It is called Throat Singing and I do not even know how to fully describe it. To me it sounded like a cross between an oboe and someone clearing his throat. It was fascinating to listen to. And as I sat there I found myself feeling excited, uncomfortable, confused and at peace, all at the same time.
I was excited because I was sitting in a small church in the outskirts of Ulan Ude, a Russian city in Siberia just north of Mongolia. I was attending a consultation on Contextualized Worship for the Indigenous peoples of the Siberian region. God had already pulled a few strings just to get me there and I knew it was a privilege to be with this group of Christians from the Buryat, Altai, Tuvan and Sakha peoples, as well as with missionaries from Russia, the US and Europe who had been working in this region for years.
I was excited to be a part of this initial gathering and to have an opportunity to share some of what God has been doing in my own life and among our Navajo people as we have begun to ask the question of "What does it mean to be Navajo and Christian?" I did not come to this consultation to teach, but instead, I came to tell some stories. For that is how it is done within our indigenous communities. Our youth did not traditionally attend school. They did not earn degrees or pass written examinations. Instead, they spent time with their elders. They listened to their stories and were mentored by their experience. And that is exactly what we had come together to do.
This consultation did not begin with a flashy program, nor an elaborate presentation. Instead it started very traditionally; with introductions. We simply went around the room and introduced ourselves to the group. We heard where people were from, who they represented and why they came to this consultation. None of it was choreographed or scripted and there was very little pressure to adhere to a strict time schedule. It was very exciting.
But I also felt uncomfortable and even confused. I had never heard throat singing before and I did not understand the sounds emulating from this man's mouth (throat). Nor did I recognize the tune to the song he was sharing. It was all very new, and somewhat strange. Maybe if we had been in a museum, or at an academic lecture, some sort of 'sterile' environment, then I might have felt more at ease. But we weren't students studying a different culture, trying to get a good grade and earn a degree. We were Christians, coming together from different parts of the world, trying to work out our salvation and understand better how to share the Gospel message with our people.
The man singing was Altai. He had grown up surrounded by the Shamanistic culture of his tribe. He was raised in an environment where this type of song was often used to tell stories as well as to honor and worship the gods and spirits of his people. But after he became a Christian he had a desire to communicate God's love more directly and plainly to their hearts than he was able to do with the translated songs taught by the missionaries. So God gave him the ability to sing from his throat. And now he was using this gift to call our consultation together and to lead us into worship.
You can study and learn about a culture as an outsider or even as an observer. But you cannot worship that way. Worship is personal and intimate. I would love to say that with all of my travels and the many peoples, cultures and languages I have worshipped with, that I no longer feel awkward when I encounter something new. But that is not true and if I am completely honest I have to say "I felt uncomfortable."
But in the midst of all this emotion, I found I was at peace. I remembered this range of emotions which were sweeping over me. I had felt them before and had hoped I would feel them again. I have come to recognize this feeling of being in the presence of God that is initiated by experiencing the diversity of his body.
I have felt God's presence in other situations as well, such as when I am in prayer, convicted by scripture, watching the sunrise or worshiping within my Navajo or American culture. Those experiences are wonderful and familiar and frequently bring me to tears. But experiencing the presence of God through his diverse body is a much different experience. On the surface it feels much more physical and human than spiritual. Feeling God's presence in this way often tempts me to either flee or to take control. It is exciting, uncomfortable, confusing and at times even a bit irritating. But in reflection, it brings peace. And I might even dare say, it is a peace that passes understanding.
This peace comes from remembering that sitting in God's presence should feel this way. It should feel exciting, uncomfortable and confusing. We should want to sit there and soak it in for eternity. But we should also want to flee, to cover our nakedness and hide our sin.
God is wonderful. He is powerful, holy, perfect, terrible and good. And in my humble opinion, the most authentic way I have found to experience him, is to commune with my brothers and sisters, embracing, experiencing and sharing the diverse cultures, languages and world views that he gave to each of us.
God is bigger than any one person, tribe or nation. No single language, culture or people have a monopoly on understanding the vastness of his character. And it is only when we come together, with each part bringing their unique gifts, that we get a fuller and more complete picture of who he is.
And so I was thrilled to be attending this consultation. I loved the start we had gotten off to, coming together to introduce ourselves and share our stories. And I was thrilled that we were not alone. I knew that Jesus was in our midst and that the God of Creation had graced us with his presence.
I knew this because of his promise that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there.
But I also knew this because I felt excited, uncomfortable, confused and at peace, all at the same time.
Just as it should be.
(I wrote this article for and originally published it on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship website)