Sunday, June 26, 2016

Worship in foreign languages: Why comprehension is over-rated

When we pray with others in languages not our own, we join--as it were--the celestial choir. I think this is the appeal for those returning to the Mass in Latin, or the Orthodox who worship in Old Church Slavonic. Sometimes we can hear God better when we listen on a level other than basic comprehension, because beyond rational understanding is the true communion of the saints.

 Today I spent the morning in prayer and praise with a Lutheran Vietnamese community at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines was the largest site for Vietnamese resettlement in the United States (a close second was Fort Smith in Arkansas). Today there are as many as 15,000 Vietnamese in Des Moines.

It takes a bit of intrepidity to join an unfamiliar congregation and worship with them, especially if you don't speak their language.  I do not speak any Vietnamese--at all. So when I got to church, I went in not knowing how to navigate the community.  I've trained myself to not be nervous, and to take things as they come. It usually works.

At Capitol Hill Lutheran there was an 8 a.m. English-language chapel service already in action, so I drifted past that and back into a kind of lounge where the Vietnamese community was gathering. The congregation is made up primarily of older members, most of them having sought refuge in the U.S. at least 20 years ago during the Vietnamese Boat Lift. I learned later in the morning that there are younger families and members of the parish, but they work weekends so struggle to attend worship regularly.

We all hung out in the lounge, waiting. The English language service ran long, and the pastor for that service spent time greeting parishioners in the hall, so we did not officially begin worship on time, instead about 10 minutes late.

Up to this point in my visit, I had communicated with brief nods and smiles and simple introductions. I didn't want overwhelm the small community, like a noisy sociologist, so I sat and read the Bible a bit and waited. Eventually the Vietnamese pastor (who spoke very little English) introduced me to a member who could translate. He gave me a service bulletin, assigned me to the welcome pew, and made a brief introduction about their visitor as worship began.

Vietnamese is a beautiful tongue, with many sounds unfamiliar to my Anglophone
ear. We sang an opening hymn, accompanied by the 8 a.m. worship musician, who then promptly left after the hymn.

The pastor offered a very long gathering prayer, which was emotional enough that I teared up some.

I should mention, this is an important aspect of worshipping in languages not our own--there's often enough time of incomprehension for mind and heart clearing moments to shine through. It's not "praying in tongues," and yet... it is. Resting in your incomprehension while someone else prays in their heart language is disconcerting and comforting simultaneously.

The majority of the service was devoted to the sermon on the lessons, especially Ephesians 4:29: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."

This text took on a completely different sense for me today, as I thought about it in terms of languages. Can words in a foreign tongue still give grace to those who hear? I certainly know the Vietnamese prayers gave grace to me.

We prayed a confession litany, which, although very foreign to my ear linguistically, made sense because of its similarity structurally to the confession of sins in the liturgy. The congregation spoke this part of the service with special energy.

The most basic idea in the pastor's sermon was simple, and I was able to pick up on it because of his hand gestures: we have two ears, but only one mouth, and our Christian practice should reflect this. After 40 minutes of worship, we adjourned to a small bible study in a separate room. My translator invited me please to stay, so I did. We exchanged some very kind if formal greetings. They hoped I would return (I most definitely will!)

Most Christians should be reminded regularly of the most basic missionary moment: that our faith is translated. It was carried first in Hebrew, then in Aramaic, then in Greek, then for a long time in Latin, and then, through the miraculous work of missionaries and the Holy Spirit, to the thousands of languages of the human race. As we are reminded by that great missiologist, Lamin Sanneh, the translation of the gospel into the vernacular has ever and always had considerable implications for mission.

And the very first moment of translation is encounter and incomprehension: hearing someone else speak in a language you do not understand.

After that, the work is learning that language, then prayerfully discovering how to take the gospel you know in your language and translate it into the heart language of those you have met.

It's not my work to translate the gospel into Vietnamese. That's been done by others. But by attending worship with a refugee community in Des Moines, Iowa, I can be reminded of how central translation is to the message itself... we only have what we have (the Bible, our faith, the Word) because of the faithful translation of others.

