Introductions were out of the way, and it came time for the message. I stood to begin, Jean Baptiste at my side, ready to translate. One learns quickly in a context where one doesn’t speak the language that there are good translators and bad translators. Good translators try not only to capture the language, but the inflections and ideas expressed. Jean Baptiste is the best translator I’ve worked with here in Burundi. He has translated for me as I’ve preached several times, and he goes above and beyond to try and communicate my ideas through the cultural divide, while maintaining accuracy, inflection, pause, and body language. Bad translators don’t do any of those things. They may not even translate all of the words. This is aggravating. But translators are necessary to preserve the atmosphere of hospitality. There are times where you might be the only non-Kirundi speaker in the room, as Karri and I were that day. The customs of Karibu would dictate that a translator still translate everything that is said for you. We sometimes find this awkward, and would rather let the gathering flow naturally in Kirundi than double the time and potentially limit the effectiveness of the communication by pausing constantly to interpret into another language. But a Burundian would be more uncomfortable than you, knowing you were their guest and were not fully “welcomed.”
Now, my family and friends know that I struggle with many things, but speaking loudly is not one of them. I trained my lungs to sustain prolonged volumes while I was still in the nursery of my church. I was delicately nicknamed “Screamin’ Jim.” It’s difficult to think about my mother in my formative years without the words, “Inside voices, honey,” being far from her lips. My beautiful wife still turns to me at times and says, “You do realize I’m standing right next to you, right?” So when it comes time to sing, speak, or do anything involving the vocal mechanism, I am rarely difficult to hear. But I’m comfortable when I’m loud, and sometimes it’s a gift. So I when I stood to begin the teaching, I felt no reservations about my voice being adequate to fill the room. That’s when a microphone was pressed into my hand.
This brings me to one of my biggest frustrations with your normal, run-of-the-mill Burundian church. These are beautiful communities of believers, and I can only hope you will experience the sound of fifty naked Burundian voices and a paint can drum giving praise in your lifetime. Yet every single community I've encountered believes that what it is really missing, what, when lacking, is limiting the movement of the Spirit more than anything else in their worship, is a sound system. That’s right. A church of ten people that meets in a living room would still look at each other and say, “Wow. If only we had microphones, we could really see the Lord move.” I’ve been in church services where the worship was just stunning, only to realize that, the whole time, two guys had been trying to get the generator to work, and once they had, the snap-crackle-pop of the speakers came alive and all that raw sound was drowned out by a plugged-in, out of tune bass guitar and a synthesizer, using the most obnoxious horn sound it could muster and propelled by the internal drum machine. Never mind the REAL drum they already had, nothing beats the tinny, genre-specific groove that only Yamaha can produce. It just kills me, but I suppose I come from a place where those things are common, and the denial of them is postmodern-trendy. But still… come on.
But the Lord smiled upon me, and but three minutes into my talk, the generator died, and the squawky speakers that made everything sound like it was coming out of an outdated transistor radio fell silent once more. I quietly fist-pumped the air and cranked the old internal volume knob up to eleven. Now, I am loud, but I am nowhere near as loud as my fellow Burundian pastors. Apparently, spiritual things cannot be spoken of in anything less than what could be called a bellow. But I couldn’t very well accommodate this, especially that day. I had made a bit of an underestimation.
You see, the last time Jean Baptiste invited me to speak to his community, I over-prepared. I brought a teaching full of history and analysis, and found myself speaking to a living room of ten to twelve uneducated men and women who just wanted to know that God loved them. So when my friend invited me to speak again, I was ready. I prepped a talk about the Spirit of God being like the breath we breathe, and that “the Spirit calls to our Spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:16) It was a quiet talk meant for the dear people I had met once before. But here I was, in the middle of one of the loudest, most crowded rooms I had seen, and everything spoken to that point was easily on the “bellow” setting. What can you do? So I gave my talk. God loves you. Right where you are, exactly the person you are right now, God loves you. I didn’t bellow. I probably didn’t even hit eleven, if I was honest. But I tried to catch every eye in that room.
There are a lot of things you can say as a pastor, and hopefully most of them are true, kingdom-filled things that are necessary to the disciple-making ministry you are called to. But I have found no higher calling than catching someone’s eyes when they are really looking, their ears when they are tuned in just right, and saying, “God loves you.” Here I was, in a room full of people who would never see my country, maybe never leave their own. They probably didn’t even own their own Bible, much less spend much time pondering the cultural context of the Pauline epistles. Lots of pastors (and I, very often) use their pulpit to self-aggrandize, to flex their exegetical muscles, and reassert their place at the top of the spiritual food chain. I think sometimes we forget that the simplest truths are the most life-changing. Grace is still amazing. Joy is still contagious. Faith can still move mountains. Hope still springs eternal. Peace still flows like a river. And love? Love can still change the world.
Karri and I left soon after I said “Amen.” The celebration kept going, though. And the fund-raiser for Jean Baptiste’s church started that beautiful community on its way to a permanent place to stay. I wish they embraced a bit more the truth that God is much more comfortable in tents and wildernesses than temples (and that sometimes sound systems kill the mood), but I know it’s important to have a place to call sanctuary. And the things I saw there in that classroom, the potpourri of sights and sounds, of customs and theologies, of light and dark, of hope and joy, are what make the story real to me. It’s not a perfect church, but no church is. Surely, though, the Lord was in that place. And surely the Lord is always at work. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. May we remember that generosity is the heart of God, that joy sounds like thump-CLANK-CLANK, that love wears a towel and washes unshod feet, and that sometimes, the truest thing we can know is that God loves us.