Since I arrived in Venezuela a week ago, members of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Venezuela have been gracious, attentive, and informative hosts. My first stop was in Maracaibo, center of the Presbiterio Occidental (Western Presbytery) where I visited churches, met with the members of the Presbytery council, and even got to spend a little time out in the bright sunshine seeing some of the sights of the city. The first days were fairly relaxed, with time to sleep in and get a little extra rest, which was a blessing—especially because of the intense day that awaited on Sunday.
I woke up early Sunday morning and, after feeding me a hearty breakfast, Pastora Zulema took me to the first of four worship services where I was scheduled to preach that day. Zulema is a commissioned lay pastor serving two communities in Maracaibo, and the service at Dios Dulce Refugio (God, Sweet Refuge) new church development starts at 8am, before it gets too hot in the industrial storefront building the church owns. The space is small, but the service was well attended, and I was invited to join in presiding at the communion table. As soon as worship was over, we jumped in the car and arrived just in time for Sunday school and worship at Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana, which celebrated its 49th anniversary yesterday. Where the challenge at Dios Dulce Refugio was to compete with the whir of the fans and the noise from the highway, the intense volume at Primera came from the sound system and energetic drum set as the praise band led the congregation in worship songs. I was moved by the excellence and dedication of the large, multigenerational worship team, and came away deeply grateful for the new songs I learned.
By the time I arrived at Comunidad Reformada I was running a little late but the service had not yet begun. One of the elders met me and shared the news that Rev. Obed’s sister-in-law had been literally tied up that morning while her home was burglarized. Thanks be to God, no one was injured, but that situation gave a real and personal face to the message that we live in a society teeming with violence. This new church development is focused largely on ministry with adolescent boys at risk of getting involved with drugs and gangs, a reality that has brought many of them in close contact with violence and conflict. Most of them are new to church-going, but something about this young and creative community has caught their attention, and the congregation has stepped up its commitment to the boys in response. In spite of the jarring reminder of violence and insecurity, the overwhelming message of that simple, a capella worship service was hope—and trust—in God.
After a few hours’ intermission for lunch and relaxation, I was escorted to the final service of the day, at Peña de Horeb (Mount Horeb) church. Something about the experience there made me feel like an itinerant evangelist, as I greeted unfamiliar but joy-filled faces, sang praise songs both new and familiar, and later preached my sermon on “Resisting, Jesus-Style” for the fourth time, barely glancing at the outline I no longer needed. At the end of the service, I was overcome with gratitude and a sense of light and lightness. I think one or two services is plenty for most days, but this day filled with worship and preaching was a special blessing.
During seminary, we would often reflect on the incredible privilege given to pastors, the way people of the church open their hearts and lives to their ministers. In these days I have been reflecting on the privileged position of trust given to me as a mission worker. Our long history of relationship with the Presbyterian churches of Colombia and Venezuela provides a foundation of openness and fellowship which are a joy to experience. Before ever setting foot in Venezuela, plans were made to welcome me and invite me to share in many different settings, including preaching at four different churches on Sunday. Never have I been more keenly aware of the need for a sermon to be a vehicle of the Word of God, rather than a collection of my words and opinions! And I trust and pray that it was so.
Preaching for partners is a special opportunity to bring a word from outside, a perspective from a different part of the church, with the hope that the Word will speak in a new way. For me, it is a unique and precious form of encounter with a part of the Christian family that I knew not at all, or not very well, before the service began. When the time for the sermon arrives, I preach with humility and boldness, hoping that I have not missed any big taboos or phrases with a different slang meaning in this context, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit that these words from an outsider will carry the Word that these people need to hear. And by the end, after singing and praying and reflecting on Scripture together, there is a sense of real sister- and brotherhood. The ties that bind us together in one body have been touched and affirmed, and on some deep level I know that I am forever changed, strengthened and transformed by the experience of worshiping together.