Finding Church (part three)

In early October we began this blog, and after the opening post our next two entries were about the challenge of finding a local church in which to worship. In part one we described our general attitude toward this process, and in part two we described some of the local options from which to choose. I had imagined at the time that part three would follow shortly thereafter, but as you can tell it is now mid-February, and we have gained almost four months experience from where we were. It is high time for an update.

At the end of part two I previewed that we would describe our thoughts toward the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is the primary church of Egypt. Back then it was to be a philosophical description of the value of discovering a new tradition, one which reached back to the earliest days of Christianity. It was to promote the idea of belonging to the church in its local form, feeding and being fed with a people now our own. It may have mentioned the ideal of each Christian possessing something which would strengthen the neighborhood body, wondering what it could be that they might gain from us. It would have admitted the anticipated difficulties of finding spirituality in liturgy, but been hopeful that this was the pattern among millions, and for centuries, so why should we not also find our way?

This is what I would have written; I might yet still. In the previous four months we have had confirmed the troubles described in part two in worshipping late night with the Evangelicals, as we prefer to put our girls to bed early. We have gone several times to stay only for the worship, which has been enjoyable, but has been short of church. At night, however, at the end of a long working day (Sunday), it has been very easy to let this experiment slip.

In the previous four months I have also joined a Coptic Orthodox Bible Institute which—this class at least—is focused on how to extend Christian belonging to those on the fringes of the church. I wrote about a recent conference with this group here. This has been a very good experience for rubbing shoulders with real, believing Orthodox Christians of Egypt. While I do not learn as much about Orthodoxy as I had hoped, it is invaluable for learning of the things which are important to them. I have been received well, despite a Protestant background—many are often concerned about Protestant inroads into the Orthodox Church—and will speak well of them to you.

Finally, as for introduction, in the previous four months we have been a part of their traditional Friday mass community. While mass itself begins at 7:00am, many people do not show up until much later, and the sermon begins between 8:30 and 9:00. Communion is served around 10:15 and not finished until a few minutes before 11:00 when everyone has been served. Thereafter there are closing prayers and the sprinkling with holy water—a practice I must describe one of these days in its own right. At 11:00 the mass ends, and people exit.

Outside of the mass there is a children’s mass in a separate hall which begins at 8:30, followed by Sunday school at 9:30. This ends also at 11:00, at which point the families come back together, and many cross the street to the church owned villa where drinks and food are available for purchase. As best we can tell this area is open throughout the week, and people hang out all day on Friday.

Our pattern has been to go to church and sit together in the main mass from about 8:30 to the beginning of Sunday school. Emma and Julie tried the children’s mass early on but it was crowded and Emma did not have a very good experience. So I take Hannah on my lap and sit on the men’s side, while Julie takes Emma and sits on the ladies’ side. Actually, we both sit in the balcony which seems to be less divided, but we do stay apart in hope this would be easier for our girls to be still. So far, they have both behaved admirably.

Julie then takes Emma across the street to the villa which houses Emma’s age Sunday school. At times she sits outside with the other mothers, but recently has discovered a ladies’ class in the neighboring room. Meanwhile Hannah and I remain in the mass, after which Hannah enjoys getting down from my lap and sitting in all the chairs, climbing through all the wooden pews. After a little while, during which most of the church empties, we cross the street to rejoin Julie and Emma, who have since bought for all an early lunch. We split falafel sandwiches and French fry sandwiches, and sometimes find other families with which to talk, sometimes not. The same goes for our girls and playing with the other kids. We usually leave around 11:45 or so, and cross back to the church, where we take a few kids books—Arabic and English—from the library, unchain our double stroller, and walk to second Sunday school.

Second Sunday school is at the Evangelical church closer to our home, where Emma enjoys her class and Julie stays around and watches from the side. Quite a few of the Orthodox children also attend the Evangelical Sunday school classes, or, perhaps it is the other way around. In any case, Emma likes both and Julie has been getting to know some of the bi-denominational mothers.

