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July 2009

Cosmic Orphans, Come Home: A Review of Russell Moore's "Adopted for Life"

Adopted for life The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Harare, Robert Ndlovu, has told the BBC that there are now at least a million orphans in Zimbabwe - with many facing sexual and physical abuse from their extended families.  With numbers like that, you could despair of being able to do anything about the destitute and dangerous lives these orphans lead, and if you multiply that number by the number of similarly situated countries in Africa, much less the world, the effect can be numbing.  And yet Russell Moore contends that if the church --- the whole church --- supported adoption and made it a priority, significant inroads could be made.  Many orphans could come home.

Moore's recent book, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches, is simply the best single book on adoption that has been published.  He roots adoption in the context of the Gospel, clearly setting forth its biblical parallel in our own adoption by God.  He says that "[a]doption would become a reality in our churches if our churches themselves saw our brotherhood and sisterhood in the church itself rather than in our fleshly identities."  "When we adopt," he says, "and when we encourage a culture of adoption in our churches and communities, we're picturing something that's true about God.  We, like Jesus, see what our Father is doing and do likewise (John 5:19).  And what our Father is doing, it turns out, is fighting for orphans [that's you and me], making them sons and daughters."  This could be dry theology, but it's not.  It's warmed and made personal by being rooted in Moore's own practical experience in adopting two Russian orphans.  That story in itself is compelling.

Beyond theology, the rich wisdom and practical advice Moore offers is tremendous.  In one chapter he takes on all that couples should think about as they consider adoption.  He deals gently and yet directly with the fears of those who believe they may be infertile, counseling against the notions that adoption is the "second-best option" or really just "long-term babysitting." He also deals with those who have existing families and are considering adoption.  Can they love the child they adopt as much as the ones they birth?  Sure, he says, "[y]our affection for the child and the permanence of your relationship will be as real to you as if you've birthed him or her yourself." 

Moving on, he considers and offers advice on all the practical aspects of the adoption process --- domestic or international, closed or open?  He discusses all the paperwork that will be needed, anticipating questions all adoptive couples have, and addresses the sometimes daunting challenge of paying for lawyers, home studies, and birth expenses.  It's all helpful and all relevant.  He even talks about what to do while you're waiting for the call, a not insignificant part of the process, and what to do when the child comes.  Finally, he addresses the difficult issues of race, health problems, and prejudice in entering the adoption process.

Most of this was not entirely new to me.  I have read it elsewhere, though never with quite the winsome mix of biblical theology, grace, wisdom, and practical advice that Moore offers.  However, one chapter should be mandatory reading for pastors and other church leaders. In "It Takes a Village to Adopt a Child: How Churches Can Encourage Adoption," the author makes a passionate call for creating an adoption culture in the church, encouraging pastors to preach in such a way as to allow people to "see the goodness and glory of adoption as an icon of the gospel they embrace."  More than that, he encourages pastors to preach with specificity on adoption, making it a priority.  For example, he encourages church leaders to highlight adoptions within the church and has practical suggestions about Mother's Day (a sensitive day for infertile couples), wedding ceremonies, small group ministry to adoptive couples, and financial assistance to adoptive couples.  More than this, he encourages pastors to "proclaim the fatherhood of God and concretize in. . . preaching what this fatherhood looks like."  He calls on churches to recognize adoption as a part of global mission, concluding that "it takes more than a village to adopt a child, at least for those of us in Christ.  It takes a church."

I recommend Adopted for Life as an excellent resource to potential adoptive couples.  More than that, though, it should be read by pastors, missionaries, mission ministry groups, and church leaders.  If we cosmic orphans can come home, so can the millions of orphans in Zimbabwe --- one child at a time.  It just takes a church that sees and does what the Father has done.


The Jangling Man: The Music of Martin Newell

61Se8bQTNwL._SL500_AA280_ For someone who has said that "pop music should be done quickly, cheaply and imperfectly," English pop-rocker, poet, and columnist Martin Newell certainly doesn't sound it.  His 1993 gem of a release, The Greatest Living Englishman, is lyrically as good as anything written by Muswell hillbilly Ray Davies (The Kinks) or The Who's Pete Townsend, both artists who served as models for Newell, and musically it is a pop dream --- delicious hooks, diverse tempos, gorgeous melodies, and a touch of psychedelia --- that is worth playing over and over for its sheer excellence and sunny satire (if that sounds like an oxymoron, you'll just have to listen).  No doubt this release is helped greatly by the production work of the talented Andy Partridge (XTC), but its Newell's songs that shine through.

