Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Greetings in the risen Lord, as we continue to celebrate Easter. Last Sunday, April 19th, Egyptian Christians celebrated the resurrection of our Lord (one week later this year than you Christians in the West). I journeyed to a mid size city called Minya, about a four hour trip by train or bus from Cairo in upper Egypt. A divinity student named Emir was my guide.The two of us have been studying the Bible in English to improve his use of that language and he invited me to share Easter with his family.

When we arrived we were too late to attend the Good Friday service at this large church, the Second Evangelical Church Church of Minya, but as you can see the exterior was still abraze with light. Many people were still inside, participating in small group meetings and preparing for Easter Sunday. I was surprized to see such a display of light to the community, since for the most part the construction of Christian churches and their presentation to the community are carefully monitored and controlled by the Egyptian Muslim government. But Minya has almost the same number of Christians as Muslims and it seemed that a fairly tolerant attitude was being shown. The pastor of the smaller church where Emir and his family attend (we will talk about that soon) told me that when he first came to that suburb about ten years ago there was much hostility, but that the projects his people worked on in the community (repairing housing for the poor and project "20/20", to test for eye problems and provide glasses for all) helped to change old attitudes.

I took the picture below of the ceiling of the sanctuary of this church because it is the most prominent feature inside. Like most Evangelical churches from the 19th century American Presbyterian beginnings, the chancel area consists of a simple cross on the back wall and a podium from which the singing is led and the Word proclaimed. Far from the Coptic Orthodox churches with their icons and other images, central features in their worship life and theology, evangelicals place their emphasis on the preached word and its power to convert and to instruct. The lights here do convey a beauty and brillance which pays homage to the Lord of Light without changing the space from its central focus, the hearing of the Word. Quite an interesting contrast which gives Christians in Egypt a choice. This contrast would be even more striking to me as we were to attend sevices in the small, humble church of Emir and his family which is about two miles from the center of the city.

Now I need to add that his church is currently engaged in a building project which, having received all the necessary government approval, will cost about 2 million Egyptian pounds (there are about 5.5 EP to each American dollars), but it will not be as grand as this one. This is quite a sum for a congregation of about 50 families, most coming from modest economic backgrounds. Naturally their pastor wanted me to find sponsoring churches in the United States to assist with this. The development office at the seminary and in the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile is already at work on behalf of this and other projects for its churches throughout Egypt and also needs to provide salary help to many of the smaller congregations scattered throughout the land. Many times the graduates of our seminary are sent to places which have had no pastor for years. These seminary graduates usually marry after ordination and so have the added responsibility of beginning a family.

I was invited to preach, both on Saturday evening and on Easter Sunday, along with the pastor and lay members. Emir did a fine job on translating what I had to say. There were some young people in the congregation who said that because I had used short sentences to make it easier for Emir to translate, they were able to understand most of what I

I had said. I also learned on this trip that the Egyptian government had recently changed its policy and now encourages the primary schools to introduce English (and computer science) to children at a young age, well aware that this will aid them and the country in the world of the 21st century.

Pastor Samir Gayed is to my right, and Emir is to the far left in the photo, together with two other seminary students who were home for their Easter vacation. The men to my left are elders in the church who also preached and led the congregation in prayer. As you can see the chancel of the church (on this Easter Sunday) was not decorated, save for the cross on the wall. There ware no plans to decorate the sanctuary in their new building on the second floor other than this way. The first floor will be for meeting rooms and a pre-school, and the third floor will be the office of the pastor and his living quarters. He has served in this place for almost ten year (a good way anywhere to show you love the community as well as the people in the church community). I preached on the Letter of Jude, verses 20-21, to recognize that there are different kinds of building as we seek to become more and more resurrected in the image of our Lord Jesus Christ.

", dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life."

Grace and peace, Roger R.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Views of the world

Greetings as we move closer to Holy Week and the retelling of the story of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. My class in ancient Christianity is soon to deal with the radical change in the attitide of the government of the Roman Empire toward Christians, from their being a persecuted Jewish sect to becoming an imperial church, embraced and supported by the rulers. Many changes were taking place during these times, and I would like to highlite one in this blog.

To the right is a picture which has greeted me from my first day in Egypt in the office of Graduate Studies. It is a graffic reminder of a church movement in late antiquity where men and women fled from the distractions of this world to seek a closer communion with God. Through a stern discipline of renouncing all worldly pleasures, and even pursuing a life without a spouse and children, a person, either alone or sometimes in small groups, would live away from civilization. It was hoped that by this means, one's attention would be focused solely on things "spiritual". A book introduced by Helen Waddell, called "The Desert Fathers", records many stories of people who abandoned this world, while awaiting their journey to the next.

We have just finished examining martyrdom in the early church, the ultimate way of renouncing this world. You can review what I wrote in a previous blog spot about Felicity and Perpetua, two martyrs in North Africa. Historians also point to other signs in the period of late ancient history when there existed a "weariness" and a fatalism with regard to this life and this world. But it was not always the case.
In the last vain hope by the pagan Roman world to suppress and destroy Christianity, and to recover the glories of ancient Rome, the Emperor Diocletion instituted a great persecution of the believers beginning in 284 CE. He also supported the program of a fine scholar named Porphyry who advocated the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. This philosophy was even attractive in ways to some Christian scholars such as Origen and Augustine, though it had no place for Christ as the saviour of the world through his sacrifice on the cross. It did help Christians to talk about the way that the divine God communicated with the material world through the concept of the Logos (and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14).
Porphyry asserted something more. He was an heir of the noble art forms of ancient Greece and Rome. So he taught that we can know something of the divine nature and essence (its beauty and goodness) by emanations of the spiritual world in the physical world, i.e. the created world, (though these are only imperfect copies). Things of the earth can in some ways give us glimpses of what lies beyond, and the art which humans create also lifts the human spirit toward these noble concepts of beauty and truth.
The second picture in this blog is probably familiar to you. Michelanglo, the gifted artist of the Italian Renaissance (he lived most of the 16th century) was attracted to this Neo-Platonic philosophy of Porphyry, and there was even a Platonic Academy established by the de Medici, a rich merchant family in Florence. Michelangelo wished to glorfy God in his art, and believed that the celebration of and creation of beauty in art lifted us into the spiritual realm. Michelangelo was one of those who ushered in the era we now call modern, which sought to recapture the art and architecture of the ancient pagan world.
I thought you might be interested in these contrasting views of the world and how they are expressed in art. David here appears poised and confident as he looks to the threat of the giant Goliath, and is armed with only a sling and stones. Michelangelo wanted this also to symbolize his city Florence, as it fought for its survival and advancement in that troubled age. It represented a recovery (Renaissance means rebirth) of a celebration of and confidence in the human spirit and what it could accomplish through human efforts in this world.
May God's spirit move among us in this season to renew our spirits.
A blessed Holy Week and Easter to all.
Roger R.