February 17, 2017, Agriculture College, Makerere University
Truth be told, I am not a very good traveler.
On nearly every trip, I find myself in a situation in which my spiritual reserves run dangerously low. Usually, like today, it’s because of a health problem. This one is probably a fairly simple skin infection – a spot that started on my forehead on Tuesday has, by Friday, grown into a rather angry red lump.
After a visit to the international hospital this morning, I have oral and topical antibiotics and an antifungal cream, but Sadhat is questioning the wisdom of the particular antibiotic that the doctor prescribed and I don’t have any water with me anyway so I can’t wash it down. I’ve used the topical antibiotic on my forehead but I feel it growing hotter and more swollen as I sit here in Sadhat’s small office in the Agriculture College of Makerere University.
The old chair in which I sit is hurting my back and the Internet is no longer responding. I was expecting Sadhat to return from his meeting about an hour ago. I’ve finished all of the work I can do, read a little bit, and there’s nothing now but to wait – for the two-hour drive (or, better, two-hour sit-in-traffic) before we reach home.
I knew this time would come. It usually does. Uganda is a very different environment from what I’m used to – different food, different time zone, different bacteria – and some difficulties in adjustment are to be expected.
When I was flying here for the first time last November, I felt so clear about my decision to come and work here on this project that I simply steeled myself for whatever insult or injury I might suffer. Last time was not so bad – a necklace stolen from off my neck in a traffic jam and a UTI that was quickly controlled.
This time, I waited a few days before deciding to seek treatment, and now my condition is a bit worse than I can comfortably roll with. I’ve also had to cancel plans for a long day of travel tomorrow to visit Emmanuel Zziwa’s community development project at his home, on the Sesse Islands in Lake Victoria. I am disappointed.
At these times of spiritual ebb, I often find myself wondering whether God is really with me. What do I have to tell me He is, besides a decision of faith I make every day?
But in this case, the answer comes floating in through the office window along with a light breeze. On the courtyard just under Sadhat’s office window, a small group of music students stands clustered in small groups, split up by vocal part, each group reading from one printed score.
As the groups conduct their sectional rehearsals, their beautiful voices lift up a hymn, “Jesus, source of all compassion ….” I hear the women rehearsing their light harmony as the tenors, not quite at the same time, work through their melody. The basses sound tones that anchor both soprano and tenor, suggesting the chords the choir will sing once they all come together as one voice. It’s a beautiful mess, an organized chaos, and I can’t quite keep the emotion from surging in my chest, tightening my throat, and forcing tears to my eyes.
I came to Uganda because I knew it would break me. I wanted to be broken. As Richard Stearns says in The Hole in Our Gospel, I prayed to let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. First, I know, He must make me humble.
It seems when God wants to humble me, the most effective place for Him to start is on my face. From small insults to serious risks – cystic acne, a dozen mysterious bug bites, a parotid gland tumor and the risk of facial paralysis – few things have frightened and humbled me more than injuries to my face. This is partly simple vanity, and partly fear of losing my interface with the world.
Most likely, the antibiotics will do the trick and I will soon be feeling much better. In the meantime, I strive to do what I usually fail to do in these moments – not to think less of myself, but to think of myself less.
This is why I came, the hymn reminds me – to force me to turn to Jesus, source of all compassion.
The chorus has now joined in singing the hymn, their voices soaring gently on the breeze up and in through the open window.