces toxic side effects. Like all good things, when human power is pried loose from the framework of God it becomes distorted. When human agency exists in the cold bare universe of the secular West it grows and shifts. What is fundamentally good can become monstrous. To use religious language, it becomes idolatrous.
Our desire for self determination shapes the way that we do life in this fallen world. It causes the focus of our vision to gravitate inward towards ourselves. For the Christian this leads us away from dependence on God, prayer and worship. This is disastrous for the life of faith. But it also has negative consequences that are not strictly spiritual.
Obsessing over control invites the illusion that all problems are fixable. Or to be more specific, that all problems are easily fixable. We prefer easy solutions and we are inclined to think that the reason a problem has not been fixed is because of our political enemies. Stepping away from American politics for a little bit has helped me to see how easily people of all political persuasions do this. We assume a simple solution and then fortify our narrative by blaming our political opponents for what goes wrong. I think this has produced a shrill and vindictive political spirit. It is also a cheap substitute for real service.
Sharing life with refugees was a wonderful antidote to simplistic thinking. There are no easy solutions. There are many hard problems. And there are people that we can know and relate to in the midst of it. Instead of blaming and ranting, each day offered the opportunity to enter into the mess and share life with people living in uncontrollable and uncomfortable circumstances.
Obsessing over control also invites us to create lives that are controllable. We have the freedom and affluence in America to avoid uncomfortable people and uncomfortable problems. We can control who we live near, who we go to school with and who we work with. There are many, many Americans that live painful lives that are beyond easy fixes. They are surviving. Their reality challenges our illusion of control. But we can avoid them. Or blame their problems on our political opponents.
Some days I didn't want to enter into the lives of suffering people in Athens. I don't want to make this blog post sound like I am trumpeting our heroism. I didn't feel like that at all. We worked with extraordinarily brave and committed people and followed them into service. Sometimes I followed begrudgingly. But what I am reflecting on most is the surprising realization that sharing life with refugees was beneficial for me spiritually. I prayed more regularly and more passionately. I looked with hope to God for the coming of his kingdom. I spent more time thinking about how to be with people faithfully. I was reminded that God is not asking us to control the universe. That job position is filled and applications are not being received. Instead, he is asking us to be faithful in the midst of what he is doing.
As i look back on the summer, I think that there was a turning point for me. As the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates said, there was a moment of crisis. Rereading my journal I am reminded of the time early in the summer when the adjustment was particularly challenging. The tone of the entries are full of despair. I wrote often of a lack of control and feeling powerless. Then, on July 2, I wrote, "I have no hope of being fruitful here unless God works."
I believed that and I prayed with fervent desire for God to break in. And he did. Now, through the clear vision of hindsight, I can see that many blessings of God were waiting just around the corner. God is faithful and he is active. He works for those who wait for him (Is 64:4). Letting go of control, I began to move forward in faith. Most importantly, I came to love people who lived in uncontrollable life. That changes you.
Yes, we are endowed with dignity and called to use our ability to fix the world around us. But, unless it is submitted to God's divine authority that ability can become monstrous. It will distort the way we relate to people and the way that we think about ourselves. The people I worked with did many things to help those who were suffering. Their approach was not fatalistic. But the starting point was relationship. The starting point was entering into a difficult situation and then looking up to our heavenly Father in dependent prayer. It is a very different approach to doing life. It is a life of faith.
Many of my American friends know how to live this dependent life of faith. They are not as easily swayed by the chants of self reliance. But I needed the crisis in Greece to remind me. Now, back in the United States of America, I can already feel the toxic mist of self determination seeping into the windows of my bedroom. I can't fully describe it, but I can feel it. The temptation to say that I can do it on my own. I don't need God. That human flourishing lies just on the other side of our authentic self expression.
This is a tempting myth for the affluent and the healthy and those fortunate to live in relatively stable countries. But for the vast majority of people in the world that lie is quickly exposed as a cruel joke. Life is hard and it is not easily controlled. World problems are massively complex. Our lives are altered by large scale events far beyond our control. The hope that we need lies outside of our own abilities.
