Worshipping When You’re Ignorant
In the months since I’ve been a volunteer in Lesotho, I have worshiped both in the local church in Morija where I live (the oldest church in Lesotho and reputedly in all of southern Africa), and also in the daily afternoon chapel services at the seminary where I am volunteering. All of these worship services are, of course, conducted in the Sesotho language, of which I know only a few words of greeting, parting and thanks. This means that I am completely in the dark in terms of the content of the liturgy.
And that means that I have to rely on something other than words when I worship. This has given me a new appreciation of the nuances of gesture, movement, sound and feeling. The chapel services at the seminary are like a slow, dignified ballet. The first fifteen minutes are spent in utter silence, reminding me of Quaker meetings. Then we hear the slow cadence of approaching footsteps in sync, as the team of six students responsible for the service on any given day approach from outside. They take up positions at the front and the sides of the chapel. They are all dressed in black suits, both women and men. Two of the six never speak but function as door-keepers, opening the doors briefly during the singing of hymns to allow latecomers to enter. There is a recurring rhythm of scripture readings, prayers, hymns and a brief meditation, though I have no idea what is being said or sung. The slow hymns are sung in achingly beautiful harmony. There is an overriding sense of somberness, reverence and dignity. In the end, during a final hymn, the six worship leaders lead everyone out of the chapel, singing as they go. Everything is done with the utmost seriousness and formality.
In the larger church services there is this same attitude of solemnity and gravity, until the last part of the service, the offering. Suddenly joy breaks forth. As the many groups within the congregation are called to come forward with their offerings, people stand; they move; the songs sound more African and are livelier; one hears drums and a kind of bell for accompaniment. I feel affinities with my experience of worship in South African townships years ago. I begin to tap my feet.
In these contrasting experiences of worship, I come into the presence of God not through anything that is said, for I understand nothing. I feel God in the silence, in the slow and solemn progressions through a set liturgy, and finally in the exuberance of the dance of offering. This is so different from my American experience of worship, which is centered on proclamation, on thinking my way through the sermons, prayers and hymns. Here, where I understand so little, my experience of God in worship is not verbal but sensual and intuitive. And I do leave knowing that I have been in God’s presence, even in my ignorance.
Lydia Johnson serves as a Long-term Volunteer with the Lesotho Evangelical Church. She teaches at Morija Seminary.