Equal Voices

Nov 08 2013

Last night I went to a dinner for Methodist youth (yes, I’m still a ‘youth’!)  The person leading it asked us for our opinions on the assembly, particularly from a Methodist and a youth context.  I was kind of surprised at a lot of the responses.  Most of the concerns with the way the assembly had been set up had to do with the lack of voice held by the youth (and also women and laity).  There were also some stories of ways in which youth had been marginalized or even treated poorly throughout – though more often from member churches as opposed to from the assembly as a whole.

One such story came from a Korean young adult who had attended a banquet held by the Methodists for all of their member churches.  She told us how she had been sitting at a table which was full of Korean young adults when it became clear that there was a lack of seating for everyone.  She and her friends were singled out by someone in charge of the banquet and were asked to leave so that there would be more seating for the others present.  She told us that they were all very hurt and upset to have been treated that way, tearing up herself as she told the story.

I don’t think that this is a common sort of story, but it was a shocking event that happened to someone only a few days ago – a definite negative singling out simply for being a young person.  I feel like this has happened in most contexts at some point or another, but this sort of ageism was made all the more significant in the context of the WCC assembly which has been actively working to promote the role and voice of young people during this event and beyond.  Several of the youth at our dinner felt the need to speak out against all of the ways in which the WCC has failed to meet their goals for youth participation.  They called for the need of the WCC to hold its member churches accountable to promoting an equality across ages.

Of course, things aren’t that simple, and the inequality is not a direct fault of either the WCC or the individual churches.  As one person said, many churches are only able to send one delegate to the assembly so of course they’ll choose to send one of the most senior members to represent the church.  That being said, it would seem to me like it is then all the more important for those churches which can afford to send multiple delegates to be extra intentional about choosing a wide diversity of people, be it by age or otherwise.

Foot Washing

This morning Carmen and I were talking about all of the various titles and name-dropping that we’ve noticed at the assembly… I guess that’s what happens when you put a lot of very important church leaders into one space.  I haven’t noticed anything particularly hierarchical or unequal from my personal context, but given the story I heard last night I now wonder what some of the other isolated stories might be…

It was extremely fitting after all of this that our final Morning Prayer was based on the text of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.  The assembly ended with a service that reminded all of us that we are here to serve each other and the world.  There was a short time which included a symbolic foot washing service – four clergy persons washed the feet of four of the stewards – all youth.  I thought that that was an extremely significant statement about equality and the value of youth in the WCC, especially considering the discussions of the previous day.

All in all, I do think that it is important that all of the member churches as well as the WCC as a whole make a strong effort to include a wide diversity of voices.  Being inclusive of all people is just one way of living out the spirit of humility that we are called to have in Jesus Christ.

– K.

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The Realest Real

Nov 07 2013

Today’s theme at the Assembly is Peace.

My bible study was asked to break out into groups and imagine what the peace of God looks like. Not the peace of the dominant powers, not the “peace” wrought by violence, not the peace of the world, but the holistic peace of God.

We grappled with this question. We could not imagine peace. Although it’s hard to admit, we have been shaped in some way or to some degree by dominant powers to envision peace in a certain way. We admitted that peace for some may not look like peace for another. We understood that ideas about peace are contextual. We acknowledged in the end that we cannot fully imagine peace, having never known it fully. Our minds cannot comprehend it. We settled by writing on our paper something we could all agree on: Peace is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

The following is a reflection that focuses less on ecumenism, but is more of a personal response to ecumenism. I cannot stress enough how much more fruitful and rich my interpretation of scripture, theology, and current world issues has been due to the presence of diverse others. I hope to remember long after I leave this place how impoverished my imagination is if I am imagining peace alone. Let us all do it together.

Peace be with you all – C

A Story

I was reminded of a time a few weeks ago when I spoiled myself by reading Chronicles of Narnia instead of a textbook. I opted for one of my favorites, The Horse and His Boy.

For those of you unlucky souls who have no idea what these books are – do yourself a favor and read them! This book follows the story of Bree, a talking horse from Narnia, and his boy, Shasta, on their journey northward to Narnia. The savior and lord of Narnia is known as a great lion whose name is Aslan.

On a race to beat the Calormenes to Archenland in order to warn them of an impending attack, Shasta finds himself alone. But not quite alone. He first senses a presence around him, and then discovers that someone quite large is walking right beside him.

