Sunday, November 06, 2016

blessed be egypt my people

It jolted me. It shouldn't have, but it did.

Waking up in Egypt on the first day of our first training seminar in the region and my Bible reading greets me with these words, the very first words I read: Woe to those who go down to Egypt (Isaiah 31.1a). Already a bit burdened with apprehension, I was looking for an encouraging word from the Lord. Not here! In that eerie pre-dawn space, when I can struggle to contain both racing mind and rushing emotion, I was jolted. Yes, I was.

It didn't get any better. I moved on to my notes for the first session on learning how to observe the text carefully, only to discover that my practice passage included the phrase, You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt (Exodus 19.4). Oh dear, how did I miss that in my preparation?

Gee - the Old Testament is pretty tough on Egypt, isn't it?! The context in which I sat was forcing me to hear the text in a fresh way. A good lesson to learn. Slowly, I pulled myself together. I did go and read the beautiful Isaiah 19.25 passage again - 'blessed be Egypt my people. Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance'. I did start to engage the 'scripture interprets scripture' principle. I did begin to think along 'history of salvation' trajectories and free Isaiah to be interpreted in light of Acts - and beyond. I did restart, belatedly, the biblical-theology engine in my mind and heart...

But it didn't stop me seeking out time over lunch with one of the most respected pastors in the country and asking him, 'When Egyptians come to faith in your church, how do you help them process all the negative stuff about Egypt in the Old Testament?' His response - in a nutshell? All those judgements - and that blessing from Isaiah - find their fulfillment, even closure, in the Christ-event of the Gospels.

It helped me to hear him say that, but what helped even more was to travel around Egypt a bit...

We climbed Mt Sinai, stepping up (literally) into the reality of the 2000 years before the Christ-event. Abraham. Moses. Burning Bush. Ten Commandments. Golden Calf. The words of Chris Wright rang again in my ears - from The Mission of God:

the ingathering of the nations was the very thing Israel existed for in the purpose of God (194).
Genesis 12.3 is the first Great Commission: God so loved the world that He chose Israel (329).

Isaiah 19.25, one of the most breath-taking pronouncements of any prophet [is] Exodus reloaded with the characters reversed (491) ... The identity of Israel will be merged with that of Egypt and Assyria, such that the Abrahamic promise is not only fulfilled in them but through them (236).

In the Old Testament, the mission of God is that the distinction would ultimately be dissolved as the nations flowed into unity and identity with Israel (500) - but we only find out how in the New Testament.

And what did we see atop Sinai? The sunrise was amazing. Walking where Moses walked was so cool. I even saw some clefts in the rock ... but none of this matched these two sights of 'the nations flowing in unity and identity':

Spanish-speaking Latin Americans praising and pleading with the Light, as they wait for the light (and once it did dawn, a bunch of  Malayali-speaking people from Kerala, in India, couldn't suppress their 'hallelujahs' any longer).

Once the light came, we were reminded again of how far the Light has reached since those wanderings in Sinai,
with Chinese peoples just around the corner from Arab peoples.

We visited Coptic Cairo, stepping down (literally, because one civilization builds on the rubble of the previous one and so the ancient past drops lower and lower below the surface) into the reality of the 2000 years since the Christ-event. This was the undisputed highlight for me, moving among (possibly) the longest unbroken Christian testimony in the world. The words of Philip Jenkins rang again in my ears (together with Andrew Walls and Tom Oden) - from The Lost History of Christianity (LHC) and The Next Christendom (NC):

Christianity has never been synonymous with either Europe or the West (NC, 18).

[on comparing the Coptic church, which survived, with the church in North Africa, which died] 
Survival was about how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed (LH, 35) ... Despite all its fine theologians and its identity as a centre of early Christianity, the church in North Africa failed in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of its coastal cities and not sinking roots deep into the world of its native peoples (LH, 229) - exactly what the Coptic church was prepared to do.

Protestants are in such a hurry to jump from Augustine to Luther. But it is actually our Asian and African brothers and sisters who can fill that gap best (Walls).

Athanasius, Augustine and Cyprian are African, not Europeans in disguise (Oden, 62). It is wrong to consider Alexandria as a non-African extension of the European intellect (Oden, 58).

This is the most surprising step of our investigation: how Africa influenced Ireland 
and how the Irish monks then shaped the formation of medieval Europe (Oden, 73).

Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of Cairo, with 6-7 little churches (and a synagogue) crammed within the old Roman fortress known as Babylon (built about 30BCE). Tradition states that Mark brought the gospel to this area in the early decades of the 1st century and some of the churches we entered could be as early as the 3rd and 4th century...

This image will never let me go.
In the company of saints and apostles, I imagine this man pleading with God
for the progress of the gospel and for peace in the Middle East.


Exquisite work with wood and brick.
The wooden screen at the front - iconostasis - is a distinctive of Coptic churches.
The baptistry






Church History courses tend to avoid most of the Christian world and the world of most Christians (Walls).

nice chatting

Paul

2 comments:

Geoff New said...

Thank you so much for this Paul. When you announced you were going to Egypt - it sparked for me wonderings about the complexities that would be there in terms of preaching. How would someone preach about the Exodus? 10 plagues and all? How do you tell the story of God with Egypt so often being the "bad guy"? Reading this blog and your biblical reflection and the lunch-time conversation - gold! Thank you for the where you go and how you go before us. Blessings to you.

Paul Windsor said...

Thanks, Geoff.

Thinking more widely ... it does keep me mindful - and care-full - of how it is that where I am sitting (physically, but also metaphorically) impacts what I see and how I interpret. It does not need to be a controlling factor, but I do need to recognise it as a factor. And so, this recognition becomes so useful in trying to commend the Word of God to people unlike myself, who are sitting elsewhere.

There can't be many people who get a bigger thrill walking through an ancient Coptic Church below the surface of the road than they do seeing the Pyramids or Tutankhamun ... but that would be me :).

blessings

Paul