Sabbatical Reflections

Psalm 149

I’ve spent the last three months trying to learn a new song. Well, not a song — exactly. I’m not much of a singer. I’ve been trying to learn a new language, gain some new understandings, and find some fresh inspiration.

Now that I’m back, I want to share all three with you.

It has been important, I think, for me to disengage for a few months so that I can fully re-engage for the years that lie ahead. Our God is not pleased by ministry that is routine and repetitive. Instead, God expects ministers to offer insight and inspiration. “Sing to the LORD a new song,” says Psalm 149. Yes, a new song. Not an old favorite. Not a predictable tune. Not one that makes us feel comfortable. One that is fresh, surprising and maybe a bit challenging.

For me, the big challenge of sabbatical has been learning a new language. For four weeks, I sat down with my teacher in Honduras, one-on-one for four hours a day, trying to learn the Spanish language. We started at Ground Zero, with simple greetings: “Hola! Hola! Cómo está? Muy bien!”

He corrected me every time I made a mistake. Every. Single. Time. I could hardly get through a sentence without a correction. The entire experience was very humbling.

But over time, I learned. I would even say, “Yo aprendí mucho” — I learned a lot. Now I am excited about being able to communicate with our Spanish-speaking neighbors here in the City of Fairfax. I look forward to developing relationships, and finding ways to make our church an even more inclusive “house of prayer for all peoples.” I don’t see myself preaching in Spanish — I’m still speaking at about the first-grade level. But I’d like to reach out in friendship, and make some connections.

When you think about it, our church is already well-positioned to serve Latino families. Their children and youths are already bilingual, and can benefit immediately from our programs. Yena and the Sunday Express program; Tempest and the Youth Fellowship; Erin and the children’s music program — all are ready to welcome children and youths from Latino families. As I work to build bridges, I’ll try to find ways to serve parents as well — maybe by doing something as simple as offering space for a Spanish-language Bible study, or hosting a workshop on immigration law.

Now maybe you are wondering: Why is this important? Why should this be part of ministry at FPC?

Quite simply, I think that Psalm 149 is correct when it says, “the LORD takes pleasure in [God’s] people; [God] adorns the humble with victory.”

This means not only that God loves us, but that God takes pleasure in us — every single one of us. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, single or married, gay or straight, white or brown or black — God takes pleasure in you. You bring delight to God’s heart. This is not because of anything you have done, but because of who you are — you are part of God’s people. And I think that God is most filled with pleasure when all of God’s people are together, in a house of prayer for all people.

Three weeks ago, I was able to spend the weekend in North Carolina with Terry and Nancy White. They are part of the United Church of Chapel Hill, which has an innovative service called La Mesa. That’s Spanish for “The Table,” and it is a service that takes place every Sunday around the Communion table. The service is bilingual, offered in English and Spanish, and is led by David Mateo, a pastor from Honduras. The service is attended by many Spanish-speaking members, as you might imagine, but it also attracts a lot of English-speaking members. They enjoy a service that is a visible reminder that “the LORD takes pleasure in [God’s] people” — all of God’s people.

I also want to call your attention to the second half of this verse from Psalm 149, because it is important as well — “[God] adorns the humble with victory.” God not only takes pleasure in God’s people, but God adorns the humble with victory. This is where the first goal of my sabbatical, to learn a new language, shifts to the second goal of my time away — to gain some new understandings. My struggle with Spanish has opened my eyes to the great things that God is doing through God’s humble Spanish-speaking children.

My friends in Honduras are some of the most faithful and humble people that I know. I’m so happy that I could introduce my wife Nancy to them, when she joined me for a week of Spanish-language study. They are friends who are already known to the Midlife Men on a Mission, who have been to Honduras for 12 mission trips since 2004. By the way, we still have space in this year’s trip, which will be for a week in early November. Speak to me after the service, if you are interested.

“God adorns the humble with victory.” I see this in Nahun, a young man who grew up an orphan, and was actively recruited by a Honduran gang. His life was saved by the Youth for Christ organization, which he now serves as a leader.

“God adorns the humble with victory.” I see this in Kelvin, a teacher in a bilingual school who had to travel to Guatemala at age 14 to identify his father’s dismembered body. He is a faithful Christian who plays in his church’s praise band on Sundays.

