Songs sound different in Guatemala. Words of hope lift up from the melody as clearly and easily as a layer of cream from a gallon of farm-fresh milk. On Sunday, June 16th, while in Guatemala for a couple classes with Spring Arbor University, I had two profound experiences of worship.
After several days of intense encounters with injustice, I was very happy to join God’s people in worship at Casa de Dios. My spirit was in need of a “release” of praise through song. Whether I knew the songs or not, I sensed a freedom in my spirit to sing out words of trust and confidence in a God who sees, hears, knows and deeply loves.
This was my first profound worship experience of the day.
One of the songs I recognized and resonated with at Casa de Dios was a long-time favorite entitled “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes. Verse two proclaims that God, in the person of Jesus, humbly came to earth and became poor for the sake of love. It’s very similar to the Apostle Paul’s quotation of an early Christian hymn: “And being found in human form, (Jesus) humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (New Revised Standard Version, Phil. 2.7-8). Christ became poor as he emptied himself of his rights as God. As if that weren’t enough, Christ became poor by allowing himself to be born into obscurity and poverty.
Christ’s “downward mobility” hit me head-on as I stood in the midst of a people who were experiencing darkness, injustice, poverty, and affliction beyond what anyone should ever have to bear. Yet the massive new building where we worshiped, safely nestled in the hills, far removed from the bleakness of the city, seemed to contradict everything we had experienced earlier in the week.
It was rather unsettling to stand in such an expensive building and sing about a God who became poor.
Even more unsettling, it reminded me of the idols of money, power, and success, which are so pervasive in the North American Church today.
In the light of modern-day injustices, such as abject poverty, modern slavery, sex-trafficking, racism, gender inequality, environmental abuse, and so much more, is Jesus really calling us to build bigger buildings? Or is he inviting us back into the heart of the city with the needs of the city at the center of our heart? If not the church, who will come alongside broken people with the hope and the help they so desperately need?
These are the questions I wrestled with as we drove down the hills, back into the sprawling inner-city.
After returning to our hotel from Casa de Dios, I took a walk through Zone 10 in Guatemala City and wandered past a small church. It was called “Shekinah Centro Christiano.” Triumphant melodies were pouring out into the street and I felt led by the Holy Spirit to turn in to the church doors.
I walked past a small, beautiful courtyard as several smiling Guatemalans greeted me. One of the ushers handed me a bulletin and took me to a seat in the third row. I didn’t have a choice. Now I was in it for the duration!
This church had no more than 150 people, all standing and worshiping with passion and conviction.
Again, I didn’t know the Spanish words, but I tried to listen for familiar tunes and sing along in English. I was completely overwhelmed when they began to sing, “You are my hiding place.” I wept as they sang these words in Spanish: “Tu eres mi protector / Llenas mi corazon / Con catico de liberacion / De aungustia me libreras / Confiare en Ti.” (You are my hiding place. You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you.”)
In that moment I felt solidarity with a people who have been singing songs of deliverance for centuries. As if that weren’t enough, as I stood there singing with tears streaming down my face, a little old lady to my right put her hand on my shoulder and started praying for me in Spanish. I put my hand over hers and just trusted in the presence of God in that moment. Even though I didn’t know what she was saying, I was sure that God knew, and he was using her to get to me. Next she put her hand on my forehead, then my heart, all the while praying for me. Finally, she grabbed my hand and lifted it up as we praised God together – “Alleluia, Alleluia, For the Lord God Almighty Reigns. Holy, Holy are you, Lord God Almighty. Worthy is the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb. You are Holy.”
How can I ever ask again, “Where are you, God, in the midst of such poverty and pain” without remembering his power and presence in that small church in Guatemala?
If God’s grace, like water, “flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places,” as Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke surmise in their book,“Geography of Grace,” then I want to spend my life singing God’s song of hope from below.