I have heard it recently related that the wife of an important person was hesitant to visit our part of Europe where the toilets may be Turkishly challenging and life is a little raw. She preferred the westernly ordered, pristine shopping boulevards of our European neighborhood. I have to smile at her loss as I ping pong down the narrow corridor of the train in search of strong Romanian coffee.
My dual-car sojourn takes me past a family who has created a picnic brunch in their tiny couchette. I squeeze by three geezers, most probably discussing the shortcomings of the current political administration, as if they remember a time when they were content with their politicians. Through two sets of connecting doors that challenge my necessity for coffee, I eventually prevail. The cigarette smoke is thick as I stumble to the bar.
My Hungarian is cheap but it gets the job done and the Romanian steward nods curtly as he puts on a pot. There’s no smile, no ‘good morning lady’; the air is hazy and the smiles reserved for colleagues on the border of friendship. It seems to me that this is the real world; this is where we were meant to dwell.
Earlier this week, the streets of Budapest were full of tourists, as they always are. Weaving my way through their Asian clicks of St. Matthias cathedral, I was struck by the phrase ‘cultural consumers’. Tourists come to hear a historical story attached to a famous photo opportunity that they will soon forget. They taste the local cuisine if it is not too strange, follow a map and return to their hotel, where the staff speaks a language they understand with western smiles. Tourists will arrive home to regale friends with their stories of the people they saw, the foods they bravely sampled and the sights they photographed, but their core is rarely changed by their sojourn in an exotically foreign land. They have simply consumed.
McDONALDS If you do not mind me saying so, I am thankful for Turkish toilets. Back in the early years of post-Cold War Moscow, we really did stand in line for hours in the cold on Arbatskaya Ulitsa to get into McDonalds. They had the best toilets in the city at the time. The wait was worth it for a touch of Americana, for a warm burger, for the experience of seeing these first embraces of capitalism and yes, for the WC. Often though, the quick sojourn in would bring an ironic smile or a groan of disgust, depending upon the psychological makeup of the observer. Those new and once pristine seats flaunted the footprints of Moscovite boots; habit viewed these western toilets as a less conveniently constructed Turkish variant. Faced with muddied seats, it was a conundrum: conform to the culture or suffer the unpleasant consequences.
As the body of Christ, we cannot afford to be cultural consumers. Within the context he has placed us, we must learn to appreciate, not judge, the surroundings. Having been in homes where people choose between heat and food, the additional accoutrement of a seat may not be such a necessity. Given the fact that one never walks into a home with shoes on, the system of Turkish toilets begin to make a lot of sense. And slowly, with God’s grace, we begin to be changed at our core until the we and the them becomes us.
I am often troubled by the schism that seems to exist between our Christian communities and the secular world. I am concerned about that tendency in my own life. It is so much simpler to fill our lives with people who think, order their lives, and react similarly. The alternative is a time consuming, sometimes head scratching investment in learning the essentials of Turkish toilets. In a book by Wesleyan scholar David Lowes Watson called Covenant Discipleship,he says,
Wordly Christian living was the genius of Wesley’s spiritual leadership. He did not attempt to take the Methodist societies out of the world, but instead showed them how to follow God in the rough and tumble of daily living. (83)
It is here that our cheap talk meets the exorbitantly released grace of Golgotha; in 10 AM beer bottles and nicotine encrusted dining cars; in villages of half finished cement homes with half baked laundry and fertile gardens storing the necessity of nutrition for the coming winter. It is into these earthy smells and oils and flora, that God unzipped the portals of time and squeezed himself into skin. The incarnation. And the example for us,. Go and do likewise.
It is a funny thing, is it not? We Wesleyans love the incarnation when talking about the Jesus who left his home to enter into ours. We find it a tad bit less palpable when the Turkish toilets are our destination. Yet, we are called not to be saved out of this world, but, rather to be redeemed for it.
Our girls grew up with Turkish toilets and so did the rest of the MKs on our Central Europe field. You might be surprised to know that teaching tourists the logistics of said apparatus falls into the missionary job description. If there is one thing I know, it is Turkish toilets. Every Sunday morning, midway into the second worship song, one of four little girls would tug on my sleeve. With flouncy dresses and pretty shoes, we made our way to the church powder room. It was Turkishly designed. Sometimes our babas helped us with the mechanics, sometimes Lala Lydia or Kaka Zhana took a turn. Were there churches where toilets were more western? Sure. But our family, our core, was there, that place, those people who taught us the beauty of being Bulgarian.
Am I still trying to learn the eternal difference between cultural consuming and hospitality? Yes.
At the moment, Jay and I are on a return train to Budapest after two assemblies in Bucharest and Razgrad. The trip is over but the tale is only beginning. We invite you to enter into the world where we live, not as consumers but as learners, listeners, disciples, who are hungry to know how we can make a difference in the lives of women who have been sold for sex; in the lives of children who live in vulnerability; in the lives of Nazarenes who work long hours, heroically love their families, and still find time to serve.
The journey begins here. Are you on board?