Newell, now in his mid-50s, is a bit of an iconoclast, a sort of mature teenage rebel.  He started his musical career in the Seventies glam-rock band, The Mighty Plods, honing his craft in bars and clubs, some of them (like one in describes in the port city of Ipswich, East Anglia) bringing to mind the kind of places the early Beatles played in Hamburg, Germany.  Dangerous, that is.  From The Mighty Plods he formed Cleaners from Venus, independently releasing his music on cassettes before finally signing with a label and making proper records.  What I have heard of Cleaners from Venus is much in the vein of The Greatest Living Englishman, without the serious production that could have made for stellar releases.  Same goes for his 1989 band formed with his friend Nelson, The Brotherhood of Lizards.  It's all preface to his best work, a record which even Newell says is "the one I'd stand or fall by."  He's right.

Some of Newell's attitude, his love of spontaneity, and his dislike of record companies and marketing comes through in this response to an interviewer:  "I might make another album this year.  But I'm going to do it in a really bad, cheap studio.  And I'm probably going to play all the instruments, which means it'll definitely be crappy. But I maintain that our real fans actually like that quality in us.  Record companies and musicians, for 15 years now, have tried to make me so good.  And I've considered it to a mission to fight them."  And yet, despite what he says, Newell has in his own way continued to work with the dreaded record companies on and off over the years, consistently maintaining his distance, his independence, and yet allowing them to market his music.  We can be thankful that he did, otherwise none of us may ever have heard of him.

Throughout it all, this Englishman has maintaned his sense of humor, making wry observations on English character, like the English dismissal of fame like the following that I particularly enjoyed:

Martread "Have you ever had a thing sitting on a train...You're sitting in a station, there's a train sitting on the platform opposite going the other way.  The train opposite you, one of the trains starts to move very slowly out.  And you're not sure whether it's your train or their train.  But you notice it's not your train--that your train's still standing still, but the other train's moving--there's a feeling of disappointment, isn't there?  That's what it's like for people in England when you become successful.  You are starting to slowly move, and it emphasizes their own status.  And they feel disappointed, and so they react usually with some kind of jaundice.  Or they try and comfort themselves--well it's probably only a flash in the pan.  It'll probably be back to normal tomorrow.  Success is not seen as a normal condition in England.  It's seen as an aberration, and it's there to be really watched and made sure the person doesn't get above themselves. The fact of the matter is that talent is very fragile.  It's like Tinkerbell, the fairy in Peter Pan. A lot of people go back to the office job.  People say, "You still playing music?"  Like it's some venereal disease.  I dare say, a similar situation happens in America, though.  It's double-plus here."

But despite his sarcasm and mildly anarchic tendencies, Newell is, deep down, a kind of English Wendell Berry (well, a bit earthier than Berry), with a deep love of the English countryside and village (particularly the town of Wivenhoe, in northeastern Essex, in the east of England) and an irrepressibly sunny disposition despite all he says.  Rather than being the rebel, or being political, he seems to prefer just being local, being home.

The Greatest Living Englishman kicks off with ""Goodbye Dreaming Fields," a nostalgic look back at a town that is not the same, with the narrator confessing that "I'm a ghost in my hometown, since they knocked that dance-hall down," observing that he once knew some girls there, but "they are married with kids now."  Musically, it's pure joy, with a kick-off guitar riff out of The Beatles' "Rain" or "Paperback Writer."

"Before the Hurricane" is completely different, a quaint, jaunty number that looks at a country town after the storm, where despite the event, "nothing much has changed."  The trailer at the end gives us a preview of what's in store for us throughout the record --- we hear a bell ring as someone enters a country store, children playing, and small talk --- all of which root the album in a particular place and time.  Normally, this kind of intrusion might be annoying, but not here.

