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One Church, indivisible: Aimee's blog from Crete

Once every five years or so, a group of about 120 men and women, pastors, laypersons, academics, and church leaders get together to talk about the issues that still divide the churches. It's called the Faith and Order Plenary Commission, and its next meeting will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, Greece, 7-13 October 2009.oac

This year, I've been invited to go. 

And I'm writing a blog.


The Big Crete Meeting

  •  Centipede!

    Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

    So I’m sitting in the Athens airport, waiting for a flight to Munich and then Chicago, trying to catch up on this blog, and I look down and a three-inch centipede is crawling up my leg. (Yes, I jumped about a mile. Almost threw my laptop across the room.)

    I ask myself, did I bring this guy with me on the last flight from Crete? If so, he’s evaded detection through some pretty serious security. Should we be concerned about the lack of insect awareness in international air travel?

  •  I know it when I see it

    Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

    How would you know the church if you met it on the street?

    Our task for Monday was to look at a text called “The Nature and Mission of the Church” (NMC for short). It’s a 60+ page document that tries to describe what the church is, does and is supposed to do. It’s long and dense, and includes sentences like, “The word of God is made known to us through the Gospel primarily and normatively borne witness to by the apostles, making the communion of the faithful a community that lives in, and is responsible for, the succession of the apostolic truth expressed in faith and life throughout the ages.”

    It’s not the easiest text to read – especially if it’s not in your first language.

    But the question it tries to answer is important: what, exactly, is the church?

    For some Christians, the church exists wherever followers of Christ gather together. For some, the church is wherever the Lord’s Supper is shared. For some, the church is wherever tradition has been passed down from the first apostles. For some, the church is wherever the Scriptures are read and the gospel preached. For some, the church is wherever Christ’s healing ministry takes place.

    The NMC writers had a difficult task: trying to describe the church in a way that all of us can say, in one way or another, “yes, that’s the church I know.”

    For better or worse, the past two days showed that while we appreciated all the work that’s been done, the document is not quite ripe yet. It needs more development, more time, more editing, more balance. In general, the Protestant churches were most likely to feel like, “this still doesn’t quite reveal the church we know.” We’re getting closer to common vision, but we’re not there yet.

    So, my friends and colleagues, I want to know: how do you know the church when you see it?

  •  The wisdom of the olive tree

    Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009

    Last night we visited one of the oldest olive trees in the world. It might possibly be the oldest one, except no one really knows how old it is. Best guess is about 3,000 years. Branches from this tree have been made into the wreaths awarded to Olympic marathon winners.

    I don’t know much about how olive trees grow, but this particular tree has a very distinctive trunk.

    It’s hollow.

    After years of gripping the ground through weather and time, the tree's knotty outer trunk has twisted around itself. But as it has done so, a hollow center has developed in its heart. You can actually see into the trunk itself. And the strong Cretan wind blows right through it.

    The ancient tree remains rooted by being open to the wind.

    (Here's a photo.)

  •  Dinner and dancing

    Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009

    In the past 36 hours, I’ve had Greek yogurt in manifest forms, including sweetened with honey, dusted with toasted and caramelized nuts, mixed with chopped cucumber and garlic, and stirred into creamy risotto. I’ve also been served at least nine courses of meat.

    We’ve been experiencing Cretan culture.

    Sunday we were treated to a vast lunch banquet: stuffed grape leaves, spinach pie, sausages and meatballs, cabbage salad, sesame-studded bread, yogurt with garlic; tomatoes, cucumbers and feta drizzled with herbs and olive oil; risotto and chicken followed by lamb and potatoes; fresh grapes, apples and pears; and wine. Always wine. Then there were traditional Cretan music and dances, performed by youth who were about 12 years old.

    Sunday at dinner, we were treated to another Cretan banquet: stuffed grape leaves, spinach pie, sausages and meatballs, cabbage salad, sesame-studded bread, yogurt with garlic; tomatoes, cucumbers and feta drizzled with herbs and olive oil; risotto and chicken followed by lamb and potatoes; fresh grapes, apples and pears; and wine. Always wine. Then there were traditional Cretan music and dances, performed by youth who were about 16 years old.

    Last night, we were treated to...another Cretan banquet: stuffed grape leaves, spinach pie, sausages and meatballs, crispy bread with tomatoes and goat cheese, cabbage salad, sesame-studded bread, yogurt with garlic; tomatoes, cucumbers and feta drizzled with herbs and olive oil; risotto and chicken followed by lamb and potatoes; fresh grapes, apples and pears; and wine. Always wine. Then there were traditional Cretan music and dances, performed by youth who were about 20 years old.

    Turns out we’ve been served the food of a traditional Cretan wedding. I expect tonight, our last night in Crete, the meal will reappear.

    And I'm guessing the dancers will be in their mid-20s.

  •  This could be you

    Monday, Oct. 12, 2009

    Every inch of the walls and ceiling of the relatively modern church where we worshiped Sunday were painted with brightly-colored pictures of saints and the life of the church. Seriously, every inch. I surreptitiously took pictures by holding the camera in my lap and just aiming it randomly around the room.

    On one wall, though, the paintings were still in process. There were outlines and shapes of saints yet to be completed, but their faces were blank.

    Maybe this could be a way to motivate a lazy congregation: open spaces on the wall of saints, with signs that say, “This could be you.”

  •  Divine liturgy and ordinary bread

    Monday, Oct. 12, 2009

    Sunday morning’s worship was a Divine Liturgy with an Orthodox congregation in the nearby town of Kasteli. The service was in Greek, of course (though we had written translation, and the Scripture and sermon were offered in English for our benefit), and two hours long.

