By Tom Holmes
Praying in my "heart language"
I attended the Service of Lesson and Carols Sunday afternoon at Concordia University. For me it was a beautiful, prayerful experience.
But as I reflected on why it was so moving for me, I realized that it not only felt like what I had grown up with but also fit nicely with my cultural sensibilities. I grew up in a Norwegian Lutheran Church in Manitowoc, WI and then went to St. Olaf College—more of the same.
My ethnic roots are northern European. In that culture, the primary values are hard work, frugality, fitting in, modesty and control of one’s emotions. No wonder I rejoiced—but worked hard not to show it—at the Concordia service.
Everyone was dressed the same. The choir members all wore white albs and the students in the orchestra all wore black. There was no stylin’. When the choir sang, they sang as one voice. There was no “warbling” by the strongest singer. In fact there were few solos, and in the three solos I heard, there was no improvisation. Blending in is a higher value than standing out.
When you go into a Lutheran church, chances are that the choir will be seated in a balcony in the rear along with the organist. Your job is not draw attention to yourself, but to direct worshipers’ attention toward God. . .from behind.
There were no shouted amens, no falling out in ecstasy, no standing up and waving arms in the air when the Spirit moved people. The Spirit was moving and many felt great emotion, but the norm is to keep it inside and under control.
The music was good and at times great, but there was no applause at the end. It was a worship service, and modest, humble people don’t want to receive praise or recognition for themselves. Soli Deo Gloria.
Now, it can be argued that this kind of sensibility made Hitler possible. There’s some truth in that. But it’s also true that this culture enabled Deutschland to rebound from the devastation of WWII and become Europe’s strongest economy.
What I know is that it fit my temperament. Several times during the service there were tears in my eyes and I had to work hard to control my emotions lest I be embarrassed. For better and for worse, I felt at home two nights ago at Concordia.
When the Thai congregation came to my church in 1992 and asked if they could share the building with us, one elderly German guy asked, “Why don’t you all learn English and join our congregation?”
The answer to that question, which I have learned in 19 years of working with the Thais, is that when people pray, they need to do so in their heart language. For people from Thailand that means not only speaking in Thai, but also taking pictures during the service of everything that is happening, sitting through long sermons, watching beautiful, slender young women dance prayerfully in the classical Thai style and having a feast of Thai food following the service. Coffee and cookies just won’t do.
I’ve been to a lot of services as a reporter—high Mass when the Cardinal is present, Quaker silence, Buddhist meditation, Hasidic Jews rocking back and forth at a minyon, black preachers shouting, crying and dancing on the stage while a rockin’ gospel band plays Jesus Lifted Me.
There was something good and attractive in all of those settings. It was, however, in the ambience I experienced at Concordia last Sunday that I was able to worship in my heart language and really pray.