Friday, May 26, 2006

Guyana - May, 2006

One of the religious traditions in Guyana is to hold a worship service nine nights after a death. The “Nine Night Service” – which finds its origins in the Hindu religion and East Indian culture – usually takes place late in the evening at the deceased’s home. The Nine Night does not replace the funeral, but rather, it happens in addition to it. And so, for those serving as pastors in Guyana, whenever there is a death you can assume you’ll be leading at least two worship services: the funeral at the church, as well as the Nine Night at the home.

A few weeks ago a popular tavern owner named Herman passed away. Since his home was located on the top floor of his business (here we call them “Rum shops”), and because he was a well-known man in the community, I knew his Nine Night was going to be one to remember! And as if Herman’s popularity wasn’t enough, because he died on a Friday morning, the “ninth night” after his death would be the following Saturday. I thought, “Saturday night at the Rum Shop? You’ve got to be kidding me!” I looked at my calendar and couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was going to lead a worship service on a Saturday evening at one of the village’s most popular rum shops! Oh boy!

When I arrived at Herman’s Rum Shop, his darling wife – known in the neighborhood as “Aunty Berta” – greeted me with a big hug and a giant smile. She told me there would be a “great turnout” for the service because she told “all her friends” to come, and of course – “Saturday nights are always busy here!” When I looked in the next room I could see she wasn’t kidding! The Nine Night wasn’t scheduled to start for another twenty minutes, yet the shop was already jam-packed with people. The place was bustling with activity – some were sipping drinks, a few were smoking cigarettes, and most everyone was eating large plates of fried rice with chicken. I estimated that 80% of the people were non church-going folks, so I knew this would be a lot of fun!

I’ve been to some energetic worship services in my young life – but the crowd at Herman’s rum shop was out of this world! Most of the people there hadn’t been to church in years, yet they sang those hymns like it were Saturday night karaoke! It was an incredible experience, for throughout the evening I was seeing and hearing things I’d never experienced before: Instead of hearing “Amen” from a Sunday morning congregation, I heard “Hell yeah” from a rambunctious Saturday night crowd! Instead of sharing bread and wine around an altar, these people were gathered with chips and beer around bar stools! It was crazy! Of course, there were a few times that I looked to the heavens and wondered whether or not God was going to strike us down with a bolt of lightning, but I figured – they always say “God works in mysterious ways!”

When it came time for me to speak, I tried to seize the opportunity as best I could. I knew God was up to something that night. Typically, when religious leaders step inside a rum shop, they do so with the intent of condemning and/or scaring people into going to Church – the kind of “fire and brimstone” thing that Guyana sees way too much of. The people were expecting to hear words of criticism and disapproval, so I decided to give them a big surprise: I told them the Good News. I told them how Jesus loved spending time with people like them! I told them that Jesus was always being criticized for eating with the “non-church” folk. And of course, I reminded them that God’s love extends to all people, regardless of who they are or what mistakes they’ve made. When it was all said and done, I invited them all to join the Lutheran Church down the street – because “that’s where imperfect people hang out to listen to their imperfect pastor speak about a perfect God who loves imperfect people”.

The next morning, five men from the tavern showed up at church. I could tell they were a bit uncomfortable sitting among all the “churchy folk” (and of course, I could tell they were a bit weary from staying up late the night before…), but our people did a great job of welcoming them. Various church members helped the men through the parts of the service they didn’t understand, they showed them when to sit and when to stand, and of course – they invited them back to church for the following week. As I thought about everything that happened during the course of that weekend, I couldn’t have been more pleased: we honored Herman’s memory, we worshiped God, and we showed five men just how serious we are about loving others (and thankfully, the Lord did not send a lightning bolt to punish me for having a service in a Rum Shop!). What can I say? The Lord does work in mysterious ways!

On June 11th I will celebrate my 1-year anniversary of being an ordained Lutheran pastor, and on June 15th I will celebrate my 10-month anniversary of service here on the east coast of Guyana. What have I learned? First of all, I’ve learned that I’ve got a lot left to learn! But other than that, I’ve learned that people are more important than programs, wisdom is more valuable than knowledge, and a commitment to open-mindedness makes the world a better place. Also, I’ve learned that not everything appears as it seems, there are at least two sides to every story, and that “those who generalize generally lie”! And of course – because of experiences like the one I had at Herman’s Rum Shop, I’ve learned more about the gracious love of God, remembering that those whom the church often turns its back to are the same people Jesus opened his arms to.

I’ve learned a great deal in the past year, and I hope to learn much more in the years ahead. I continue to thank God for amazing opportunity to serve alongside the people of Guyana, and I pray that God will continue to find creative and exciting ways to work through such an imperfect soul like me.

I thank you for the continued prayers and support…

With peace and love in Jesus’ name,