Weekly Edgework #94 - May 15, 2006

Finding God Abroad

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?…If I rise on the winds of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalms 139:7-10)

When I was a child I absorbed the notion that God was only to be found in our little country church in Southern Manitoba – or in a few other select places. But they would have to be places where people believed and practiced their faith precisely like we did. It was doubtful whether God could have been found, for example, in a General Conference Mennonite Church. And it was certain that God had departed from the Old Colony Church long ago, as he had from Anglican and Catholic churches. As a matter of fact, Catholicism was that great whore of an anti-Christ directed by the Devil himself.

And so my early understandings of God were defined more by exclusion than by inclusion. God was a God of the “straight and narrow way” that my people had found. Most others naming the name of Christ were on the broad road that led to destruction. Indeed, they were, in the words of the Apostle Peter, waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved. (2 Peter 2:17) By all counts, faithful followers of God could only be counted by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, but not likely by the millions.

Of course as I grew up and moved about in the wider world I began to wonder whether my exclusive understanding of God was too narrow. I began to encounter sincere faith in traditions other than my own. But of course my mentors kept reminding me that people might be sincere, but “sincerely wrong.” Somewhere along the way I began to wonder whether perhaps I was “sincerely wrong.” After all, it seemed to me that the chances of being born into a community that was the apple of God’s eye were probably less than one in a million. By what great providence had I been chosen for such a prestigious position?

Now, having moved well past middle-age, I realize that I have gradually begun replacing concepts of exclusivity with those of inclusivity. I have come to understand that God is much bigger than any one localized expression of who he is. And that none of the various Christian traditions holds a monopoly on God, or indeed truth about God. My life of faith has been enhanced immeasurably by interaction with persons and writings rooted in other faith traditions. Indeed, some of my favorite authors today find their home in the Catholic tradition.

And so I was not really that surprised to find what I sensed to be authentic faith in the context of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt on our recent trip there to visit our son. The historical forces that have given shape to that particular church are, in many ways, so vastly different from those that shaped my church tradition, that they are difficult to compare. The Egyptian Church broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century over state interference in church matters and a disagreement over the nature of Christ. It has never experienced a Reformation akin to that of Martin Luther’s movement in the 16th century. It remains highly liturgical in its services, its priests always wear special vestments, and it holds to the notion of transubstantiation – that in the mass the elements become the body and blood of Christ. And it uses enough incense in its services to nearly choke the uninitiated.

All of this might well have led me to a sense of estrangement. These are not my people, are they? But in fact quite the opposite happened. When Abuna Youseff, the local priest in New Beni-Suef, spent the better part of a day taking us to important sites in the area I encountered a man in love with Jesus and his people. Perhaps it was because he spoke English quite well and could articulate his faith and answer my many questions that I warmed up to him – but I suspect it was more than language. When he explained his position on transubstantiation by saying that he simply takes the Bible at face value where Jesus declares, This is my body…This is my blood, I didn’t find it important to set him straight – according to my tradition.

When I asked Abuna Youseff how he found it possible to work together with Mennonites, it took him half an hour to explain. In the end it all boiled down to relationships. He had learned to love and trust those Mennonites who had taught him English and to see that they loved Jesus as much as he did. More than that - they were attempting to flesh out the love of God as his church was trying to do in an environment that is hostile towards Christianity. I caught in this dialogue something of what I think Jesus must have meant when he declared that truth is not really found in propositions adhered to by any people group, but in who he is. I am the way, the truth and the life…, Jesus said.

When in a short speech at a party with Nelson’s English students, Abuna Youseff welcomed us, not only as guests, but as brother and sister in Christ, my heart was strangely warmed. And when he presented each of us with a gift to thank us for sharing our son with them and coming to be with them for a while I knew that I was surrounded by God’s people. When I was asked to share something from the scriptures and our faith tradition, I quoted the famous Anabaptist text, I Corinthians 3:11, For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. I followed this up with the quote by Hans Denck, No one can know Christ truly except he follow him daily, and no one can follow Christ daily except he know him truly. Throughout the room there were nods and sighs of agreement.

For me there was no question that I had found God abroad!