Filed under: Activate, Culture, Faith and Faith Life, Media & Art, Missions, Music | Tags: audition, light, love, shadows, Songs, songwriting, Theology
Sunday, July 15 2012: Teaching from Colossians 2:15-17, our pastor spoke on what he calls “God’s shadow activity.” For over 25 years, as a professor and expert in theology, he has tried to make sense of the God we see on the Cross -who abhors wars and violence, taught us to turn the other cheek and sacrifice ourselves in love for even our enemies, and expressed that core truth in the most inconceivable way when He suffered a God-forsaken death by crucifixion – and the God of the Old Testament who seems, at times, to have been a genocidal, ethno-centric maniac who commanded Israel time and again to slaugher hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, infants. Our pastor’s theory – which makes sense to me and finally articulats both the tension I’ve always sensed in the contradiction and a reasonable reconciliation – is that these were God’s “shadow activites.” That just as a shadow acts as a negative contrast to what is real, and in so doing points to reality, so these situations show God not as He is, but as He is not. They show Him bearing their sin as His own, and thereby showing who He really is: the selfless Savior. Rather than denying and rebuking their behavior altogether from the get-go, as His true character does (which we see fully in the person, teachings, and life of Jesus), He becomes one of them (in Christ, but also as “The God of Israel”), takes on their sin as His own (even though He himself knows no sin and abhors the sin), and shows Himself to be quite the opposite of them: utterly selfless in His love for them and for all mankind….so selfless as to take on their sin to show how far He’s willing to go to win them. I can’t explain it as succinctly or adequately, and I know a lot of people will label him (and probably me also) a heretic (again) for even voicing the idea. But it makes sense to me. And it brought back to my mind a lyric I wrote who-knows-how-long-ago, “Love is not the shadow but the light that casts it on less important things.” [For a fuller understanding, listen to the sermon here (it’s worth it).]
Monday, July 16 2012: I took a pretty big risk yesterday, threw myself way out on a limb, and after being personally “sought out” by a talent producer and allowed to skip the cattle call and move straight to “call backs,” I auditioned for one of those televised karaoke contests. And I failed. Miserably. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever sung so off-key, or tried so painfully – and obviously – hard to impress people, or just been NOT myself. I don’t know what I was trying to be, other than hopefully something the judges liked. And it was stupid, because the whole reason I was invited to audition in the first place was because they DID like me already. I put way too much pressure on myself, on the audition, on the opportunity, and I seriously effed it up. They may have even laughed as I left. And so for the rest of the day, I was reliving the horror. Going, “Wow, this is what I do, and yet I can’t actually do it.” Thinking, “This is the story of my recent life: When the time comes, I am utterly incapable of doing what ought to be so basic and natural. I couldn’t have a baby without screwing up so badly that I almost died even though this is what women do. I couldn’t successfully audition for a singing contest when singing is what I do. I felt like a colossal failure. Utterly inadequate.
Today: Yesterday’s crap audition and Sunday’s sermon gelled a bit in my mind. I’ve wanted, for ages, to finish that lyric…to see it bloom into a song. But the rest of the song just wasn’t there. And truthfully, I’ve been in every place other than the Songwriting Place lately. So it slipped to the recesses of my mind. But I took it with me into yesterday’s audition, thinking “maybe this is the love…”. And as I went over and over the whole situation, I was reminded: God, HE is Love, and He doesn’t withhold any good thing. He doesn’t cast shadows over good things in order to tease us. He is the Light, and He shines the light to cast shadows on lesser things, to draw our faces to Him. To reality. To what He actually desires for us, rather than what we want Him to desire for us. He turns us from our shadowy selfish will to His glorious, inconceivable design.
I’ve been reminded over and over and over this year that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived what God has planned for those who love Him.” (1 Cor 2:9) I’ve been reminded to turn my eyes to Him, to seek Him in the promise that He will be found, and to dream inconceivable things.
