Monday, February 11, 2008

Every Tribe, Tongue and Nation

Preaching at the Pan de Vida church Saturday night was an amazing experience, I must say. Even though it was as if I had been transported to a foreign country when I walked in the door of the little Latino Pentecostal church on the south side of town in the little buidling next to the railroad tracks, the common bond of the grace of God and eternal life in Christ Jesus went far beyond the cultural and language barriers on the surface. The people, few though they were (maybe thirty adults) were the most gracious and appreciative people I have ever met. I was told by my friend Miguel that the church is made up of mostly natives of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. The pastor is currently in Honduras helping plant a church, hence the need for some pulpit fill.

The service started with the pastor's wife leading in worship, with a guy on drums and her son on keyboards. I'd been warned by Miguel that they like their worship loud - and they do. But it was great just experiencing the expressiveness of these folks as they poured out their hearts in song to the Lord. I even recognized a few of the songs in the half-hour worship set (with no breaks at all) and sang along in English, with a little broken Spanish here and there.

After the music was a "special time", where people could read Scripture, give a testimony or whatever they wanted. A man got up, read a Psalm and sang a worship song. A lady read a passage of Scripture and told with tears how God had used the Word to encourage her this week. Several more of this kind of thing. Nothing overtly Pentecostal or even wrongly focused on the Spirit - only heartfelt devotion to their Lord. Many, many "alleluia's" and the like. Spontaneous, yet orderly. I was blessed by this time as Miguel interpreted for me.

Then Miguel got up and introduced me, and I took the pulpit. I started with prayer - to which everyone stood to their feet. Yes, they stand for prayer and the reading of the Word. I started preaching my sermon, based on James 1:2-5, with Miguel standing next to me and interpeting. We hadn't practiced this at all, but we seemed to develop a rhythm and flow to the process where I would speak and pause for him to interpret, then alternate back and forth. It really wasn't distracting at all.

The thing that struck me most while I was preaching, though, was the attentiveness and responsiveness of the congregation. They were all on the edge of their seats, Bibles open, staring intently at Miguel and me as we spoke, following every word. Occasionally breaking out in a smattering of applause or an "alleluia" when I made a point. Once even all standing to their feet in applause - not for me, but for the faithful God I was speaking of. Preaching to a group of people like this is incredibly energizing, as God's Spirit was present and working. I found my voice rising, my gestures becoming more animated, my passion increasing. And my joy in the proclamation of the Word overflowing like never before. Not sure how long the message took, but it must have been around 45 minutes. I could have gone on for another hour if I had the material!

And as the service ended, nearly every person in the place made a point to come up to me, warmly shake my hand or embrace me and give me a genuine "God bless you!", or sometimes a "Dios le bendiga!" One older man, with a huge smile on his face, came up and gave me a hug like he'd known me for years. I have to say, I have never experienced this kind of genuine expression of appreciation anywhere else. I was so blessed. And to top it all off, they made me take a gift for coming and sharing the Word with them. I really didn't want to, but I also didn't want to offend them or rob them of their blessing by refusing it.

It's so easy for those of us in the mainstream of American evangelicalism to look down on and trivialize little churches like this. To be sure, many of these kind of churches have their issues, both theologically and ethically. I'm certain that Pan de Vida is not a perfect church - because there is no such thing. But I am equally certain that we Christian "gringos" can learn much about authentic life in Christ as a community from our Latino brothers and sisters. I know I did Saturday night. We dare not forget that we will be worshipping our Lord and Savior for eternity alongside fellow recipients of Christ's grace from every tribe, tongue and nation. Might not hurt us to experience a bit of this now.

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