“Are you – Are you a giant?” asked Shasta?

“You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice, “but I am not like the creatures you call giants.”

The Large Voice is Aslan, come to encounter Shasta. Aslan’s response here is an insightful comment about the nature of God by the author, C.S. Lewis. Aslan may be called a giant, because he is very much like a giant. But then again, our perception of giants and what they are is incomplete. It is lacking. God is like a giant, but God is not like the creatures we call a giant.

The story continues. Bree, who considers himself a very knowledgeable horse on matters of Narnia and Aslan, is “enlightening” the others regarding the nature of Aslan:

 “No doubt,” continued Bree, “when they speak of him as a lion they only mean he’s as strong as a lion, or to our enemies of course as fierce as a lion. Or something of that kind. Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful . If he was a lion he’d have to be a beast just like the rest of us. Why (and here’s where Bree began to laugh) if he was a lion, he’d have four paws and a tail and whiskers!…aie,ooj,hoo-hoo-help!”

 For just as he said the word ‘whiskers’, one of Aslan’s had actually tickled his ear.

But this is not the first time in the story that Bree and his companions have met Aslan. He has appeared to them several times and one time even as a cat, but they never recognize him for who he truly is. I feel that I am much like Bree. I do not quite know who God is, or what God is like. I do not quite know what God’s peace is, or what God’s peace looks like. I know in part, I know through glimpses, I know through stories collected about the God who became a “real lion” as disrespectable as that seems.

Just like Bree who did not know who Aslan was, we often cannot imagine what peace really is, and even when it tickles us on our ears, we may not recognize it as peace. For Christians, then, it is impossible to know peace unless we have some kind of encounter with God. The danger is refusing to see God and God’s peace for what it really is when we are faced with it, but rather seeing something else.

 

One More Story

Lewis gives us another great image in our discussions and wrestling with peace.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis tells the tale of man who is in purgatory or hell, but is able to take a bus ride on an excursion. The “excursion” turns out to be the foothills of heaven. The people who travel from purgatory are but ghosts; they are greeted, however, by “real” people who invite and encourage them to make the trip to heaven. The ghosts discover that in order to get there they must walk, but they soon find that the grass they must walk on hurts! The grass is too real for them, and thus it hurts their ghostly feet. Some turn away, hopping on the bus to return to purgatory. Others find that if they endure the “realness” of the grass on their journey toward heaven, they become more “real.”

Peace from God is like this. Peace from God is the realest real. Peace from God is so foreign to us, so real, that we may miss it. We may decide that it seems impossible to journey on this hard road. We may think that it isn’t real at all, and that we ourselves are the realest real, when in fact we are but ghosts. Yet there are those of us who continue walking on this hard road and discover that it changes us. We discover that we are made more real and god-like. We discover true peace together.

Lord, make room in us to know you, the realest real, and wisdom to know the difference between false peace and your peace. And then give us the courage to walk the hard road of true peace together. Amen.

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Unity

Nov 06 2013

As Carmen mentioned, the theme which shaped the assembly yesterday was ‘Unity,’ something that has guided my thoughts in particular throughout our entire time here.  One of my questions in class when we were preparing to come the the assembly was whether or not there would be a celebration of Eucharist – the Lord’s Supper – Communion… and the answer was a resounding ‘no.‘  Because of the wide variety of theological positions held by the various members of the WCC, it has never been possible to hold an assembly-wide Communion service.

I’ve been wondering, as the days have gone on, if that point would ever be mentioned, or acknowledged.  It seemed almost strange that we would constantly come together for prayer and worship every morning and sit and talk with each other throughout the day and yet never mention that one aspect that was missing.

Yesterday, our plenary session on Unity did mention it – the moderator said in her opening address, “it is a scandal and a wound that we do not eat around the one table.”  I think everyone, from both sides of the theological spectrum, would agree with that.  Regardless of why any particular person thinks they cannot take Communion with another, that reason is a cause for distress.  And any Christian organization that promotes unity amongst its members has clearly not fulfilled its purpose if it is not able to offer that ultimate sign of unity with Christ and with each other.

