Sunday, April 25, 2010

Evangelical Easter Surprise

It's been a gorgeous Spring week. With the first burst of flowers beginning to tone down a bit, now the trees are at it. The crab apples that line our drive behind the monastery are putting on a display like we have seldom seen and the apple orchards in this part of the country are in full flower. Lots of hills in our neighborhood look like they are covered with smoke because the blooms are so thick.

And there was another kind of beauty lurking about. As I mentioned last week there were a lot of brothers away from the monastery this week, and we were fortunate that this was one of the few periods that we've had in a long time when we had very few guests so the work load wasn't too bad for the few of us at home. But we did have one group in for an overnight visit, a student group from the Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, which is a city down towards New York, right at the end of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The seminary is operated by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which is a small Evangelical denomination. We discovered after the group arrived that they function in an ecumenical way, also training pastors for other evangelical churches. The only woman in the group is a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which is fairly well known. There was also a Seventh Day Baptist in the group. Seventh Day Baptists are a Church which has pretty standard Baptist faith and practice, but who worships on Saturdays. Very few people have heard of them, and they are often confused with the Seventh Day Adventists, but are actually quite distinct from them. Many people do know about the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, which was one of the Christian communal groups that were so much a part of the American scene in the late 1700's and early 1800's, but very few people, even those who have been there as tourists, know that Ephrata was a Seventh Day Baptist foundation.

As it happens, there was a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church just around the corner from where we lived when I was a teenager, and when I was a parish priest in southern Wisconsin I always passed a Seventh Day Baptist Church on my way to Diocesan meetings, so I am familiar with both groups, and that was a big leg up, because the group was prepared for no one to ever have heard of their churches. I also have a friend who attended the college that is associated with their seminary and he described them as "very ardent people, who are centered in a deep sense of Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer (literally) and Coming King." "Well," I thought, "I'm all of that. I might not always mean it in exactly the same terms as they do, but I can claim all of that - especially the ardent part - so I shouldn't have any trouble talking to them."

That turned out to be more true than I would have expected. And they didn't have any trouble talking to me - and us - either. It was quite a wonderful exchange, in fact. They were open, friendly, curious and grateful to be with us. As is always true with people that age, they could also be very funny. They talked about their lives, their faith and their hopes. One of the guys talked about tattoos. They were eager to know about our lives and our faith and hopes. Presumably they would have been interested in our tattoos, too, if we had any. They were certainly interested in my wrist beads.

It was a time of sharing that was a nearly perfect example of what an encounter of two very different faith groups could be like. They were curious about the things that were different between us. We celebrated the things that we shared. And there was no question at all that our common faith was a bond that they could accept and affirm. One of the reasons they came to us is that they had discovered that we were Benedictine Monks who aren't Roman Catholics, and that meant that they could take communion here, which they did with deep gratitude.

One afternoon they were gathered together on the Great Cloister, which overlooks the river, and as I watched them I got a bit of a nudge from something inside that said: "There's a group who have questions." So I went out and settled in the midst of them, and I was right; they had a lot of questions. They asked about the details of our life, some to do with our religious practices and some with very ordinary details of where we get our money for vacations and how we relate to each other. It was a conversation that flowed with ease. It was also fun.

As it happens, I was a Southern Baptist until I was in my early 20's, and look back on those days with great fondness. This meant that I had some common ground with them, and I shared some of their outlook. It was easy to understand the way they approached their faith and their visit to us.

They loved it. They had a great time and raved about the experience. They signed up for our newsletter and talked about coming back. Well, we've developed continuing relationships with Princeton Seminary and the Yale Divinity School, so why not? A bit of an excursion into the fields of small evangelical denominations could open our eyes a bit more and even deepen our faith. If it happens, it will be a challenge, as relationships always are. But we've had a good start, and I hope for more.

You never know what you're going to get into, even in a Benedictine monastery.

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