And that, I believe, is a tremendous benefit that comes from sharing life with refugees.
We are safely home and recovering from our trip. It has been nice visiting with family and I look forward to being at Church on Sunday and seeing City Reformed!
We are sorting through our clean clothes and our dirty clothes. We are also sorting through our memories and trying to process what has happened over the past two months. I have already been asked some questions, and I know that many more will follow. Athens already feels like a world away, but a glance at photos and a story retold make the memories vivid again. The summer made an impact on our lives in a number of ways. Perhaps it was most surprising to feel how much we began to miss Greece as we were beginning to leave. I found myself marking every occasion with the adjective "last." Last swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Last walk up past the Acropolis. Last dinner with friends. Last time on the subway.
Here is my attempt to gather some up some of the things that make our summer special.
1.) Regular ministry contact with friends and coworkers. Our daily life was lived in close proximity with other people - our refugee friends, our Greek coworkers and our overseas volunteers. My total daily contact with people was different, but I saw a smaller number of people more often. And we had a clearly defined ministry goal that helped to focus our energy in the same direction. It is a lot of fun to be part of a team.
We worked with several amazing young women this summer and was honored to serve as part of Servant Group International. There was no complaining and minimal team conflict. On our last day we "handed the baton" off to 4 new SGI volunteers. Two young men and a family of four. I watched them take not just the metaphorical baton, but pick up the mop and the toilet scrub brush. I know that we left the SGI portion of the ministry in good hands.
Eleni and Alex from the Greek church poured themselves out in sacrificial service without stop. They have opened their doors and opened their hearts. The cost has been high, but the fruitfulness is beautiful.
Our translators from Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan took logged long hours and took high risks. I feel special friendship with these folks, but due to the sensitive nature of their work, it is best not to name them online. They have my deepest respect.
Jesus said, "The greatest among you will be those who serve." I worked with some truly great people this summer!
2.) Seeing God's Kingdom growing in surprising places. In the midst of a massive refugee crisis, an economic crisis, and political upheaval in Europe... God is working in powerful ways. Jesus summarizes this best: "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Matt 13:45-46) Nothing is better than seeing the Kingdom grow.
3.) Life was quite simple. This is not necessarily repeatable and all things get complicated over time. But we had no car, limited internet access, few bills and lots more free time than normal. I seldom had to multi-task. We did a lot of hard work, but when we were done... we were done. Of course there is a hard side to this same thing. Sometimes we felt trapped without a car, living in a small apartment. But on the whole, the simplicity of life was refreshing.
4.) Family Life. Again, there were challenges that came from spending so much family time together and in living in our small apartment. But the kids shared in our ministry more than normal and we had many great adventures together. I am sure that I will look back on those two months spent in a cramped apartment and in the hot streets of Athens as some of the best family memories of my life.
5.) Refugee Friends. We made many wonderful friends with people that we formally knew only as "refugees." What had formally been merely a statistic... has now become the faces and names of people that we love. We all share a common humanity. Many of us share friendship. Some of us share a common place in God's story of redemption. I will forever treasure these memories.
6.) Good food. This list combines both the profound and the mundane. But, the Greek food was general quite good and the Syrian food that we ate frequently was also delicious. We had fresh bread nearly every day from a bakery that was about 30 yards from our house. The produce was fresh and inexpensive. Gyros for 2 Euros could be found on nearly every corner. Our friends Eleni and Sezar are fabulous cooks!
7.) The Mediterranean Sea. It is really beautiful. Warm and clear. Mostly quite clean. (Except for after large storms.) Salty and bouyant. No sharks. No jelly fish where we were swimming. The beaches stretched for miles and many were accessible from public transportation. This was magical.
