World Council of Churches: Worship Thoughts – Words

Dr. Mark Taylor posting live from South Korea:

The text for this morning’s prayer and Bible study was Acts 2 – the story of the day of Pentecost. This text has me thinking about words: words spoken, words heard, and words printed.

Straight out of the theophany tradition of the Hebrew Bible, the rush of a violent wind accompanied by fire; but rather than on a mountaintop, in a domestic space, “filling” the entire house. The little band of Jesus followers “filled” with the Holy Spirit, or, some said, just “filled” with new wine. In this story, the immediate result of wind and fire, the Spirit’s filling, is speech – such that the multicultural, multilingual crowd gathered in the city heard about God’s deeds of power each in their own native language.

I’ve lost count of how many languages have been used in a week of prayer and worship at the World Council of Churches assembly. Printed resources are in five “official” languages: English, French, Spanish, German, and Korean. (I’ll photograph and post a typical page from a morning prayer service.) But we’ve also sung in Portuguese and Finnish, and heard scripture read in Greek and one of the languages of the Solomon Islands.

I dare say it is healthy, if disorienting, for everyone here to experience Christian prayer in a native language other than their own. The Christian household is incredibly diverse and I for one need to practice the ecumenism of “not without the other” in my worship of God. That said, English is the “Lingua Franca” (ha-ha!) the default language of the assembly – the one language the largest majority speaks, at least as a second or third tongue. I was deeply moved by praying a prayer of confession in French and singing a hymn about Jesus’ baptism in German (to a Russian orthodox tune). But once more I am privileged to have lived and prayed in those two other European languages before. My prayer Korean is way more limited than the minimal “hello” (an nyeong ha se yo), “please” (bu tak ham ni da), and “thank you” (gam sa ham ni da) I struggle to get out of my mouth.

At each prayer service, the intention has been to unite us all in praying one specific prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, each in our own native language. The problem has been that if the person (or pair of persons) leading did not make it clear somehow that that’s what we were about to do, this one united prayer became awkward  and anemic. Makes me realize once again how important strong leadership is for effective Christian communal worship. But how does that leadership remain inviting of all, open, respectful and not colonial or hegemonic?

In a highly literate culture for most of us, most of the time, how do we rescue Christian worship from being merely an exercise in the reading of printed words? Can, how can, the worship aid (in whatever language) become again a script for a drama we will all act out together bodily? Yesterday, most of the people around me were dutifully reading along in the book’s printed version of the story in Acts 8 of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch — the encounter of two foreigners trying to speak to one another and understand Scripture: a perfect emblem of moment by moment encounters here in Busan — and missed watching and feeling the three Indonesian Christians who enacted the three voices in the story (narrator, eunuch, and Philip). Can, how can, we Western Christians, especially, liberate our worship practices from the printed page to take up deeper roots in our hearts and bones and muscles?

I wonder, on this Pentecost day at the assembly, with what am I (are we) filled? And I wonder what forms of communication – nonverbal as well as verbal – the filling of wind and fire and Spirit might empower in us (me)? But best of all – thanks to the Tongan Bible study facilitator today – I wonder if the real miracle of Pentecost has more to do with listening to others with new ears than speaking with a new tongue.

~Dr. Mark Lloyd Taylor

Faculty Reflections