Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Languages


I was one of the early fans of Glennon Doyle Melton back when her book Carry On Warrior was only a lowly but charismatic blog called Momastery. Her book has been out a while and she has been really busy on a book tour then she took a sabbatical from blogging to recharge. But now I am happy to report that she’s back in business on her blog.  Last Monday’s essay was great.  If you want to read it now, I’ll wait.  Or I can summarize it.  Either way, you really should read it for yourself at some point.  

Last week she posted a text she got from a reader who described a Sunday in her Presbyterian church a week before when a black woman visited their worship service.  During the time for joys and concerns the lady stood and spoke.  She spoke movingly about looking at this church as a little black girl knowing that she was not allowed to go inside.  Then she spoke about the changes she saw that day when the church invited her inside to worship before she even got out of her car in the parking lot.

Glennon’s friend said, “She was dressed in white from head to toe. Her dress was bell shaped and had billowy sleeves.  Her stockings and shoes were white, too.  G, I think she was an angel….and I decided that next week I’m going to go visit Mt Tabor Baptist Church.”

Which she did.  And sent Glennon a report the following week.

I enjoyed reading about this exchange.  My own church tried it a few years ago.   For a year or so we partnered with a mostly-black Baptist church in Garland.  While our members really enjoyed themselves with the jazzy worship, clapping, Amen-ing and Hallelujah-ing at the black church, when we turned the tables and they came to worship with us I’m afraid the Baptists were pretty bored with us Presbyterians.  But it was a fun exercise.  Nobody wanted to change their membership or their worship style because that’s what we were used to.

I lived this exercise when I was in Mississippi and worshipped at a black Baptist church.  And, while I felt totally comfortable at Rev. Rawls’ church you just can’t easily erase 60 years worth of habits.  

I have a lot of ‘home churches”.  Ever the extrovert I never hesitate to make myself at home in any church wherever I go.  And I feel totally at home and loved at these churches.

In Pearlington, Mississippi, it’s the First Missionary Baptist, in New York City, it’s Fifth Ave Presbyterian, in London it’s St Martin in the Field, and in Guatemala it’s Iglesia Presbiteriano El Dios Vivo in the town of Guastatoya. The churches in New York and London get a lot of tourists but I still get the feeling if I needed a church while visiting these towns I would be received as one of the family.  I know they both have vibrant ministries with the homeless and being a tourist is a homelessness of sorts. The churches in Mississippi and Guatemala are small enough that everyone who walks in the door immediately becomes a member of the congregation.  

Some of these places have very different worship styles.  On the surface you couldn’t get more different than the churches in New York City and Guastatoya.  One time I visited Fifth Avenue Pres and I sat next to a man wearing a kilt. Yet both are Presbyterian. I even spotted Calvin’s Institutes in Spanish on the bookshelf of a pastor’s study in Guatemala. So, yeah, their credentials are spotless.

I really enjoy worship at Fifth Ave because they have the most awesome HUGE choir. When you combine this with the hundreds of people in the congregation the sound is just heavenly. In contrast, El Dios Vivo has about 40 or 50 on a busy morning.  In place of a pipe organ they might add an accordion or a tambourine to the electronic keyboard.  Both churches have stone walls and wooden pews.  Both have very old buildings.  Where one is bare-bones-simple the other is opulent. The sanctuary in Guatemala is is open from about the four foot level to the ceiling for air circulation. There’s no air-conditioning so it can get sleepy-hot sometimes.  The floor is old linoleum. The pews are light-weight wood painted brown, not quite the deep, dark richness of the old oak pews at Fifth Ave.  

Both congregations are very reserved.  You wouldn’t think to shout “hallelujah” in either place. El Dios Vivo is made of humble people whose annual income is probably less than what the New Yorkers sometimes spend on a business lunch. One congregation uses English to worship God, one uses Spanish.

And it’s the same God.

We’re saying the exact same thing but using different words. 

When we visit Guatemala the language barrier can be a challenge.  Whether its worship or a bible study, each of us has to wait patiently for the translator to tell us what the other is saying.  But prayer is different.  The first time I heard someone in Guatemala pray I waited for the translator.  And waited.  It finally sunk in that he wasn’t going to translate the prayer.  That’s when I understood.  The prayer was directed to God, not me.  And God understands every language on earth. Including all 23 Mayan languages like K’ek Chi or Quiche.

In 2004, at the close of one of our bi-lingual bible studies in Guatemala someone suggested that we sing the Doxology together but each in their own language.  I nudged my friend Linda and whispered out of the corner of my mouth, “This will never work.”  I expected it to emerge as a watered-down, lame excuse for a song, out of synch, with both groups struggling to maintain their own language while hearing a very different one.

Well, I wish I had a recording to offer you.  Every single syllable landed at the exact same place in the notes.  The sound bounced off the concrete walls to cover us like a soft blanket. We were enveloped in love.  Afterward, we just stood there not wanting to leave the moment when all was in tune with God.

We praised God from whom all of our blessings flow.  We praised God from here on earth while above us the heavenly host was praising God, also. We praised God as the Creator of all things.  We praised the Messiah that the Creator sent to save us from ourselves.  And we praised the Holy Spirit that dwells within each of us to move us, to inspire us and to comfort us.

Same God.  Same meaning, different words.

Amen.

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