8.) Old Stuff. Ancient ruins were everywhere in Athens. We lived close to the Acropolis and the Areopagus. I love history and Greece has history by the shovelful. My morning jog would traverse the same streets walked by Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, the Apostle Paul, Pericles, etc. Greeks remember their place in world dominating empires (Alexander's and the Byzantine), and they remember what is is like to live as a conquered people (part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.) This gives you a different perspective on life.
9.) A vision of a broader world. Not only did Athens have a deep history, but it sits at the modern day crossroads of the world and its daily social interactions connect you to people who come from the far corners of the earth. Tourists the world over flock to Athens for their holiday. Low paying jobs still attract workers from Africa, Southeast Asia, and Easter Europe. Refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan have fled there trying to make their way to a new life. In reality, the ligua franca of the region is English, so were able to talk to nearly everyone.
10.) A break from the social wars of America. It was refreshing to be away from the intensity of social and cultural upheaval in America. Greece was in many ways a bit more of a traditional culture and while they were wrestling with their own social change, much of it was hidden from non-Greek speakers. The problems are different, they don't feel so personal and honestly... as an outsider you can miss much of it.
11.) Perspective. Stepping outside of your own world allows you to see things more clearly. I hope to write in the near future about some reflections on the challenges that Christians face in my own country. But for now I happy to look back on a wonderful summer.
I am deeply and profoundly thankful for God's grace and mercy on our family during this sabbatical. I am also deeply and profoundly thankful for a church that sent us out into an exciting and life changing sabbatical - and for my fellow staff at CRPC who covered for me in my absence. This was a very special gift to us!
We arrived at Moscow at 4 am and had a 6 hr layover. Put down a blanket and slept on the floor. A tiny taste of life as a displaced person. Fitting ending to our trip. :)
We will be starting the return trip home in about four days. Our time is now filled with saying goodbye to new friends and taking a last look at favorite places. We will also welcome 8 new SGI team members over the next three days and will be working to help them get acclimated.
This all has brought on a season of reflection about home. We have been feeling waves of homesickness all summer which lead to an eagerness to return to our familiar life. But those waves are interspersed with a profound sadness to be leaving this ministry and the people that we have come to love. In the middle of our eagerness to re-enter life and ministry in Pittsburgh there is a growing awareness that we will now be homesick for Greece.
Our own experience has been interwoven with the profound experience of sharing life with refugees and the simple joy of an extended Lord of the Rings/Hobbit marathon. Each day we have listened to stories of people who have fled their homes in fear. Their cars and houses have been flattened by bombs and family members have been killed. Most refugees that I have talked to would love to go home if they could, but the the cities that they love are deeply changed and in some cases they barely exist at all.
We have also been shaped by movies. For the last 2-3 weeks many of our nights have been used to watch segments of the stories from Middle-earth. Of course it is all fantasy, but it is an excellent movie series based an extraordinary series of books. The heroes are admirable and the story telling is beautiful. Honor and bravery are celebrated. After watching several times, I still find the movies enjoyable.
What I had not noticed before is the way themes of "home" are so central to each of the movies/books. It seems that the peculiar strength of Hobbits is linked to their willingness to be content with the simple joys of home. I could write an entire article exploring this theme, but I will draw out two memorable points. First, when Thorin Oakenshield is dragging his friends into a needless war in his lust for more treasure, Biblo is quietly longing to go home to his Hobbit hole and plant a tree. Second, when Frodo and Sam are at their lowest they find strength to continue their quest in memories of their home. Sam finds strength to push through the last boiling steps up Mt. Doom by remembering the Shire.
"Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It'll be spring soon and the orchards will be in blossom, and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And the whistle in the summer barley in the Lower fields. And eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?'
All of that is beautiful, but as much as Tolkien explores the theme of homecoming, the books (and the movies) don't end at the happy homecoming that you might expect. Sam, Pippin and Merry find peace and happiness in the Shire, but Frodo still bears the burden of the One Ring and Ring-Wraith's sword. Frodo cannot truly return to the Shire. "We have saved the Shire, Sam. But not for me." Frodo's home now lies in the West. Not in the Shire, but with the Elves in the Undying lands.