The Bible Study text for yesterday was the passage on the first Pentecost in Acts.  Someone in my group asked whether this was an appropriate passage for ‘unity,‘ if perhaps it was better suited to a discussion of ‘diversity’?  But I began to think, can we really have unity without diversity?  After all, what is the point of unity if there is no separation between the factions being unified?  In all of our talk of unity, we do not mean uniformity.  It is essential to have a rich diversity which enables everyone to share their own perspectives and gifts.  And what better way to celebrate that unity in diversity than through celebrating Communion together?  As my denomination’s Communion liturgy says, ‘though we are many, we are one.‘

Each day the assembly is shaped around a theme, which guides our Bible Studies and the daily Plenary.  Today the theme was ‘Justice’ and the guiding image was ‘food.‘  We spoke a great deal about our need to unite as a Church to stand in solidarity with those who are pushed to the margins of society and to call for equal rights for all.  We talked about the basic needs of every person, the basic need of ‘food,‘ of sustenance.  But this image of ‘food’ was made more significant over our lunch break.

One denomination spread the word that they would be holding a small service of Communion, open to anyone who wished to join – a tradition they have held for the past several assemblies.  Carmen and I decided to go to this service, which was small – to be honest, I had expected more people to come.  The woman giving the homily gave a reason for holding the service.  She said that the Eucharist is so important that many people feel it must not be celebrated together until we truly are one.  But others, herself included, felt that the Eucharist is so important that it must not wait – that we must eat it together in a spirit of hope that one day we will all be one.  We respect each other’s views, but continue to pray that one day we will all be able to come together around the one table.

I leave you today with these thoughts and with a prayer from the worship book produced by the WCC for this assembly.

– K.

 

What we long for

 

God of life,

what we long for is a united table.
We long for a table where our
differences
do not separate us,
but enrich and challenge us.

God of life, lead us
to a table of reconciliation,
where we can sit together
with our differences and our
distinctiveness
united in your caring love.

God of life, lead us to justice,
of the table of abundance
where there is room for all,
where there is generous sharing
so that no one lacks signs of your grace.

God of life, lead us to justice and peace
of people gathered around
an open table of solidarity –
a table at which you will wish to sit –
so that together we can celebrate our faith.

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How good and pleasant it is when God’s people dwell together in peace.

Nov 05 2013

Today’s theme at the Assembly is “Unity.” The guiding text was from Acts, the story of Pentecost. I studied this text with a group of people in bible study, and then went to a plenary on unity led by several church leaders. We all discussed unity, the need for it, the challenges it presents to us, and the shame of the church’s disunity today. It is no secret that we are deeply divided in several ways.

 

After the plenary, Kayla and I wandered across the street from the convention center where the Assembly is gathering to find some lunch. Little did we know that we were wandering straight into the group of protesters.

 

Yes, the WCC has protesters. A Korean church has faithfully gathered each day to protest the presence of the Assembly, handing out anti-WCC flyers, yelling at Assembly participants, and trying to teach us the “truth.” Granted, some of them have been very nice, smiling and saying, “God bless” or crying out the occasional “Jesus!” or “Hallelujah!” Perhaps those are the only English words they know? One woman called the WCC a liar; another accused a man of being a shaman and not being a real Christian. Yet another called out for us to repent and acknowledge that Jesus is the only Christ.

 

I talked to one woman who was carrying a sign that said, “WCC is Satan Devil.” I suppose this Satan Devil must be the Adversary 2.0 or some especially evil kind of being. She told me that I was being tricked by the WCC, and that we must oppose the WCC because they accept homosexuals and Muslims. Oh, and that I was going to hell.

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A WCC Protester who kindly allowed me to take her picture.

Apparently the fact that the WCC engages in interreligious dialogue and efforts toward peace and justice has been a point of contention for this church. They cannot understand how the church can be faithful to who the church believes Jesus to be[1] while at the same time working with people of other faiths.

 

Later that afternoon I went to an ecumenical conversation about working together toward peace and religious freedom with peoples of other religions. One man posed one of his worries as a question: How can we evangelize to people of other religions during these times of dialogue? Several people adamantly opposed his enquiry, claiming that this was not the time for evangelization. Overcoming my breath-taking fear of public speaking, I gathered the courage to respond to his question. I believe that our co-dialoguing, co-working, co-living, co-eating, or whatever other kind of co-acting that we may do with the religious other is a form of evangelization. It may not be proselytization, but is indeed evangelization, the proclamation of good news. For what better way have we than to show with our very bodies  – just as God in Jesus has done – that God is reconciling the world to God’s self? When we gather together with the religious other to eat, drink, talk, work, and live, we are proclaiming the good news. We are living in unity. We are witnessing to the good news and affirming that our reconciliation with one another is only possible because of God’s ministry of reconciliation to the world.

