Uncomfortable Grace: A Report on A Festival of Praise and Worship
It was one of the most spiritually-uplifting events I've attended in recent times. And the devotional message I delivered captured the mood of the occasion and spoke to many hearts. The occasion was the 70th birthday of Dr. Joyce R. Aryee—a respected Christian stateswoman who has served her nation and continent laudably in several leadership roles, whether in politics, education, business, or religion.
The JRA@70 event took place last Sunday, April 10, 2016, inside the 1,600-capacity auditorium of the Accra International Conference Center in Ghana. Besides hundreds of well-wishers, several dignitaries graced the occasion. They included Her Ladyship Chief Justice Georgina Wood, the wife of former Head of State J. J. Rawlings, the wife of Ghana’s current Vice-President Amissah Arthur, Ambassadors & members of the diplomatic community, justices of the courts, politicians, traditional rulers and several religious leaders. All were present to show their appreciation for the tremendous contribution of Dr. Joyce Aryee.
Dr. Aryee is also a mentor and mother to thousands of people, both on the African continent and abroad. Of these, the members of the Harmonious Chorale musical group in Ghana holds the pride of place as “Mummy Joyce’s” special “sons and daughters.” (The Harmonious Chorale—an international inter-denominational choir based in Accra—is Ghana’s leading Christian chorale group. Dr. J. R. Aryee is the group’s patron and mentor.)
It was the members of the Harmonious Chorale group that sent out the official invitation letters “to join her to lift our hearts and voices to the praise of Him, to celebrate the wondrous doings of the Lord our God on the occasion of her 70th Birthday.” Thus, the JRA@70 event was dubbed “A Festival of Praise & Worship.”
A FESTIVAL OF PRAISE & WORSHIP: The program itself consisted of a repertoire of musical selections by the Harmonious Chorale, each repertoire introduced by the reading of selected biblical passages. The three themes highlighted in the music and the Bible readings were:
1. The Goodness of the Lord (Bible Readings: Isaiah 43:1-3a, 18, & 19)
2. The Holiness of God (Bible Readings: Revelation 4:8-11; 15:1-4)
3. The Resurrection and Glorias (Bible Readings: Luke 24:1-8, 36-43; Revelation 5:6-14)
The musical selections under the above themes were followed by other programs: An offertory, a word of exhortation, prayer of dedication and anointing, special presentations and announcement by the Harmonious Choral, and a medley of celebrative African dance music (those who want to experience joyous African music would love this part). Finally, the "Festival of Praise and Worship" concluded with a vote of thanks, closing prayer and benediction.
A WORD OF EXHORTATION. Besides the spiritually-uplifting music by Harmonious Chorale, a special highlight of the JRA@70 event was “A Word of Exhortation” that was introduced by a very special song titled “Through It All I’ve Learnt to Trust in Jesus.” This inspiring and moving song was composed and dedicated to Dr. Joyce Aryee by James Varrick Armaah (Founder and Director of the Harmonious Chorale). According to the composer, the lyrics/content of the special song were inspired by the personal testimony Dr. Aryee shared concerning her life. (I’ll be sharing the words and music at a later time.)
Although the exhortation was to have come from Dr. Aryee herself, she requested her “BB” (Big Brother) to speak in her stead. BB is Dr. Aryee’s affectionate name for me. The name “BB” stands for “Big Brother.” It was originally coined by a little sister of mine. To date, she has given only three other people in the world permission to call me by that name. Dr. Aryee is one of those selected few—although it would have been more accurate for the other three to see the “BB” as “BABY Brother” (and not “Big Brother”), since each of them is much older than me. On my part, I call Dr. Aryee “SJ” (Sister Joyce).
Now that I’m on the name “BB,” I should also mention parenthetically that different people or groups address me in different ways, with each appellation revealing the level of our relationship. Some call me “Pipim,” “Dr. Pipim,” or “Pastor Pipim” (the “Pastor” title used for anyone—both laypeople and ministers—who are perceived to be doing God’s work or who are known to have had a spiritual impact on others). To others, I’m “Samuel,” “Sam,” “Uncle,” Sammy,” or “Dr. P.” My classmates from my student days in Ghana call me by another special name (which I will not reveal here). I can almost predict how close individuals are to me by how they address me.
Back to the JRA@70 event. As mentioned earlier, although Dr. Aryee’s name was in the program brochure as the one to have addressed the audience, a few days earlier, she had quietly requested that I prepare a message to be presented on that day. Thus, immediately after the Harmonious Chorale rendered their soul-stirring song (“Through It All I’ve Learnt to Trust Jesus”) to introduce Dr. Aryee as the speaker, she surprised the audience by announcing that she was not going to speak. Instead, she had requested her “BB” (Big Brother) to speak in her stead. As she explained on that day,
“When the choir asked me to say something, I said I didn’t want to say anything because this evening is not really about me. And then, James Armaah told me he had composed a song. So, everything you heard in the song is my story…. And that is true….That is true. Until the Lord took hold of me, my life was not worthy of anything. But since the Lord took hold of me, my life is different. And I can say, to the glory of His name, that He does transform. He does transform people. And He does make us holy. The things we think we cannot do, He enables us to do. I have an ‘alter ego’ [other self]. I wrote a book with him. And since I didn’t want to talk, he was willing to talk. So I said, “Well, BB [I call him BB because we call him ‘Big Brother’]. But his name is Dr. Samuel Koranteng-Pipim. He is a prolific writer. He and I wrote a book together called THE TRANSFORMED MIND. And so I don’t want to talk. He wants to talk. So, BB, why don’t you come and talk? And talk as if you were talking like me. I’ll stand beside you, so that if you’re saying anything that’s not true, I’ll nudge you.”
