Sunday Church Service

Elle writes about a recent worship service at her site:

It was a hot Sunday morning and the room was full. During the service a woman got up to give an item. She sat in front of the congregation and sang a song that she had written on a piece of paper that she was holding. All that accompanied her song was the soft humming that came from some in the congregation as we sat swaying and listening to her musical offering. When she was finished we clapped and a song struck out as we sang her back to her seat.

Then as we sang another song a group of men made their way to the front to offer their music. They sang a song from the hymnal in great harmony. I followed along as my mom pointed out which one they were singing from. When they finished, we again bursted out into song. This song lifted people from their seats. The Spirit took some from their chairs and moved them into the aisle. I was on the end of our row witnessing a little girl dancing in the aisle. Then a woman joined her. Then two other women and a man danced their way to join in the joyous event in the aisle. I beamed and danced watching and singing. One of the women noticed and invited me to join their circle. I instantly jumped in and joined their stomping, dancing, singing, and shouting as we praised God with the voices and energy of the congregation.

It was loud. People were singing as loud as they could. One woman we were dancing with had a whistle she was blowing. Others were clapping. People were using their books as drums to hit and make loud praise. Women (including myself) shouted and cheered as we sang and danced.

Church lasted three hours on that hot Sunday. But I did not notice. The Spirit took hold of that Sunday and it was holy, full of praise and joy, restoration and peace. 

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Sugar Cane Shepherds

Laura (on the right) hangs out with co-YAGM, Taisha, during a recent retreat

Laura (on the right) hangs out with co-YAGM, Taisha, during a recent retreat

Laura reflects upon sugar cane farmers, shepherds, and God’s love for everyone:

Each week day morning and afternoon, my host father goes to a farm to lead a devotion for the farm workers. There are about ten different farms that he ministers to around the area I am living in. Each different farm is run and owned by white farmers who provide housing and wages for the black African farm workers and their families. The work they do depends on which growth phase the sugar cane is in. Most of the work is difficult physical labor including: planting, weeding, hoeing, cutting, burning, hauling, and packing onto the trucks.

Some days I wake up and go with my host father, and as much as I am not a “morning person” and love to sleep in, I have begun to look forward to these particular mornings. We leave our house at about half past five, with a coffee mug in hand. We drive through the foggy, mist covered dirt roads that my father has driven thousands of times. I however, cannot usually tell where we are going, as the vast fields of sugar cane are all I can see through each side window of the car. When we arrive, we greet the workers and I lead one of the isiZulu songs that my host siblings have taught me. My father then shares scripture and a message, and I end the devotion with a prayer which my father translates into isiZulu for the workers.

This past week the scripture for the devotion came from Luke 2:8-12:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The farm workers are like the shepherds. They do not get recognition or praise for the work they do, but it is some of the most important work in the community. Without the harvest these workers do, other people in the sugar cane factories would not have work either. Therefore, I would argue that these beginning stages are the most important, because they are the start to the long process the cane goes through, ensuring jobs for so many South Africans. The work the farmers do is seen as the lowest of jobs by other Africans. However, these workers are committed day after day in order to provide for their families and communities.

And God comes to these people, just like he came to the shepherds. He comes to bring them good news, and says that this good news is for ALL people. Economic or social status does not matter when God sends His angels to share the joy of Jesus Christ. The shepherds hurry off to Bethlehem to witness this good news they have heard, and in Luke 2:20, they return back glorifying and praising God for the joy of the birth of Jesus Christ.

There is hope for each one of the farm workers I worship with during my time here. And there is hope for all people in South Africa, and in the world, because of the day when the angel came to the shepherds in the fields. In this Advent season, through  our struggles, we can live and wait in hope for the Christ who comes to ALL of us, regardless of our background.