 

It is disheartening that the church is so divided, even though Jesus specifically prayed for our unity. It’s disheartening that the members of the church universal came from across the world to try and live into unity, yet we still have other members of the church telling us we aren’t Christians, and to “go home.” It’s disheartening that some of us can learn to live at peace with those outside of our own faith tradition, and are at odds with others in our own church.

 

Yet I have hope, and I hold onto it. For even though there are times when we do not live in peace, even though there are times that we do not work together, eat together, or be in relationship together, even though our discord and disunity is apparent and inescapable, even though we will most likely never fully agree on things until the Resurrection, even though we cannot eat from the same table and drink from the same cup, I hold onto hope and believe with a faith that goes beyond intellectual assent that God holds the church together in unity in God’s very self.

 

And not only the church, but also those religious others who do not ascribe to our faith. In a way that is deeper than we can understand, in a way that we cannot express in word, thought, or deed, our brokenness is brought together and held together by none other than God, by God’s very self. And we are given ways to be interruptions to discord and brokenness, be it sharing from the same Communion table or working with the religious other.

 

Oh, the depths and the riches and the wisdom of God. For from God, and through God, and to God are all things, even this broken church. To God be the glory. Amen.

 

-C


[1] It should be noted that our (the church’s) beliefs about the person and work of Jesus are neither static nor singular.

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Hospitality

Nov 04 2013

Methodist Church in Busan         I was talking with a few others in my group yesterday about the amazing hospitality that the churches here have shown to all of us.  When registering for the assembly, each person was given the opportunity to sign up to visit a local church of the denomination of their choice for Sunday worship.  Being a good Methodist, I joined a group going to a Korean Methodist Church about a half hour’s drive from the main downtown area of Busan.  Two church members came to the conference hall to meet us and drive us back to their church for worship.  When we arrived, we were greeted by the pastor and several elders of the church, who escorted us to the front and center pews to  enjoy the service.

The service itself was all in Korean, but we were each given a folder containing a translation of the bulletin as well as the scripture readings and hymns – and I was particularly happy that the first hymn we sang was ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing’ – how appropriate!  One of our guides acted as our translator and made sure that we were able to follow along with the service, occasionally leaning over and whispering what was going on when it wasn’t otherwise clear.  Afterwards, we were treated to a traditional Korean meal in the church’s restaurant (yes, they had their own restaurant) followed by fruit and coffee.

After the meal, our guides suggested that we might spend the afternoon touring some of the local tourist destinations.  And then they proceeded to drive us to a historic beach, then to a nearby island, where we were treated (by the church) to a ferry tour of the coastal cliffs.  Our guides were with us all the time to translate and toanswer any questions we might have.  Our outing ended with a trip to a local coffee shop (the Koreans love coffee – seriously, they do) before being taken back to the conference center.

All in all, it was a really fun day.  And it was something I would perhaps expect from friends or family or even a tour guide, but from a church?  As those in my group were discussing, would any of our churches put the same effort into hosting random foreigners?  This wasn’t a large church, not by Korean ‘mega-church’ standards in any case, but it was one of the most welcoming I’ve ever been to.  One of the other women (from a European country) told us about a time when the church she was pastoring hosted visitors…. and she had an extremely difficult time finding anyone to volunteer to even meet the group!

The story made me think about what our hospitality looks like.  One thing about traveling far and wide is that it makes you realize just how valuable hospitality is – because you’re often forced to rely upon it.  And the more you begin to rely upon others, the more you yourself feel inclined to help those in similar situations.  I wonder if in our Western mindset we’ve lost something by having a culture of self-sufficiency?  Maybe we need towork on accepting the hospitality of others so we can better understand our own need to be hospitable.  The Korean churches have been extremely welcoming and accommodating to all of us here at the assembly.  I only hope that I will have the chance to pay the favor forward at some point in the future.

– K.

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Why we need the WCC (and ecumenism) pt. 2

Nov 03 2013

I was traveling throughout Seoul over the weekend, and was thus unable to post something yesterday. Please consider this post as Sunday’s post, and look for Kayla’s Monday post later today!

___________________________________________________________

Each day at the Assembly has a theme and each theme is accompanied by a symbol. Our theme for today is ‘Mission’ and its symbol is ‘Water.’

