Subversive Worship and the Curse of Comfort…

I’m thinking of writing a book called ‘The Curse of Comfort’. Let me explain why by describing my visceral experience of worshipping God in community at church this morning.

There were fifty of us adults, and thirty children. That’s under half of what we usually are, because many people have left the country due to the deteriorating state of security. We are Bujumbura International Christian Church (BICC), but the international representation today was down to a Congolese, a Russian, two Koreans and myself. Our community is depleted, hurting, and confused – but tight, trusting, and together.

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Lot of empty chairs, but the few of us left are still standing!

There is a noble defiance in worshiping God in the midst of grim circumstances. That is where the curse of comfort comes in. I don’t want to criticize Western Christianity, but as products of our consumer cultures we invariably end up conforming rather than being transformed (Romans 12:2), acting as thermometers which reflect the reality of the environment rather than thermostats which set the very temperature and alter the whole environment. Thus we often unwittingly craft ourselves a more comfortable consumer cross (click here for a sermon I gave on that, tenth one down), and our whole worship experience can end up feeling shallow and anaemic. It’s so easy to turn to comfort (Facebook, chocolate, TV) rather than to Christ. It’s no wonder my most intimate corporate spiritual experiences in the West have been with the most obviously broken people – tramps, alcoholics, prisoners  who don’t feel the need to maintain the façade that their lives are all in order. God doesn’t love us ‘sophisticated’ folks more than them, or them more than us, but what they have over us is discomfort – they’ve been stripped of the mixed blessing (curse) of comfort – and in their brokenness, stench, and unpolished desperation, God is extremely close.

Well, today there is a different kind of brokenness, stench, and unpolished desperation amongst us at BICC.  

The brokenness is there because we’re all tired, battling discouragement, and grieving for what is happening in our nation.

The stench is there as Charles* sits down next to me and slips me a note asking for more money. He has a running sore on his ankle, an infection through to his bone that has been there since he was beaten up in the war eighteen years ago. It stinks. He’s had it treated in the past, but as soon as it seems to get better, he’s off walking long distances and preaching in villages and his almost-healed wound reopens. He’s somewhat brain-damaged from what happened back then, but in his obvious mental and physical brokenness, he simply has to keep on the move and tell people about Jesus. Christ’s love compels him…

The unpolished desperation is there in our musical worship. BICC is far from Hillsong or New Wine in terms of musicianship. Whatever the natural gifting of the worship team, it’s hard to practice these days with demonstrations and shooting limiting people’s movements, and some choir members are unable to afford the paltry bus fare to and from church. But stripped of the curse of comfort, quality of musicianship plays distant second fiddle to simple desperation for Jesus. I lift my arms high and wide with tears forming in my eyes, and arhythmically sway (white man can’t dance!) whilst bellowing defiantly:

‘You have turned my mourning into dancing
You have turned my sorrow into joy
This is how we overcome.’

I look around me. To my right is skinny Tim. Before the service started, I asked him what he was up to. “I want to be studying but school’s shut down. I’m doing nothing.” Mark in front of me is trying to get his family out of the country as his wife’s stress levels have put her in hospital. Serge and Flo want to leave Burundi to spare their kids further trauma from listening to the shooting, but they can’t even begin to consider it financially. Staying is preferable to fleeing as refugees and risking cholera and such like in the camps. Jean has just been laid off (a few night’s ago I was at a hotel that had let go 70 of their 100 staff), and doesn’t see how his wife and four children will eat this coming week. Widower Pierre is in a part of town where there’s been lots of shooting. I ask him how he and the children are: “They get scared when it kicks in but I let them all jump into my bed and I play the guitar and we sing as loudly as we can until they can’t hear the bullets any more.” I find that intimate image hauntingly moving. Such are the stories that make up the bruised and battered Bride of Christ in Burundi. She is in deep anguish, but very much alive and well, faithful, and experiencing a painful depth of intimacy not often afforded to those too comfortable to recognise their need.

Worship in such circumstances is subversive as we shove two angry defiant fingers in Satan’s face. ‘This is how we overcome…’ 

So pray for us, as we pray for you. As Hebrews 12 puts it, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders (N.B.that sometimes includes comforts) and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (run yours as indeed I run mine). Let us fix on eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

A kite defies the gloomy circumstances on the streets of Bujumbura

P.S. I’ve always liked this Franciscan prayer:

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in this world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor. 

* Names changed to respect/protect identities.

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