working out what life and call and prayer and silence are all about

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Our Songs – Her Song

My brain has never been more exhausted. And my heart has never been more full.

I spent a week as part of the Taizé Community this summer. It’s an ecumenical community in southeastern France, established during World War II to promote peace and reconciliation. The community has welcomed young adults for much of its history, and currently hosts up to 5,000 young people each week. They come from all of the different European countries, and from the US and other countries across the globe. They stay in simple dormitories or tents, eat meager vegetarian meals, study the Bible together in small groups, and attend prayer services three times each day, sometimes staying in the church ’til midnight or later, singing the songs of Taizé.

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worshipers continue to sing late into the night at Taizé

The brilliance of these gatherings is that people are coming with a multitude of different languages. Many speak French or German, in addition to their native tongue, and some speak 4 or even 5 languages, because of the variety of cultures scattered throughout their home country. The brothers of Taizé lead a Bible teaching session each morning, in English. And each language group gathers together around one of their own, the person nominated to be translator for the day. For small group discussion, participants can choose a group of people who speak their own language or branch out to an English-speaking group where there might be more variety in backgrounds.

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adult Bible study under the tent at Taizé

As an English-only speaker (more about that embarrassment later) I was blessed to be in a group with people from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. I learned to speak slower so that I could be understood, and to have more patience during discussions so that others would have time to formulate their response in their head, and then translate it into English to be spoken. I learned so much: how faith has guided a new generation in the Czech Republic as they knit their country back together after two generations of communist oppression. I have a new respect for the internal conflict of someone who lives and banks in Switzerland among powerful institutions that are at the center of worldwide greed. I grew in my respect for small nations like the Netherlands and the way they care for the least of their citizens, and how they’re inspiring the next generation to lead.

In addition to this multi-lingual, multi-cultural experience at Bible study and small group time, I also experienced the brain-straining cacophony of meal times. People gathered with the friends they had traveled with, or grouped together with new friends from their home country. Conversations were happening simultaneously in French, German, Dutch, Spanish (Castellano) and Català, Italian, Czech, Swedish, Hungarian, and just a few, in English. I was amazed at the skill of most of my new friends, who could slip in and out of their native language and invite me into a conversation in English without missing a beat. And I discovered a new motivation for learning another language as I tried to get to know people whose language I didn’t speak, and who didn’t speak English. I was less self-conscious and braver about using my meager Spanish because I wanted to get to know an interesting older couple from northern Spain. Their English was about the same level as my Spanish, and we honored each other by trying out words and phrases in each of our languages (combined, of course, with ever-helpful hand gestures and facial expressions!)

The cacophony didn’t just stop at dinner time, though. The multitude of languages is at the heart of worship for Taizé. At Morning Prayer, Mid-day Prayer, and Evening Prayer, the services were filled with songs in multiple languages: French, German, Spanish, Polish, Latin, Czech, Italian, English. The short Scripture reading was done first in French, then in English, and then in a cascade of different languages at each service. The spoken prayers were always given in multiple languages, too, and as the week unfolded, I discovered that I could lose myself in the sounds of other tongues, knowing that we were all praying together.

I began to memorize the songs that formed the core of our prayer services, at first just stringing syllables together, and soon enough being able to pay attention to the English translations so I would have an understanding of the different words and their meanings. I always sat next to different people for the prayer services, and so I improved my pronunciation depending on the native language of those around me. Prayer services began to represent the beauty of the entire experience of Taizé: many people from many languages joining together to seek God’s presence. We were singing Our Songs.

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the Brothers of Taizé line the center of the church for prayer service

But just as it was powerful to experience the multitude of languages, I saw firsthand the power of hearing your native tongue in worship. One of my roommates and fast friends that week was Marta from Barcelona, a city with a proud independent heritage apart from Spain, with its own language: Català. In the early part of the week, we had sung several songs in Spanish – Castellano, to be exact. But it wasn’t until we sang a song in Català that Marta felt at home. I wasn’t educated enough to know the difference between the languages, but my heart could feel the wave of emotion she was experiencing. Tears were trickling down her cheeks at the end of the service when she told me, “That was my song.” Although she had been wholeheartedly joining in the singing of all the songs during the prayer services, at that moment, she felt personally invited into the worship. It was her language. It was her heart. It was Her Song.