I think the dreams I’ve had for myself, though lofty, have been far too stereotypical and, I confess, entirely selfish. I want a massive audience to enjoy and be moved by my songs, so I can sell CDs and make a living doing not only what I love to do, but what I’m meant to do…what I can’t not do.
Every time I’ve “almost” gotten there…or developed some momentum…or had an opportunity that could or should rocket me forward…it’s gone awry, and – as time always tells – in the most beautiful ways. I’ve been given little tastes of That, and then been reminded there are better, sweeter, richer, more eternal things to be done.
There are songs to be written for and with broken people…forgotten people…people here and there and everywhere who actually own my heart even if we’ve never met. People who deserve a voice, even if it’s only mine.
I’ve been reminded that when a shadow falls over the plans I’ve drawn up for myself, it’s not the meanness of God, but His great goodness and love that cast that shadow to draw my eyes to Him.
And today…I caught a glimpse.
Today, I turned my face to the Light rather than dwelling on the shadow.
Today the words came.
“Love is Not the Shadow”
dark are the days
i am seeking your face
i am finding you are ever near
they announce where i go
as i step and stumble around here
and there are times when i feel
when i am begging to belong
and to be loved
and to be known
and you say
hope is hiding where i least expect to find it
faith grows not in what you want, but i need need and
love is not the shadow but the light that casts it
on less important things
with each new sunrise
new questions arise
and i strain to hear what you will say
as often as not
you are silent, i’m caught
by the need to trust you anyway
these are the times when i feel hopeless and alone
and i am begging to be heard
and to believe
and to behold…
when you say
hope is hiding where i least expect to find it
faith is growing not in what i want but need and
love is not the shadow but the light that casts it
on less important things
God always speaks most clearly when I least expect it. Usually when I’m wallowing.
Take tonight, for example. I was browsing Jeremy Cowart’s unbelievable photography, clicking through gallery after gallery of people famous, beautiful, and/or rich enough to hire him. (Oh, that I had the money to pay him to make me look like a celebrity. Ha!) A small seed of jealousy set in and I began to think, “Why can’t I be important enough for someone to become my manager and make me famous and hire Jeremy to take my picture for a magazine or an album cover or something very cool that would show the world how truly unique and important I am? Woe is me; woe is me indeed.”
Yes, I confess: I am addicted to myself, and sometimes it’s rears its head like that one really scary scene in Lord of the Rings when the elf queen lady Galadrial gets that wonky voice and looks like a skeleton and starts talking about ruling the world…you know, when Frodo is practically sleep-walking? Anyway, that’s how I look when I get like this.
Anyway, so back to the point: Tonight, I was doing that…looking at amazing photos of disturbingly beautiful and famous people and wishing I was like them and wondering why I’m not, when I skipped to the next gallery – the “Voices of Haiti” gallery.
After the devastating earthquake of 2010, Jeremy took a team down to Port-Au-Prince, where they documented the aftermath. He says in the gallery’s intro, “After the 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti on January 12th of this year, I was deeply moved as most of you were. For days I watched as the television flashed images of gloom and doom… dead bodies, crumbled buildings… It just felt like a heartless display of numbers and statistics. ‘How were the people feeling?’ I wondered. I was tired of hearing endless reports from strangers that just arrived to this devastated nation. So I decided to go to Port-Au-Prince myself and ask them directly. My question was simply ‘What do you have to say about all this?’ This photo essay reveals the many answers to that question.”
As I scrolled through the photos of homeless, broken, lost, and abandoned men, women, and children who’d lost house, home, life, livelihood, and family members, I was struck again by the simple truth that while we know almost none of their names (except, perhaps, Jeremy & crew), these people and their five-worded-statements had the power to profoundly change their photographer and doubtless countless others…like me.
Theirs is the reality I want to be part of. Theirs are the lives in which I want to invest. Theirs is the hope I want to see flourish. Theirs are the futures I want to see become. They are nobodies. They are everybody.
And they are, I’m quite certain, first on Jesus’ mind and heart.
