It is brutally hot this January evening in rural South Africa. And hotter still in the widow’s living room with 20 Xhosa women gathered for nightly prayer. We gather close to make room for each other, feeling each other’s heat and sweat as our arms touch. We fan ourselves with our Bibles.
I am one of three white women. My friend Lynne and I are lost in the Xhosa clicks, but the missionary’s wife understands. I study their faces, some familiar and friendly. Some I’ve never seen. I wonder how each of them came to the Lord. I wonder their story, the pain they carry, the joys they lift high, their history and their present. Is that one married or widowed? Is she still a student? The widow, still wearing all black and will for a year, nurses her youngest, her ample breast a comfort for the baby who has lost his father. Her nursing young one something to cling to since her husband was taken too soon in a brutal murder.
I listen to their voices, many are quiet and somber, so hard to hear. One who knows English squeezes in next to us to interpret. Pray for the church’s new members who just accepted Jesus. Pray for the youth who also say they just accepted Jesus, yet continue to drink and smoke daka. Pray for the longtime church members that they may have revival. Pray for the women in the community who are abused, the widow who is ill and cannot come to church any longer. The mama who was injured in an accident.
After each request, someone says Si thandaza – let us pray. Then every woman breaks out into their own aloud prayers. It sounds like Pentecost as the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples and they speak intongues. There is music to it – prayers rising and falling in this room. And the power of these prayers break through the walls of the widow’s well-made home and penetrate the community, floating across the green and lush hills to reach the unreached, the hurting, the lonely, the jealous, the angry, the lost – at least that is my prayer. I am awed by their commitment and passion and fervency.
When the final lone voice rests, we all say Amen. Then someone – anyone moved by the Spirit – breaks out in song. Their voices are pure, strong, confident and beautiful. The only accompaniment is the music in their soul. There is no need here for pianos or guitars. They all know each word by heart, the harmony, the melody – they’ve known all their lives with no need of books or musical scores. We try to follow, repeating Xhosa words whose deeply spiritual meanings are lost on us.
I am here without my family, defined only by myself, the work of 25:40 to help the orphans, and by our partners in the work — the missionary and his wife. I want to be a part of this community, to belong. I love these women, their children, the community and trying to learn the language.
In the final song, we are standing. The phrases are not repeating, so I give up in trying to follow and trying to appear as if I belong. I simply close my eyes and listen to their praise singing. And their song reaches deep inside me and floats out as a prayer. And then I hear it – Nkosi – the Xhosa word for God.
Then I remember that the same sounding word with the same root – enkosi — is the Xhosa word for thanks. It’s the same in English how we say it so frequently and maybe not all that sincerely. Oh, thanks again! Thank you very much. Thank you. Thanks! How many times a day do we say that? And here, in Xhosa, enkosi sisi, if someone gives you something, does a favor, ends a meeting. enkosi, kos, enkosi kukuhle.
And then I smile huge – because the power of it tumbles out. In one moment an entire book, Ann Voskamp’s 1,000 Gifts, crystallizes. The Eurcharisteo that she has written about so passionately comes alive for me in this one moment where God and Thanksgiving unite in one Xhosa word. It’s the same word! Back home in the United States, in northern Virginia, where most live in excess, I’ve spent the past year giving thanks for my multitudes of blessings in order to draw closer to God. Here in the Eastern Cape, where most people live without running water, electricity and enough food in the pot for their large extended families living in one small round hut, the Xhosa already know – and have known for hundreds of years — that God and thanksgiving are one.
I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s books and blogs for a couple years now, her own brokenness turned to joy because she dared to find God through giving thanks. Her devotions I just read this morning – about how we must live in the moment and slow down and give thanks to God in everything. And here I am in rural South Africa, my spiritual home. Here I can shed my American hurriedness, tear down my walls of protection. Here, the people walk slow, take time to greet each other, take time to know each other, to look deep inside you and see how you tick. They give thanks in the simple. They do not have excess. They do not even have enough, yet they give thanks. Thanksgiving to God. I crave that for my own life.
And as I slowed down and just was still in that prayer meeting – not trying to sing in a language I do not know – I hear the Truth that exists everywhere – in rural South Africa, on a farm in Canada, in the capital of the free world – that God is thanks and giving thanks is God. Thank you Xhosa ladies, thank you Ann Voskamp, thank you God.