"We'll Build a House" reflects a longing for home and family, for roots, while the title cut may be referring to the bygone days of the British Empire.  It ends with the sounds of revelry, a drinking party perhaps.  "Home Counties Boy" starts in the midst of a bubbling brook, ducks quacking, and dogs barking, a folksy ode to the rural life, where the boy "has a spade in my hands, and mud on my knees, I am a boy from the home counties."  In the end, we hear the narrator quipping that "he started to lose it toward the end, started seeing astrologists every day, got in trouble selling up those nuclear subs. . . ."  You can almost hear two country gentlemen discussing the plight of one of their own gone mad over their fence.

Musically, "A Street Called Prospect" is classic Kinks, a tune that might have walked right off Village Green Preservation Society, a bit of bite in Newell's social commentary as he critiques the promise of success offered by liberal society: "The poor get angry, and the rich make hay, and your youth is like a dog-rose, only blossoms for a day." A endearing sarcasm pervades "Christmas in Suburbia," and yet it's offered up with a jangle-pop groove that makes it very listenable.  In the end, you're sad that Christmas in suburbia is not more, yet you don't have the sense that it's all bad.

But the best is saved for last, a testimony to good sequencing.  "The Jangling Man" is a beautiful pop tune, Newell engaging in a bit of wry autobiography:

So wander dimly through the past
Of the England that you knew
These dispossessed and homeless children
They all belong to you
They all belong to you

And I am just a jangling man
Been in the cold to long-along-along
And I live with a Raggedy-Ann
We never had any money, is it really so wrong?

My favorite bit of monologue by Newell comes at the end of "The Jangling Man," Newell wittily taking a shot at the music industry: "We were #1 in the album charts in the States, for like most of 1968.  He pushed us, and he pushed us, and he pushed us.  It was a tripper out.  It was a bloody hamster wheel.  The pressure got too much for Dave, Steve. . . . He used to say Steve was the son he never had.  Clever, oh yeah he was clever, so clever, so clever that one of us went mad, almost died.  We got our money, didn't we?  Didn't we?  Cheers"  Ouch.  It's funny, particularly heard in that British voice, and yet there's some truth in it.

The final cut, "The Green-Gold Girl of Summer," mirrors the brillant opening track.  It starts with a lone acoustic guitar that sounds like the opening of The Kinks' "Shangri-La" (another bow to Ray Davies), but morphs into a rock sound similar to The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (off Abbey Road), ending in an increasingly dissonant bit of psychedelia which is marvelous.  Finally, the album closes with a trailer instrumental, "An Englishman's Home," which sounds like a organ dirge, overlayed with an old gentleman talking about how someone (Newell?) who "when the Sixties were over, had moved on, was just not as happy," and so on.  Newell is undoubtedly poking a bit of fun at himself, now an old geezer.

The Greatest Living Englishman is a classic rock album, a 1993 release which sounds like a breath of fresh air out of the late Sixties.  Martin Newell is, for all his quirkiness, an intelligent writer who continues to delight in poetry, column, and song.  Though none of his releases quite approach what he realized magically in his collaboration with Andy Partridge, he continues to work and produce quality songs.

On the back of the CD booklet, Newell quotes a bit of George Orwell that seems to express the uniqueness he senses about England: "When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air."  In an era of mass marketing and homogenization of the market, it's a pleasure to re-discover a musician like Martin Newell, a man who knows his place, so to speak, with all its peril and pleasure --- even more, to find that he's still at it, after all these years.

[Listen to Martin Newell's "Goodbye Dreaming Fields" here: Goodbye Dreaming Fields.]


The Poison Fruit of Aid: A Review of Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

DeadaidAfter the elections of 2006 in Uganda, it came to light that millions of dollars in aid given by the Global Fund to fight malaria, tuberculosis, and aids had been stolen, some to buy votes, some to line the pockets of aid bureaucrats.  The Fund requested an investigation and gave the government of Uganda money for the investigations and prosecutions.  Then came the revelation that even that money was stolen.  The scenario would be laughable were it not so serious.  As Charles Obbo opines in an article in Uganda's Daily Monitor, the entire aid bureaucracy is itself corrupt, with many aid workers complicit in kickbacks for projects they manage or outright pocketing funds.  Little aid money actually makes it to the people it is intended to help.

