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Hearing in Tongues

July 14, 2014

Tonight is our last night in Europe; sabbatical is half over. Life is good and renewal is taking deep root within me and within my family. A significant element contributing to this is, not surprisingly, worship. This is unsurprising for several reasons. First, this is what worship does. It connects us to God through the preached Word and the sacraments; it connects us to one another as Christ’s Body in the world. Second, it’s the main reason I came to Europe. The center of this journey has been two weeks serving Wittenberg English Ministry, preaching and leading worship in the home of the Lutheran Reformation. That experience was a gift of great worth. I was able to lead worship and help others experience the gospel in my two native tongues – English and Lutheranism.

Sometimes, however, we need to cross our natural boundaries and leave our comfort zones; we need to be reminded that the Body of Christ is broader and deeper than our native vernacular. The past two Sundays have enabled me to dip my toes into different parts of God’s baptismal river, and I am richer for it.

Two Sundays ago we worshipped in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was the first time the historic church (the one of nail-pounding fame) has been open for worship since extensive renovations began. It was still covered in scaffolding outside and draped with protective cloth inside. The chancel was unusable and the pulpit unseen. A simple table and lectern served as ample appointments for the means of grace. Worship was, of course, in German. I, of course, do not speak or understand German. So I muddled my way through worship, bereft even of a bulletin (even in historic churches they sometimes run out!). I couldn’t make out the sermon, although I could tell it was on the parable of the Prodigal Son. I do know that the preacher didn’t crack any jokes, or at least no good ones. Erika, however, assures me that it was a good, proclamatory message.

Without much capacity to understand what was being said, my other senses became heightened, as if I were some sort of liturgical Spiderman. This crescendoed during the celebration of Holy Communion. I knew what was being said, but only because I knew what the presider had to be saying during those moments. More importantly, I didn’t need language to feel God’s Word being put into my hands in, with, and under the bread or to taste its goodness as I drank from the chalice. I don’t know the German for “for you,” but I knew it was for me. By the way, if you’re ever in need of yet one more argument for the weekly celebration of Holy Communion, I think this is it: It might be the only part of worship someone is able to understand, and it will therefore matter to them even more.

This past Sunday we had an experience of a different sort. We worshipped at St. Olaf’s Church in Balestrand, Norway. This is the little church pictured above. It is situated overlooking the magnificent Sognefjord. Oddly enough, it’s an Anglican outpost. Really – St. Olaf’s? In Norway? How is that not going to be a Lutheran church? So what’s the story? Late in the nineteenth century, the local hotelier married an Englishwoman. She was willing to move to Norway but unwilling to leave her Church of England faith. Her husband lovingly promised to build her a church. He made good on his promise even though his wife died before he could complete the task. The result stands to this day; it’s now a mission served by Anglican clergy during the summer months for two weeks at a time. It sounds a lot like the ministry I served in Wittenberg, but with less bratwurst and more fjords.

To be sure, a Church of England worship service is not so different from a Lutheran one. But there’s enough nuance to force me to pay slightly more attention than I otherwise might. More to the point, it was a blessing to worship in English in the land of my mother’s ancestors and to be reminded of the great promises God has for us. The preacher (who did crack a few humorous lines) encouraged us to honestly evaluate what kind of soil we are these days and how receptive we are to God’s Word. It was not a very Lutheran sermon – and you know what? That’s a good thing from time to time. It’s good to be reminded that while the Lutheran witness is an important component of the Christian message, it is not the message in its entirety.

Of course, beyond the different language and the different confessional heritage, the biggest blessing was just worshipping. Period. It was good to worship and not preside; to listen and not preach. It was, most of all, good to worship alongside Erika and Torsten, just one more Christian come to praise God, one more sinner come to receive God’s gifts. No matter the language, no matter the background. Just to receive God’s gifts, given in power and promise, for me. And for you.

From → Sabbatical 2014

One Comment
  1. Pastor Fred & Mary Hubert permalink

    Fred and I have enjoyed your messages very much! Glad that you are enjoying time away to renew and refresh. Your church will be blest when you get back.

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