Before we moved overseas, we lived in the Southern US, which on the surface is a very friendly culture. We greet strangers and acquaintances with a “Hi, how are you?” You greet friends with a warm hug and a big smile and it’s great! But even at church we don’t just go around hugging everyone, right? We hug those that we love. Then we moved to Russia. There, it was different. People were not overly friendly, never greeted a stranger in the street, and I was usually grateful to be ignored. But in the conservative church, we kissed. On the lips. Men kissed men and women kissed women. Good times. Although at the time it was my least favorite part of church, looking back, I recognize that it was a very important part of fellowship. They took it seriously as a commandment and cheerfully (or not), kissed one another. A dry peck, and a quick hug if you were friends or a loving embrace if you were dear friends. They always made sure to greet every single person. In our youth group, there wasn’t as much kissing, but the girls hugged each other, and the guys shook each other’s hands, every single one. In a harsh culture, there was a comforting familiarity in that way of greeting each one. No one was left out of the greeting.
Now we live in a different country, in an even more traditional culture and, guess what. They kiss here, too. But it’s different. Here it’s the whole culture–not just the church–that is prone to kissing. Again, women-to-women, and it’s a kiss-kiss on the cheeks (left to right). It’s sweet, and all the while they are telling you how good it is to see you again and asking how you are, and how your family is and how your parents are. Even guys sometimes do a cheek-to-cheek thing that is not kissing, or a forehead bump, while clasping each other’s right hands. Every person in the room is greeted with a kiss or a handshake.
When we have people over, there is a ceremony of greeting and kissing that is not to be blown off casually. For instance, when guests come to our house for coffee, our whole family comes to the door, and we say, “It’s good that you came.” And their reply is, “It is good that we found you (at home).” If it is a man, I will shake his hand while we say this, and if it is a woman, we will be busy kissing each other’s cheeks, asking about the kids, if I’ve talked to my mom recently, if I’m tired (I’m supposed to be, because that means that I worked hard today, but I’m supposed to deny it). If we are really close, or it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other, we will kiss each other’s cheeks more than twice and give each other a tight squeeze. (Hahaha! Some of you are cringing. It’s okay. Albanian women are awesome at making you feel greeted well.) While the women are kissing, the men are shaking hands and asking each other the same questions about their families (literally, “households”), work and whatever it is that men ask each other. After the greeting, the guests are either offered slippers, because Albanians do not wear their shoes in the house, or they are told to leave their shoes on because guests are special (or the floor is really cold and there are no guest slippers). Then they are led into the living room to sit, and the wife or daughter of the house brings a bowl of candy and serves each guest a sweet. This was traditionally llokume (Turkish Delight), but nowadays it is very often a chocolate. Then, coffee or juice is served to the guests. There are special customs regarding foods served and each region has their own, but the importance of it is the honor that they show their guests.
Because it’s such a traditional culture and everyone follows the same rules of greeting, they are used to it, but for those of us who have come from other places, it’s another opportunity to rethink the way we do things, especially those of us from the sometimes-too-casual West. Maybe in our Western churches holy kissing would be hard to reinstate as a scriptural mandate, but it would certainly make it easier for me, because when we go back to the US, it takes me two months to remember that no one there does the kiss-kiss thing. So embarrassing! Barring such a change, here are some things to think about. Do I honor the people who come to my home, to my church, to my social groups? Do I make them feel welcome, loved and accepted? How can I show love and honor to the people that I meet when I am out, especially those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ? Is there a way that I can reach out to those who might be on the lonely fringes, who need to a “holy kiss/handshake/hug”?
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