“God adorns the humble with victory.” I see this in Yahaira, a young woman that our Midlife Men on a Mission have been supporting financially for many years. She graduated from a bilingual school in the town of La Entrada, and is now studying medicine in a university in San Pedro Sula. Her success will help to lift her entire family out of poverty.

One of my new understandings is that our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters can teach us a lot about the power of the Christian faith. They know a truth that one of my pastor friends has shared, “If you are not hungry for God, you are probably full of yourself.” When we connect with our faithful and humble brothers and sisters, we don’t simply help them — they help us.

Yes, that’s right — they help us. They help us to trust God more fully, and have faith that God will give us victory over anything that afflicts us. They show us how we — in the words of Psalm 149 — can be glad in our Maker, rejoice in our king, and make melody to God. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I can learn a lot from Christians who have found a way to live joyful lives after growing up in poverty and violence and pain.

Of course, I don’t want you to get the impression that life in Honduras is all misery. When I was leaving my language school to return home in mid-August, I took a mini-bus from the town of Copan Ruinas to La Entrada. The bus was made for 15 people, and I was packed in with 25. Next to me was a young woman with a smiling toddler on her lap. Behind me was a woman with a live chicken in a plastic grocery bag. At one point, we slowed to go past a truck that was broken down in the road. The trailer of the truck was an enormous cage, filled with tigers. I am not kidding. Everyone on the bus broke out in huge smiles, and began to snap pictures. Even in a very poor country, life is filled with wonderful surprises.

So, I’ve learned a new language — sort of. I’ve gained some new understandings of what our Latino neighbors can teach us. And I’ll conclude with my fresh inspiration for ministry here at FPC.

One day in Honduras, I was joking around with the little brother of Yahaira, the young woman supported by our Midlife Men. I was using a very simple Spanish phrase to ask him a bunch of different questions. The phrase is, “Tú tienes,” which means, “Do you have?”

I asked him, “Tú tienes perros” — Do you have dogs? “Tú tienes gatos” — Do you have cats? “Tú tienes cerdos” — Do you have pigs? The answer to that one was yes — he had pigs. Or, at least he used to have pigs. He sold most of them to provide for himself and his family.

Then I asked him, “Tú tienes hambre?” That one made him laugh, because it took the phrase in a different direction. “Tú tienes hambre” means “Are you hungry?” Literally, it means, “Do you have hunger?”

That’s the inspiration I bring back from my sabbatical today. “Tú tienes hambre?” Do you have hunger? What are you craving as we begin this program year together?

God sent Jesus into the world to feed hungry people

  • People who had empty stomachs.
  • People who were hungry for healing.
  • People who felt empty and alone.
  • People who needed forgiveness.
  • People who longed for love and acceptance.
  • People who hungered for justice.

Jesus asked the question, “Tú tienes hambre” — Do you have hunger? And then he took action to eliminate that hunger. He filled empty stomachs, healed the sick, befriended the lonely, forgave the sinful, loved all people, and established a kingdom of justice and righteousness.

I believe that this should be our question as well, as we look at each other and look at the community around us. “Tú tienes hambre” — Do you have hunger?

Maybe you have a hunger to sing praise to God in worship … we can satisfy that need together. Sanghwa, we are going to miss you so much, but I promise that we will continue the beautiful music that you have made with us for almost nine years.

Maybe you have a hunger for deep-spirited friendships — we can satisfy that need in our congregation’s small groups.

Maybe you have a hunger for civil conversations about important topics — we can satisfy that need in our Christian Formation classes.

Maybe you have a hunger for changing the world as it is into the world as it should be — we can satisfy that need in our Mission Outreach efforts and in our service to our community.

Yena, I want to thank you and the rest of the staff, along with your team of lay preachers, for feeding this congregation so well over the past three months. Now that I’m back, let’s continue to look for where people have hunger, and work to satisfy it together.

I hope that my new language, my new understandings, and my fresh inspiration will help us all to do God’s work in this place.

“Yo tengo hambre” — I have hunger. Hunger to make this church an even better house of prayer for all peoples. Let’s satisfy this hunger together.



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