Singing in a language not our own

This last Sunday we sang what was, to my knowledge, the first ever song sung entirely in Farsi at Oldham Bethel Church.

We purposefully picked a famous hymn that the English-speakers would recognise. We asked one of our Iranian members to turn the Farsi script into Finglish (Farsi transliterated into English) so that we could all sing together. Below is the first verse of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross as we presented it to the church.

chon ba to bengaram , andar salibi ke bar an,

چون با تو بنگرم ، اندر صلیبی که بر آن ،

Shah jalal az bahre ma , ba meil khod bakhshide jan .

شاه جلال از بهر ما ، با میل خود بخشیده جان .

When we first mooted that we were going to do this, a few English-speakers baulked. After getting into the first and second verses, however, it was pretty easy fitting the syllables into the music.

What was especially nice was to see our Iranian and Afghan brothers and sisters, once they had picked up the tune, singing with gusto. It seems only right, given that we ask them to sing three or four songs in a second foreign language every week, that we might have a go with one that might better serve them. Given how well it went, we are going to try and include at least one Farsi version of a well-known hymn every week.

What is particularly great about doing this sort of thing is that it offers a potent reminder that church is not all about me. Whenever we have to ‘slow down’ in Bible studies in order to facilitate translation or we sing a song that we don’t immediately understand – or have to try and recall in the English (or look up in the hymn book later) – we remember that we are there to serve, encourage and build up others. Church is ultimately not all about me.

So often, the issue of worship becomes such a consumerist, and frankly selfish, individualistic expression of my worship. The songs I want, the tunes like, the feelings I want to elicit, the sense of the Spirit that I’ve decided must exist for the singing to be worthwhile or that I deem important specifically for me.

Singing songs that we know, but in a different language, undercuts a lot of that. It makes clear that, often times, these feelings and intuitions are self-constructed. They show up the fact that our desire is less about building up those around us and more concerned with whatever I feel will serve me best. When we sing familiar songs in a different language, we are forced to put those selfish desires to one side and do what is only likely to serve others who aren’t me. That has surely got to be at least a bit good.

Moving forward, we hope to include more Farsi songs. It is a great way to serve our Iranian and Afghan contingent and it helps us to remember why we are in church at all. As we seek to serve others, and prefer their needs above our own, the church may build itself up in love.