 It has been very educational for me to be part of the mass. I have even enjoyed it. Since I am experiencing everything in Arabic (and Coptic) there is that which makes me concentrate more than if all was in English. It has taken time, but I have become familiar with the patterns of liturgy and the communal prayers, even if I don’t always capture every word. At the same time, with Hannah on my lap there is ample room for distraction, which does not seem to be a problem to those around us. The same program, more or less, is repeated week after week, and has been for two millennia. It does not seem to matter if here or there a baby cries or people rise to leave mid-service. The traditions go on as they always have.

This aspect of the service has been enjoyable, as it also allows me time to daydream. By this I mean spiritually daydream, as I contemplate ancient rituals and contemporary importance. If this is what church was in its earliest days, does this carry forward in establishing legitimacy? Or is this church doomed to increasing irrelevance in favor of a growing worldwide contemporary evangelicalism? Do evangelicals do well or poorly in shaping church so closely to culture? Would Orthodox benefit from adding variety to their worship? Since Orthodox believe the bread and wine are truly Jesus’ body and blood, how does this affect their partaking? Do they truly believe, or are they going through the motions? If that is a poor way to ask, are they repeating ritual with sincerity? When they prostrate themselves before the elements, do they ‘feel’ God? He is, after all, present in all his holiness. What would it be like to feel this? Should I even try? Will it happen one day by itself? Do I believe at all? Is what I am doing worship? Am I just an observer, a sociologist? Does any of this, in them or in me, please God at all?

These are fun questions to consider, even if they are troubling at times. Add these to the icons, the incense, the architecture, and the cymbals, and the time goes very quickly. In moments here and there I have been moved; never have I been bored.

This week, however, was a setback.

One week ago we contacted one of the priests who had previously invited me and my wife to sit down and discuss Orthodoxy. He mentioned that though everyone seeks to speak with him after Friday mass, the Saturday services are less regularly attended, especially the English mass celebrated the first of every month. So we called him to reserve a time, made arrangements for a babysitter to watch the girls, and gave our Saturday morning to this endeavor.

He didn’t show up.

I learned later that he forgot, and asked if we wished to meet with him next week. He didn’t seem particularly disturbed that he forgot, nor was he particularly inviting, though not insincere, in his offer. Of course he did not know the troubles we undertook to meet the first time, but his attitude revealed something that was lingering in the back of our heads during the previous four months. There is little welcome extended in the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church.

I can imagine that our presence there in the first place is very odd for people. Maadi, Cairo is full of foreigners, but we are the only ones I can notice in the church. Orthodoxy is not a Western tradition, so this is not unusual, and therefore our attendance is. Nevertheless, in four months almost no one has asked why we are there, or offered to help in understanding the liturgy, or even greeted us as the service ends. There are plenty of admiring stares at our girls, and at the villa people are friendly if we approach them, but it seems most people seem to believe we wish to be left alone. Perhaps they are accustomed to this being the normal Western attitude.

If the reader here senses some frustration, it may not be far off, but that is not the point. One other comment on the setback, however, before I get to it.

Getting up for church has been a fabled difficulty in America for a long time, so there is nothing unique in this anecdote. Nevertheless, it is a little different from the norm, for Sunday church in America follows the chance to sleep in on Saturday following the workweek. Here, Friday church is the next day after the Sunday through Thursday workweek, so after rising early for the boss, a Westerner like myself feels entitled to take a day of rest, but finds instead we have to rise again early, this time for God.

A mistake with the snooze button today led to an extended morning rest, and then a few snoozes more. Before we knew it it was clear that we would be late for the sermon at church. Whereas we don’t strive to get there for the start of mass, it is beneficial to hear a sermon, and all the readings from the Bible take place before the sermon. Afterwards, it is all liturgical preparation for communion.

Having had four months of getting used to the liturgy, and having attended the English liturgy the week before, suddenly all desire to go to church was gone. I have not mentioned yet this post that non-Orthodox are barred from taking communion. I will explain more about this sometime in the future when I learn more, but only baptism at the hands of a priest qualifies one to take part in sharing the body and blood of Jesus. We have known this since the beginning, and have not allowed it to bother us or prevent our efforts to belong. I would rather partake with them, and will explore any opportunities for this, but during the extended communion time Hannah and I simply watch the others move forward to receive.

