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      God's  Road
   With permission of author Sean Mays who in 2007 was serving AFM in Albania


It had finally happened. The day I had been dreading had arrived. I would have to face the horrible Albanian custom. No, not the custom of serving a sheep's head for dinner. That happened to me last year. And it wasn't the tradition where people hit you upside the head after you get a haircut to keep away the evil eye. It wasn't even the knowledge that I would probably receive the double-cheek kiss from friends because I hadn't seen them in a long time. No, for a father of daughters, all of these strange new customs pale in comparison with the inevitable, terrible question.

You see, in Albania, the old custom of arranged marriages has not died out. In fact, it's still common for the father of a young man to ask the father of a young woman if he would agree to an arranged marriage for their children. Many Albanians don't know their spouse before their engagement. And if they're disappointed, there's no easy way out. Engagements here are solemn and binding. There is a ceremony with family members present, an exchange of gifts, often an exchange of rings and a celebration dinner. Engagements are rarely broken. To do so would be like a divorce, and it is considered shameful for the whole family. Often, the new bride-to-be moves in with her future in-laws to study under her future mother-in-law about how to cook and keep a household. Traditionally, if her intended is the youngest son, after marriage, she is expected to live with and care for her in-laws for the rest of their lives.

It's sometimes hard for the bride to accept becoming a servant, especially if her mother-in-law is demanding. Many of the young adults in the larger, more modem Albanian cities are challenging this and other traditions. However, this custom is still widely practiced in our area.

So, there I was early one morning, sitting at a table full of Muslim friends as I do almost every morning. As usual, I was sipping a cup of chamomile tea while most of the others were drinking tiny cups of thick, grainy, super-strong Turkish coffee. None of the men speak any English, so it's good practice for my Albanian language skills.

As we sipped and chatted, another man joined us and began asking me about my family. Soon he was telling me about his son, and how he needed to find a wife for him. Gulp! Next thing I knew, he was asking if my oldest daughter, Megan, would be a good match for his son. Groan! Even though I had anticipated this question, I somehow at that moment forgot my planned response and just stammered incoherently. To refuse could be viewed as a huge insult. Things could turn very ugly.

My good friend, Zaku, came to my rescue. "He will choose a husband for her when she is older, after she completes university." I looked at Zaku wondering where he had come up with that story. I'd never discussed the topic with him or any other Albanian. He just smiled at me as if to say, "You're welcome!" Maybe he assumed that was how it would work. Or maybe ... hmm. Zaku has a son about the same age as Megan. Maybe he was hoping I would choose his son.

I was relieved when the man moved on to another topic—whether daughters should be allowed to live away from home before marriage. He asked what I would do if my daughter wanted to go to a university far from my supervision. Many young Albanian women are now doing this, and it clearly made him uncomfortable.

"When my daughters are adults," I replied, "they may choose to live away from our family, but I will welcome them to stay. I trust them to make good decisions."

"But how will you know if they will wear miniskirts and revealing tops and drink alcohol, or worse?" He asked, his eyes widening. "I won't let my daughters go away to university!" Many of the men mumbled and gestured in agreement.

Again, Zaku answered For me. "Megi won't do any of those things because she is on God's road."

After a short span of silence and thoughtful expressions, the man spoke again, more quietly this time. "But how can we make our children walk on God's road?"

I darted a silent prayer heavenward. "God never forces anyone to walk on His road, and we must never try to force anyone else. It has to be each person's own decision. If the child's parents are on the straight road, the child will have an example they can choose to follow. But if the parents are on the crooked road while telling the child to go on the straight road, what do you think the child will do when the parents aren't looking?"

The man made a crooked motion with his hand in reply.

Zaku smiled, obviously pleased with the direction of this conversation. He has told me before about his own father's example of right living. He deeply admired and respected his father, who was an iman.

The man spoke up again. "But how do you know if your daughter will stay on the right path when she is far away from your influence and is around others who are on the crooked road?"

Yes, how will you know?" Another man at the table asked, "You won't be there to watch her." The men leaned forward with interest. All eyes were on me.

I sensed that how I answered this question was important to them. They've seen the sad results when the younger generation mimics the worst traits of western youth, and they fear for them—especially their daughters. Now, here was this Westerner sitting with them, and he seemed confident that his daughters would be virtuous even when he wasn't around. They must have thought I was either naive or foolish. I sent up another silent prayer, and then answered simply, "I know because God is in her heart."

"Ah, yes, her heart." the men sighed. They seemed to sense that love is the only thing strong enough to keep anyone on God's road.

We all sat quietly, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Soon Zaku and I excused ourselves to go and set up his family's shop at the bazaar. The men shook our hands and patted our backs as we left. Zaku grinned at me as we walked. "Very good, Davidi," he said. "Very good!"

Thank you, Lord, for giving a simple man simple words that cause men to think. I'm not a theologian or an eloquent speaker, but still. You have given me the opportunity to speak about You, and even for You. What a privilege! Thank You for making the impossible possible in my life. Thank You for turning my shortcomings into opportunities. Never let me forget to rely completely on You. ---Sean Mays.






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