The previous posts in this stream narrate some of the experiences I had on a partnership visit with God’s people in South Sudan. In this entry, I offer a theological reflection on the most powerful worship experience of my life. Scriptures for the day were Psalm 137 and Ephesians 2:11-22.
If you look at the bulletin you received earlier today, you’ll see that right across the top of the page it indicates that today is the “Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time”. Ordinary Time. What is that about?
Well, mostly, “Ordinary Time” refers to the part of the church year that is not associated with the major cycles of either Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter. One way to put it would be like this: “Ordinary Time is the norm of time kept by the church. The Sundays of Ordinary Time celebrate the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the unfolding presence of the new creation. Ordinary Time presents us with an ongoing opportunity to witness to the living Lord who makes all things new. The standard time of the church is Ordinary Time.”
The name, though, is a little misleading. Rather than meaning “standard” or “routine” – “the usual”, the term “Ordinary Time” actually comes from the word “ordinal”, meaning “counted”. Ordinary Time is “counted time” – we begin with the incarnation, and we count towards the Resurrection. We begin at Pentecost, and we count towards the intrusion of Christ in new ways. “Ordinary Time” is the standard time for the church in that the church is looking forward – always looking forward – to the new inbreaking of God’s presence among us.
Given that, I’d like to tell you how I passed the first week of “Ordinary Time” in 2015 while I was spending time with God’s people in South Sudan, in Africa.
I will begin by confessing a weakness in my theology that may make me a poor excuse for a pastor, but it is the truth. I have long believed that children should be cute in worship.
I try not to manipulate children, as sometimes happens when we pass the mic around during the children’s sermon and we hear those little rascals saying the darndest things. No, I mean the times when we ask them to lead us, and it’s just so beautiful.
Were you here a week or so before Christmas, and Jess had the kids come up front and sing, and Henry was playing the drums while his dad was playing the guitar? Come on, Scrooge, admit it, that was way off the cuteness scale. It was beautiful. Or maybe the first time that little Rachel Salinetro served as a lay reader in church. I bet no one else remembers the way that she tried to pronounce the same word in the Gospel of Luke five times before she finally shook her head, and said, “wait a minute, I got this”, and then she did it flawlessly. It was pure gold. Or the time that I had been away for a number of weeks and Aviva came flying up the aisle at during the last hymn and would not let me put her down, even for the benediction. Do you know what I mean? That stuff is cute!
That’s the way I like to think of kids in church. We eat those things up.
The underlying thought behind the notion that children ought to be “cute” in worship is that we want our worship to be a safe place. We hope that the kids who are here are comfortable and secure; we want them to enjoy God’s people and to be enjoyed; we want them to know the strength and power of God’s protective embrace.
The worship service I attended and led two weeks ago was the single most powerful worship experience of my life. And it was a time when children – hundreds of them – were present. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were active. But they were not, by any measure, “cute.”
Here’s some background: In 2011, South Sudan achieved independence after half a century of struggle and warfare. As a result of the peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of black Christian and Traditional African Religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in order to come back to their “ancestral homeland” in the south. They were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed part of the continent with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources. The world’s newest country was among the world’s poorest countries. But they had hope.
I visited this nation in January of 2013, not quite 18 months after independence, and I saw growth and joy, the beginnings of a plan for self-governance and a longing to emerge into a more developed future.
However, in December of 2013, a political conflict developed into a clash within the South Sudanese military. That quickly denegrated into ethnic and tribally-based violence and erupted into a full-scale civil war. Within months, two million people were displaced from their homes. Entire communities were obliterated. Thousands were butchered. Millions were traumatized. And although the situation has improved enough for me to visit, the fighting continues even to this day. South Sudan is not a safe place.
And on the day when my dear friend Saleem was here preaching so eloquently about the church’s calling to continually participate in the work to which Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed, I was asked to preach at the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church service in the United Nations Mission Protection of Civilians Base #3 near Juba. This camp supports more than 30,000 people who have lost nearly everything in the past twelve months and, fearing for their lives and safety, have sought refuge in this vast community of plastic tarps, dust, weeping, and squalor about 400 miles from their homes.