We have a continuing conversation in the US in our Anglo churches about how to reach out to the Latino community. And somehow, we are still wondering whether, as pastors and as church leaders, we really need to learn how to speak and lead worship in Spanish. But one thing Taizé taught me is this: a multitude of languages reminds us that our differences come from God, and hearing our own language reminds us that we are each made in God’s image. Worship is both Our Song and My Song. Faith is a language of the heart. Let’s give our welcome in a language of the heart, too.

Beyond setting an example

All my life, I’ve been told that Lutherans evangelize (share the Good News of Jesus) by setting a good example. Our lives are supposed to be so compelling that people will notice our peace and love and joy and simply flock to church to get some of that for themselves. In the 80’s, the ELCA launched a media campaign with photos of a variety of people in their work clothes with the tag line, “You may live next to a Lutheran and not even know it.” We were proud to be anonymous, perhaps as a reaction to the drama of TV evangelists at that time. But the plan continued. In 2002, as a newly ordained pastor, I ordered the latest evangelism DVD, planning to train my parishioners to share their faith more openly in the world. The video arrived, and as I previewed it, I discovered that the entire 15 minute show was void of talking. There was background music with images of Lutherans living their lives, anonymously doing good works, with no reference to how we talk to people about our experience of God’s love. Apparently, we doubled down on our silent evangelism plan.

Leading my first yoga class

Leading my first yoga class

As I began my training as a yoga instructor, I fell into the same trap. I was comfortable on my yoga mat. I could even feel ok about putting that mat in front of a group and going through my own yoga routine for my class to watch. I felt safe on my own mat, experiencing the power and grace of my practice. I was growing stronger and finding inner peace, but what about my students? When I finally looked up, I realized that several of them were floundering, unsure of what pose I was instructing, unclear about where to fold or stretch or twist. Clearly, I had some work to do.

Studying Haley's Trikonasana (triangle pose)

Studying Haley’s Trikonasana (triangle pose)

First, I worked on my language. I had the images of the poses in my mind and the feel of the poses in my body, but I didn’t have the words to convey to others. So I turned to my manual that listed all the steps needed for every pose. I read through the steps, not as a student, but as a teacher. How would I describe that move? Would I use that phrase or would I say it a little differently? As I worked through those decisions, I came up with my own version of the instructions. Then I wrote down my version. I recorded my version. I listened to my version. I began to internalize my own instructions, the description of how the poses work. But I still wasn’t fully ready to get off the mat.

Assisting Linda with Ardha Sarvangasana (half shoulder stand)

Assisting Linda with Ardha Sarvangasana (half shoulder stand)c

It took a lot of courage, a lot of prayer, a lot of deep breaths to take the next step. I had to leave the comfort of my own practice and my personal experience. I couldn’t stay loftily apart on my mat in front of my students. I had to be with them, among them, beside them. I had to learn how to give instructions and then help them follow. I learned which points on the body could lead to a more extended spine, a more comfortable bend, and a deeper twist. And then I had to reach out and touch the people I was trying to help (always asking permission first.)

Helping Linda achieve a deeper stretch in Matsyasana (fish pose)

Helping Linda achieve a deeper stretch in Matsyasana (fish pose)

And after I had finally developed a close relationship with my students (my fellow teachers-in-training), I got to practice even deeper assists. I learned where to place my hands on my student and how to position my legs to protect my back so that I could give this amazing assist for fish pose that feels like a massage on the lower back. I was helping people, really helping where they needed it.

30,000 Lutherans in Detroit!

30,000 Lutherans in Detroit!

Today I’m at the airport after spending the weekend with 30,000 Lutherans in Detroit at the Youth Gathering. For the past three days in a row, groups of youth and adults have blanketed the city, cleaning up parks and planting flowers and boarding up abandoned houses with murals painted at the activity center. And the best part is that they were doing all of this alongside the neighborhoods’ residents. Moms and sons, uncles and grandparents, daughters and friends all turned out to partner with these kids in Skittle-colored T-shirts who came to show God’s love. For some of these Lutherans, traveling to inner-city Detroit to help strangers is a stretch. And for most of them, finding the words to share why they would come so far to do so much is terrifying. My hope and prayer is that along the way, they were able to find their own language, their own version of the gospel story, and share it with confidence and authenticity. Because it’s when we get off our mats and out among our neighbors that we truly discover the power of God alive within us, empowering us to share the story of Christ’s transforming love with the world.

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