Sometimes you can't go home.
This is the case for many of my refugee friends. Their houses and cars have been destroyed by bombs. In some cases, their home city has been reduced to rubble. Family members were killed and the delicate social fabric of peaceful society was shredded by war. Recently, a Syrian friend told me that he didn't see how Syria could ever recover from this conflict. The indiscriminate killing and brutal tactics of both the regime and the rebellion have fanned ethnic tensions. Sunni and Shia Muslims look at each other with increased suspicion and the Christian minority is being scattered to the wind. Before the war, Syria was known for having a pretty tolerant Middle-eastern society with different religious and ethnic groups living in relative harmony. It is hard to see how that can be reconstructed in the near future. Even if the fighting stopped tomorrow, Syria will not be the same again.
Sometimes you can't go home.
I have been thinking of this in a more personal way. As I get older, I find myself increasingly homesick for the places that no longer exist and the people who no longer live. Being in a Mediterranean country has stirred memories of teenage visits to Spain. The food, the climate and the culture bear striking similarities. But, as I reflect on this longing I confront the reality that the Spain of my memories no longer exists. The society has changed and many of the people that I remember are no longer alive.
In a way, this is also true of my own hometown. The vibrant little Appalachian community that my parents moved to in 1980 has encountered one economic downturn after another. Each year businesses close, class sizes shrink and fewer graduates stay in the community. The physical landmarks are the same, but the social fabric has shifted dramatically. The people are different.
Sometimes you can't go home.
It is now just over a year since my father died and memories of his life loom over all thoughts of home. I realize now that home was never really a place, but it was located in the people. The house of my youth is mostly the same. My mother's warm and welcoming presence still lights the home and embraces the wider community. But even this home feels profoundly different. As we prepare for a major transition back to Pittsburgh, I have found myself returning to memories of other homecomings. My father is part of all those memories. I remember his chuckle and his kind words. I remember the unique ways that he would talk. I know that I will not see those expressions or hear those words again in this life. He would have loved to hear all about out trip. I long to share with him the things we have learned on this adventure. But I can't.
As we talked about some of these things at breakfast the other day, I thought about the way the Bible talks about homelessness and homecomings. From the beginning, when our first parents were cast out of the garden, humans have been looking for their true home. Moses was a stranger in a strange land. Daniel spent his entire prophetic career in the palace of a foreign king. The book of Hebrews tells us that the great heroes of faith were looking for a home that they would not find on this earth.
When Jesus entered into our situation he embraced homelessness. He told one would-be-disciple that "the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Matthew 8;20) As Rich Mullins sang: "Birds have nests, foxes have dens; But the hope of the whole world rests; On the shoulders of a homeless man." Ultimately, he was rejected and cast out of the city, left to die alone on a cross for criminals.
But the beauty of the story is that his rejection brings our inclusion. By paying the price for our rebellion, Jesus opens the door for our return to the heart of God. With sins forgiven we pass through the veil into the Holy of Holies, into the presence of our heavenly Father (Hebrews 10:19-22). And so we find home... not by looking back, but by looking forward. The book of Revelation ends with a prophetic picture of our great future homecoming. All who have trusted in Christ will enter into the New Jerusalem. "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." (Rev 21:3)
If we are looking back at what has been we cannot truly go home. Places change and people pass away. But, the great feeling of homesickness is a gift from God. It stirs us out of our present complacency and teaches us to long for completeness. We will find it, not by looking back, but by looking forward... and looking to the bloody sacrifice of "the homeless man." (Matt)
The last week was the beginning of a transition. The rest of our SGI team has left Greece and we are awaiting 4 new team members this weekend, before we also end our "tour of duty" in Greece. Over the next 8 days we will begin to say goodbye and pass the baton to the new volunteers.