Most Sundays, I walk to worship. I come out of my home and I look to the left and see the Gielarowski’s and I smile at the Simcox’s up the hill. I walk down Cumberland, thinking about the things that await me in the morning, and I pray for the people in the homes I pass. I cut down between the Prevost’s and the Phelps’ and I catch a glimpse of the Sam’s and the Barnes’ places. I come through the vacant lot and look up at the homes where Jason and Kelly, Lindsay, Rachel, and Stacey live. By the time I unlock the door, I am already richly and deeply invested in a community that is filled with beautiful people that I love.
On January 18, I was driven to church over pitted dirt roads. I stopped at checkpoints manned by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I was passed by trucks filled with squads of fully armed UN soldiers. There were armored vehicles and machine gun emplacements. I passed by children playing in the street, and many of them had scars on their heads and faces that bore witness to violence endured. Eventually, the road came alongside a ditch, on the other side of which was a tall fence covered in razor wire and then a large earthen berm so I could not see inside the compound.
We came to a break in the fence, which was a large shipping container with doors at either end. As I walked towards the door, which was the entrance into the camp, I saw over the earthen wall a small green flag with a cross on it. I thought, “Hmmm, this may be a church on the other side”.
Just before I entered the container, filled with UN soldiers and armed guards, a man behind me screamed and I saw the flag wave. I heard singing from behind the fence. I came through the container and was greeted by a single file line of 150 teens in matching shirts who were singing their hearts out. It was the choir that had come to greet me.
I walked with the choir – single file – for a long time. Maybe a mile or a mile and a half went by as they sang first of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They broke into a new song and pointed at me as they sang, in Nuer, “Here he comes – this one is a soldier of Christ.”
Normally, I resist military imagery as it is connected with worship, but as I thought about all the weaponry and machinery of death that I’d passed in order to get to this point, I had to ask myself whether I really believed that the promise I have in Jesus Christ is stronger than the weapons of destruction by which I was surrounded. And I came to the conclusion that, at that time and place, I was in fact a soldier of Christ – only the weapons that I had been issued were hope, love, and forgiveness. The protection given to me was not a bulletproof vest or a blue helmet, but a promise.
Eventually, we arrived at the most substantial structure I’d seen inside the camp – a long mud building with iron sheets for a roof and a crude crossed nailed to one end. I guessed that there were about 1200 people inside the building and nearly that many outside.
And we worshiped. Our opening song two weeks ago was the same one with which we began worship here this morning: “To God Be the Glory”. Of course, we sang it in the Nuer language.
I have to tell you, I’m pretty good at African worship. I know how to tell a joke to an African crowd, I can work with a translator in a sermon, and we had a fine time. There were lots of choirs, some official greetings, and I preached a really long sermon (hey, nobody in the IDP camp was worried about getting home for the game, I can tell you that). None of this was what made it the most powerful worship experience of my life.
I sat down after the sermon and we began to pray. We prayed for those in the community and the nation and the world. And when the prayers were finished, I was told that the Sunday School Children were to enter and sing a few songs.
And they came. And they came and they came. There must have been more than 200 children. And they sang. They sang beautifully.
If I say that the songs that they were singing were in a “major” key, would you know what I mean? I mean that they sounded strong and confident, victorious. “To God Be The Glory” and “Amazing Grace” are sung in a major key. “O Come, O Come Emanuel” or “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” are in a minor key. These songs sounded full of life and strength.
And they were songs with actions. The boys and girls were standing and sitting in turn. I liked that. I thought it was cute as they boys called and the girls responded. I asked my host, “What are they singing?”
He said, “Well, the boys are saying, ‘You can attack us’ and the girls are replying, ‘but you can’t get all of us.’ The girls sing, ‘We know you will kill us’ and the boys say, ‘But not all of us will die.’ And together they sing, ‘Even when we die, we are not defeated.’”
This was the children’s choir. Boys and girls from about four to about fifteen years old. And this is what they were singing.
And it was loud. I mean, it was loud. Some of you know that I like to watch the fireworks in my boat because there on the water, so close to the launch site, I can not only see and hear the explosions, I can feel them in my chest. Have you had that experience during fireworks? I am here to tell you that when these children were singing about their own deaths in that beautiful major key, I could feel the words bouncing off my chest.