    During worship I strained my ears for any words familiar from my seminary New Testament Greek class (koinonia/fellowship/community, Theos/God, Sophia/wisdom, doxa/glory, hagios/holy, dynamis/power), and was pleased to find I understood enough to know where we were on the paper (eureka!). For those of you who’ve attended Orthodox services before, you’ll be happy to know that there were chairs, so we didn’t all have to stand for the whole thing (standing is typical of many Orthodox services).

    The difficult moment came at the Eucharist – no surprises there. Here we all were, gathered for the unity of the church, and divided at the table. Though we had worshiped and prayed together, most of us are not in communion with the Orthodox church and cannot participate in Christ’s meal together. The Metropolitan leading the service spoke openly and plainly about our separation. “Now we have come to a moment of pain,” he said. “I speak the truth: I have great pain that we cannot share the meal, but this is why we must keep going.”

    Then most of us remained seated while some came forward to receive the sacrament.

    After the service, we shared blessed – but not consecrated – bread. A symbol of our partial unity, and the distance left to travel.

  •  Watchful eyes

    Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

    On Saturday night, the African delegates led worship. The sermon, offered by a professor and pastor from Cameroon, was chockful of brilliant one-liners, too many to remember. But the one that will stick with me for some time was about suffering and oppression:

    "God's people are dying under the watchful eyes of the church."

  •  Power: the uninvited guest

    Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

    So we’re sitting in the moral discernment conversation, and we’re talking about stem cells. And this pastor from Malawi made a comment that stunned me, as so often happens when I sit at table with people from the other side of the world:

    “Sometimes moral decisions are imposed on us, and then we have to deal with them even if they are not ours.”

    The context of his comment was that sometimes moral choices are made in more powerful parts of the world and then handed down in some kind of policy form to other countries – like many in Africa – which then are forced to wrestle with their aftermath.

    The pastor gave the example of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being imposed upon African countries by the United States and Europe. On moral grounds, Zambia banned GMOs from entering the country. The reaction from wealthy countries – who were in the business of providing the genetically modified seeds and related pesticides – was to question Zambia’s morality of not feeding its own people.

    I have heard before that the moral debates happening in powerful countries get imposed upon less powerful ones. That wasn’t news to me. And of course to some extent each of us, having come to a particular moral position, believes everyone else should follow it, too.

    What struck me in this conversation, though, was the role of power, an uninvited (but ever-present) guest.

    In our unbalanced, unfair world, we do not all have equal power even to define the moral questions before us. Some of us have more power to shape our destinies – and even the questions we ask about our lives – than others do.

    When was the last time a moral question being debated in Malawi dictated the legislation taken up by our Congress?

  •  How we decide what's okay...and what's not

    Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

    One of the three major topics at this meeting is “moral discernment” – which behaviors and actions the church thinks are okay, and which aren’t.

    But the question for us wasn’t so much about what it is okay but how we decide what is okay. We were looking at the process of how we come to our particular beliefs about moral and ethical behavior.

    The reason for looking at process rather than end product is simple: the churches around the world – and even our own countries – often come to different opinions about what behavior is okay and what isn’t.

    And in the body of Christ, it’s not good enough to simply assume that those who disagree with us are not faithful, or not reading their scriptures correctly, or are just plain wrong. All of us are seeking God’s leading, all of us are trying to be faithful disciples. So maybe there is something to learn from each other about how we come to our points of view. If nothing else, even if don’t agree about moral positions maybe we can at least look at each other and say, “I understand how, as a faithful Christian, you got to your position.” That’d be a big step forward, and might at least enable us to stay at the table even when we disagree.

    So we each had a case study to read (mine, as previously noted, was on controversy around stem cells), and in small groups we tried to figure out how the people in the stories had come to their convictions on each side of the issue. The trick was that we were not supposed to take sides on the issue itself – or even discuss the merits of one argument or another.

    That proved difficult. My group, like all of them, was diverse: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian; from Germany, Argentina, Myanmar, Malawi, Greece, Zambia, Sweden, and the United States. The morning session on Saturday left me feeling wary – our group had a hard time getting away from “but the Bible says…” or “my church teaches…” There was a lot of confusion about what, exactly, our task was.

    But by afternoon, we found our stride. We moved from what we liked and didn’t like about the case study into new ways of thinking:

    • what we appreciated about how others came to their conclusions
    • where we saw faithfulness in the other that we hadn’t before
    • perspectives on discernment that we hadn’t considered
    • the challenges of dealing with issues not directly addressed by Scripture
    • a fuller understanding of the ways in which we come to our own perspectives

    It’s one thing to say, “We believe Scripture is the ultimate authority.” It’s another thing to admit to each other that we preference particular verses over others, or that our culture impacts our interpretation, or that our emotions, our personal experiences, or our sense of power (or lack thereof) figure heavily in our moral discernment.

    These things are not necessarily bad. They are at the very least human realities, and we’re all subject to being human no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.

    Being able to admit that to each other – especially as we discern moral “absolutes” – may be the key to sticking together in times of disagreement.

  •  Hangry

    Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009

    My siblings and I have this joke about getting "hangry" - it's when you get so hungry you get angry.

    The meals at this meeting have been at 7:00 - 8:00 a.m., 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. and 8:30 - 9:30 p.m. We have tea and coffee breaks at 10:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., which include little cookies.

    I know that we do not live on bread alone, but we do occasionally need a good dose of protein to make it through the day. I brought a stash of granola bars, but those are only getting me so far. All of us have short-shrifted our sleep, and many are also jet-lagged.

    And so I wonder: has anyone considered whether the divisions of the church happened among people who really needed a snack? Or a nap?

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