I thought I was going to teach on Thursday, but I was mistaken. This time it wasn't the fungible nature of African schedules but my losing track of what day it was that resulted in the misunderstanding. Sorry about that.
But I was scheduled to begin teaching yesterday morning (it's Saturday morning as I write this). African agendas, I've discovered, are written in dry sand. Nothing ever goes according to plan or schedule. It seems the pastors and choirs from other churches were still arriving, so we nixed the morning teaching and just had the opening ceremonies instead. REMAC's Annual Congress (REMAC is an acronym for an association of churches in central Africa) began in the afternoon yesterday and continued untill late in the evening.
When I arrived at the church—a pole-bulding with a tin roof and a stick fence—I was greeted by one of the pastor’s I had taught in Uvira two years earlier. What a joy to be embraced by this godly servant of many campaigns. The joy on both our faces was evident as bystanders laughed approvingly. Laughter always comes easy when joy is in abundance.
I was surprised to see how many nations were represented in that small (by our standards at least) assembly. There were pastors and lay leaders from Burundi, Congo DR, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Of course each church had to have someone stand and greet the congregation. This is expected in most of the churches around the world, I’ve found. When it came my turn, I was eager to greet them in the name of the Lord from the church in Michigan.
Then came the choirs—lots of them. Each church, it seemed, brought a choir with them and each had their turn. The first choir did traditional music with just a drum, which I appreciated greatly. But most of the choirs had the same malady that I’ve witnessed every other country I’ve visited.
The effect of the North American church on the rest of the world cannot be over-estimated. For the record, I don’t consider this a good thing. Most church music heard in small churches around the world feature electric guitars badly over-driven through cheap amps and bad speakers. The microphones are so loud they are terribly distorted and deafening (this from a man whose hearing is not so hot in the first place). For the record, I have nothing against the use of electricity in worship nor do I feel the need to condemn any particular sort of instrument. But I do feel that music that is honoring to God is well done, from the heart, and not a clone of some particular style just because we find that cool. The joy of worship through music is serious business (as is all genuine joy) and should not be done haphazardly. This is not a blanket condemnation of the Burundian choirs, BTW. I love their music. But I did find myself pleading with God for the electricity to go off, as it does on a regular basis here.
During the service it became more and more apparent I had my work cut out for me when it came my turn to preach. The people had been all pumped up emotionally and I was about to appeal to the heart certainly, but also to the head and to the will. Plus, most of the congregation didn’t have a Bible. This by itself makes my task more difficult.
When I preach, I take a passage of Scripture and explain it as simply as I can, in a way that people will understand and be moved to take action: understand with the mind, be moved in the emotions so there is an action by the will. This is what I do. This is all that I do. I have no other tricks. So preaching to people without a Bible is dicey enough. People that are breathless from dancing and singing is nigh onto impossible…or so I thought.
Flory had asked me to preach on Isaiah 60. As I studied for this assignment, I began to realize that you can’t really understand Isaiah 60 if you don’t understand chapter 59. So I took as my text Isa 60:1-2 (NIV).
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
When I requested my text to be read, I knew I was in trouble. Flory didn’t have a translation that most people would understand. In fact, everything that had happened previous, other than the singing, was translated into two different languages: Swahili and Kirundi. I think Flory’s Bible was in French. At any rate, someone stood to read and I hurried over with the microphone. He didn’t read well, but he got the job done. “But,” I thought, “this will become tedious in a hurry if I have to leave the pulpit and travel to the congregation every time I quote a passage of Scripture.” So I quickly changed plans and decided to give a summary of what the verses said rather than read them.
While Isaiah 60 teaches us about the light, Isaiah 59 explains the darkness. So I started the sermon by pulling out my passport and showing it the congregation. At this point, people started drifting out. Part was probably because it was getting dark by this time and many had to walk a long way home. Others probably couldn’t understand because I was only being translated into Kirundi (I think). But my mind at the time didn’t make draw these rational conclusions. All I saw was the church beginning to empty. But I kept preaching and kept praying.
I mentioned that I held a passport to the United States of America. That was where I was a citizen. But I wasn’t currently living in that country—I was living in the country of Burundi. What separated me from my homeland was distance. So it is with the believer. We have a passport to the Kingdom being described in Isa 60. But we don’t live there now. Currently we are living in the kingdom described in Isa 59, the kingdom that is characterized by darkness. We are currently separated from our homeland, not by distance, but by time. But because we have a passport (if we’ve trusted in Christ) then we will most certainly live there.
I set out describing what each chapter said about their perspective kingdoms. I encouraged the people to ensure that they had their passport. I pleaded with them to live as citizens of their true homeland, not the one they live in now. I exhorted them to put their hope in the coming kingdom, not in the kingdoms of this world. Then I sat down, thoroughly depressed.
By now the church was about half what it had been. As far as I could tell, I had kept no one’s interest. I prayed, “Lord, I asked you to give me the right words and I did the best I could. It’s all up to you if you want to use my efforts or not.”
About this time Flory leaned over to me and suggested that we have people come forward for the pastors to pray for them. He stood and called for those that had a burden on their heart because of the message. Much to my surprise, the entire church came forward and knelt before us. If there was anyone left in the pews, I didn’t see them.
The other pastors on the platform gathered around and placed hands on the people while I prayed for them. And then the people (uncharacteristically) moved silently back to their places.
After the service was over, as Flory and I walked down the dark road to hail a cab, I told Flory of how inadequate I felt and how i thought my preaching had failed. He looked genuinely surprised and asked if I didn’t see their response.
“Oh sure, I saw Flory,” I hedged, “but I bet that goes on every service.”
“Oh nooooo,” he replied, “Sometimes no one comes forward, other times only one or two, this time it was the whole church. God moved among the people because of his Word.”
It is temptation for me to think that Flory is merely telling me what I want to hear. Temptation to be faithless, to be unbelieving that God would so marvelously answer my prayers, to rely on what my eyes saw at the beginning rather than at the end, to doubt the genuineness of his people in response to his Word. I recognize this as temptation and am choosing not to yield to it.
Instead, I am trusting that God still hears the prayers of poor preachers and answers them, so that he gets the glory and his children receive the benefit.