None of this would be news to Zambian-born economist Zambisa Moyo.  In the recently published Dead Aid, she makes a convincing case that the more than $1 trillion transferred from wealthy countries to Africa over the past several decades has not improved the lives of Africans but actually led to increased poverty, corruption, and dependency.  At the same time, nations that have ultimately rejected a dependency on aid --- like South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana --- are better off, seeing a reduction of poverty, less corruption, and better and more transparent governance.  Moyo argues not for a change to the aid regime but for its death.

The statistics are compelling.  With 700 million Africans living on less than $1 US per day, poverty has increased to the point where sub-Saharan Africa has over 50% of the world's people living in abject poverty.  Life expectancy has stagnated.  One in seven children die before the age of five.  Adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels.  Fifty per cent of the continent is under non-democratic rule.  The continent seems locked into a cycle of dysfunction.  While one might point to localized examples of change, on a macro level the aid model is an abysmal failure.  And while President Obama has paid lip service to the idea that, in his words, "the purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where its no longer needed," a sentiment often expressed by world leaders, the recent pledge of yet more aid by the G8 --- $20 billion dollars to help third-world farmers --- does not radically alter the fundamental assumptions of the aid model.

Moyo takes aim not at emergency aid or charity (though she notes that even they can be criticized as having unintended, harmful consequences) but at the large, systematic cash transfers from rich countries to African governments, whether concessional (below market rate) loans or grants.  Along the way, she provides an enlightening history of aid and its various foci over the years.  In the end, however, she concludes that while aid remains at the heart of the development agenda, there are compelling reasons to show that it "perpetuates the cycle of poverty and derails sustainable economic growth." With compelling anecdotal and statistical information, she demonstrates how aid is one of the greatest facilitators of corruption, reduces economic growth, leads to more poverty, and then leads to more need for aid.  Corruption analysts estimate that at least $10 billion --- nearly half of Africa's 2003 aid receipts --- departs the continent every years, stolen by corrupt leaders and funneled to private accounts.  She also shows how aid reduces savings and development, leads to inflation, chokes off the export sector, and creates dependency.  In short, with aid money flowing, African leaders need not look elsewhere for development strategies.

Having made her case for the negative impact of aid on development, Moyo devotes fully half of her short book to a prescription for a world without aid.  Her proposal envisions a gradual (but uncompromising) reduction in systematic aid over a five- to ten-year period.  First, she proposes that African governments access the international bond market, noting that the money is available and investor interest in emerging economies high, but simply awaits action by governments to secure appropriate credit ratings and woo the investors.  Uganda, for instance, is in a position to issue bonds (it has a credit rating), and yet thus far has failed to do so.  Why?  Likely because aid money is freely available and more easily misused without serious consequence.  A default on a bond issue can zap your credit rating and, at least for a time, have a chilling effect on investor willingness to lend.

A second opportunity is for African governments to open themselves to foreign direct investment, as in roads, railroads, power plants and other lasting investments, something the Chinese have done well.  But as long as aid is at the center of development strategy, few governments have the political will or incentive to take the steps necessary to improve the regulatory and infrastructure environment such that conditions will be friendly to such investors.

Third, Moyo suggests that trade should be a critical component of development, facilitated by better transportation infrastructure and western countries that will open their markets to African goods.  Exports increase tariffs and tax income, leading to a better stream of revenue for government.

Entrepreneurs will flourish, says Moyo, increasing trade, only when they have access to credit.  She advocates microfinance as the means by which people without assets (the unbankable) can obtain the small loans (not handouts) to finance their raw materials and tools of trade.  She notes that the default rate on these small loans (generally less than $100 US), is less than five percent.  Unlike aid, which either comes with no strings attached or with conditions that recipients know are often overlooked, nonpayment of these loans is rare because borrowers know that if they don't pay back the loans they have today, their lender will blacklist them, and they won't be able to borrow more tomorrow.  In addition, there is a community interest in ensuring repayment: loans are made to members in a group, and when default threatens, members of the group often repay the loan (with the idea that they will recover from the borrower later) in order to keep loans flowing to other members of the group.  This Grameen Bank model (pioneered by Nobel Peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus) has been very successful and yet awaits more widespread implementation.

Two other stimuli to develop are remittances (money sent home by Africans living abroad) and savings (money saved by Africans and deposited in banks or invested).  She says that remittances tend to be relatively stable sources of income that play an important role in paying for imports and repaying debt.  In addition, they are even used by some banks to securitize loans, thus expanding access to credit.  However, middleman tap these funds, often taking up to 20%, making it important for African governments to find ways to facilitate cheaper ways to send money home.  As to savings, Moyo argues that there is a lot of untapped capital in the hands of Africans, often hidden and not banked where it could finance development and bring greater financial stability.