At one time our ancestors were me, in that worship service, curious and wondering not only about the language being spoken, but the people speaking it, and the content of their message.

Many new refugees have arrived in Des Moines since the influx of Vietnamese. My translator today mentioned: the Sudanese, the Bosnians, and now those from Myanmar. Even more will continue to arrive (as long as Terry Branstad doesn't get his way). And when they arrive, they will offer new opportunities for Christians to discover that first mission moment.

If we are brave enough to subject ourselves to the vulnerability of getting lost in translation.

When and if we do (and I hope and pray more Christians after reading this will go to worship in other tongues), we will hear sayings like the following (the basis for our Bible study in Vietnamese today) with new ears, a grammatical spirituality for the refugee moment:

"Prov. 15.1 A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger. 
2 The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly. "


Thursday, June 23, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Offers No Reprieve From Fear

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A father with his baby.

We stand with communities across the U.S. as we continue to fight for family unity even without #DACA #DAPA
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The @LIRSorg statement on today's disappointing news about #DACA and #DAPA.
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Dear Clint,

Today, we share the disappointing news that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a long-anticipated decision in United States v. Texas, providing the final ruling on whether President Obama had the authority to create the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA+) programs.

First announced by President Obama in November 2014, these programs would have provided protection from deportation to approximately 4 million people currently residing in the U.S. without legal status. These programs have been held up in legal battles since a federal judge in Texas first blocked the program.

Regrettably, the Supreme Court ended the wait today by affirming the lower court's ruling with the Justices split 4-4 decision.

This means that the DAPA and DACA+ programs cannot be implemented and those 4 million fathers, mothers, and children hoping for a chance to live without fear of deportation, for a chance to provide robustly for their families and to call themselves Americans, will instead continue to live in the shadows.

Though today's decision does not make changes to the original 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, this ruling will have a major impact on communities, congregations, and millions of families across the country, including U.S. citizen children who will now continue to remain in constant fear of having their families torn apart.

This is a day of grave disappointment. At LIRS, we stand with communities across the United States as we continue to fight for family unity even without the DACA+/DAPA programs. Our hearts go out to the millions of families who live each day with the constant fear of deportation or irreparable family separation. We continue to pray for a day when stability and security is extended to all who call the United States their home.

Until that day, here are some helpful resources for those directly impacted by this decision:

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom

Director for Advocacy
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Pastoral ministry as comprehensive community consultation and catalyzing change

Yesterday Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson came to our church. He met with Canopy NWA, the refugee resettlement agency we have recently formed. His visit was an honor and a surprise. We were surprised he wanted to meet with the organization personally. We were honored that he took the time, and asked such great and open questions.

It makes you a bit nervous to host the governor. We got pie (he liked the apple), and made sure all the wall-hangings were on straight in our conference room.

This entire week, I've been conducting a comprehensive community consultation. It's something Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service does when it is considering opening a new refugee resettlement site. James Horan, Vice President of Refugee and Community Service from Lutheran Family Service of the Rocky Mountains flew out to serve as consultant. It was particularly helpful to hear from him and spend time driving around our region discussing refugee resettlement, because he has some direct experience opening new sites comparable in size to the one we are considering in our region.

We spent some of our time talking with local and state politicians. In addition to the governor, we met with our congressman, Steve Womack, and local representatives like Bart Hester. We know they are ones likely to get calls on politically charged topics like refugee resettlement, so our conversations with them were both courtesy calls to provide information, and space for them to ask questions about our work.

We were surprised, however, to encounter such great support from these elected officials. Invariably, they graciously said, "Let us know how we can help." Even those whose political position runs counter in some ways to the advocacy work of LIRS still expressed support both for immigration and regional refugee resettlement.

I came to the conclusion sitting down at the table with these political leaders that I should schedule even more such face-to-face meetings. It's worth the time, and you find more points of commonality.

Perhaps it's not so surprising. Christ tells us to welcome the refugee, and in spite of political party, all the elected leaders here in Arkansas are committed Christians. We share a sense that welcoming refugees is both Christian, and the right thing to do.