It was a real privilege to be placed in the shoes of Dr. Aryee on that occasion (or any other occasion). In anticipation of my message, and to inform me about what to say, I discreetly interviewed many people about her life. I also interviewed her on how she’d describe her 70-year journey in life. Then I sought a fitting Bible account to focus my message—and to present it in way that will speak to a diverse audience (some of who were not Christians).
“UNCOMFORTABLE GRACE”: Reflecting on the life of Sister Joyce and the special song by Harmonious Chorale, I titled my message “Uncomfortable Grace--God's Wondrous Leading ‘Through It All’.” I argued that her life can best be described as the outworking of God’s “uncomfortable grace.”
The heart of the message was that, “uncomfortable grace takes us through places we never intended to go, so we’ll arrive where we’re destined to be.”
Perhaps the best biblical illustration of the concept of God’s “uncomfortable grace” is the life of Joseph. This favorite son of Jacob never intended that his envious brothers would put him into a pit and later sell him to merchants traveling to Egypt. Neither did Joseph ever envision ever becoming a slave in the house of Portiphar, be accused of rape by Mrs. Portiphar, and be imprisoned for years for a crime he never committed. It was uncomfortable grace that took him through these places he never intended. But in the end, through God’s providence, Joseph eventually emerged as the governor of Egypt. He arrived where God destined him to be—although the path there took him through places he never intended to go.
In the case of Joseph, he was innocent. He didn’t “deserve” to have suffered so many injustices. Thus, it was understandable that, after going “through it all,” the Lord honored him. His bad experiences where part of God’s uncomfortable grace to lead him where the Lord wanted him to be. But does God’s uncomfortable grace also work in the case of people who “deserve” to suffer? For example, how does uncomfortable grace apply in the case of Jacob, the father of Joseph—a person whose departure from God brought trouble upon himself?
For an answer, you have to listen to or read my entire sermon. (I’m presently editing it into a small booklet.) Needless to say, during my exhortation at the JRA@70 event, I drew parallels from what was once “difficult and painful” lives of the patriarch Jacob and that of Dr. Aryee, to show how God’s uncomfortable grace “takes us from where we are, transforms us into what we need to be, in order to make us useful for our generation.”
With Sister Joyce standing besides me throughout my presentation, I explained to the audience that “the beautiful flower we know today as Dr. Joyce Aryee is the product of many trials and temptations. She has lived through 70 years of life’s sorrow and woe. But ‘through it all,’ she has learned to trust in Jesus.” I called the attention to the lyrics of James Varrick Armaah’s new song (which was dedicated to Dr. Joyce Aryee) to show how she has dealt with the challenges of life during her 70-year journey:
“Through it all I’ve learnt to trust in Jesus the more
Many trials and sorrows, temptations and troubles
He’s been my Refuge, my Savior, my Friend
His promises are very sure
He is a God who never fails
I’ve learnt to trust in Jesus the more.”
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT: I encouraged the audience that, although the paths of God’s uncomfortable grace may be “difficult and painful,” yet when God is finished with His work in our lives, we shall discover we’re exactly where He wants us to be. The following words by E.G. White is a beautiful summary of the concept of God’s “uncomfortable grace”:
To all who are reaching out to feel the guiding hand of God, the moment of greatest discouragement is the time when divine help is nearest. They will look back with thankfulness upon the darkest part of their way. (E.G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 528).
“Uncomfortable Grace”! It takes us through places we never intended to go, so we’ll arrive where we’re destined to be.”
From verbal and email responses that have been shared with me, I believe that God used the words of exhortation at the JRA@70 event to touch many lives. Thank you for your continued prayers.
SURPRISE GIFTS: The Harmonious Chorale group surprised Dr. Joyce Aryee and the audience with two special announcements:
(i) The unveiling of a musical CD consisting of 20 of Dr. Aryee's favorite hymns and spiritual songs. Though she's the Executive Chair of the group and choir rehearsals take place in her home the Harmonious Choral secretly recorded the CD album without her knowledge;
(ii) The announcement of the establishment the "Joyce Rosalind Aryee International Conference of Choirs." This annual event will bring together some of the very best African musicians and composers in Christian music. It is designed to immortalize and encourage spiritual and professional excellence in the singing of hymns, spiritual songs, and African chorale music.
PHOTOS & SONGS: For some photos from the JRA@70 event, featured the Harmonious Chorale, check my Facebook pages. I look forward to sharing with you their beautiful piece (“Through It All I’ve Learnt to Trust Jesus More”) as soon as the editing is completed. Meanwhile you can also listen to some of their other songs by visiting their website:
Take some time to do so! Remember, God’s “Uncomfortable grace takes us through places we never intended go, so we’ll arrive where we’re destined to be.”