Thus, Moyo argues for an end to aid as we know it and a multi-pronged, market-based development model, something South Africa and Botswana have already embraced.  Given that most African countries have already hit "rock bottom" (her words), she questions:

Isn't it. . . likely that in a world freed of aid, economic life for the majority of Africans might actually improve, that corruption would fall, entrepreneurs would rise, and Africa's growth engine would start chugging?  This is the most probable outcome --- that where the real chance exists to make a better life for themselves, their children and Africa's future generations, Africans would grab it and go.

Rather than giving something for nothing --- an approach that has bred corruption and a coterie of profiteering elites, isn't it time for something more radical, something based on proven market forces?

I recommend Dead Aid as an informative, illuminating guide to the existing development model and a stimulus to thinking about what will really help the poverty stricken millions of Africa.  At 154 pages, it's a quick read, not laborious but sufficiently illustrated by anecdotes that the non-economist can follow it. 

It's not enough to want to do good.  We have to know what in the long-term will lead to a sustainable good.  We have to be wise and discerning do-gooders.  Hopefully Moyo will follow this book with a second where she offers a critique of the work of charities in Africa and a prescription for a charity that will build sustainable communities that rarely if ever need charity but, rather, are able to help others.  Regardless, her book will hopefully provide fuel for lasting change in Africa.


Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. . . Like College

Medium.92.460609 Recent discussions with my oldest child about impending college applications and vocational choices --- in short, choices which he believes may set the course of the rest of his life --- caused me to muse on the manner in which I selected a college, vocation, and job.  In the end, I'm proof that God can take poor choices and still bless you, still in the words of Jeremiah, "give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:11).

We are visiting colleges, poring over college admissions web pages, and taking the SAT and ACT multiple times in the hopes of making a thoughtful choice.  I did no such thing during my junior and senior years of high school.  Of course I took the SAT, once, with no advance preparation.  I applied to one college.  I did not get in.  (For some reason I chose the design school, which had standards, of course, that I did not meet.)  I changed majors, declaring the relatively sexy sounding computer science as my field of study.  I got in.  You see, I applied to this one college because my then girlfriend, an extroverted, gregarious, mildly flirty, disco-dancing girl one year older than me, was at college in the same town.  I spent my senior year checking up on her, calling, visiting, wondering where she was, and so on.  It was pitiful.  My selection of a college was driven solely by this concern that I needed to supervise this girl, be where she was, curbing her excesses, keeping an eye out for interlopers, and generally being a nuisance to her social life.

I was accepted in that college.  I piled the bulk of my possessions in my 1972 Camaro, moved in an aging dorm room with a high school acquaintance, and started studying computer science and my girlfriend.  Around mid-term, she broke up with me, leaving me for a pre-med student.  Around the same time, I received three of the dreaded pink slips, informing me that I had two Ds and one F.  I was not off to a good start in that college.  Two of the bad grades were in Computer Science courses.  I begged my Japanese professors to give me a break.  They raised my grades to Cs.  I finished the term and changed majors.  Sociology sounded interesting, whatever that was.  I figured it had to be easier than studying computer languages.  Besides, there were better looking girls in the liberal arts.  I took two girls out to a free college flick, The Nuremberg Trials (how's that for a chic flick?), had a great time sitting there, between them, astonished at my good fortune, and then was roundly dressed down by both of them the next day.  I was astonished.  I still don't know what I did wrong.  It was such a nice evening.

So, here I was.  I was in a college that I had made a hormonal and not rational decision about, in a major I knew nothing about and selected for the poorest of reasons, living with a roommate who had odd habits, and all this with no girlfriend, poor grades, and no clue as to where my future lay.  None of this is terribly unusual for college students. Yet in hindsight, I think I was right where God wanted me.  Three great things happened that year.  First, I learned what it was to be in Christian fellowship. I may have been doing poorly academically, but I had been kidnapped by God, surrounded by believing upperclassmen who were always there.  Second, I met a loyal friend who I still regularly see 33 years later, and who was there in the midst of my poor choices, offering encouragement and camaraderie.  And finally, I met my now wife of 28 years because I happened to be in the wrong college in the wrong major at the right time.  And that's just the beginning of how my poor choices were redeemed and made a part of the plan of a sovereign and good God.

All this gives me hope and tells me that no matter what choices my son makes, he'll be fine.  Like an errant driver with an insistent GPS, he'll eventually get home, because for the believer, that's where all paths, no matter how circuitous, lead.


Sipping Beauty: The Songs of Sara Beth Geoghegan

Sb Plenty of gifted female singer-songwriters write out of grief.  Rosanne Cash's beautiful and heart-wrenchingly sad 2006 release, Black Cadillac, is about as good as it gets from a non-believer, a blood-on-the-tracks like confessional after her loss of her mother and father in one year.  Then there's Sand and Water, Beth Nielsen Chapman's songs wrested from the grief of losing her husband to cancer.  Both provide glimpses of hope amid oceans of doubt and struggle.  Yet neither get anywhere near an expression of faith in God.  The best Chapman can do is admit that "I will see you in the light of a thousand suns" ("Sand and Water"), and Cash can look for "roses in the snow" but can't quite come to believe in any afterlife.  That's why Sara Beth Goeghegan's recent independent release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs, is a breath of non-sentimental fresh air, realistically confronting the pain of loss and sadness while affirming a sure hope in Jesus.  Alright, I admit it: I am smitten by these songs.

Geoghegan (pronounced go-hay-gen), a New Orleans native, self-confessed migrating songstress, and now settled Nashville songwriter, is as songwriter mature beyond her 27 years, well able to match lyric and tune with the likes of Sara Groves or, in the mainstream world, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Jennifer Warnes, or Karla Bonoff (just to name a few).  Though a worship leader with a good sense of humor, her gifts extend beyond church and have the promise of reaching deeper into the world.  I think she's done it with this collection.  Indeed, there's nary a clunker on this 11-song release. 

Tosss_cover The title cut sets the tone, the melancholy giving way to the affirmation of the chorus, "When the flowers bloom/ darling we will too/ After a hard cold winter/ And the birds fly home/ with a lighter load/ They’re singing a hymn of summer."  Then there's "Lord Deliver Me," a prayer that God deliver her from preoccupation with self: "Lord deliver me from the desire to be noticed, loved, exalted/ Lord deliver me from the desire to be favored, popular, chosen, or acknowledged/ Lord deliver me from the fear of being wrong, forgotten, or ignored/ Lord deliver me from the fear of being humiliated or left behind." All the better that the background vocals come through here like congregational singing, making it more a song from us all.

"Hallelujah, What a Mess," is an admission of our weakness and dependence on God, that even at our best we're a mess.  It has an infectious melody that begs you to sing. "Ooh, We Need Jesus" is simply that --- that, in the end, what she is trying to communicate about is simply our need for Jesus.  The real life struggle of her Aunt Marika --- a former nun who struggled through alcohol and drug dependence before emerging --- is reflected in "3 Sips of Beauty."  Geoghegan channels Karla Bonoff (stylistically, that is) in "Opening," a highly singable folk-pop tune that I keep coming back to.  I could go on, but the whole album is full of poignant lyric and joyful melody: a collection of "best of" on a debut release, with just enough production, just diverse enough arrangement and instrumentation, and, well, just enough of everything right.  It's rare to be so consistently good on any release, much less a first release.  If I gush, it's because I honestly can't find anything to levy a serious criticism against (except maybe the non-inclusion of full lyrics in the packaging or online --- something that can be remedied).

We don't know all the loss represented in the album's songs --- broken engagement, separation, or just that nagging and generalized sense of loss that can infect us all --- nor whether the songs should even be taken as autobiographical (though I doubt Geoghegan can write so well about things she is not to some extent acquainted with).  But it doesn't matter.  What matters is that the songs offer multiple points of connection with listeners who undoubtedly also know loss and grief, and yet Goeghegan doesn't leave them there in a mildly comforting sense of shared grief but points beyond to hope and deeper comfort in Christ.  That's what sets these songs apart.

Tired of angst-ridden, world-weary, stumbling-through-the-darkness tunes that leave you empty?  I recommend Tired of Singing Sad Songs.  Listen to "Hallelujah, What a Mess" here:

Check out Sara Beth's websiteBuy her record. Give some encouragement to a budding songwriter, will ya? 


Home Again, Again (Part Four): Disappointment and Hope

DSCN1230 Hannington, our driver, embodies so much that is good about the Ugandan people.  He is resourceful, hard working, unfailingly polite (“yes, please), and of good humor --- all characteristics that generally apply to the people we encountered on our trip.  And yet as humbled as I was once again by the generosity and hospitality of the people we met in Uganda, this was a sobering trip for me as I became aware of their failings, individually and socially.

In the village of Koreng, what began as a fairly orderly distribution of school supplies and shoes ended in a lot of pushing, shoving, and grabbing as needy kids and parents realized that there would not be enough for everyone.  In Kampala my wife and I witnessed the pride of two African men --- both concerned with position and status and self.  And while most people are kind, sometimes I do not know whether the kindness extended is fully genuine or whether we muzungus (foreigners) are viewed as a means to an end --- gifts, sponsorship, or monetary support.  On a larger scale, the system of government and of justice in Uganda is thoroughly corrupt, from side of the road bribe solicitations for traffic fines to payoffs to legislators and judges to double invoicing and other unethical practices by private contractors.  As one man told me, the roads in Kampala remain pothole-ridden not because there is no money to fix them but because two-thirds of the money “stays on the table,” that is, lines the pockets of government bureaucrats and contractors.  Christian law students I spoke with at Kampala International University struggle to understand how they are to survive with faith intact in such a corrupt system.  And if you turn the clock back a bit, these are the same people who produced killers like Idi Amin and Milton Obote.  You only have to go next door to Rwanda to discover what evil neighbors are capable of. 

The Ugandans are, after all, human.  Surprise!  It was a healthy disappointment to learn that in many ways they are just like me, just like us all, a mix of good and bad motives, subject to the same temptations and failings.  I say a disappointment because we tend to idealize a place and people when we first encounter it, because in its newness we are overwhelmed by its contrast to the familiar world we know with all its failings.  I say healthy because when you can see a place and people more realistically you are better able to know how to assist them and encourage them in the good without, hopefully, serious and ill unintended consequences.

Yet my disappointment is no deeper than my hope.  Our house mother at Agape Children’s Village, Mama Christine, served us with, it seems, no concern as to what she might secure from the relationship.They were many children who seemed simply to enjoy our friendship while expecting nothing in return --- no gift, no money, no sponsorship --- though they have great needs.  It’s encouraging to go to a law school where I can speak about my faith openly and be warmly received by students, faculty, and administration in a way that would not happen in most law schools here.  It is encouraging to worship in a church where no one is watching a clock, where a three-hour service is not only normal but relished.  While traffic in Kampala is as bad as that of Los Angeles, drivers are much better mannered and accidents fewer.  Headmasters take on the jobs of running schools where there are little to no facilities, no books, and intermittent pay with a dedication that they often describe (as one did to me) as “a calling from Almighty God.”  And while structural problems like corruption and government ineptitude do not lend themselves to easy solutions, I am thankful that electricity has come to Kaihura, somehow, that there are some good roads on which to drive, and that  in a city as large as Kampala anything at all works.   Last but not least, there are people here who love God, serve others, and seek the good of their communities.  Faith Kunihura saw the “image of God” in the orphans of Kaihura and, with little resources of her own to begin with, has done a great deal to help them.  Pastor Michael Okwakol and the people of Agape Baptist Church are serving the orphans of Agape Children’s Village and even reaching out to the remote community of Koreng.  Thus, my disappointment with the Ugandans is no deeper than my disappointment with myself, my neighbors, and my own country.  We are all thoroughly tainted by sin and yet, knowing Christ, are being renewed every day in His image.  There is hope for Uganda just as there is hope for the United States.

We tried to teach Hannington a good Southern expression like “ya’ll come on,” maybe as a help to getting people back in the van so we could travel on.  After a few minutes, he mastered the expression, albeit a very British-sounding version of it, but he would not use it.  He said it wouldn’t be polite.  He gives me hope.

[I’m glad to be safely home from Uganda and back to blogging.  It was a rewarding if sobering trip.  I hope to post some pictures of the trip soon, and will be back to blogging more regularly.]