We are beginning to make the mental transition to thinking about our return to the U.S. Recently a friend asked me what I had learned during our time in Athens. I have been fortunate to travel quite a bit and I can't say that any one piece of the trip has offered something entirely new. However, our time in Athens has served to confirm my belief that the great tragedies of our time are massively complex and defy simplistic solutions. There is no "easy button" when it comes to the refugee crisis. But in the midst of the chaos and confusion we can look to the Lord in faith and we can choose to move towards other people in love.
Here are a sample of the complicated things that swirl around the refugee situation in Athens:
Refugees come mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, only Syrian refugees are guaranteed permanent asylum in the west. Their language and cultures are different. But they all come from dangerous war torn countries where there is no hope of a quick, peaceful resolution. Most have lost all of their material possessions. Many have lost family members. These are real people who dream of a better life, love their families and face the fears of an uncertain future. They are not merely numbers. They are human beings made in God's image, with eternal souls.
In the conflict as a whole, there are lots of bad guys and few good guys. This is especially true in Syria, where it is pretty much impossible to tell which side of the civil war should be supported. (President Assad is a brutal dictator, but the rebel army split into multiple factions, include ISIS.) All of the sides use indiscriminate violence, and the stories of war atrocities that I hear first hand form the mouth of my refugee friends highlight the evil on all sides of the equation.
Greece itself is in the midst of a prolonged fiscal crisis. The solutions to their mounting debt and chronic unemployment are not obvious. The majority of Greeks have been extraordinarily patient with the refugees swarming into their city. Perhaps it is because the economy is so bad, there is no risk that they will steal jobs.
European countries are struggling to assimilate Muslim refugees and some are starting to reduce their intake. Recent violence in France was linked to a radicalized Muslim from North Africa. Some recent violence in Germany was linked to refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. My experience has confirmed my belief that the majority of refugees desire to live quiet and peaceful lives, but you cannot say that refugees offer zero risk. Multiculturalism is a wonderful dream, but a very difficult reality.
Often forgotten in the midst of these challenges is the ongoing plight of the middle eastern Christians. Syrian Christians are often excluded from UN camps and can be targeted by aggressive Muslims. Even in Greece, Muslim converts to Christianity are at risk of physical violence. (And there are increasing numbers of converts.) Ethnic Christian groups from Syria and Iraq have been scattered and killed. Large percentages of the population of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq had passed their Christian faith from generation to generation. In Iraq only an estimated 500,000 Christians remain from the nearly 3 million that lived their prior to the U.S. invasion. Throughout the middle east Christians are often targeted for reprisal when America (or another "Christian" nation) does something offensive. Friends who were religious minorities in Muslim dominated countries have reminded me how difficult this position can be.
The bitterness caused by vicious fighting will not be easily quelled. One Syrian friend told me recently, "I don't know how this war will ever end. There has been so much killing and the hate will go on and on. Before the war, Christians, Jews, Sunnis and Shia (Muslims) lived together in Syria in peace. I don't know how we can go back."
In the midst of it all, I spend a lot of time listening. We serve food, and teach English, and try to help the church provide care in emergencies. But mostly we listen to people tell their stories and pray that God will intervene. I spend a lot of time praying for the Prince of Peace to show up and bring comfort and healing. I am a lot slower to speak about these complicated things. If anything has changed in me, I think that I am less inclined to dream about grand political solutions to our problems. The world leaders will continue to fumble along with a mixture of motives. Instead we have an opportunity to love actual people who are in the midst of crisis.
We frequently speak about the amazing doors of opportunity that God has been opening in the midst of all the bad stuff that is happening. I have meditated often on Hebrews 12:27-28 - God is shaking the kingdoms of the world and establishing his eternal kingdom. Sometimes that is the only confident thing we can say about the current situation. God is at work in the midst of the horrors. Many people who previously had no access to the gospel message are being thrust outward into new and open lands. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, doors of hope open for particular people. I don't know what will happen in the big picture, but right here, right now - God is shaking and building. I feel so privileged to be here in the midst of it all for two months this summer.
"The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken-- that is, created things-- so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe," - Hebrews 12:27-28