Yesterday I got drawn into a theological conversation with some of our Dominican friends. A man named Samuel was convinced that eating snake meat is sinful (which apparently some Dominicans do) because God cursed the snake in Genesis 3 for leading Eve into sin. Another man Jochi who’s the bishop’s assistant was debating with him since Jesus said that nothing created is unclean for us to eat. They turned to me and said, “Pastor, what do you think?” Because Samuel was so passionate, I decided to answer in a way that didn’t take sides: “Lo que ves como pecado es pecado” (What you see as a sin is a sin), which is what Paul says to the Corinthians about eating the sacrificial meat.
There was something really affirming about being able to offer my pastoral perspective in another language. It means that I’ve actually reached a level of fluency in my Spanish where I can participate in the theological process of a community I’d like to be a part of. But there’s also a way in which this feeling of affirmation becomes problematic. Later in the same conversation another brother asked why new believers seem to suffer more ataques from Satanas after they’ve accepted Christ than before. We started talking about temptations and their role in our sanctification. Then somebody asked me what was my greatest temptation as a pastor. I told him it was el orgullo (pride).
It’s interesting the relationship orgullo has to language proficiency. Being able to speak Spanish has long been a source of self-worth for me. When I spent a summer in Chiapas in 2000 and couldn’t speak Spanish well, I got horribly depressed. I finally got to where I could understand another person well enough to translate for them when I had to take a woman named Yeta Ramirez on a speaking tour around the country as part of my job at the Nicaragua Network in 2001. I preached in Spanish for the first time last spring in El Salvador. I got to do so again last night here in the Dominican Republic at the outdoor worship service of the church that we’re building in Samangola.
So I think it’s fair to say I have a lot of orgullo in my ability to speak Spanish right now. To some degree, it’s okay to have orgullo when you’re going through the process of learning something, but it so quickly turns the corner into sin. I’ve caught myself on this trip needing to show off to other people that I know praise songs in Spanish. I was singing them pretty loudly in the van as we were riding to the work-site yesterday. Part of it was because Jochi was revved up and I got swept into the energy of it. But part of it was feeling good about myself in a spiritually unhealthy way.
So I was asked today not to sing as loud. Now there’s part of me that wanted to come back and say that’s so Northern Virginia to compartmentalize our time here into transit time, work time, worship time, and stifle the Holy Spirit here the same way we do back home. But I think God was trying to sanctify me and help me to repent of my orgullo. I tend to sing too loud. John Wesley said that we should sing as lustily the songs of God as how we once sung the songs of Satan, but he also said not to bray out above everybody else. Every time somebody at church compliments me on my singing, God convicts me of my pride and I resolve again to try to sing more softly. Church is supposed to be about people singing together in such a way that no single voice is heard above the rest.
I was singing too loudly yesterday in my involvement with our vacation Bible school project. We had some logistical problems with our curriculum which I had somewhat anticipated having. In particular, the songs we were trying to teach the kids had too many words. The curriculum had taken a VBS approach that works fine in a “First World” setting where there is unlimited technology and resources and simply translated the language without accounting for the challenges of doing it in a Global South community without amplified sound, video projectors, and other such resources. So beaming with pride in my Spanish proficiency and cross-cultural “sensitivity,” I decided to stand in the gap and kind of take over the show, which may have been partly what the situation called for but it disempowered other people who had all been assigned roles in our VBS in advance. I was singing so loud that I didn’t notice I had silenced other voices.
What I wrote in my ordination papers is that my calling as a servant-leader is to empower other people. That is what distinguishes me as someone called to ordained ministry from all the other members of the church who are all God’s ministers. I am called to focus my energy away from myself and on the gifts that I see in other people to help them develop their gifts so we can form a more perfect body of Christ. This is where orgullo is so deadly. I undermine God’s mission when I try to turn the symphony He has written for an orchestra of many parts into a long solo that I sing loudly. That’s why one of the most important pieces of this trip for me is learning how to sing more softly — aprendiendo cantar mas bajo.