Friday, November 30, 2018

Strange New World

20.Strange New World (29 November 2018)
The Legend: Jim’s Steaks. Worth the wait in the cold
in a line out the door and around the corner.
(23 Nov. 2018 – Philadelphia, Pa.)
            Last night we flew back in to Lebanon, back to the familiar yet strange place we call home, returning from a “strange, New World,” to borrow the words spoken by Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise.
            Several weeks ago an opportunity opened up for Maria to receive some software training for her work at Haigazian University, so we decided it was time to take some vacation, making this our first trip back to the U.S. and to my family there since we moved to Lebanon early in 2017. It was also our first trip to Toronto (and to Maria’s family) since then.
Family reunion! Lara K. and her “Beirut family”. Thanks, Dan,
for taking the photo. (20 Nov. 2018 – Broomall, Pa.)
            The first strange thing to me was how “un-strange” so much of it was, right down to the roadways and the potholes, in the same spots I had left them in January 2017. It seemed as if I had only been away from the U.S. for two months, not almost two years. And worshiping with the congregation and singing in the choir at the Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church in Havertown, Pa., where I used to be the pastor, only strengthened my feeling of never having been away.
            Being with family was another one of those strange-but-not situations. I suppose that if our separation had been five years it would not have felt like it had been only a short while. But then I wonder about those dear to me, from whom I am separated by death, whose faces carry that almost-forgotten quality to my eye. Yet because of our common faith in Jesus we have the hope of an everlasting reunion. Now that will be a strange feeling!
New car “vending machines”. Order online, and the lift
brings  your order, as if it were a bottle of soda.
(27 Nov. 2018 – Philadelphia, Pa.)
            When Maria and I went into the supermarket in suburban Philadelphia, we were bewildered by the varieties and sub-varieties of practically everything one could imagine, in a store with enough floor space and stock to contain several of the largest supermarkets in Lebanon. We also felt the intensity of advertising in the U.S., and how it shapes you into someone who consumes and buys and buys more as a way of life. It is something we were able to clearly perceive as strange only because of the distance we had had from America these two years.
            But also strange – yet not – were the tents sitting on city sidewalks, which our son Sevag pointed out to us in the neighborhood where he is a high school teacher. In Lebanon I would have accepted that sight as something quite normal in present-day Lebanon – refugees are a part of life in the “new Middle East” promised us by an earlier U.S. administration. There in that section of Philadelphia the tents on city sidewalks belonged to the homeless, refugees of a different sort, indicative of a societal malaise that gets little attention.
Homeless encampment on a sidewalk in the
Kensington area. (27 Nov. 2018 – Philadelphia, Pa.)
            After only a few days in the U.S., another strange feeling beset me: I was forgetting who I was as an Armenian. In that short time my environment was so decidedly American that it was very easy for me to “revert” to the identity I grew up with and maintained, that is, until the 8th grade when I chose for a book report that so shocked me (my grandmother’s copy of Rev. Abraham Hartunian’s Neither to Laugh nor to Weep) that I realized I had to learn what it meant to be Armenian, and then relentlessly pursue it. I know that some prefer to reconcile everything into everything else, to find the “both/and” in every situation, but when you are part of a minority culture, that melding means the obliteration of your culture. Your existence becomes a mere “decoration” or something “exotic” for the majority culture to enjoy, and otherwise ignore. And that is a hard road to travel if you are a young person wanting to be true to his language and heritage.
A snowstorm welcoming us to Canada. And almost keeping our
plane from landing. (16 Nov. 2018 – Toronto, Ont.)
            What sadly wasn’t so strange to me was the refrain heard over and over, wherever we went (and wherever we are): “We need leaders. Where are the new leaders?” Churches need pastors. Schools need teachers. Community and cultural organizations need visionaries. And they all need donors who believe in their mission and will give generously. I told people that they will not appear magically from some far-away place, but will grow up from within the Armenian churches, schools and community, if they are taught and learn to value their faith and heritage in the face of the intoxicating effect of the “new” and “exciting” all around them.
The best place to be – with children and youth. Thanks, John P.,
for the photo. (25 Nov. 2018 – Havertown, Pa.)
            The most joyful moment I spent occurred during the worship service at my former church. As I had done for nearly 10 years when serving there, I piped a tune to bring the children to the chancel steps, where I would sit and give the children’s message. There are only a few children in that church, so I expected two or three. But some of the high-schoolers, who years ago had been part of this group of little ones, got up, and then others, and before long a big group of “kids” was gathered around me, sitting on the floor in front of me. I was floored… and thankful to God for the seeds of faith growing in those youth, who love their church and their faith so much.
LebCat 19: Double surveillance, with LebCat 17 checking out
the lower level (28 Oct. 2018 – Nor Amanos, Bouchrieh)
            When Lebanon celebrated its 75th Independence Day, following the news from afar we experienced a strange mix of emotions: wishing we were there, glad we weren’t caught in the incredible traffic jams from closed roads into the capital, as the army practiced for the parade, hearing the pain in so many social media posts about the day-to-day struggles of regular people, while the elite classes disregard their role in creating misery and hopelessness and a lack of desire to celebrate anything.
            Engagement in life’s challenges should not be a strange thing for a Christian (or for any human being), whether Armenian or not. The Apostle Peter in I Peter 2.11-12 was on to something when he exhorted the church to live as “strangers and sojourners” regarding fleshly entrapments, which is a far cry from advocating for a disengaged, “holy huddle” in order to wait for Christ’s Second Coming. That engagement is what will keep us vital and focused as we interface with the strangeness of the worlds we inhabit.   [LNB]