What being in Cyprus does to me

In St Onouphrios' church, near Machairas Monastery
In St Onouphrios’ church, near Machairas Monastery

I leave Cyprus tomorrow.

Having come here for the second time since the academic year 2005-2006 has moved me. Last time, it was for the joyous occasion of my friends’ wedding. I was basically a tourist the whole time. A fantastic way to see the island. As this other blog attests, I’ve done my share of touring in the past week and a half!

However, besides the touring, I gave four seminars on patristics over three days, preached this past Sunday morning, and took a trip to North Cyprus to visit with the students and leaders involved in ministry in one of the unis there. This meant I spent a lot of time preparing — last minute touches on the seminars, including two last-minute PowerPoints, prayerful sermon prep, practising the seminars, that sort of thing.

And the third thing — dinner with friends. Coffee with friends. Sitting around with Rick and Madara and talking. Talking, talking, talking. Talking about the student ministry of seven years ago. Talking about how it’s changed. Talking about the changing face of church in Europe and America. Talking about what a disciple is. Talking about making more disciples. Talking about what the Church Fathers have to say about a whole host of things. Talking and dreaming and hoping for flourishing ministry on this island and across Europe that can conform people to the likeness of the image of God’s Son –whether those people are Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or have yet to enter the Christian fold.

And I find myself missing life seven years ago.

Oh, Cyprus Team! We all had long hair. I think we still do — I’ve lost contact with one of my team mates. But it was brilliant. Despite our team leader’s husband’s deportation and our sudden orphanhood. Despite the loneliness that left me crouched on my side on my couch one time crying, ‘I’m so alone.’ Despite the crooked taxi drivers. Despite ‘Stephen’ getting arrested for drunken disorderliness (he tried breaking into a periptero; these things happen). I tell you, it was brilliant.

There was The Place. International students could come to the Anglican church hall and have some coffee/tea/squash, play board games/ping pong/badminton, listen to music, and hear some Gospel presentation.

Those who were interested in learning more about Jesus could go out for coffee with one of the team. Or ice cream. Or just walk around in the Old City. Or maybe do a one-to-one Bible study. Or join one of a couple of Bible study groups.

The exhilaration of sitting down with a bunch of Hindu and Buddhist Nepalis to read the Bible! The freshness these guys would bring to the Scriptures, the fresh eyes that hadn’t read the stories of Jesus 100 times, the fresh ears that hadn’t heard the deep resonances of Christian doctrine.

I remember the pleasure one of my Nepali friends had when I got him his own Bible. He was so pleased to be able to read the Bible for himself!

Another guy, an Egyptian who had spent years in and out of prison for converting from Islam, was happy just to have me over to his flat to eat copious amounts of food over and over and over again. I learned that hanging out can be tiring, but I also learned how much joy simply being there can bring to a lonely heart.

I remember travelling up to Kyrenia and Famagusta to talk with students there, to hear about what sorts of things Jesus was doing on their campuses in the North.

I remember first meeting the Orthodox, reading my first pages of The Philokalia, seeing my first frescoes, up in the Troodos Mountains.

I remember the Hindu asking what he had to do to be baptised. I remember getting into the baptistery with him and our pastor/friend and helping baptise him in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I remember, two weeks later (to the day!), his Buddhist friend saying, ‘Matthew, I think I have to get baptised.’

I remember being part of something big. Doing something where I could tangibly feel that what I did mattered. Where I wasn’t sheepish about being either Christian or ‘conservative/evangelical’. Where I was praying often and opening up the Scriptures with people on a regular basis. I remember being somewhere where what I did really mattered.

Cyprus fills me with longing.

And it’s not the Gothic architecture or the mountain monasteries or frescoes or black-robed priests or any of that I long for.

Ancient Christianity for (Greek) Evangelicals

Troodos MountainsThis January, I am joining the Greek Evangelical Church of Nicosia, Cyprus, to encourage the evangelicals of Cyprus to spend more time with ancient Christians. Seven years ago, after finishing my BA, I spent an academic year on the island of Cyprus working with students as part of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), and I have long desired to return to the island and share more of our Lord’s rich grace with the people who live there.

What exactly I’ll be doing

The main event in Cyprus will be a series of seminars on ancient Christianity at the Greek Evangelical Church. These will run the evenings of Wednesday and Thursday, 23 and 24 of January, and the day of Saturday, 26 January. The weekday topics will be ‘Ancient Christians of Cyprus’ and ‘Trinity and Mission: Ancient Thought on Jesus and His Mission in the World’, and the Saturday topics will be ‘Evangelicals and Tradition: Interacting with Ancient Christianity’ and ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church: Development and Authority.’

I will also be spending time visiting students and volunteers who work with the Cyprus Fellowship of Evangelical Students (CyFES). Seven years ago, CyFES did not exist. Now the Lord has blessed the island with a fledgling movement in both the Turkish North and Greek South, in which Greek Cypriot students are involved – a contrast to seven years ago when our ministry was almost entirely amongst international students. I want to see what our glorious God has been doing and tell the good news to those who supported me through prayer and finances when I first went to the island.

Why the Church Fathers? What is the missional purpose of this trip?

I believe that right now, as our cultures become less rooted, Christians need to maintain roots in the Gospel and remind ourselves of the blessings of God upon our spiritual forebears who helped us think clearly about what the Gospel is and what is integral to the Faith. The writings of ancient Christianity are the common foundation for all Christians, and a knowledge of their teachings and devotional practices and history can only serve to deepen our love of God and His incarnation as a man to save us and the revelation of his subsisting as the Most Holy Trinity. This deepened love, in turn, is fuel for mission in an increasingly lost and wayward world.

In Cyprus, the situation is a very particular one. At the forefront for my mission is the hostility between the evangelicals and Orthodox that runs back for over a century. Since the Orthodox claim the ancient heritage of ‘the Fathers’ as their own, evangelicals are often very wary to discover the wisdom of our ancient forebears of the faith. By helping nudge them towards these ancients — with the full support of their elders and minister — I hope to help them find ways of expressing the faith to the Orthodox that will make them seem less — well, frankly, less American; many Greek Evangelicals are called Americanos. The Greek Fathers can help evangelicals express the Gospel in a Greek idiom. This, whether it converts the Orthodox or not, will help the Orthodox view the evangelicals with less suspicion, hopefully helping bridge the divide of mistrust that gapes between them today.

Furthermore, the ancient Christians faced many challenges, especially in the area of Christology, that the Christians of Cyprus face day-to-day in their dealings with a very strong, very visible presence of both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons on the island, as well as certain fringe ‘evangelical’ and charismatic groups. The arguments and teachings of the ancient Church can help the modern Cypriot stand firm in the true evangelical way in the face of the allure of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Benny Hinn, or any other latter-day prophet.

Please pray for these seminars that the Lord will give me the right focus and words for each one and that the people of Nicosia’s Greek Evangelical Church will be edified and equipped for life in the topsy-turvy world of post-Christendom Cyprus, where their neighbours scorn them for not being Orthodox yet go to New Age seminars for ‘spirituallity’ themselves.