These people don’t know me, nor I them. They aren’t famous. They aren’t modelesque in beauty. They are – according to their own country and most of ours – incidental and forgettable at best. There are millions of people just like them in Haiti, in Uganda, in India, in Cambodia…all over the world, people in dire need of help whose best hope is a guy like Jeremy taking their pictures and showing it to us, that we might be moved enough to see them as Real and equal, and do something.
Even if all we do at this moment is recognize their inherent, incomparable value, and our brotherhood with them.
So yeah. I guess my choices, if I want to be photographed by Jeremy Cowart, are to either a) become sickeningly beautiful and famous, or b) move to a rundown, third-world city too few care about, and live among unnamed masses too few have heard about.
Jeremy did his job tonight. He made me fall in love with the face in the photo. He made me want to live among them. He made me want to be part of something bigger and infinitely more important than celebrity and wealth and influence. He got me out of myself.
And he made me desperately miss Gulu, and ever more anxious to return to the only place I’ve felt I truly belonged.
Filed under: africa, Baby, Culture, Faith and Faith Life, Home Life, Humanitarianism, Media & Art, Missions, Music, Politics
Having realized January 1, 2011 was not only the beginning of a new year but a new decade as well, I feel obligated to contribute yet another top ten list to the great expansive black hole that is “Top Ten Lists From Random Users of Facebook, The Blogosphere, and Other Social Networking Utilities.”
Now, of course, because 2010 was a rather significant year in my personal history, there will inevitably be some carry-over, and the year will provide two equally significant memories, which do not “tie” for first, but which cannot be discluded here either. The same thing happens in 2001 and in a couple other years. But only because each of the significant happenings of those years are too significant to leave out of this story.
This will surely be an exercise in both memory (which will be entertaining not only because it’s fun, but because pregnant-woman memory is notoriously hole-y) and creativity (as I will try to only choose the best of the best and/or most significant of the significant memories, and find an accompanying photo to boot. Disclaimer: There will be times when no photo is retrievable aside from me digging through my attic and employing the scanner…in which case no photo will be applied. Because I am lazy today).
So once again, here goes.
IN THE YEAR 2000, I was half-way through my freshman year at Oak Hills Christian College, during which time I not only neglected to vote in the first elections for which I was actually eligible to vote (bad news), but I also performed for the first time with a band (good news). I tried my best at (and did an OK job of) rocking out to Jennifer Knapp’s “Into You” from her second studio album, ‘Lay It Down.’ This was the beginning of what would later become “something.”
IN THE YEAR 2001, some rather passionate and – if I may say – crazy men crashed three planes into the Twin Towers and near the Pentagon, and I paid $5/gallon for gasoline. No one wants to remember the gruesomeness of 9/11/01, much less the snowball of events it set in motion…least of all me. But in reality, this was the moment of the year. This was the event they were all referring to when they told me, “For every person, there will be an event so culturally and socially significant that she will be able to look back and remember exactly where she was, what she was doing, and what thoughts crossed her mind when the event struck.” For many in my parents’ generation, that day was – until 9/11, anyway – the day JFK was assassinated. For all of us, 9/11 will forever be that day.
Later in 2001, I met Jennifer Knapp for the first time. She does not remember meeting me then. I would not expect her to, but I nevertheless have the picture to prove it. It is significant for reasons to come.
IN THE YEAR 2002, I made the first record I was ever going to make of some pretty amazingly crappy songs. And thanks to my fellow Oakies (that’s what we students at Oak Hills Christian College called ourselves when we were feeling particularly sentimental and/or stupid), the word got out that this girl Amy Courts made music. (I pray, to this day, that all copies of those early recordings have been either lost or destroyed. God forbid anyone should ever be subjected to that awful noise ever again.) (And once again, no photo can be provided. You’ll just have to trust me: it happened. And it really was that bad.)