Louder and louder they sang, and then suddenly, all 200 of these children just slumped to the floor, draped across each other. It was as if every single one of them had been shot simultaneously. They laid there as if they were dead, unmoving.
It was silent, and the silence was deafening. I could feel the silence in my chest even more than I had felt the singing. It was powerful. It was not cute – in no way, shape, or form, beloved, was this part of worship “cute”.
And then one little girl in the back – a child about Samaiya’s size – stood and began to sing in a wail. She was singing, “We may be killed. We may all be killed. But we will surely rise in the light of Jesus. The star of Bethlehem is in us.” And one by one, the children stood and joined this little girl’s song. It got louder and louder.
And then this little girl came up and knelt on the floor a foot from me and sang “O God, you made us, why aren’t you saving us? Why can’t you see us? Do you still love us? We are wandering in our own land, Father. Why have you forgotten us? Are you the one who created us or not?”
I was overwhelmed.
I was glad that they were asking the questions of God, and not of me. I had no answers. I still don’t. It was all I could do not to collapse into tears right then.
The kids finished, and we sang a little more. I was asked to share the benediction, and I gave them the same one I offer here each week. I was invited to share a bowl of rice, sorghum, and beef broth in one of the tent homes, and then I was escorted from the compound, past the soldiers and back to the guest house.
It was the most powerful worship moment in my life. I am still not sure, even eight pages into this thing, that I have words for it.
Psalm 137 is a lament. It is a song, sung in a minor key, describing how it feels to be lost, abandoned, and hopeless. The singer remembers being isolated and alone and forgotten by God. And then the Psalm concludes with that angry prayer for vengeance and retribution. It is a Psalm that points to a downward spiral of violence and death and increasing hatred.
And the songs of the children in United Nations Mission Protection of Civilians Camp #3 were also songs of lament, but they were in a major key. They were songs that spoke of depths of pain and suffering that I cannot imagine, but somehow, those songs were able to anchor their lament in a place of hope. There was not a prayer for retribution, but for restoration. There was not a prayer for the death of the enemy, but for life abundant.
I tried that morning two weeks ago to preach a good message. I used Isaiah and Luke, and I talked about the promise of God’s kingdom. I had some really good stuff.
But the children presented the hope and the message that day in a way that I never could. I knew that I was on Holy Ground as these disturbing, Spirit-filled, recklessly-trusting children who were not at all cute forcefully asked God to do what he said he would do and to be who he said he would be.
If we want our worship to be safe, and calm, and tame, and cute – I believe we will limit the power of the gospel. May we pray for boldness to trust the promises of God as recklessly and as forcefully as did my young friends two weeks ago.
May God be with us as we stand with and for them to create a world where they grow free of fences and convoys and ration cards and weapons of destruction. God is who God says he is. And God will do what God says he will do. And we, his body, are bound to participate in the demonstration of that truth.
Ephesians says that Christ himself is our peace, and that Christ alone can break down the walls of hostility.
I want to close with a story from another part of Africa that describes this hope perfectly.
It was 1959 in the nation of Malawi. There had been increasing pressure for the British to end their rule and give this nation independence. Racial and tribal tensions were on the rise, and word went out from London that all whites were to leave the country for fear of their own lives. The mission station in Livingstonia Synod was so remote that it could not be reached by the road, and the British government was concerned about the ability of the white missionaries to survive in this conflicted environment. They sent a plane from the Royal Air Force to drop a
message so that the whites could plan their evacuation for the next day. The next day when the plane approached, the pilot saw an unmistakeable message written in stones on the ground: Eph 2-14, which as you know reads “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…”
Listen, my friends – the world needs to see that message. It needs to hear it in the UN Camps in South Sudan and in the streets of our own nation. It needs to resound from the rooftops of Palestine and into the bowels of Kolkata.
May we be living stones that spell that out, all day, every day, wherever we may be. Where people can read it, or hear it, or feel it in their chests…may we be able to participate in proclaiming it here…and in South Sudan…and everywhere.
In ordinary time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Liturgical Year: The Worship of God (Supplemental Liturgical Resource #7), Westminster/John Knox, 1992 p. 51.