After the political meetings, we headed to other organizations we believe will be instrumental in providing the quality, long welcome we intend to offer for arriving refugees. We toured a portion of the Northwest Arkansas Community College campus, and learned about their robust adult education and ESL offerings.

We also spoke with their department for nursing and medical sciences. That department can't get as many students as they need, and all their students are employed before they even complete the program, the need is so great for medical professionals in Northwest Arkansas.

In fact, this was something we heard repeatedly in all our conversations. Employers are desperate for employees. Unemployment is at 2.1% in our region. Not only are many of the larger companies looking for talent they can draw to the region, they're also seeking more entry-level and unskilled workers in a variety of areas, the largest being, of course, work in the poultry industry.

We met with Mireya Reith, executive director at the Arkansas United Community Coalition and the Immigrant Resource Center. She helped give us a picture of the current advocacy needs for immigrants in Arkansas. Mireya is a long-time political advocate specializing in engaging marginalized communities, and is a wealth of information, passionate about her work. She also was recently elected chair of the state board of education. Spend time with her, and you begin to see how the Latinx community in Northwest Arkansas is already, and is going to be increasingly, a force for good in our community.

We visited with Mike Malone, CEO and executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Council.  The council is the brain child of some of the Fortune 500 companies located in NWA--Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt. They've worked on major projects in our region like the airport and widening the interstate. Now, they're focused especially on diversity and workforce development. They're committeto sustaining and improving Northwest Arkansas as a great place to live and conduct business. They serve as a catalyst and collaborator for finding solutions to the opportunities and challenges facing this thriving region. 

We met with Ed Clifford, CEO of the Jones Trust. He was incredibly warm and supportive. In addition to the community center, which is the most obvious public face of the Jones Foundation (it houses a swimming pool, ice skating ring, gym, and many classrooms and meetings spaces--while we met there yesterday it was hosting the War Eagle day camp), they also have the JTL Shop, a Center for Nonprofits which houses about 80 of the 400 NGOs in Northwest Arkansas.

This includes the Community Clinic, a free clinic that many of our arriving refugees will make use of for health services.

Ed estimates there are 12,000 Marshallese living in Springdale. Add this to the very large Latino population, and you realize how different the Springdale of the 20th century was to the Springdale of the 21st. And again, what all these leaders remark on is the way such diversity has strengthened and contributed to the vitality of the region.

We met with Perry Webb at the Springdale Chamber of Commerce (over the course of our two community consultation weeks we also met with Steve Clarke of the Fayetteville Chamber, and three mayors in the region).

Through these conversations I came to a greater awareness of the strategy in place to facilitate Northwest Arkansas thinking regionally rather than individually by town. We are now one economic and cultural corridor, 525,000 people who make up Northwest Arkansas. And since we're growing (perhaps as many as 40 people per day move to NWA, and Fayetteville anticipates 30% growth by 2030), everyone is aware we need to think intentionally about regional development.

Other past consults have included ESL instructors in the I-40 corridor (NWACC, NTI, public schools, Springer Center, and Ozark Literacy Council), missions pastors at Fellowship Mission Center, public school administrators, Lindsay property developers, public transit officials, Walmart, Tyson, Engage NWA, the Cisneros Center, Community Clinic, dozens of community faith leaders, the Walton Family Foundation (we even had lunch with Lynn Walton), and more.

What's the value of a comprehensive community consultation like this, and in particular, how has it been valuable for me as a pastor? 

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a few years will remember that in past years, I've blogged about walking the neighborhood. Typically this was focused on walking the immediate neighborhood around the church.

It's a very different kind of walk to meet with high-level stakeholders throughout the region, but I have to say, if you have good reason to do so, it's worth your time. As a faith voice in the community, my understanding of the assets and needs of Northwest Arkansas has deepened tremendously because of these conversations. I now have an intimate and face-to-face sense of what motivates our community leaders.

