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!