 

Bible study is quickly becoming my favorite time at the Assembly. It provides the space to break out into small groups, talk to one another, and interpret the Bible together.

 

Today’s scripture lesson came from Acts in which Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch, helping him read and interpret scripture. Afterward, the man from Ethiopia asks to be baptized.

 

Reflecting on this passage, my group (a diverse set of people from Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa), discussed the symbol of water and its meaning for each person’s culture.

 

–       A woman from Bulgaria remarked that water is so much a part of life that it cannot help but be reflected in her Orthodox church’s life and liturgy.

–       Another woman, a Korean missionary to Kenya, shared information about the Maasai people. Water is such a central part of their life that the word for “blessing” is the same as the word for “rain.”

–       A woman from the DCR noted that the first thing you do when someone enters your house, especially during the dry season, is to offer him or her a cup of water.

–       A theological student from the States commented on the fact that while water is symbolic for mission, we are also comprised of water. We cannot survive without it. Water, or mission, is our very source of life and being.

–       Another woman from Indonesia offered an entirely different perspective. She recounted the effects of the tsunami of 2004: water that crossed over the ocean, destroying homes, lands, and lives; waters still gathering in places they should not be; rivers run dry.

 

Drawing from these reflections, I ask myself and the church these questions:

 

–       Does our life reflect that it finds its existence in the gracious and loving missio Dei, the mission of God?

–       Do we offer water to people? Do we give of that which we have to offer?

–       Do people feel thirsty after leaving our presence? Have we been salty water, bitter water, undrinkable water? Or have we been sweet water?

–       Do we live in such a way that when people hear one word, rain, they cannot help but think of the other, blessing?

 

The reflection by the Indonesian woman is the most intriguing to me, for it is both potentially life-giving, but may also be destructive.

 

It holds a warning for the church. When people come to us expecting to find water, do they instead find rivers run dry? Dry wells? Empty wine skins? Are we easily found, or must people search us out?

 

But then again, perhaps we may go where we are not expected. This image may instead be an encouragement and reminder to go outside of the expected boundaries, to cross over to places unexpected. Do we find life outside of our normal expectations of what life is?

 

Yet there is still a deeper warning in this image, especially for conversations regarding the church and its mission. Our mission may yet be a flood that destroys homes, lands, lives, cultures. It may make life inhospitable or impossible for indigenous life. Considering how the church’s mission has so often been tied up in colonialism and neocolonialism, we must ask ourselves if we go where we are not wanted, or perhaps not meant to be. Do we think that we know better than others, thus resulting not in life-giving but in life-taking. Is our mission forceful like a flood, or does it come out of us like deep-flowing streams of water that nurture?

 

I share these reflections to make one point – I doubt I would have had such a fruitful reading of this passage had it not been for the presence and interpretation of people who were different from me. The people in my group were like Philip to me, helping me understand scripture.

 

Why do we need the WCC and ecumenism? Alone, or if only with groups of people who are just like myself, I cannot and will not interpret scripture well.

 

With this realization comes the elevation of the other, for if our capacity to interpret scripture well is bound up in in this co-reading, then we will see the presence and flourishing of the other as vital. We will regard our interpretation as incomplete without his input. We will view the other as a person capable of teaching us, for she too is God’s child.

 

Considering this, how might we promote ecumenism in our churches? How might we give it a place of primary importance?

– C

 

 

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A Land of Outsiders

Nov 02 2013

An ancient dwelling

The weekend has brought a new sort of schedule to the WCC Assembly.  Everyone attending was invited before the program started to register for any one of a number of ‘pilgrimages’ in various locations in Korea, each having a certain theme.  The pilgrimage which I signed up for was on the topic of ‘Multicultural Busan,’ and involved a trip to Gimhae, a town about an hour’s drive away from the main city of Busan.  After a long drive (the traffic in Korea is intense!) we made it to Gimhae and were given a tour of some of the city’s archaeological sites.  We learned about the varied history of the area – that Gimhae was settled by people from a variety of lands, mostly China and India, and that they even had a king and queen from outside of Korea.  There were several locations which displayed what some of the area’s earliest settlements might have looked like, and after seeing those we went to a park which held the tomb of one of the earliest kings.

