Scythian Worship? Nations and Cultures at Worship

My friend, born in South Korea, now lives in California. One day he told me he considers himself a “misfit.” I was surprised, since each week after worship, a service he helps lead, he stands in the atrium surrounded by friends bantering in laughter, or he revels with the grade school students he helps teach. A misfit? I protested, pointing out his trendy phone, hip jeans, and cultural lingo and many friends. He acknowledged his multi-cultural aptitude but explained, “In my native language I’m funnier. My jokes are better, my stories more entertaining, and everyone ‘gets me.’” Still I objected, “You fit.” He nodded, but said, “All immigrants are ‘misfits.’”

I found myself thinking about that again this week as North Americans celebrate national independence days. Fireworks explode, children and military bands parade, and we retell favorite revolutionary stories. Our nationality seems profoundly fundamental to our identity. We are Mexicans. We are Canadians. Or we are Koreans.

A philosopher might tell us that nationalism is a recent phenomenon, a modern construct, and a kind of expanded city-state that has often little bearing on actual cultures. And it’s true that for many, their national identity is awkward and ill fitting (think of Canada’s First Nation people or the Kurds in Iraq). Still, many of us swell with pride when we see our country’s flag or soccer team or a fleet of ships.

Once, while teaching a seminary class on spiritual disciplines, I illustrated memory’s powerful role in identity formation by spontaneously starting to sing the Canadian national anthem. The class was held in the United States, but instantly the Canadian students, a minority, burst into song with me, swelling with an enthusiasm and pride that surprised even them. It was if they levitated as they sang.

How might our national or cultural identity affect the way we design and practice our worship?

Identity and Worship

All through the Old and New Testament God identifies himself as the God of all peoples. All nations come to him (Psalm 47 and 72). Abram is renamed Abraham, the Father of many nations (Genesis 17). While Israel is God’s chosen people, their identity is not designed to promote ethnic pride or privilege, but to be a call to represent and extend God’s love for all peoples.

Each nation has a place in God’s geography. Consider the contrast: in Homer’s classic Greek tale Ethiopians are mythological, the stuff of tall tales, people uniquely loved by the gods who join them for parties. They live long and enjoy exotic diets. Instead the bible treats them not as myth, but as people loved by God, those who will one day bring Him special offerings (Zephaniah 3:9-10). Isaiah tells us that in God’s amazing grace, at the end of time, when Jesus returns to make all wrongs right, nations and people won’t lose their cultural identity, they will have it redeemed, swept up in the new heaven and new earth (Is. 66:18-19) (Richard Bauckham references this in Bible and Mission.)

Included in Jesus’ family tree is Ruth the Moabite and Rahab the Amorite. He talks extensively with a Samaritan woman. Is it an accident that we read about Philip explaining the gospel to an Ethiopian Eunuch or that a Roman Centurion says after Jesus’ death “Surely this was the son of God?” Could it be that God gives us four gospels, because one perspective isn’t enough? The canon includes both Kings and Chronicles as a way to understand the same events; it is as if we are richer if we have a plurality of perspectives on God’s cosmic story.

I wonder what this multi layered cultural affirmation has to say about the kind of music we use at worship—Hip hop? R&B? Classical? Spirituals? Japanese folks tunes? Might it get us thinking about how many languages we speak? And what about symbols in our worship space? Do we honor one nation with one flag? Do we display a flag for every birth country represented in our congregation? Or might a thoughtful congregation display a flag from every country in which there is a church, or accent mission by displaying one from every country in which there is not yet a church? And how does one preach with an awareness of the way God treasures and designs all peoples?

Identity, Baptism, and the Scythian

It does make me think about Baptism. Baptism doesn’t symbolize a loss of culture identity, but one that, like us, is renewed and redeemed in Christ. Paul tells the Colossians that in Christ they have put on a new self, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.” (3:11). The baptized may still be slave or free. They may be Greek or Jew. They may even be Scythian.

Scythian?

The ancient Greeks had a term for all non-Greeks: barbarians. But Scythians were the most barbaric of the barbarians. They were uncivilized savages. One ancient writer said they were “little better than wild animals.” (It reminds me of some junior highers I once knew). One commentator says Paul intended “barbarians” to describe those from the south of Greece, and Scythians as those from the north, along what we call the Black Sea. Even Scythians belong; they too (with their language and culture and favorite beverages) can be swept up in the gospel story.

Baptism doesn’t “flatten” our national or cultural identify. The missional hope of the bible is not to wipe out nations, but to have them be fully alive. To make us experience what Lamin Saneh said happened when the gospel came to his neighborhood, “People sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred nor their desire for an invincible savior so they beat their sacred drums until the stars skipped in the skies…Jesus helped them become renewed Africans and not remade Europeans…”

Baptism reminds us that we—with our cultural experience and country of origin—are deeply included in this new community called the church. We are a new people. Together. All of us—no matter what our birth country—are now part of a new race. Our culture isn’t diminished, but our heart and soul are only at home in God.

In a balkanized world where politics and nationality attempt to be our main identity, we are the baptized. We belong first to the group Jesus “calls out” to be his church, the community that spans all times and all places, one that includes “misfits” from every continent. What might that mean for worship?