IN THE YEAR 2003, I graduated from college. I don’t have a picture to prove it – well, actually, I’m sure I do, but I’m not going to dig it out. I do have a diploma to prove it, which I’m also not going to dig out and scan. But it did happen. And I have made little use of my college education since. After that, I moved to Nashville TN to begin the career I was never meant to have…in professional musical performance. For the previous four years – all throughout my college career – I was dead set against a career having anything to do with music. Never mind that writing songs was easily the most satisfying and natural thing to do. Never mind all those Oakies who said, “you really should think about doing this for a living.” Never mind all that. Because I was NOT going to be “that girl” who moved to Nashville to become a singer and became a waitress instead. But alas…when God closes one door… Or rather, when God slams every. single. other. available door in your face, you go through the lone open door. So when the Denver doors slammed…and the Nebraska doors slammed…and the other doors slammed…there stood one lonely open door, behind which stood this rather amazing girl named Katie Spain who willingly offered a home to a perfect stranger. She is now my best friend. (Sorry, no photos of those early days in Nashville, or of me and Katie, so a picture of me with Katie’s daughters will have to suffice.)
IN THE YEAR 2004, I met Paul Koopman, the unbelievable singer/songwriter who’s voice and songs so immediately melted me that I felt compelled to fearlessly approach him (which I NEVER do…or did…until then) to praise his undeniable talent. This began a professional relationship that would later turn, uh, well, pretty personal. He was, after all, the man who would later become my husband. That’s pretty significant…and (lucky you) self-explanatory.
IN THE YEAR 2005, after nearly 18 months of dating – nine of which were long distance (which, might I add, is not for the faint of heart) – that man proposed to me. Also significant and self-explanatory.
IN THE YEAR 2006, a number of really significant things happened, so I’ll only tell you the top two. First of all, we got married. This is a big deal. So big, it was the biggest thing to ever happen to me up until that point. It was the best day of my life up til then, but – I’m happy to say – has been exceeded by even happier days in the nearly five years since then. Amazing, eh? OH! And guess what else I got when I got married? Not just a husband…a stepson too. Who is, for the record, the greatest 14 year old on the planet (and I dare anyone to challenge that).
And the other big thing that happened in 2006 was that I (finally, after nearly two years of working on it) released my debut EP. Again, a significant accomplishment not only because it was the reason for which I moved to Nashville in the first place, but also because these were seven songs I was truly proud to give to the world (for $.99/each or $10/album, thankyouverymuch). As it were, that album is still available for your purchase and enjoyment today. (Like how I did that? What kind of artist would I be if I didn’t slip a sale or two in here…? On that note, if you want to purchase the album or individual songs, simply click on the photo to be redirected to my store. MAN I’m good at this!)
IN THE YEAR 2007, having decided (with the blessing of my husband) to quit my job and do this musical career full-on, balls-to-the-wall, I went on my first tour. This was a very big, impressive thing for me. I sent out hundreds of emails, made hundreds of phone calls, and (with the equal effort and help of my enduring tour mate and fellow indie artist Katy Kinard), set about playing something like 10 or 12 shows in 14 days…over Easter…in Kansas and Colorado. It was a rather huge step for us both, and more fun than I can say, despite that I somehow caught a cold that nearly killed me by the end (and despite that I returned from those 14 days with nodules on my vocal cords). What an incredible experience!
IN THE YEAR 2008, I released my second album, a full length record with 10 of my most favorite songs. It was a bit of a bigger deal than the first (if you can imagine) simply because of everything we invested – time, energy, soul, money – to make it exactly what I wanted and needed it to be. It was also the first time I even considered – much less followed through with – recording a song written by someone else. But not only did I record the song; I took the album’s title from its lyrics. So if anyone is wondering why the song “Breathe” is so outstandishly brilliant compared to the other nine songs on the record, now you know: It’s because Paul Koopman (yes, my husband) wrote it. (Again, if you’re curious to hear and/or purchase the record, simply click on the album cover below. Wink, wink.)