I know Christmas will be different over here, much simpler than the past ones I have celebrated in Minnesota which have good intentions but are often filled with an over-abundance of food, unnecessary consumerism, and plenty to distract me from the reason we celebrate Christmas. I am anxious to see how the traditions, church services, meals, and family time over  here will reflect what we are truly celebrating, Christ’s birth. The first Christmas in Bethlehem was so very simple, and I am hopeful that Christmas here will be filled with that simple mindset of the one who comes to bring us everlasting joy.

Listen Deeply

DSC01020Jen writes about listening deeply in her new place:

Heerlikste Jesus, sterke Wereldheerser, koning op die hemeltroon, lof, dank en ere aan U, o Here, my hart se vreug mi siel se kroon….

You catch that? No? Me either. While I’m in the process of learning Afrikaans, everyday conversation is still way beyond me.

In case you were wondering, that was the first verse of the hymn “Beautiful Savior.” All of our church services are almost completely in Afrikaans. At first I was a little frustrated with the fact because it meant I had no idea what was going on for a good deal of the service. I have to take cues from everyone around me about when to stand up, sit down, sing, or when something else happens. Having no access to what was going on was tough until I began to listen to the messages behind the words.

Unplanned harmonies ring throughout the crowded chapel as people from all different walks of life come together to create one beautiful song of worship. I may not understand what the words mean but just listening to the sound of so many voices coming together as one speaks volumes about how God can bring people together in peace. The joy on people’s faces as they sing and greet one another speaks more than their words could say.

In some ways the language barrier has been a blessing.—it is forcing me to think with my heart instead of my head for once. Without the easiness of communication through language I have to listen deeply to intent rather than content to understand. Yet in slowing down enough to do so I feel like I am looking at church and life in a way I never have before: in paying attention to the very real joy and peace and community that church is meant to be all about.

Celebrating Eternal Life

Laura eats a traditional Zulu meal during orientation.

“The fact that we have eternal life is not something we take lightly here in South Africa. It isn’t something we can just blow by quickly…but something that we can celebrate each day”.

As I sat in Dean Mkaya’s (my host pastor here) pick-up truck, he told me about  the importance of funerals here. It was late one Saturday afternoon and we were driving back to Pietermaritzburg after being out in the more rural area for almost seven hours! It was a day spent at a funeral, followed by a burial, unveiling of a tombstone, and then a feast of delicious traditional Zulu food. Though the day had been exhausting, I didn’t mind the time it took to travel home, because the scenery of the hills and fields still amazes me each time I travel anywhere here. Dean Myaka graciously invited me to come along to this funeral to experience an important part of the culture here. The funeral was all spoken in the native language here, isiZulu, so I did not understand anything they were saying. Luckily, the Dean preached at this particular funeral, so the majority of our drive home was him explaining to me what his sermon was about, in English! He described why the funeral service was almost five hours long, his cultural and religious views on death, and the impact it has on communities here. It all goes back to the quote I shared previously at the beginning of this paragraph…  We discussed how it is healthy to grieve, but it is also healthy to celebrate the life a person has lived on earth, and to look forward to the eternal life we are promised through Christ Jesus. Here in South Africa, funerals are seen as a celebration; a time to celebrate life and the hope we can live in each day. Talking with the Dean took me back to several conversations I have had with my mother about funerals. She has always told me how she wants her funeral to be a party, a celebration, a time where people can acknowledge that though her life on earth is done, her life has really just begun! During the funeral service, the lady I sat next to graciously shared her isiZulu worship hymnal with me so I could sing along to the songs. I was surrounded by tears of joy, beautiful voices, laughter, and random shouts of praise and felt quite silly actually, as I tried to sing along to tunes I had never heard and words I had never said. I’m sure my voice was adding some interesting harmonies just by trying to sing and I knew that my Minnesotan accent stood out more than usual at this point… but what a neat feeling it was to sing with others in another language, especially in worship setting. So though I was confused for the majority of the time, this idea became insignificant. More importantly than me trying to sing the right words and emphasize the correct syllables, was the fact that no matter what we sounded like, all of our voices were uniting together to worship our Lord, and that was a beautiful sound.