Therefore, no sermon, known liturgy, and no communion equal little desire. We went anyway, of course, going to church has been an established habit since I can remember. It was again as it has always been, which is both good and bad.

Therein lies the point. It is as it has always been. This is a difficult aspect of Orthodoxy to get used to. As for the lack of a felt welcome, we are measuring this against the hyper-seeker-sensitive American evangelical church. If I say ‘hyper’ here many American readers will immediately nod their heads in agreement, thinking of that flashing lights megachurch that gets all the attention. No, I mean your church. Most churches give instruction to certain people to make certain they approach any noticeable newcomer. They must not be overly friendly, lest they be scared away, but they must feel welcomed, lest they complain afterwards no one talked to them. It is a tightrope walking game the American church has almost mastered.

Furthermore the very idea which informs this blog—a sense of belonging—is nearly established dogma in Western society, and as such in the church as well. We want to feel, to experience, to be loved, to be wanted, and we expect our churches to provide this for us. Of course, we need a top notch children’s program as well, so they can share in all of these ‘needs’. This is written with a touch of critique, but it also is both positive and Biblical. The church is a body, full of relationships.

Before moving on it would also be wise to mention the cynical flip side of this arrangement. People must be welcomed, of course, so that they may with us receive the benefit of salvation, if they do not know it, but then can also grow spiritually through sound teaching and service opportunities. This is true and real. It does not stop the critique, however, that we welcome them in pursuit of church growth, either for the crass but real idea of gaining donations to perpetuate existence, or for the slightly improved but still suspect notion that bigger is better. I know this world well; no one thinks this way, but these concerns are never far from the surface. The practice of religion is rarely far from the practice of capitalism. We fail to consider this mammon at our peril.

I am highlighting these features of American church to provide a stark contrast to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Surely there are negative pictures here as well, which I will share with you as I learn them. For now, however, consider the simple fact of continuity. The church here has existed for two thousand years. It has birthed Christianity in many other countries, started worldwide monastic movements, won an entire nation to the faith, become famed for spectacular miracles, experienced waves of bloody persecution, witnessed numerous theological controversies, given way to a dominant rival faith, lost its ancestral language, descended into dry and lifeless repetition of rituals, and experienced unprecedented spiritual revival. Throughout all this the mass has stayed—so as best I can say at this time—exactly the same.

The church is as it was, and presumably will be. Each and every church is the same. Though one priest may differ in style from another, there is no competition between bodies. Deacons, like priests, are appointed by a regional bishop, and may preside over mass in any church to which they come. Worshippers may go to one church one week and another the next. Mass is the same if it is full of people, or attended by only one or two. Outside the sermon and communion, the priest’s back is turned to the congregation almost the entire time. The presence of any one individual makes no difference at all.

In this description I am focusing on the mass; church in Egypt does appear to have a web of relationships and activity that we have not yet been privy to. Perhaps it would be better to say that Christians of Egypt have this network, which is centered on the church. I plan to write a post about this soon.

The mass, however, is timeless worship. As in the Bible, where the same words have informed Christians for generations, so does the liturgy inform Christian spirituality and definition. I have been looking for a sense of belonging, and somewhat been hoping for a give and take from the church. With all patience I have realized our acceptance may take a long while, as would our own ability to know how to belong. The setback of the last week has made me wonder about this expectation, indicating I have aimed incorrectly. The mass is not set up as a give and take with the church, it is set up only for God. The congregation gives itself in worship; it takes an immaterial blessing. God, presumably, will welcome all who prostrate before him; those who come on their own terms are left to themselves.

We do not know what these thoughts will do for our hope to find church soon. These four months have not been sufficient to decide where our family should worship. It remains a request in our personal prayers; to the extent you wish to join in these we are thankful. Church has been part of our family for a long time, and we desire it to be a foundation of our lives here as well. Where we choose to belong we will strive to give ourselves fully. However informed by American Christian culture we are in this respect, we hope it is still our prostration to God, of whose welcome we desire. May it be with Egyptians of all convictions that we gain a sense of belonging, which is the immaterial blessing we seek from God. We pray this is on his terms, and not our own.

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