IN THE YEAR 2009, once again, two pretty amazing things happened, neither of which can be left out of this. Actually, three incredible things. I’ll start with the least incredible. First, in April and September of 2009 I ran my first half marathons (13.1 miles). It doesn’t sound that exciting, considering that literally hundreds of thousands of people cover this distance at hundreds of thousands of races every year. But for me – the girl who never even ran until 2004, and who certainly never saw herself covering any distance greater than 3 miles at a time – it was pretty huge. And it was the gateway into one of the most satisfying and rewarding things I do: run distances. Running long distances has saved me from a) going crazy, b) getting morbidly obese (thanks to the way too much food I consume; again: I run to eat), and c) devolving back into a grossly insecure person who controlled her life by anorexia. Running is perhaps the greatest lesson one will learn regarding what the body can do, and even more significantly what the mind can do…with the proper training and care.
In October 2009, I finally traveled to Gulu, Uganda…a place to which my heart had been aching to journey for three years prior. There’s no short way of telling that story, except to say it did exactly what I expected and feared it would do: change me, utterly and irrevocably. (The long story, for those who are interested, can be read here or by clicking on the picture below.)
And finally, upon returning to the States after those 10 incredible days in Gulu, the third significant thing happened: Jennifer Knapp – my favorite singer/songwriter of all time, who seven years prior simply vanished from the earth (well, OK, from the music scene anyway) – reappeared. She started following me on Twitter; she added me to her top friends on Myspace; and then – miracle of miracles – she came to one of my shows, specifically to see me, and liked it. She liked it so much that three weeks later she invited me to join her on stage at the Belcourt Theater here in Nashville and sing with her on some of my favorite of her songs. It was surreal. It was magical. And it really. Did. Happen. And THEN we became friends. (And I pinched myself about ten times daily, thinking, “What is happening? To what magical universe have I been transported where dreams really do come true!? This MUST be some hidden-camera Disney movie…”)
AND IN THE YEAR 2010, well…you all know the Top Ten (and Top Two) happenings last year! I went on tour with not just one, but TWO of my musical heroes: Jennifer Knapp AND Derek Webb (you can see that post here, or click the photo below)…
…And I made a Baby with Paul Koopman!
I HAVE NO IDEA what 2011 or the decade ahead holds. But if it’s even half as good – and I trust it will be, given that the God I serve and am continually amazed by makes a habit of outdoing Himself all the time – I will be an evermore satisfied woman. And that’s really all I can hope for.
Cheers to the next ten years!
Filed under: africa, Culture, Faith and Faith Life, Missions, Music, Video
I believe I’ve used the word “beautiful” more over the past two weeks to describe what I saw and experienced in Gulu and the Acholi than I have my whole life over. And part of me wishes for a new, better, more powerful – or just different – adjective.
But the truth is, no other word does them justice.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
The first video above (created by the brilliant Stephen Proctor of gi*inc) is just a splinter from the Sunday church service we attended (to which some incredible Faithful’s walked 50 miles). It portrays the simple honesty and incomparable joy inherent in their worship. It was unequivocally the most vibrant celebration I’ve ever seen happen among the people of God on any given Sunday. The Acholi know joy.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
This second is a piece Stephen put together using only flip camera footage, which captured the reality of their beautiful light and tuned me in to my shadowy life. I still can’t avoid tears when I see it and remember their perfect faces.
To be sure, True Light is brighter than it ever was, and “Beauty” has never been more perfectly defined.
Filed under: Activate, africa, Culture, Humanitarianism, Missions, Music, Uncategorized
This has been such a difficult blog to write. I want so much to share everything about Gulu and the Acholi people, but feel a need to give you the brightest highlights and keep the rest to myself until it rises to the surface of circumstance. Not because it’s not worth sharing, but because I fear in sharing it without context, it might lose power. I don’t know, but I don’t yet want to take the risk. I am certain, though, that as time moves us forward, stories will be shared as they relate to circumstances and my experience will prove itself something beyond time.
For now, I’ll share the part that changed me at my core.
God began something early on that I knew would break me by week’s end. Traveling with a team of artists and musicians whose experience and notoriety far exceeds my own, I confess the desire to prove myself equal. Though my stage and audience are considerably smaller, I wanted to clarify that “I’m just as good.” Quite shameful on its own, even more in light of where we were and why.
