Sep 15, 2008

The Chinese Oikos and the Garage Door

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak at the Chinese Bible Church here in San Diego. I took French in high school and college, which, once again, was not valuable. But who takes Chinese anyway? Fortunately, I had an interpreter.

Whenever I am asked to speak somewhere, whether it be a church or other kind of community organization, it tends to be on one of just a couple of topics. Most often, I introduce audiences to the idea of their "oikos." I plan on writing more extensively about oikos in the next week or two. Most people reading this probably have some idea of the concept and how it works. But, in short, it goes like this:

Oikos is the Greek word meaning "household." In terms of ancient Greek society and in modern sociology, this "household" is not simply your spouse and 2.5 kids that live with you in your domicile. It refers to the people who surround you in your relational world, your circle of influence. One sociologist says your oikos is the group of people you spend an hour or more with or around every day. So for most people, their oikos consists of the people who do live in thier domicile, and also their family or roommates or strangers who move in to your house when you are away for Christmas (subject of another experience I should blog about.) It also consists of coworkers you were most closely with, classmates you see every day, the people who live next door to you. The average person has between 8-15 people in their oikos. For me, about 8 of them are Starbuck's baristas.

Oikos is vital to any society's survival. When people pay attention to their oikos, and work to meet each others needs, society works very well. When people ignore the needs of the people around them, society begins to crumble. Its all about the oikos.

So, to any audience, the concept is received well. Its basically a practical and tangible way to love your neighbor. I have now taught the concept in 3 languages and to people of all ages and backgrounds. It is a great equalizer. You don't get to choose your oikos (maybe your spouse, but that's it.) Therefore, everyone has an oikos and everyone is in someone else's oikos. Its unavoidable.

One person from the Chinese congregation shared with me afterward that he thought the oikos idea would work well in the Chinese community here. He said they basically practice this as a culture anyway and that to actually list our your 8-15 people will just make it even more practical. He was very appreciative.

But then he said something interesting. He asked me how the oikos philosophy is working in my church, since "westerners don't tend to do this very well." It is indeed harder for westerners in many respects because we love our walls.

How many of us really know the people who live next door or across the street or in the neighboring apartment? You may remember that in the terrorist manuals that were found after 9/11, the terrorists were advised to not be too concerned about their American neighbors since typically the neighbors aren't paying any attention and will hardly take the time to get to know you. They should expect to make their plans and build their bombs without much interference from the neighbors. It was a sad commentary.

I read one study that blamed automatic garage door openers for this phenomenon in American culture. It suggested that many years ago, people got to know their neighbors because they were often outside watering the grass with a hose and sitting on the porch to cool off becuase there was no air conditioning in the house. And when people got home from work, they had to get out of their car, and actually go open the garage door by hand. All of that out door time presented opportunity to say hello to neighbors, strike up conversations, invite them over for a bar-b-que etc.

Today, for most Americans, we get to our house, while staying in the car, we click the clicker, drive in the garage, then click the clicker again and get out of the car in our private garage with the door down and go into the house. Our built in sprinklers water the grass automatically, and the air is cleaner and more comfortable in our house. Safe. Away from pesky neighbors that we are suspicious of because they never talk to us.

Kristy and I have been making an effort to actually get to know our neighbors. They are in our oikos and we are committed to getting to know those people. Interestingly, the two families we are actually getting to know are the only two families who spend time outside their home.

Across the street, they water their yard with a hose and they sit in lawn chairs to get out of their hot house since they don't have A/C. The other family has a game room and bar in their garage and are often out there. For the most part, we have been unable to get to know our other neighbors simply because we never ever see them. We are planning to invite them over for dinner. They may call the cops on us, but we'll see.

More on oikos later. But its an interesting experience that has me thinking much more today about how important it is that we are concerned about our own oikos. As a Christ Follower, I think its not an option.

I encourage you this way - do you know who your oikos is?

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