Hosanna! Today is Palm Sunday. Christians remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with palm branches strewn in festal preparation. For the last few years, Lutheran World Relief has helped congregations use palm fronds that have been harvested in a more sustainable way.
At San Lucas, we didn’t buy eco-palms for our procession around the block, but I think ours were pretty ecologically sustainable–they were cut from our own church grounds!
On Sunday we had a meeting to do some preliminary planning for Vacation Bible School. San Lucas has a strong cadre of teachers and helpers, almost all of whom are returning this year. We’ll likely have over one hundred kids! One of my big tasks will be putting together a theme and activities. Traditionally, San Lucas hasn’t used a lot of packaged curriculum. VBS sets are usually rather expensive, and often in English. It’s hard to find theologically sound and financially affordable materials in Spanish, so we’ll do something more grassroots. Maybe I have a new calling as writer of Spanish-language children’s ministry curriculum…
Beforehand, I brainstormed a few possible themes, and among our leaders, there was a strong consensus for Agua Viva! We will be learning all about water. It’s a chance to do some good catechesis on baptism, and to learn some fun Bible stories. VBS is a week long, with a different lesson each day. It’s hard to pick just five water stories. Right now, I’m leaning toward Creation, Jonah, Naaman, the Samaritan Woman, and the Baptism of Jesus. They seem to be core stories, full of lots of action and neat possibilities for arts and crafts. Though I also considered: Noah and the ark, Hagar and the rock, the parting of the Red Sea, Nehemiah and the water gate, and Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and the vision of the river of life from Revelation 21. These might be better choices later on for a youth retreat or adult class. As much as I like to plan ahead, I will probably wait to do more thinking about VBS until after Holy Week.
San Lucas is quite a musical congregation. We sing at worship, before and after Bible study, and even at funeral visitations. On Sundays when there isn’t a guitarist to accompany worship, there’s still a critical mass of strong singers to carry the tunes a cappella.
We use the red Libro de Liturgia y Cántico, a Spanish-language musical resource. Most of the members own their own copies, bringing them along to church—often with hand-stitched fabric covers. We have about a dozen copies for visitors; I’d eventually like to budget for a few more.
Before Libro came out in the late 1990s, the main Lutheran hymnal in Spanish was Culto Cristiano, a nearly-verbatim translation of the 1958 red Service Book and Hymnal. It was full of faith-filled hymns that sing the Christian story, but mostly with German and Scandinavian hymn tunes. Many of these melodies are near and dear to my own Christian journey, but they don’t always musically reflect the heritage of the community.
As the pastor at San Lucas, I have more responsibility in planning worship and choosing music than I have had elsewhere. I put great effort into choosing effort that I think is liturgically and culturally appropriate. Sometimes, however, I am wrong.
I like to pick songs that have origins somewhere in Latin America, reflecting the immense diversity that is Spanish language worship music. Some himnos and coritos I was very familiar with; others I’m learning as I go. Most of the folks at San Lucas can sing all the stanzas of Tú has venido a la orilla or Pues si vivimos without looking at the hymnal at all. This does not surprise me. What has surprised me has been the fervency and gusto with which people sing and request Spanish translations of hymns with more European and white North American origins. Perhaps this is a remnant of worshipping with Culto Cristiano for many years.
Before one worship service without an accompanying guitarist, there was a request for a song called Firmes y adelente. I just looked at the title and said, “I don’t know this one, but if you feel comfortable leading it, surely we can sing it.” During worship, a few measures into it, I realized, “This is Onward Christian Soldiers”!
After Bible study this week, I informally asked a few folks what hymns are favorites to be sung during Holy Week and Easter. Some of the responses: Alzad la cruz, ¿Presenciaste la muerte del Señor?, and El Señor resucitó. These are translations of Lift High the Cross, Were you There, and Jesus Christ is Ris’n Today, respectively.
I heard a song at a funeral visitation that people were singing with much ardor and devotion; I could tell it was quite meaningful to those gathered. The song, Grande gozo en mi alma hoy, was unfamiliar to me, but I instantly recognized the genre. It had the marching rhythm, sentimental lyrics, and chord progression of what can be described 19th century American Protestant evangelistic camp meeting hymns. It’s the kind of stuff on the Tennessee Ernie Ford country gospel albums. It’s not usually my favorite genre, but I know other people find it very meaningful. Looking at the bottom of the page in Libro, I discovered that Grande gozo’s writer, Eliza Hewitt, didn’t have a very Hispanic name. Sure enough, after some googling, I discovered that in English it’s called Sunshine in my Soul. Hewitt wrote the hymn when the cast from a back injury was removed. That’s a powerful image that might work well in my sermon this Sunday with both the stories Lazarus and Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. God brings new life to weariness.
In the midst of all this, I’m discovering that God’s message cuts across culture. The song of God’s people is polyphonic, with many and various rhythms and timbres. Sometimes it’s new but well-loved; other times it might be ancient, but unfamiliar to me. I think of the Psalmist, looking back on Israel’s captivity in Babylon, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). Here I am in a new culture, and many of the beloved songs aren’t foreign at all.
I’m careful to not usurp another’s culture, but maybe it’s presumptuous of me to think that music that I might dismiss from my own white Anglo culture might not have have deep spiritual meaning for people in this Spanish-speaking border culture.
Stevie Wonder has sung, “Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand with an equal opportunity for all to sing, dance and clap their hands …” Yes, even some Lutherans will clap their hands.
When driving to San Antonio for a meeting with our bishop and for a hospital visit, I had to stop at the permanent border checkpoint just outside Eagle Pass. The agent had me roll down my backseat window and asked the usual questions: “Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What is your occupation?” When I said, “Lutheran pastor,” he looked at me rather incredulously and said, “Lutheran? Shouldn’t you be in Minnesota or something?” “No, we’re here, too,” I replied. He just shook his head and had me drive on through.
I know the stereotypes about Lutherans: we eat jello and sing boring hymns. We never like to change and we say cutesy things like “ya sure ya betcha.” Here at San Lucas, I love discovering differences to these stereotypes. Here Lutherans cook up enchiladas instead of hotdish. Our music has all sorts of beautiful Latin rhythms.
Being Lutheran is not about what you eat or what kind of music you sing. It’s about God’s grace. As a community of faith, we gather around scripture and share God’s meal together. That’s what makes us Lutheran. Actually, that’s what makes us Christian.