So on Sunday, after an indescribable morning church service attended by 150+ Acholi from distances as far as 50 miles, we went to the Home of Love to spend the afternoon sharing music, playing our own guitar-based American songs as the kids giggled with delight, and watching them sing and dance to their own rhythms and melodies. It was both beautiful and terrible, mostly because after sharing my own song and declaring it utterly suckful, I sunk into myself and allowed pride to overwhelm me.
That evening as I prayed and scoured the Word for some kind of encouragement or affirmation, a promise from God that I am, indeed, good enough for both my team and the Acholi, God slapped me across the face saying, “Who exactly do you think you are? Why on earth would your songs matter more here than mine, and why should I share my glory and honor and approval with you? Have you learned nothing of these people? Do you still not realize that they recognize and crave what’s eternal, and the only eternal thing you can offer them is Me and whatever comes from Me? I brought you here to love them with My love, to serve them, to give of yourself without condition and for My glory, that they may see Christ. And here, still, you seek an ego massage.”
I cried myself to sleep that night, overwhelmed but determined to put myself away. There really was no other choice. God is right: whatever I give, in song or deed, if not for and to Him is utterly without and will waste away and be forgotten. And so I would spend the rest of my time seeking only to be a tool. Whether He spoke to or through or around or about me didn’t matter, so long as I was surrendered to Him and lifting Him up. Even if that meant just shutting up.
Monday was a new day. We went back to the school to share songs with the kids and paint their handprints on a mural, and as we sang together and taught the kids American praise songs with all the motions, I felt a clean wave of liberty wash over me. What mattered was that I engaged. Whether or not my vocal or guitar playing abilities were up to par wasn’t the point. They loved that I was there, and so I was ALL there.
And on Tuesday – our last day – Missy, Genevieve, and I had the extreme honor of attending the Women of Hope meeting and sharing songs and the Word with 200+ women living with HIV/AIDS who meet weekly to hear Scripture and to love, encourage, and comfort one another. They sang their welcoming song when we arrived, and I was immediately asked to sing a couple songs, which I did with relish. They applauded, but I think by the end of the second they were ready for the Word. My English songs may have sounded pretty, but still unintelligible to a group of women who don’t speak my language.
So, after being asked to “give the message,” Missy and Genevieve each read to the women from the Psalms. What’s beautiful about these people is that when they ask for the Word of God, they aren’t asking for a sermon. They believe the Word speaks for Himself, so they read the Word together and applaud and celebrate God for His goodness in teaching them. They don’t need all our hoopla of exegesis and application.
When Missy and Genevieve finished, I was invited back up. I wasn’t sure if they wanted more songs or more of the Bible, so I asked. And, to my good humiliation, they made abundantly clear they did not, in fact, want more music, but more of the Word.
So, having just been over this with God, I said, “Sounds good.” And I began to read from Isaiah 54. I’m not sure why I chose that passage, and I admit I was unsure whether it would mean anything to them. But the day we arrived I remember reading it and thinking, “this is for these people.” For a people who’ve been torn by war for 23 years, ravaged by disease and poverty, homeless and so often hopeless.
So I read to the women.
“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities. Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband—the LORD Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer. “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children’s peace. In righteousness you will be established: Tyranny will be far from you; you will have nothing to fear. Terror will be far removed; it will not come near you. If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing; whoever attacks you will surrender to you. See, it is I who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges a weapon fit for its work. And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc; no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.”
As they heard the chapter in their own language, I watched something amazing happen. Throughout the reading, women cheered and hollered and shouted their “Hallelujah!”s and “AMEN!”s. One woman in the front kept looking at me with tearful eyes, smiling and giving a thumbs-up, apparently pleased with the passage.
And afterwards, when the women gathered to hug us Mzungus (white people) and introduce themselves, many explained their cheers. They are barren women, sick with HIV/AIDS and unable to conceive, abandoned by their husbands and scorned by society, riddled with worry about their children’s futures. They said these verses were indeed from God, a gift for them. They celebrate and revel in the promise of an Eternal Husband, a Redeemer who re-purposes the sick woman’s life, who Fathers her children and establishes them in peace and righteousness, protecting them from danger, terror, and even death.
