Worship in A Foreign Land

By Rev. Dr. Rick Jordan

It may have been the best sermon I’ve ever heard, but I will never know for sure because it was spoken in Icelandic.

Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church building in Iceland, a Lutheran congregation. My experience there sparked these reflections about this church and the Church.

Experience: “Hallgrímskirkja” looks like a strange name to English-only speakers like myself. What could it mean? What I learned in Iceland is that if you try to pronounce out loud a word that looks strange, often the meaning of the word becomes more clear. For example, “Te og Kaffi.” Read it aloud and it is clear that this is “Tea and Coffee,” the nation’s largest coffee shop chain. There are some other helpful hints for reading Icelandic. Icelandic words always put the stress on the first syllable. There are no pesky silent letters. Icelandic has much of “our” alphabet, as well as several other letters. But there is no C, Q, W, or Z. There are 14 vowels and 18 consonants. Scrabble must be very fun there.

Reflection: It is important to listen to others as they express themselves in their “native language.” Too often, we try to force our words or images into their expression of belief (or unbelief). We may learn that, as brilliant as we think we are, we are still missing some things (like that one letter that stands for “th”).

Experience: So, what does Hallgrimskirkja mean? I knew that “kirk” is a word that means “church” in Dutch and in German. The church was named after a minister and hymn writer, Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), author of the Passion Hymns. The Passion Hymns include 50 texts that take the reader/singer through the story of Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Resurrection. Lutheran families in Iceland sing through these hymns every Lent and they are played throughout Lent on Icelandic radio. A really big deal in Iceland, yet, someone I’d never heard of.

Reflection: How many influencers and leaders of faith communities am I ignorant of? How many saints will I never hear of? How many of my heroes of theology or spiritual formation are not even known in a different culture’s churches?

Experience: The building is taller than originally designed because church leaders discovered that Landakotskirkja, the Catholic cathedral sanctified in 1929, was taller. The same architect designed both churches, but he had to go back to the drawing board to make sure that the Lutheran building was taller and larger. Hallgrimskirkja was commissioned in 1937, started construction in 1945, and took 41 years to complete. The tallest steeple in Iceland was completed first.

Reflection: This made me laugh. It was not a joyful laugh, though. A sad laugh – one that wonders at our ego and our competitive motivations, even as we try to follow Jesus. “Who will be the greatest in your Kingdom, Jesus. Have you considered your servant, me?”

Experience: Today, you can take an elevator up the steeple to the bell tower. It costs about $8 for a fantastic view of Reykjavik. If you time it right, you can stand directly under the bells as they chime every quarter hour. According to TripAdvisor this is the top attraction in Reykjavik.

Reflection: Some people who come to our church are not pilgrims but tourists. But a tourist might be persuaded to become a pilgrim.

Experience: My wife and I toured the building and rode the elevator to the top of the tower on a Saturday. That evening, we decided we would walk from our hotel to the church for the Sunday morning service. We met a few roadblocks on the way, which put us behind schedule. As we got to the front door of the sanctuary, a woman was putting up a barrier to prevent the entrance of persons who were there only as tourists. I said ”Service, please,” and she let us in. The worship began with an infant baptism. The pastor was very loving as she cradled the baby and spoke to the family and the congregation. I recognize one hymn that was sung but could only remember bits and pieces of the lyrics. Being a Protestant church, we felt comfortable going to the altar to receive communion (by intinction).

Reflection: Have you ever listened to a 30-minute sermon in a different language? Every once in a while, I’d hear a word that sounded like “Jesus” or “Christ.” I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. We shared the same faith. The worship was foreign, though. As it should be.

These thoughts are from Rev. Dr. Rick Jordan, our partner based out of Lewisville, North Carolina. He is a 20+-year member of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC where he leads an adult Bible study, serves as a deacon, as Personnel Council chairperson, and on the Vision Navigation Team. He has also served in various roles from local churches to state and national leadership. Contact him for more information on how our partner can help you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.