One Sunday recently when I was in Central America I attended an English (Gringo) service hosted by the Spanish (Tico) congregation my brother and his wife and other gringo missionaries in the area are part of.
These Gringos (mainly my brother’s family and another family) are involved with setting up a Christian Private school, and have roles in running an addiction treatment ministry, and helping out in a ministry that takes young girls out of the sex trade and teaches them English so they can get jobs in the regular tourist trade and support their families that way instead. It is all great ministry and all three are growing. The lady who was in charge of the Addiction treatment facility has been there 10 years, and clearly has deep connections, relationship and respect from the Ticos. She showed me the Saturday market, and it took us quite some time to walk from one end to the other with all the hello’s and greetings and meetings we had on the way. That respect seems to be the fruit of a combination of her personality and a factor of having put in a long time in the community. All three missions, and even the Gringo congregation, had stories about the difficulty of getting government permits in writing. The more I heard and saw, the more I think it has to do with an innocent, well-meaning arrogance Gringos bring with them, that the Ticos see and smell but that is inodible (I made that word up spellchecker) to the carriers of it. I have developed this radar that is always asking “What am I communicating that I am blind to” and that radar leads me to that awareness.
Back to the worship service. When you are not at home you expect to experience something different. I did. I was not prepared to be so disturbed by a sermon though.
The ‘pattern’ of worship there is to start with a set of worship songs that move from enthusiastic, to pensive, to a ‘pentecostal’ mood and then finishing with a rousing chorus repeated multiple times. After that came announcements, offering, and then the message to close the service.
It began with the obvious challenge of musicians leading us in worship using their second language. I was deeply appreciative of the musicians (the great drummer was only 12 and had been drumming since he was 4) being willing to risk this as hosts. When you are worshiping in a second language, and you get to the part of worship where you usually lose yourself in adoration and pentecostal praise, reverting to your mother tongue is understandable. Meaning it’s ok with me as a Gringo, even if I can’t understand. And yes, the irony of reverting to one’s first language in a “Pentecost” moment is rich and wonderful for a Reformed guy to observe.
The musicians finished and left.
At that point the congregated are all older but-able-to-travel-and-be-active Americans, and my brother’s young family, and the lady from the addiction treatment center and her young son and teen daughter.
Then some announcements.
Then the pastor asks someone to come forward to tell of some mission work they do. It’s a near 60 yr old builder guy from Tennessee or some place like that, who tells of his conversion 6 years before, and how he a year later felt God telling him to go to poor countries and build houses to North American specs (double pane windows) and ready for plumbing and electric if the people want to put them in later (but no one does) to give them away. He tells of how it has grown, and how they’ve done 12 houses now, and if you want support or be part of a team etc etc etc. And I was wondering how helpful that kind of thing really is, but when he asked for questions I stayed quiet. I’m a guest. I don’t want to make trouble for my brother and his wife’s reputation. I had already asked some pointed questions at the open house for the new home some of the same people had built that was to be a group home for the girls who had been rescued from their pimps. Questions like “What do you do to be careful to respect their cultural patterns, like their more lax approach to time, (which I admire and envy) and not turn them into little American Northern Europeans? And in fact could that be one of the resistance factors in getting government permits?” Like that. It’s what I do. But I began to realize these people were not used to thinking that way, and didn’t really understand what was behind the question… they are convinced they are doing a good thing (and they are) and don’t understand why not everyone rushes in to support it.
So I stayed still in church.
Then the scripture was read.
Hebrews 11:6, which we were told was a context where the writer was talking about faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The word “earnestly” or “diligently” became the focal point of a sermon that substantially was a contrasting of lazy and diligent, with a long string of “definition of lazy” jokes being the counterpoint to the diligence. “When the remote is 10 feet away and you decide you like the rerun after all… that’s laziness and not diligence” that kind of thing.
The theme statement or big idea seemed to be “Work hard, don’t be lazy, and you will please God enough that things will work out for you” with the caveat that a prosperity gospel was not what was being preached. There was no caveat about works righteousness.
Very soon I began realizing that my experience of the faith journey, and my understanding of the passage, was completely different than his. My experience was that a certain kind of ‘trying hard’ that he was describing, for me almost always led to problems, and that a recognition that my effort was not the key but my relaxing into God’s will for the moment led to all kinds of great results my efforts had little to do with. I saw and heard the passage saying “Faith in God leads to God being pleased, coming to God in belief leads to pleasing God, earnestly seeking relationship with God leads to rewards that are freaky and wonderful and amazing and unimaginable beforehand.
So there I was, believing the complete opposite of what he was preaching. And I was seeing how a message like this was perpetuating the inodible problems and barriers. And I was frustrated.
Now, that all would have been workable, if this was not a “call for response” insecure preacher. But, alas, he kept asking “are you with me? Let me hear an Amen!” and at my toughest point he directly asked “Do you agree with me? I need to hear if you agree with me!” and I made myself look over at my brother’s family and think about what damage I might do to their work there if I told out loud what I was thinking and feeling, and I kept quiet.
Later, when I had time at the poolside to reflect, I came to realize how important it is to hear a bad sermon now and then, how it can sharpen your awareness of God’s ways.