I was moved to tears, overcome with gratitude to God for letting me deliver good news that day. It was as if clouds opened up and He pointed down and said, “See! I told you!”
I was even more moved when, in thanks to me (for what?), the Women of Hope gave me a new Acholi name.
“I love God.”
Filed under: Activate, africa, Culture, Faith and Faith Life, Humanitarianism, Missions, Music
I can’t recall ever taking so long or expending so much energy and patience to write a blog. But what I want to tell about Gulu – and more specifically about my experience and why I’ll hopefully never be the same – deserves more time, more editing, more energy. I want to give you the best of what they gave me, with as few errors or potholes of distraction as possible.
Or maybe I’m just an obsessively compulsive perfectionist. Wink, wink.
Either way, until THE blog is ready, I’ll share a few pearls I’ve threaded into a necklace I intend to wear daily.
The Acholi people (the largest tribe in the country, who occupy most of Northern Uganda, and who have for the past two years enjoyed the first tastes of peace after a 23 year civil war waged by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army) are eager and generous with their love and kindness. From daily half-a-block walks to and from the internet cafe marked by countless toothy grins and “How are you? I’m fine!”s, to giggling children who are simply overcome with joy by the fact that Mzungus (white people) want to hear them sing their songs and dance their dances, their love is an effortless and unconditional kind unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They expect and want nothing but a genuine smile.
Having all lost so much and so many to terror, violence, disease, and disaster, they know how fleeting a moment can be and embrace each with ferocious joy. It’s hard not to define them as a dizzyingly happy people, because it’s rare to see anyone without a smile. Even when they’re feeling ill and asking for prayer, they do it with a smile.
But still, you know they carry the burden of recent history and understand in a special way that life can change or end at any second, so if this one is good, it ought to be celebrated. And celebrate they do.
For me, just being an observer among them for a week was liberating. It may be because the economy won’t allow for it, or more likely because they just know better than to waste time with such pettiness, the Acholi have little time and patience for vanity. Clothes don’t match and are rarely perfectly clean. Cosmetics are an expensive luxury, one most refuse in favor of covering their feet or feeding their families. Self-expression through fashion or hair style seems unlikely, as their clothing is either the “imported” castaways from America’s thrift stores or made from cheap materials; and most men, women, and children alike wear short or shaved hair. It’s better to keep away lice and other bugginess. And deoderant? What’s deoderant?
I can’t describe how freeing it was to be among people who aren’t silently analyzing my fashion choices or checking my legs to see if they’re shaved. It was nice to know that if, after a long day of painting, my Secret was all worn off, no one would notice much less care. I’m white, so I’m going to I stand out. Any details beyond that aren’t worth following.
What’s more, I saw in them a desire simply to show us they’re kind and warm, forward-moving and modern; That they’re cheerful and can find beauty and humor in nearly anything; That they’re resourceful and creative, hard working, intelligent, and most of all good. They love and crave God and His goodness. They have much more to offer than war. They want to learn and teach. They want to create.
Above all, they are a community-driven people. They’ve all lost family and friends to war, so they ferociously grip the relationships they now have as a life source. It was rare to see anyone walking anywhere alone. And in the evenings, when most Americans are holed up in their giant homes on acres of “private property” watching fake lives play out on flat screen TVs, safe from the annoying distractions of other humans, the Acholi are hanging out and enjoying one another. One evening, we saw a group of at least 50 people gathered around one small TV for a major soccer event! They don’t go home until the restaurant’s generator is turned off and they’re sent away. And whether they’ve known you for years or you’re meeting for the first time, they treat you as a kindred soul and intimate friend. Even the Mzungus.
The children are no different. Whether walking home from school in groups, navigating the market for dinner, giving you the tour of their school or orphanage, or selling sugar cane across the street, they’re quick to extend a hand to shake and even quicker to offer a wide grin to a stranger. I guess, to them, no one is a stranger.
Quite simply, they want to love and be loved.
