Friday, June 09, 2006

Things I saw and heard at church

* Two weeks ago, the Episcopal Bishop of Egypt and North Africa was at St. John’s church for the confirmation service. He preached during the service, and then did the confirmation ritual for about 8 kids, all expats. One of the things the bishop kept saying was that God wants unity, not uniformity, in the body of Christ. I know we’ve all heard that before, but it was so interesting to hear that out of the mouth of an Egyptian. The culture here (and in Arab countries in general) is a lot about uniformity, conformity, doing what the authority figure wants, etc. To listen to an Egyptian priest say that unity is more important was incredible.

It’s interesting to think about the difference between unity and uniformity, particularly as it relates to church life. The bishop talked mostly about worship style—about the high church and low church differences in the Anglican Communion, I suppose. And of course we recognize that there are diverse ways to worship, different ways to pray, different ways of relating to God (even the dreaded “Jesus is my boyfriend” is one way that helps people be in relationship with God). It’s interesting to think about all those different ways and how they are still really doing the same thing—not uniformly, of course, but worshipping the Holy One nonetheless. The unity of the church is not dependent on whether we all worship the same way, whether we all interpret every word of Scripture or the confessions the same way, whether we recite the Apostles or Nicene or some other creed, whether we pray in English or Arabic, whether we sing Watts hymns or yesterday’s Christian pop. What the unity of the church is dependent on is simply grace. It’s God’s church, not ours. It’s Christ in whom we are one, not our ideas or theologies or interpretations. It’s the Holy Spirit that unifies us in God’s love. We are children of God…and that is unity. No two children in a family are ever the same, but they are still one family. And so in this culture that holds conformity as one of the highest values, it’s truly countercultural to proclaim that diversity is part of unity.

Strange how those cliché catch phrases, like “unity in diversity” can take on new meaning when they come out of different mouths…

* Last week it was Pentecost, and the pastor preached on the Holy Spirit’s rushing wind as an “invasion” of God’s reality into our perception of reality. It made me think of Elias Chacour and how he said that the Holy Spirit “stormed their minds and hearts” that day, and keeps doing so even now. The “Holy Wind” of God, like in the el Greco painting. It was cool. I like to think of “holy wind.” There’s a pretty substantial amount of wind here, mostly coming out of the desert. And I’ve lived in pretty windy places—near mountains and seas and lakes, in big cities with wind tunnels for streets, etc. I like to think that as the wind blows (as in John 3.17), God’s Spirit is rushing off around the world, inspiring and exciting and calling. But I don’t know how I would feel about that image if I lived in tornado alley or in the hurricane belt. I don’t know what kind of holy wind that can be, or if it can be unholy wind in spite of being part of God’s creation, or if that kind of image is too upsetting to people in those areas who’ve lost so much. Since clearly God doesn’t send hurricanes or tornadoes to punish or even to test, it seems a little insensitive to talk about wind being holy in those places. And now I’m rambling about that…but what I want to say is that to me the idea of Holy Wind is as cool as the idea that my mom is in every ocean I visit because we scattered her ashes in the Pacific. She’s everywhere I go now…just like God and wind are everywhere I go.

Also cool, and an idea to tuck away in the Sunday School file: the kids came back from church school wearing flame hats. A piece of orange paper was cut like a flame, then stapled to a paper wrap-around headband, and their name and a language they could speak was written on it before it was sized to their head and stapled together. In an international church, this is really interesting. Kids came in with all kinds of languages emblazoned on the back of their heads, and with flames sticking up from the cowlick place on the back of their heads, and they loved it! I loved it too. I wanted one.

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