A park in Gimhae

I was amazed all throughout our tour by just how much the scenery reminded me of the Carolinas – we have the same trees, the same flowers, the same shrubbery, the same grass.  If I had been dropped in the middle of that park (minus the tomb and the traditional Korean wedding taking place there) without any other knowledge, I would have assumed I was still in Durham, NC.  The same can really be said about a lot of the scenery in the towns – we’ve been touring some of the most ‘Korean’ of areas, but the main downtown areas look just like ours do – except for the language on the signs.

Our afternoon was spent visiting a multicultural center run by a Christian minister which helps non-Korean women integrate into the community.  These women are basically ‘mail-order brides,’ and come from many other Asian countries to live with their Korean husbands (who they may have only known for a few weeks).  These women often find it difficult to transition to the culture and the language, and there may be problems in their homes as well.  This center helps them with counseling and language/cultural learning, and also provides a safe space for them to get to know others in the same situation and to form communities around food and fellowship.

While the center in Gimhae seems to be doing an excellent job, I began thinking that it was really strange to be learning about this sort of ministry in Korea.  Maybe it’s only because I spent the morning amazed at how similar the landscape looked and felt to the Carolinas, but I found myself constantly wondering about the ways in which this one ministry would apply to the needs in my own home community.  The Carolinas are full of people who have come from other lands, cultures, and languages.  People who could use a lot of help in learning how to integrate, regardless of their background.

Korea is certainly a land that is very far removed from the US, but it’s also a land that is very familiar in many ways.  The women sitting in the traditional farmers’ market could have been any of the women sitting in our markets, the children playing in the park could have been any of our children playing in our parks, these women standing on the side of the road could have been my mother and sisters.  This is a land where I don’t understand the language and the culture is strange, but it is still a land full of people living their daily lives, just like in my own land.

I really enjoy traveling.  I really enjoy immersing myself in a culture that’s completely alien – learning about the ways in which different people live.  But this experience really challenged me to see the differences that are present within my own land.  America is the melting pot – it’s known for its diversity and mix of all kinds of people.  I wonder why we often feel the need to go experience ‘mission’ in lands far removed from our own.  I wonder if maybe the hardships of those people so very ‘alien’ to us is sometimes easier to accept – or lament – than the hardships of people in our own communities.

We heard several times on our ‘pilgrimage’ to Gimhae that Korean culture is known for ostracizing anyone who is ‘other’ – those who are not native Korean, who don’t look or speak a certain way, simply don’t fit in with the rest of society.  I wonder what someone coming in from the outside would say about any of our own communities.  And I wonder why I had to travel as far away as Korea to learn a lesson about welcoming those who are different.

 

– K.

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Who is my brother (and sister)?

Nov 01 2013

Yesterday was a great day at the Assembly.

Again, the day started off with morning prayer. Like Kayla mentioned yesterday, we prayed, sang, and read scripture in several different languages. I was completely lost except for when we sang in Spanish (and when I got to pray the Lord’s Prayer in English on my own), but it was beautiful. Several times at the Assembly, and especially during Worship, I have felt overwhelmed by this beautiful community. I am moved to tears when I see faithfully lived communities from all across the world. I love being reminded that God is bigger than my tradition, than my ways of being and doing, than what I imagine religion and relationships to be. Each group serves as a reminder of God’s grace in its own unique time and space. In this way, each group has been my teacher, even those groups with whom I disagree in certain areas.

Yet, there is still more room for overflowing grace and love within our Christian community.

I am participating in an Ecumenical Workshop that focuses on interreligious dialogue, a topic that I believe to be bound up in God’s reconciliation. One of the speakers of the panel was a Muslim man from England. He opened by speaking peace upon us, telling us how honored he was to have been invited, and that he had learned so much from us. But twice in the past two days his religion had been attacked. I knew exactly what he was talking about. The first time was when a man continued to talk about “Islamists” and their attacks on Christians in the Middle East. The second was when an orthodox priest spoke about Orthodox Egyptian Christians who are being oppressed by Muslim “brothers.” Yes, on his powerpoint, the priest had put “brothers” in quotations. What he was trying to achieve with that I’m not sure, but it does seem that he was throwing their status as our brothers into question. I had been appalled at both instances, but what was I to do? Stand up in the middle of the Assembly and say something? Walk out? I wanted to do both, but refrained.

As for our Muslim guest, he said it took every ounce of strength in his body to remain seated and not leave. “Imagine,” he said, “what those words would have done to someone else. I am an educated man and a moderate Muslim, and I am offended. But what if you had spoken those words to an extremely conservative Muslim? What might you have done with your words?”