They were concerned not with appearances – with impressing us with fancy clothes or fresh scents, huge hotel suites, or five-star meals (though they did an incredible job at making our stay as comfortable and upscale as possible within the context of their culture) – but with making us, the Mzungus, feel welcome, comfortable, and at home.
And I did. I felt as at home with them as I ever have in America.
Toward the end of the week I took a moment to sit down with Judith, one of the hotel staff who seemed to rather enjoy my silliness and my inability to speak their language correctly despite both our efforts. She thought my self-depricating jokes were hilarious. She liked that I wore crazy-looking shirts. And, pulling me aside, she said, ‘Miss Ahh-mee, you are very down to ground. Most Mzungus don’t like us…they think we’re bad and useless, just full of war and disease. But you…I like you. And I like that you like me.” I told her she was quite easy to like, and she liked that too. We both decided we were soul sisters, and that one of us – most likely me – was just born the wrong color and on the wrong continent.
One of our team later told me that Judith told him I’m actually African.
And recalling that makes me miss my other home, my other family, even more.
Yesterday morning, as I ate some cereal, drank some (delicious) coffee, and perused Little Rock’s local-yokel magazine, Soiree, reading about “women to watch” in the area, I got to thinking about success.
I suppose it was a natural progression of thought springing from the definitions given by the watchable women, most of whom agreed success was tied either to greater levels of wealth or power in the ever-changing, dangerous organism that is capitalism at work.
And perhaps it had a little to do with the fact that I was waking up from a two day stint in Little Rock, where I gave two of what I’d consider my best concerts ever.
Neither was particularly “well attended.” One was a private concert for the men and women served by Little Rock’s Union Rescue Mission, and followed a couple hours of serving them dinner and hearing some incredible life stories. Including the kiddos, there may have been fifty people hanging out on the lawn in the balmy evening heat to listen to me sing and talk. The second concert was open to the public but predominantly attended by young people ranging from 13 to 16 in age. Again, when all was said and done, numbers counted and all, there were probably about 50 of us hanging out for the evening.
But wow. As I drove away this morning, I felt pretty successful.
After the concert on the lawn for the URM, one woman wrote and passed me a note about her experience. She said she couldn’t explain it in a conversation, because she’d end up crying her way through. But in her note, she spoke of the lost years she lived as a prostitute and drug addict, which were odd juxtaposed to her upbringing under a Baptist minister. She appreciated what she called “fearless” songs; songs that look at the darker, harsher, deeper sides of life – sides so many people can’t relate to, much less discuss, much less publically. She appreciated the “real”ness of it. And while thanking me for being usable in Lord’s hands, I was quietly thanking God for affirming me and my passion. And what a gift it was to go back to the Dorcas House today and spend a bit more time with those women who spend their days overcoming.
The second concert was equally encouraging, though in different ways. Like I said, it was for youth. Teenagers who don’t have a lot of money to either buy CDs or join Mocha Club. Teenagers who typically don’t appreciate the deeper things as much as we old soul’s do. Teenagers who might have been humoring their youth pastor by sitting quietly through my concert. But these guys…they were fun. They were generous. And they gave of themselves. They came and served with me at the URM. And after the concert, they gave up their money for bigger things. Many of them joined Mocha Club, and set the age of selflessness just a couple years younger. Many wanted to buy CDs and purchase jewelry or bags created by women rescued from sex slavery, but only having the money for one, chose to be part of the rescue efforts. And a few of them even let me sign their arms…and thought THEY got away with the best end of the deal.
As I look back over the last couple days, I feel lucky. I feel affirmed. I feel hopeful. I feel an overwhelming sense of awe as leaves take form on the branches of trees that were mere seeds in my palm just a few years ago. And I know I’m moving in the right direction and tilling the right soil when I am part of the passing out of Hope to people who know to grab hold of it, or am able to facilitate – or just watch! – young people stepping into the role of giver while most of their peers remain content simply to receive.
Indeed, money or no money, tour bus or no tour bus, arena or no arena, fame or no fame…Tonight, I am satisfied in my soul and in want of nothing.