Wow! That’s all I can say. I’m writing this on Sunday night after experiencing something I won’t be able to adequately convey in words. A couple of days ago, I wrote to you from our secure hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, the big city of 20 million, home of Nigeria’s biggest airport — the one I flew into. Today, I write from a world as far from that as Lagos is from Covington.
You see, after sending in that article, I got on another plane in the "domestic" terminal, being led out to the tarmac by a man with a loudspeaker. There I got into the men’s line and got patted down right outside a running jet. I then followed the crowd to identify my luggage and watch the handlers put it on the plane.
Destination Uyo, a decent-sized city at which we arrived in about an hour and 15 minutes, to do the reverse of what we had done on the way in. Thankfully, the driver from the seminary was one of the first faces I saw.
Then came a 45-minute drive from the paved roads of Uyo and countless entrepreneurs hawking their wares between the lines of traffic to the dirt roads of Uruk Uso and hearing people point out the "white men in the van."
In Uruk Uso, we learned the techniques of slalom driving, as our driver skillfully steered the van back and forth around potholes (more like ponds now that the rainy season has begun). The "potholes" were literally bigger than the car. Throw in countless walkers and just as many motorbikes, and this was a scene right out of the Frogger video game.
I could go on with this kind of stuff all day — I need to get to the worship. After a night of hearing the radio belonging to the seminary’s hired vigilante guards right outside my window and trying to get used to sleeping without air conditioning and with a mosquito net — breakfast was served and we were off to church. We probably didn’t go more than 5 miles, but it took 25 minutes, this time slaloming through hundreds of worshippers walking to a whole slew of churches on this main drag through the area. This was a big day. It was the closing service for the mid-year conference of Christ the King Lutheran Church, a synod of close to 40 sister churches, most started by missionaries our synod sent out so many years ago. And they were celebrating.
We arrived as Bible study was going on with probably 500 people already there. Our driver took us to the side of the church and showed us to a doorway that we were told to go through. On the other side, we found ourselves on the chancel and directed to "seats of honor" facing the entire congregation. The president of the synod leaned over and tried to tell me what the Bible study presenter was talking about.
Then, at right about 10 a.m. the service began with a procession of choirs from several of the area churches. They sang one piece that probably lasted 15 minutes and continued to grow in volume and energy as the choirs entered. As the kids led the procession, and then their voices were augmented by the ladies choir and several adult choirs, the experience was surreal. I have to admit a tear formed as I thought about all these people (by now probably closer to 900) separated by so many miles and so much culture — but united in faith, united in song and in praise of the Savior who will bring all of us home to him together in heaven one day.
Once the choirs were in and the entire congregation had joined the refrain, the liturgist stood up and began the service, taking time to translate everything for the "special guests."
He introduced the song leaders for the opening song and asked them to "be brief." Forty-five minutes later, he took the microphone back and began the service in the name of our Triune God.
Then the choirs each had a chance to sing praise to our Savior. Another amazing experience. After that, the service went much like one of ours until, right before the sermon, the liturgist announced "offering time," and the people responded with "blessing time."
The music started and the worshippers started dancing with their gifts around the church and up the aisle. For 23 minutes, the song went on and the dance got more and more intense. In the sermon, the preacher reminded us from 2 Chronicles 32:7 of the power that is with us that is greater than any power of any of our enemies. We have the blood of Jesus washing us clean of all sin. We have the power of Jesus ruling all things for our good. We have the ear of Jesus to listen to our prayers. And we have Jesus to answer.
The same power that the people of Covington cling to is the power that Pastor Emmanuel Sandy preached Sunday to nearly 1,000 worshippers.
After the "amen," the liturgist got up again and announced "offering time." The people responded with "blessing time," and the dance began again — this time 43 minutes of a single song praising God as the giver of all gifts.
And that’s what I’m doing right now, especially for this gift he’s given me to meet my brothers and sisters in Christ in Uruk Uso, Abak, Nigeria.
I’ve run out of words for the week, but I’ll pick it up next week. And I didn’t even get to tell you about the third offering, or how one gentlemen mentioned how quickly the 4+-hour service had ended!
God’s blessings to you from Nigeria!
— Pastor Scharf
The Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Worship every Sunday is at 8 and 10:30 a.m. Full sermons and more information can be found at abidinggrace.com.