He urged us to be overflowing with grace in our interreligious dialogue. He certainly was in his time with us.

He closed by saying something akin to this: “There is a thin line between us. It’s a thin line, but it’s a mile deep. You believe Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’an tells me he did not. You believe he is the son of God. I do not. But that is no reason that we cannot go to lunch together.”

 

_______________________________________________________

I am so thankful for this man and his witness during an ecumenical gathering, for he is a strong reminder of our tendency to exclude. I fear that in our attempts to be united with one another as a church, we may tend toward exclusion. I fear that we may see the only possible way to unite with one another is to unite through our dislikes, our disbeliefs, and our ignorance of the Other. In short, we may join together solely because of our title as Christians, and exclude those who are not. Is it true unity if our unity is constructed on who is our “enemy?” Is it true unity if we can only find similarities in what we disbelieve, and whom we find to be our common enemy? And a deeper question – how have we come to make other human beings our common enemy, rather than principalities, powers, and dehumanizing systems and structures?

 

-C

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A River from Eden

Oct 31 2013

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

- Genesis 2:4b-17

 

The morning started bright and early, wolfing down breakfast and rushing to the conference center to make it just in time for Morning Prayer.  We walked into the darkened assembly hall to the sounds of singing in Korean accented English, before listening to the Bible reading (from Genesis 2:4b-17) in Korean, followed by a song in French, prayers in German, and hymns in Spanish and siSwazi.  Aside from the one song in English, the entire service was incomprehensible. That was at first intimidating, and slightly annoying, but then refreshing and inspiring.  As I stood there, trying to decipher the meaning of the various languages, I began to think that maybe not knowing what was being said or sung was a good thing.  A lesson of sorts.  I began to wonder if maybe, instead of bothering over what the exact prayers were, or how the hymns connected themselves to the Bible readings, maybe it was better to be forced to just let it be.  To be forced to simply trust in the prayers and worship of others.  To let go of the need to have a liturgically correct service, or a poetically crafted prayer, and instead allow others to pray for me.  To let myself be lost in their prayers, joining my individual worship with the worship of this truly global community.

Morning Prayer was followed by a time for group Bible Study – which will be a daily event, with each lesson based on the theme of the assembly: God of life, lead us to justice and peace.  This was the part of the assembly that I’ve been most looking forward to – a chance to meet and talk with people from around the world. Today we were discussing the same passage from Genesis, which is a part of the creation story.  In our groups, we were each asked to talk about the part of the passage which most spoke to us in our own contexts.   We spoke of God breathing life into man, of humankind’s relationship with God and with the earth, of our relationship with animals and the natural world.

One of our group, a pastor from Japan, spoke of how this passage made him think of the distraction caused by the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.  About how it polluted the ocean and the land, making the very air unsafe to breathe.  He spoke of how the government has grown tired of acknowledging the problems, how the people have grown tired of bothering with the safety measures and have stopped wearing the gas masks which will keep them safe.   Likewise, a woman from Belarus spoke of the disaster at Chernobyl and of the people’s attempt to move past it and pretend that it didn’t happen.  But regardless of their desire to forget, the reality is that they can’t.  Their life and their land have been changed.  These nuclear disasters were the result of human knowledge – which someone likened to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  And though that fruit has been eaten, and there is no going back to a time before, there is a way to move forward and to pray and hope for the new creation.

This passage from Genesis holds one more part – a part which I had never thought about before.  It tells of the river flowing from Eden, dividing into four rivers which cover the earth.  This one river brings life and growth and health to all the world.  This is an image which is repeated again in Ezekiel and in Revelation.  A river, replenishing all of creation.  This was the part of the Bible reading that was the most significant for me.  It speaks of the source of all life, God, and reminds us that we are all supported and sustained by God.  It reminds us that regardless of where we find ourselves throughout the earth, regardless of the different things we have experienced, we are all connected by that one river of living water.  It reminds us that this is a river which is our source of life and hope, a source in which we can trust.  Just as my lesson in Morning Prayer was to simply let go and allow the prayers and praise of various others envelop me, so too does this message of a life-giving God allow each of us to let go of our own need to be self-sustaining.  It encourages us to simply put our trust in this river of living water, who flows to and through every part of creation.

– K.

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Why do we need the WCC?

