In the first place, if you know me even casually you will know my dismay, if not downright disdain, when I am in almost any circumstance that involves sappy praise songs. (I particularly become bitter when we have to stand, swaying and clapping, for 15 excruciating minutes, then sit down to sing the same song some more. But that’s a whole other blog entry, isn’t it?).
This was certainly, if not the last place then pretty close to the last place I expected to receive a blessing, especially since “receiving a blessing” is a phrase that I would never be caught using in public under any circumstances that I can think of.
So I was already in a place of mild annoyance when the group of 30 or so African children filed onto the stage and began their performance with a dance and song in their native Ugandan tongue. The kids were great-really-but something about the whole situation felt vaguely uncomfortable. Here I was, sitting in a crowd of about 600 white Americans (really, there were perhaps one or two African Americans in the audience and no other minorities that I saw) watching 30 kids from very poor villages in Africa sing for my own personal enjoyment.
In the course of the performance we learned the African Children’s Choir was actually quite a big deal, touring all over the US and Great Britain to raise money to improve child welfare in Africa. The kids, ages 9-11 or so, travel with the choir for 15 months at a time performing all over the world. Through their music they are able to make significant differences in their communities back home.
Their story was heart-warming and they were amazing; but, the whole situation still felt wrong to me. And then they started singing praise songs. Little Ugandan children singing English language praise songs . . . “Lord I lift your name on high . . .”.
Oh, dear, get me to fresh air quick; I was feeling queasy.
But then the kids launched into their next song. It began with one little high, clear voice ringing out over the crowd: “You are the Shepherd, I belong to you. When I walk on rough ground, you will guide me through. You know my name, you know my voice. Before I was born I was your choice. Show me how to follow, Lord keep me close to you . . . you are the Shepherd, I belong to you.”
Unwittingly, without any warning, much to my utter surprise, tears started streaming down my face. As I listened to those words all the colors and accents, continents and cultures slid away until I felt like I could have been that little child with a high, clear voice singing to God: You are the Shepherd, I belong to you.
I do understand that singing those words probably means much more when affirming your value in the eyes of God means you have the right to clean water and healthy food. But right then I felt like a member of the choir, also in need of God in ways that were just as elemental.
And I wanted to get in line behind the little children so I could be blessed by this Shepherd, too. And I was:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.