Meeting Children Who Have Never Sung “Deep and Wide”

When I was growing up in Mississippi we sang, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that shall turn their hearts to the right.” We had to go so “the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright.” People all over the world were waiting for Southern Baptists to come so “Christ’s great kingdom shall come to earth.”

Missionaries went to distant lands (any country other than the United States) to encourage native women to wear shirts and pagan men not to eat missionaries. Their primary responsibility was to recite the Four Spiritual Laws and lead the foreigners in the sinners’ prayer—which must be in the Bible somewhere.

These superstars came back from the mission field to show slides on Sunday nights: “This is the market where we bought goat brains—which tastes better than it sounds.” “This is the stream in which we beat our clothes against the rock.” “This is the hut where the chief and his seven wives live.”

They told heartbreaking stories about children who have never made a Galilean village out of popsicle sticks! They have never sung “Zacchaeus was a wee little man!!” They do not know the motions to “Deep and Wide!!!”

We were the world’s only hope.

Carol and I finally made it to the mission field. We are 4700 miles from home serving a congregation with twenty nationalities and eighteen denominations. Santiago Community Church in Santiago, Chile, does missions. The congregation cares for disabled adults and abandoned girls. The church includes people who would not find a place in many churches. Worship is sacred and joyful. Bible study is lively and thoughtful. And get this, our church in Chile has offering envelopes, but they don’t have a line on which to write your name. I am used to getting credit when I give money—and a tax break.

Carol and I attended a Catholic service in Spanish in a cathedral that was constructed in 1800 (before there were Southern Baptists). We didn’t understand everything, but we recognized “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”—which was not written by a Baptist—Estad por Cristo firmes. We recited the Nicene Creed—written 1300 years before Baptists existed—Dios de Dios y Luz de Luz, Muy Dios de Muy Dios. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer, Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos. We shared the Lord’s Supper, Este es el cuerpo de Cristo. Worship is filled with hope. The people are filled with Christ.

I was taught that we need to take Jesus to people who were not blessed by God to be born where we were born, but when I got here I learned they have been worshipping Christ for a long time. They are already following Jesus, many more closely than I am.

We interpret the Gospel through the lens of our environment. Churches make assumptions that are not shared by churches in other cultures. Sometimes the individualism in the United States leads to a “just me and Jesus” faith that neglects community. The Chilean people have an amazing commitment to friends and family.

Church functions for many in the United States as a break from their job. In the church I am serving, jobs function for many as a way to live out their faith.

When we tailor the Gospel to fit our desires we end up with a partial gospel. Chileans can’t understand how a “Christian” country could sell handguns at WalMart, a wealthy “Christian” country could allow so many to be homeless, a “Christian” country could support capital punishment, or spend more than half of its discretionary government funding on military purposes.

Maybe sharing the Gospel is just that– sharing the Gospel—exploring the Gospel that is bigger than any country. I will go home to Atlanta with a bigger vision of God and a greater concern for the world. We have a story to tell to the nations, but the nations have a lot of stories we need to hear. We cannot take God anywhere without discovering that God was there long before we arrived. Missions is the opportunity to listen, learn, and share “the kingdom of love and light.”

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Felices son los estúpidos

“Once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” Mrs. Gibbs’ recommendation in Our Town has stuck with me for years, so Carol and I are serving for five months as the interim ministers at Santiago Community Church, a delightful, international, interdenominational, English-speaking congregation in a decidely non-English speaking country.

Before we came to Chile, I prepared. I read Spanish Made Easy. I played a Spanish Word game on my phone that really wants me to know the verb brotar. Apparently a lot of sprouting goes on in the Spanish-speaking world. I listened to 30 podcasts from Johnny Spanish who promised to help me learn Spanish “crazy fast.”

I felt confident, but in retrospect, I missed some warning signs even before we left Georgia. I went to the bank teller whose name tag said, Yo hablo espanol. When I had made my deposito, she said, “I suggest that when you get to Chile you go to the teller with the name tag that says, ‘I speak English’.”

I went to a Mexican restaurant and announced, “Buenos dias. Cómo estás? Estoy aquí para el almuerzo.” My waiter replied, “If you really feel a need to practice your Spanish, I’ll get Maria.  She’s very patient.”

In a blog titled “What Chile is Really Like,” a tourist wrote, “Don’t even think about trying your high school Spanish. They speak way too fast in a language no one teaches. They smile as though you are a first grader who has wandered into Calculus.”

I have been in Chile three weeks and am sure of two things: 1) Any book with “Spanish” and “Easy” in the title was written by someone who has not been to Chile, and 2) Johnny Spanish is a liar.

Our first night a police officer said something that might have been, “It’s really cold. Isn’t it?” so I responded, “Si.” Later I realized that if he had asked, “Are you the bank robber we’re looking for?” my answer would have been a poor choice.

I ordered in Spanish at a Starbucks and was given something I didn’t recognize. Aren’t grande and venti Italian? I got it wrong using three languages.

I was surprised at how many streets are named Marcha Lento until I learned this means “Slow down.”

We went to the cinema and tried to ask what movie would be in English. The ticket salesperson two cash registers away delightedly asked, “May I help you?” Those are the only four English words she knows. “750” sounded expensive until I realized that was when the movie started. We saw Jersey Boys with Spanish subtitles. It isn’t a good movie, but we now know several Spanish profanities.

I listened to a six-piece band on a street corner. When they got to the end, everyone sang along. I wrote down Olvidado el relleno and looked it up when I got home. I am still unclear why they were singing, “I forgot the filling.”

We found a place with “iced tea” on the menu (full disclosure—it is an Applebee’s). I tried to order sweet tea and ended up with vanilla tea, which is not what we drink in Atlanta. And I must have said “no ice” without realizing it.

When asking for an item at the grocery store, I was excited to get directions. Then I realized that they had sent us to the information booth. I couldn’t figure out how to ask for salad dressing. My “salsa para ensalada”—wasn’t recognizable to the information specialist. Then I remembered something Johnny Spanish taught me and tried, “vestida para ensalada.” She didn’t seem to know what a “salad dress” might be. And good luck with attempting to act out contact lens solution.

When Carol and I got in line, I quietly asked the cashier, “What is a good tip for the young man putting our four items into a bag?” She answered “One hundred pesos,” but Carol had already made the bag boy delirious with a tip considerably larger.

Here are the phrases I’m working on now: Mi español es malo. (My Spanish is bad.) No entiendo. (I don’t understand.) Por favor habla despacio. (Please speak slowly.) Me lo puede repetir? (Could you repeat that?) Sólo voy a estar hablando en tiempo presente. (I will only be speaking in present tense.)

We went to a worship service at the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago that was entirely in Spanish. The music was wonderful. I didn’t know many of the words, but something holy was happening. Some ways of communicating are beyond the words.

When Jesus was blessing the meek, poor, and those who mourn, he may have considered, “Felices son los estúpidos, porque aprenderan la humildad” (Blessed are the stupid, for they will learn humility). Learning to measure myself and others by something more than the words we choose might be worth the trip.

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