Thoughts about the Africa University Choir (and how it changed my life)

My wife, Michelle, took this photo at the Old Mutare Orphanage in 1999.

My wife, Michelle, took this photo at the Old Mutare Orphanage during our visit in 1999.

Earlier this week it was announced that the Africa University Choir will be singing in Indianapolis this summer when the United Methodists in Indiana have their annual meeting. I am excited by this announcement and a little bit frightened.  You see, the last time I heard the Africa University Choir sing it changed my life.

Fifteen years ago this summer I was attending annual conference (what United Methodist call their annual judicatory meeting) where Bishop Woodie White invited the Africa University Choir to sing.  I remember the energy of the choir and the visual beauty of their native attire. At the end of their singing Bishop White announced that he would be leading a short term work mission to Africa University the following summer and invited people to be a part of that team.  Although they would be doing hands on work with several projects on the campus, the ultimate goal would be to learn about the university, return to the Indiana area to spread this information, and to raise money to build two new dorms on the campus, a much needed addition.

I have had times in my life when I have had what I call “moments of divine clarity” – times when I feel certain of God’s presence and direction.  During and after the singing of the Africa U. Choir I felt such a moment as I have rarely, if ever, felt again.  I felt certain that God was leading me to travel with Bishop White and be a part of this project.  I went home and told Michelle the good news (?) and soon she was on board as well.  Even though it was an expensive trip and we had no visible extra means to make it happen we were sure that God would provide.  Thanks to a very loving and generous congregation a year later we were in Africa having an experience that opened our eyes to the needs of the world and also opened our eyes to what could be done when people responded to those needs with energy, creativity and financial resources.  I have often been proud of The United Methodist Church (despite all its flaws) but never more than when I stepped on the Africa U. campus for the first time.

But here’s what I didn’t count on.  I saw that trip as a kind of once-in-a-lifetime type of experience on which I could reflect with a warm feeling in the comfort of my home and church study for years to come.  I didn’t know that it would be the first step on a life-long journey to share in and share about the missional work of the church.  It was the first step on a path that has led to Mayan villages in the Yucatan, to the Peruvian high desert, to Native American communities in South Dakota, and places I haven’t even imaged yet.

In his epic set of novels, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien has one of his characters muse that “Few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till they come to its end.”  I know my life journey has led me to places I never imagined and I suspect it will continue to do that if I keep open to the possibilities of it.  I have not been very good about guessing when those dangerous moments of invitation will happen nor do I know a happy way to guard myself against them.  And I doubt that I really want to.

This summer I will go to hear the Africa University Choir sing, 15 years after our first encounter that changed my life. I invite you to do the same.  I am sure that it will be a wonderful experience.  But remember this warning: If you come with an open mind and heart you may be surprised at where it leads you!

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Thoughts about unison playing and teamwork

ImageAt a recent rehearsal of the Columbus City Band I found myself reminding our French horn section about the importance of achieving a good unison sound.  We were playing a piece of music (American Overture for Band by Joseph Willcox Jenkins) which features the horn section in a lot of unison playing, some of it loud and fast moving.  It is easy, in those kinds of passages,  to think that you have to play as loud as you can but the secret to being heard as a section is to achieve a good unison sound which involves listening to the other players in your section and matching tone and articulation.  Most musicians will attest to the fact that in playing and singing, achieving a good unison sound is one of the most difficult things to accomplish.

As I think about the work that I do on a daily basis I realize that this is true with most groups I work with as well.  Many times in committee and team work individual voices stick out rather than trying to listen and meld into a unified direction and mission.  When we pull in many directions we are not likely to get much done.  It is in the pulling together that we really accomplish more than we can as a group of individual workers.  It seems simple but it is often hard to convince people to give up their pet project for the good of the  overall cause just as it is hard to convince a musician to give up their individual need to be heard to become part of a unified voice.  This is why entire books have been written about the dysfunctions of teams and how a leader can help people work together.

The wisdom writer puts it this way:  “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.   For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?  And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

It is a mysterious reality that working together doesn’t just multiply our efforts, they increase exponentially.  It is equally mysterious that it is so often difficult to convince people of this reality, to get them to see another viewpoint long enough to share a common vision, to work together in unison.  Lest I seem to be looking down my nose at folks who can’t achieve this let me confess that I am just as guilty of promoting my own viewpoint as the next person.  I have, however, experienced the magic of a perfect unison just often enough to give me hope and to give me pause to reflect in those moments when I need to sublimate my desires to the good of a cause or the playing of a perfect melody. Because I have learned that the interweaving of sounds and the interweaving of effort has the potential to achieve something beautiful!