Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mosaic

It's been nearly two weeks since my random trek along the Mediterranean, a journey that was nothing like I expected it to be.  My answer when people ask sounds pat but it is poignant: "There was so much to take in: Sights, sounds, information; I will be processing it all for a long time yet."

The Island of Patmos
It seems strange to me now, the bits and pieces I come here to assemble like a mosaic in tribute to two short, cumbersome weeks.  I have a picture in my mind of a tiny bronze monastery at the crest of a turquoise and green island, Patmos, where the sounds of a Greek-Orthodox chant echo the pull of the Spirit on my heart.    A place of mystery and worship, we walked through with barely a glance, even as something inside of me clamored, "Sing. SING."

Me at the Monastery on the Island of Patmos
We did not sing, and I take with me from that place not just a picture but a conviction about leadership, the unique way that God has composed my spirit, and calling.

Another piece in a cacophony of stimuli is the experience of community and corporate faith that wound itself through the days and nights, stringing them together like beads on threads of dry grace edged in silver and gold.  Dry grace.  That's a typo.  I meant to type dry grass, as in the kind peoples of the First Nations used to make baskets.  But perhaps it is a Freudian slip best left in print.  I'm going to leave it, for dry is definitely the appropriate term for relationship on this tour, and dry grace - well, the term leaves a lot to the imagination.  It makes me think of a well, once overflowing with clear rivers of water, filled with dusty earth instead, the only mark of its history and identity being the circle of stones, the rotting rope, the splintered bucket.

The Pantheon
Frankly, that is the church I feel I experienced as I wandered through ancient cities long in ruins.  Many people said they were impressed with the way the great and mighty Roman empire fell and was left to deteriorate even while the church, seeds sown by a small Jewish man named Paul, lived on.  And they were right to make the observation, one of recognition about the Kingdom.  I have in my hand a strand of faith that I can trace back to those ancient, now dilapidated sites, to those strange and distant peoples named in the early New Testament writings.  But I also saw the Greek Orthodox cathedrals filled with images and icons that did not look so different from the pagan worship Paul invaded when he walked the streets of Philippi, Pergamum, and Corinth.  I saw the Pantheon, built for seven pagan gods, stand in honor of seven saints today, their statues as blank and staring as the ones of Zeus and Athena must have been.  It was, admittedly, breath-taking: The stonework, the marble, the open dome that doubled as a sundial.  It was also ... dark and just a little bit creepy.  This isn't just a building erected to remind us of something historical.  This was a place of worship, a place of foreign gods and strange deeds done in their name.  Do the statues of Peter and Mary transform or redeem that, I wonder?  Do they give witness to the King of Kings, Lord of Lords in that place?  What about the witness to Christianity that the ruins speak, when everything was torn down, burned, and demolished in God's name?

The Church outside of Philippi
Along the river banks outside of ancient Philippi is a Greek Orthodox church, pristine in white and gold and the colors of a sunrise.  I do not know if there are ever really any services there.  But it stands out against the backdrop of the trees along a coursing river, its banks swollen slightly from ice and snow now gone.  The contrast is stark.  Where once Lydia was baptized in the river that she visited regularly in the course of her work, now there is an empty building with a cistern for the sprinkling of water.  What remains of that early church?  What remains of that which Paul planted in those days - really?  Well, we're still baptizing, I suppose.  That's something.  And here I am with my strand of faith.  But what do I do with the river and its pristine empty building?  What do I do with Paul's message to Corinth and the eerie images, statues, and icons that stand where pagan gods once stood?

But more than that, what do I do with the people.  Besides the Orthodox guide who wore the emblem of the evil eye (to guard from evil spirits) as she chastised another group member for her lack of respect in sitting on the empty throne in Lydia's church, alongside the Muslim guide who grew up in a Catholic school, I walked with academics and scholars who either remained silent altogether on this trek or were prone to ridiculing those less educated in their eyes. Then, at night, I prayed with another group, a group so bent upon evangelizing their Islamic guide the man had a break-down and got drunk while on their tour.  Now, I wasn't there.  Perhaps they responded with compassion, but I have to say that my heart went out to a man who was their captive audience, a man who obviously needed more than a teaching moment on a bus by someone who lived on the other side of the world and would go back there the next day (only my uneducated opinion).  Yet this was the group that prayed every night, prayed for each other and prayed for their poor, hapless guide, prayed for me even.  This was the group that shared testimonies about how God had shown up in their lives and about how He was showing up in their presence as they walked these ancient sites.  And here we were, a group sponsored by a seminary, and you didn't hear those stories among our ranks.  In fact, I hear very few testimonies in seminary at all.

The Ruins of Philippi

It's just an observation.

I esteem and look up to my community of believers.  They have given their lives to the study of scripture.  Some of them have given their lives to the church.  Something inspires and drives them to search for truth as if it were fine silver, to wrestle with it and allow it to mature them.  Many of them are bent on living out a faith that others only talk about on Sunday mornings, a faith that actually means something in how they go about their day, every day.  And yet our community was dry: Dry grace.  Do they have stories of grace, I wonder?  Maybe they do and this just was not the time to tell them?

And I respect the group of believers I met on my journey.  They were experiencing a Living God.  He was impacting them on a very personal level in ways that were, in fact, transforming their lives.  They were wrestling, too, and yet their words could be just as critical of theologians, people who acknowledge that when we come to scripture we bring a world of baggage with us that wants to interpret God on our behalf.  They dismiss the study of Calvin, Luther and Wesley and seem to reject some questions of faith as a waste of time.  But I wondered as they did, do they know how much of Calvin's voice was reflected in their own?  Did they realize they were answering these questions of faith in their dismissal and even in the way they proselytized their guide?  Their dry grace sounded like fiery moments of Spirit-led conviction that ended, sometimes, in dismissal of maturity in Christ.
The Colosseum

I don't really have room to critique my brothers and sisters, not the over-intellectualized ones or the over-spiritualized ones.  And it is not my wont.  I wrestle with the juxtaposition of God and man in my fellow believers.  I don't know how to make sense of it or find my place in it.  Perhaps the dry grace is mine.  All I know is that I felt like I belonged with neither, though one invited and the other critiqued, one accepted and the other wanted to convert.  The truth is, they both expressed care for me in very different ways and what is probably most true is that I am a product of a cynical, critical world instead of a relational one.  And particularly as Americans, we suck at relationship.  I think I can say that with some claim to expertise.

And so I turn my face away from exotic foreign travel and mysterious communion among the saints, both past and present, to look again at the juxtaposition of God and me in my life as one called and frail, as one empowered by the Holy Spirit and broken nonetheless.  The mosaic I make with my pieces is me, my life, my faith, my work, a creative venture with God.

Patmos
I did not begin this post to write so much about my experience abroad.  I began, actually, in order to explore more about this creative venture - as I find myself longing to create.  I find myself called to create, in fact.  The speaker in chapel this morning named the feeling when He described the invasive, intervening, transforming force of God in our world.  That is what I want to be a part of.  Perhaps, if I am given a gift that I may humbly offer to invade, intervene, and transform, it is creativity.  And perhaps what I found to be missing in the community of believers as a whole on my trip In the Steps of Paul and John was my own heart, my voice, and the Spirit of God in me.  And so my prayer after this journey, perhaps, is that I would not be dry grace, but a well-spring, in my own beautiful yet limited way.