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.”