I have an interesting relationship with music and singing. If I had to describe it on Facebook I’d say it’s complicated. I’m told that before I spoke I sang. My mother being a music teacher, my earliest memories involve music — be it singing solos in church, watching my mom direct a choir or band, singing as a family at gatherings, and others aspects throughout life. The truth is I love music and I love singing. My soul is healed through music in ways that nothing else can soothe. I’m inspired by musicals and artists who write and perform. As a child I daydreamed of performing in front of masses. Still today watching a good concert my mind will wander into the “I want to do that…” If Adele, Kelly Clarkson, and Rhianna had a baby, I’d want to be that style of singer.
The it’s a complicated relationship piece of it is that I have noticed in different contexts in my life where I have felt as though a singing performance was all that was desired of me. I am much more than than a singer, of course, I have other passions and other things to offer. So it bothers me when I sing and the focus is more on the performance than the words (this is specifically problematic to me when my singing is done during worship). Plus, I don’t particularly like the attention. I’m working through these issues; but I share all this to say that — whether wrong, right, or neither — I think throrougly through the decision to sing publicly.
For all of these complicated (and somewhat silly) feelings I was momentarily paralyzed while in South Africa when a woman who barely spoke English told asked me to sing. We were on a whirlwind trip visiting different groups, organizations and churches around three cities in the country of South Africa. This particular day we had the absolute privilege to visit the Hillcrest AIDS Centre.
This organization which originally came out of a congregation/church is what I consider a vision of the active and visible kingdom of God on earth. Among the many things they do — they bring awareness and education about HIV/AIDS, encourage persons to become tested, know their status and receive and take medications when needed, empower persons to support themselves through trades, etc. — they also have a respite unit for the purpose of caring for and loving on persons with advanced stages of AIDS. We were a privileged group who were able to spend time with persons being cared for in this respite, as well as with those who serve there.
After hearing about what the organization does from an absolutely inspiring woman, we were led and welcomed into the area where persons are live, recover, and a significant number die.
When we arrived, there were people in a porch/lanai area outside. I assumed these were persons who were able to get out of their bed and spend some time in the fresh air. I walked in and found the nearest chair by the nearest two women that I found; and I figured this would be relatively easy. I was genuinely excited to be there; for a number reasons that I won’t go into here, for a long time I have felt drawn to the cause of persons with HIV/AIDS. I also regularly enjoy visiting persons, offering prayer, and encouragement. But immediately I realized that there was somewhat of a language barrier. Thus far, the majority of the persons that we had encountered in South Africa spoke English — or we at least had someone to translate for us. These two women were not fluent in English and we were kind of on our own. One of them, who seemed to be in a heightened level of pain and/or discomfort, understood more so than the other. So,this woman, who I discovered had been there for barely a month, translated for the other woman who seemed well on her way to recovery, and possibly being discharged. She didn’t always make the effort to translate, however, so it was slow, uncomfortable small talk. Being an introvert there are few things I like less than small talk. But I found myself too tired or stubborn to leave and find another group, so I stuck it out. I was uncomfortable because I wanted to talk and offer my special presence (nothing like mission trip to make you realize how arrogant we Americans can be!), but they didn’t understand me nor did they seem all that interested in trying to communicate.
So I sat. I was silent for a bit and then attempted to speak again, and then I was silent again. Then I heard a TV playing inside and there was some music playing from the TV. I had another topic for smalltalk. I asked them if they liked music. The lady who spoke more English looked at me with a grave expression and told me she did. She then asked me if I sang. “Crap!” I thought in my head. “Ummm… Yes, sort of…” Then she very clearly said, “Sing me a song… Sing me a song about God.”
Did I mention my relationship with singing in public is complicated? We were outside and it wasn’t just us three; there was a group of people on this porch. But a woman with AIDS who seemed to be in pain asked me to sing her a song while we sat in a respite unit in South Africa. What else could I do but sing a song? I told her that it would be in English because I didn’t know any songs in Zulu or Xhosa. Then I asked her if she knew ‘Amazing Grace.’ I knelt by her side, in part because I wanted to sing only to her and not have everyone hear, and in part because I wanted to be close to her. I started to sing and precisely what I would not have wanted to happen happened; everyone got quiet. But that only mattered for a second. For, whether everyone was listening or not, or ended up joining in or not, I was singing a song about God. I was singing a song that had taught me about God in a way that I had not experienced God for a lot of my life. A song about a God of grace. A song that I remember hearing one day as though I’d never heard it before, and it moved me to tears. It was a significant piece of my renewed understanding of who God is.
The woman looked intently into my eyes as I sang – my face 18 inches from hers. As I sang I would close my eyes and open them back again and see her staring at me. It was almost as if whether she knew the words or not she knew that the notes were about God. It was holy and sacred.
When I finished people cheered, then someone encouraged us all to sing other songs — songs in Zulu, English, Spanish and Creole. It was great. Later on a couple from our group who remained in the respite area had the privilege of singing and dancing with the group of nurses, staff and some patients as they shared with us how consider themselves a people who live with great sorrow underneath, but simultaneously a people of great rejoicing and song. That time was also sacred and a gift.
I miss that place. I feel as though I left a piece of my heart there — a piece of my voice, maybe. Even now I think about their memorial wall and I’m filled with emotion. Now that we’re in Advent I’m especially reflective; and this woman’s words have been tumbling through my mind. “Sing me a song about God.” I’ve been thinking about another song about God — one that we recite during this time of year. A song that may have also been reluctant in arriving at her singer’s mouth but one that overflowed from her lips — with joy, conviction, truth and hope — once she found herself in the presence of another who encouraged it with her being and words.
Mary’s song (in Luke 1:46-55; see vs 26-56 for the whole story) begins with praise – praise at the realization of her humble state – which leads to being overwhelmed by God’s unreasonable Grace. The song goes on to turn the world up…side…down.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”
What a song about God!
As I sit and reflect on this song I’m encouraged to sing louder and more often — songs about God in the midst of uncertainty. Songs like the one Mary sang, maybe not entirely knowing what she was saying, but inspired by who God is. A song of a God of reversals, where the lowly are made high, the high are brought low, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty, the last become first, and the least become the greatest. Songs that move us, that make us uncomfortable, that make us think, that fill us with emotion, and that tell us about grace. And even when we’re not entirely sure what the words mean, we somehow recognize that the notes are about God — a God of great love and grace, who meets us in unexpected ways, places, and songs. So as I reflect on this song of a God of great reversals I think of my South African companions, and I sing songs about God for them.
Victory is Ours
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
-Desmond M. Tutu,
Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa