Jars of Clay, West Africa, and the Mission Field

The world wide web is one of those fascinating conundrums in life.  There is so much available at the mouse click, but how much of it is truly meaningful?  On one level, the internet is a sea of information and media and blogs and photos and videos and on and on and on and on it goes.  I think my readers get the picture.  Over the last hour, I unearthed some old music from about ten to fifteen years ago. I decided to listen to some of it again.  There are songs by Jars of Clay, Jeremy Camp, and Passion.  Listening to those artists flooded my mind with memories of those days.  It was a like traveling via a time machine.  I could picture where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt.

Much of Christian music past and present fails to move me in any genuine way.  There are a handful of artists, who transcend the “Christian” label because they are actually recording excellent music to moving lyrics.  When I listened to “The Valley Song” by Jars of Clay, I remember being in Ghana in West Africa back in the summer of 2003.  Somehow I mustered up the courage after completing graduate school to head across the Atlantic Ocean on a forty day, mission trip.  I traveled with eight other Americans from the East Coast, specifically Brooklyn, Long Island, and Jersey City.  Everywhere we went I carried my journal and a pen.  West Africa galvanized me.  It had many of the same fruits and vegetables like my mom’s home country of Honduras.

Both West Africa and Central America are rain forests with hot and humid climates.  When it rains in those countries, it rains.  It does not mist like it does sometimes in Southern California.  I ate plantains, cassava, sugar cane, coconuts, mangoes, and more in Ghana. Like I said, it reminded me of Honduras without the beans, rice, and tortillas.  Let me just mention another thing about Ghanaian food. It is very spicy, which surprised me.  I made sure to order dishes that were either mild or medium as did my missionary teammates. In my pouch, I carried Pepto Bismol tablets just in case an emergency made itself known.  Back to the Christian music…

Jars of Clay was huge back in 2003, and “The Valley Song” continued their string of hits.  They were one of the few bands, which crossed over into the secular scene.  Of course, this did not last long as soon as folks learned about Jars of Clay’s faith in Jesus.  I still enjoy listening to “The Valley Song.”  It does not sound like anything from the contemporary Christian music scene even though comes from that ilk.  The song lyrics explore the believer’s journey in the midst of suffering.  There is praise to be lifted up even in a valley of sorrow.  At one point, there is hope as lyrics tell of the path of suffering ending at rivers of joy.  So, the song is hopeful.  The suffering is intense, but short-lived as it gives way to joy.

In my journal that I carried around with me in Ghana, I had the entire lyrics to “The Valley Song” written out by memory.  Some days I sang the lyrics to myself and lifted my hands in praise.  I saw a few of my teammates doing that during breaks in the action while on our mission trip.  One of the guys asked me what I was singing.  I read him the lyrics, and he stood there taking in the words.  Another guy stumbled upon my reading halfway through, and asked me to reread them because he liked what he had heard.  I remember this really impacting me at the time.  It made me realize that I belonged.  These brothers from Brooklyn, Long Island, and Jersey City resonated with the power of the lyrics to one of my favorite songs.  Cultural boundaries had been crossed, and this took place across the Atlantic in a foreign nation.

This was an unusual first step into living life together with others who professed Christ as I did.  Instead of hiding my heart, I shared it in a vulnerable way with those guys from the East Coast.  One white guy and three African-American men bonded over “The Valley Song” by the Jars of Clay.  I think what strikes me with this vignette is that human beings understand what it means to suffer.  It is an universal experience, which traverses cultures and languages and ethnicities.  Jesus experienced suffering, and then the ultimate in joy know that he has been exalted to the right hand of the Father.  He went from humiliation to exaltation.  If I am becoming like Christ, then this means that I will undergo a similar pattern of humiliation to exaltation.  May the Lord give the grace, courage, faith, and strength to face it and live it.

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