Sunday in Nicaragua: Worship without Words

It’s been nine years since my first experience worshiping in a place where I didn’t speak the language. At that time, when I was in the village of Kediri, Indonesia, my host encouarged me to spend the service in prayer for the community and people around me as a way to participate in worship with the sisters and brothers I had gathered with, but couldn’t understand.

In the years since then, I’ve joined a variety of communities and participated in worship services that run the gamut from low-key Emergent Church gatherings that bring children and adults together around the table, to high church Episcopal services with a thousand people in a cavernous cathedral equipped with multiple pipe organs, to passionate Pentecostal worship with impromptu calls to prayer and glossolalia. Joining brothers and sisters from different streams of the Christian tradition is a healthy task that reveals my own cultural blinders and reminds me that worship is not just about me and my community, but about the God who knits our lives together.

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This morning, we travelled into downtown Managua to worship at Primera Iglesias Bautista de Managua — the church where Gustavo Parajón served as pastor for decades until his retirement. (Gustavo is the father of David Parajón, who founded AMOS Salud & Esperanza where we have been working this week. Gustavo was also a respected physician, pastor and peacemaker whose wisdom was sought by many up until his death in 2011.)

The service had just begun when we arrived and filed upstairs to the balcony, where David could translate for us without causing too much of a distraction for the rest of the congregation. The church is without a permanent pastor now, so the sermon was delivered by a guest preacher who serves as a missionary and professor in the area. David gave us a live translation during the service so that we could get the gist of the message, but I know enough about preaching to assume that a significant amount of nuance inevitably gets lost in translation. The scripture sticks with me though. It’s from 2 Peter:

We have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it, just as you would to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Where are the lamps shinning into the dark places of our world? Look for those lights and you’ll likely find Christ at work, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

The service itself was less liturgical than those back home at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, and more like the smaller, more rural churches of my youth. Many of the songs I recognized right away. Although I couldn’t understand the language they were being sung in, the unmistakable rhythm of Victory in Jesus was easy to pick up before the choir hit the first verse.

How interesting to think that these sisters and brothers living a world away from the Southern Baptist landscape of Carolina are singing the same hymns, and following the same patterns of worship, that my grandparents, aunt and cousins would likely be humming through back in the low country. I was struck by the connection. One of the reasons I love participating in more liturgical traditions is the unity that comes with praying the same prayers, reading the same scriptures, and working through the same liturgy that Christians across the world are going through at the same time, all the while remembering the generations of faithful believers before who passed on this living tradition. There’s no formal liturgy or prayer book here. Yet, in a simpler way, singing the same old times hymns in South America and South Carolina connect believers across barriers of culture, class and speech—even if they don’t realize it happening.

A moment later, the dominance of these revivalistic songs in this Nicaraguan service begins to give me shivers. Why aren’t we praising God using the creative expression of Nicaragua’s own rich tradition of music and art? These melodies that laid the foundation of my own faith were penned during the Great Awakening era of evangelism and piety in the United States, and then carried alongside crops, troops and cargo across land and sea. In 1856, the hope and faith embodied in a new evangelical hymnody was being shared at the same time that US support of a self-proclaimed president permitted slavery to become legal in Nicaragua for the first time. Eugene Bartlett’s Victory in Jesus was penned in the 1930s — the same decade that US airplanes conducted the world’s first ariel bombing campaign, dropping explosives on the people of Nicaragua as a warning of what happens when Latin American governments let dreams of independence reach too far.

My heart is heavy. I don’t know what to do, so I sing along. I do believe there is victory in Jesus, though that triumph undoubtedly looks very different than any “victory” achieved by dropping bombs on an impoverished nation that has been raided by one conquistador after another for the last five centuries. These hymns do offer a bridge between believers in Nicaragua and the United States, even as they serve as a reminder of the sins of our past.

My soul releases a quick prayer: Forgive us, God, for the evils we perpetrate against one another. Thank you for the grace that allows blessings to spring forth, even from blood-stained soil.

The song ends. No translation is needed for what comes next.

I tear off a piece of bread and pass it on. Body broken.

I sip from the cup of blessing. Life, freely given.

This is what worship is about. A lamp shining in a dark place, waiting for the dawn to break. May God use it, and use us, to bring reconciliation and healing to the hurting places in our world and in our hearts.

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