Oct 30 2013

A question was posed by my professor in one of our pre-Assembly sessions: Is the World Council of Churches still relevant?

 

Today I was honored to observe and participate in worship in the Opening Plenary of the 10th Assembly.

 

Several objects were processed down the aisle at the beginning of the plenary, objects that were the tangible results of peoples who had found ways to give expression to their faith. I stood in awe of a faith tradition that had been able to survive for two millennia, of the creative Spirit working in, through, and with peoples so that they might give voice to their faith. A crucifix came down the aisle, the elements, two breathtakingly beautiful icons, and more.

 

A time of voicing cries and hopes followed the procession. Representatives from different parts of the world cried out to God, voicing their frustrations and deep grief, acknowledging their complicity, and ending on a note of hope. After each lament, we all joined voices and sang a traditional Xhosa and Zulu song, “Senzenina, Senzenina, Senzenina, Senzenina?” What have we done, what have we done, what have we done, what have we done?

 

Two moments stood out to me during this time.

 

The first was the prayer from the Pacific. Pacific Islanders are facing an immediate threat to their lives and land: the disappearance of their islands. With increased pollution and climbing temperatures, the levels of the ocean waters are rising. Each inch of water that rises takes away a precious inch of land. If water levels continue at this rate, it will not be long before Pacific Islanders have no home. There is no doubt that the way in which we live, especially those of us who consume exponentially more than the rest, has contributed to the loss of their land. Senzenina? Senzenina?

 

The second moment in the Opening Plenary was actually two separate events. In two separate prayers that were prayed in Spanish, one led by a woman representing the Caribbean and another by a woman representing Latin America, the women changed the prayers. Let us not forget the significance of two women leading worship in prayer! And not only did they lead the prayer, but they changed the scripted prayer. Spanish is a gendered language; nouns are either male or female. When referring to a group of people, places, or things that includes both genders, it is commonplace to only use the masculine pronoun (los) rather than the feminine (las). In short, it is acceptable for women to be referred to in the masculine, but unthinkable for men to be referred to in the feminine. A group of both male and female children will only be called los niños. In their prayers, both women refused to refer to groups of people of mixed gender by only masculine pronouns, rather taking the time to say ‘los’ and ‘las,’ the feminine and masculine pronouns.

 

Why do we need the WCC? Within a single worship service, many people were given voices. People on islands that seem small to us but are a whole world to its inhabitants were given a voice. Women, the group of people who do most of the work in the church but rarely occupy any leadership roles, were given a space to lead worship and not only that, but to make a subtle yet important change in our imagination-forming language.

 

Futhermore, I heard the Gospel lesson chanted in Aramaic and then a sermon preached in the same language. I witnessed the procession of sacred objects, objects that had been produced by peoples who have struggled with ways to live faithfully in response to the good news proclaimed by God in Jesus through the Spirit. Yet despite those differences – the different languages, races, ethnicities, customs, dress, and traditions – we all came together to be one.

 

God’s reconciliation of the world to God’s self is inseparable from our reconciliation with one another. Why do we need the WCC? Surely this is part of God’s redeeming work.

 

I leave you with the prayer from the Pacific:

 

All powerful God! Your Pacific people call on you!

We are crying Lord, crying oceans of tears as our beloved ocean rises up and overwhelms us.

We are feeling Lord, feeling rivers of pain as our ancient land disappears and distances us from your creation.

We are facing Lord, facing mountains of despair as our cultures erode and engulf us in greed and power.

We are trembling Lord, trembling under earthquakes of changes and their effect on our lives.

We are despairing Lord. Despairing at the hurricanes of problems we face and the anguish they cause.

 

And yet Lord,

We believe, we believe in your mercy;

We hope, we hope in your love;

We trust, we trust in your strength;

We love, we love in your grace;

For in your mercy, love, strength, and grace we live.

Hear our cries.

Grant us hope.[1]

 

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The beginning of the Procession.

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A worship leader.

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Leaders of the WCC.

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The sermon was given by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians.

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The first of two beautiful icons.

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Mourning, she covers herself in ashes during the time of lament.*

 

I encourage you to read more about the WCC. Two reflections on the Assembly’s theme  that I enjoyed can be found here (by the Just and Inclusive Communities Working Group) and here (by Indigenous Theologians).

Peace – C


[1] From the Book of Opening Prayer for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. World Council of Churches Publication, 2013.

* All images courtesy of the World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly Facebook page.

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