If you're new to a community, I still highly recommend the neighborhood walk. But if you've been in a community a few years, you start to get a sense of its opportunities and strengths. If you are thinking about the work of the kingdom of God and what can be planted in your little corner of a great big world, in the process of planting such ministry you will inevitably impact key stakeholders in the region. So it's good to know them by name, and for them to know you.

In a world continually divided by partisanship, people are desperate for stories of real coalition building, and so another great benefit of such community wide consultation is simple: it plants hope. Not only has this work increased the possibility of collaborative work between NGOs around shared purpose, it is also building collaborative bridges between churches and faith communities that often function in more silo fashion.

When I think about how all this has come together, I get goose bumps. We feel God living and active in our Canopy development work. I feel blessed not only to be part of such an amazing organization, and to work with such a diverse and talented set of volunteers who serve on our board and write our grants and conduct interviews and design web sites and more--I also feel blessed as a pastor to be able to gain an even better picture of our region, so the preaching and pastoral work I do each week can be better informed by the needs and perspectives of our community and region.

Next stops for the community consultation: I'm going to try and meet with Tom Cotton and John Boozman, our senators; drive to Little Rock to take our state refugee coordinator out for lunch; attend a service at the Islamic Center; gather a University of Arkansas symposium; get back to actual walking the neighborhood so I can meet landlords for potential apartments for refugees. In the process, might also just meet potential new congregational members!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How much time should you spend at church per week?

My answer: At least six hours.

Here’s why. First, and most obviously, Christians are called to worship. They observe the Lord’s Day, the Eight Day of creation, and they do so at least weekly (although I find the practice of Roman Catholics and some other communities of going to Mass daily quite beautiful and appealing). 

So at a Lutheran church, that’s at least one hour, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. 

Then, some of our folks are regularly in the habit of coming early for worship, or staying late, for the mutual consolation of the saints. That is, they stand in the narthex and talk. They greet new people. They catch up with friends. They make plans. 

In particular, it’s wonderful when worshippers get to church early, and sit and pray and meditate in the space before worship begins. It creates a sense of the holy.

So let’s say that’s two hours so far.

Third, it is good for people to be in some kind of intentional study, whether that’s Sunday morning forum, or a mid-week small group, or a leadership huddle or a book discussion. So let’s say you study for an hour, and chat or eat a meal around that study—that’s another two hours.

Finally, the church needs, relies on, and thrives because of volunteers serving in many capacities. Not only do we need volunteer leaders who serve on council and committees, coordinate classes and Sunday school, organize social service and advocacy efforts, we also need people who show up week in and week out and make Bears, repair the facility, practice for worship leadership, sing in the choir, pray, sponsor new members, usher, and more.

Add some kind of service into the hours, and there’s six hours. Of course many people willingly and joyously give even more. But six is a good start.

Volunteering at church and for church ministries is not the only way Christians serve in God’s world, but without widespread participation by the members of the church, many roles fall on a few shoulders. 

And if faith in Jesus Christ is indeed a high priority for us, then a commitment to the work of the church and the strengthening of it should take pride of place in our commitments each week.

Because our church is also a catalyst for so much good done in Northwest Arkansas and beyond, it’s good to remember that the good we do can be spread many places, and indeed the majority of it need not be done at church. Consider a few of Luther’s words on good works:

Faith brings with it at once love, peace, joy and hope. For God gives God’s Spirit at once to those who trust Him, as St. Paul says to the Galatians: "You received the Spirit not because of your good works, but when you believed the Word of God.” 
In this faith all works become equal, and one is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, few or many. For the works are acceptable not for their own sake, but because of the faith which alone is, works and lives in each and every work without distinction, however numerous and various they are, just as all the members of the body live, work and have their name from the head, and without the head no member can live, work and have a name. 
From which it further follows that a Christian who lives in this faith has no need of a teacher of good works, but whatever they find to do they do, and all is well done (Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works).

We don’t serve in the church or in the world in order to earn God’s grace or favor, but simply because we are so inspired by what God has done for us that we find ourselves, sometimes even in spite of ourselves, up at church, among our people, doing God’s work. And in that Spirit all is done well.