Sunday, June 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Church!

As you might be able to tell in recent posts, I don’t have a good grasp on Eastern faiths. I like learning about them and seeing the similarities and differences to my own, but I don’t feel any connection. The cultural context is too foreign to me. Religion is a big part of a culture, or vice versa. I’ve always had a strong interest in history and genealogy; though my family has been in North America for many generations, I still feel some sort of connection to my German, French Huguenot, and Anglo-Scotch-Irish roots. I think this has sometimes hampered my connection to the Bible. The Old Testament feels like someone else’s story. I’m just a Gentile who isn’t mentioned until Acts. Yet Christianity, a Euro-Gentile form of Christianity, is familiar to me; it’s part of my history, and it’s part of me now.

What if it wasn’t my history? Would I still feel so drawn to Christianity? For a long time, I had the inkling that if I had been born in an Arab country to a Muslim family, I would be a good, devout Muslim. (These days, I’m not so sure, though I still believe that it would be quite possible.) I am very much a product of my culture and my time. I imagine some people feel the opposite: out of place in the culture they were born into. Maybe they are the ones that make the best converts.

I have never understood how missionaries can successfully go into a foreign land and spread a religion. Or rather, I don’t understand how people can adopt a religion so foreign to their culture and upbringing. What assures them that this new information is the truth, not some scam? I’m a skeptic; if someone I didn’t know showed up and told me they had a book that offered the Truth, including some story about a man in a desert thousands of years ago, I wouldn’t be inclined to listen. And if this someone also offered much needed medical care and education, I would probably listen, but not really believe. I would feel threatened that my culture was being brushed aside.

But others have felt differently. Christianity has spread all over the world. While I’m glad for this, I can’t say that I understand it. Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. It commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit gave the apostles gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues, in order to convert the many visitors in Jerusalem. It marks the beginning of the new covenant. It’s foreign to me to understand mass, instantaneous conversions. My experience is that it is individual, gradual, and continuous. My only conclusion is that the Spirit works in different ways. To me, subtly. To others, flames and tongues. My point of view is limited. I don’t know if I can ever understand how the Spirit moves people to convert in spite of cultural differences. I know I’m glad that it happens, and I hope that even my in my limited understanding, I can be a vessel or an example.

Though it usually focuses on the tongues and the conversions, Pentecost is also about learning. What does it means to be a Christian now that Christ is physically not here? How do we make sense of it all? That’s what my writing is primarily trying to do: make sense of the wondrous, powerful existence of God that seems able to transcend our conditioning and histories and speak to us. He is both foreign and familiar.

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