Miriam Cowen sat next to her uncle in the hospital, watching him deteriorate. The tumor in his brain kept growing, and it was viciously attacking his motor skills. He could no longer talk or identify his wife, sister, sons, nephews, or niece. Everyday, 18-year-old Miriam, just a senior in high school, watched him become more and more helpless. And everyday, she lost a little more hope. As she witnessed her family members suffer from the pain of watching a loved one die, she couldn’t help but wonder why.
Why was this happening?
Why was her uncle dying?
Why did her father die from the same exact thing eleven years ago?
“At that time, I was so confused because it just didn’t make any sense,” Miriam explains. “Especially because I felt like they were both such wonderful men...”
And just like that, her cousins suddenly became fatherless...just as Miriam did when she was seven years old. They, like Miriam, were forced to watch death take away their dad. And they had no say in it. They were helpless.
Everything Miriam experienced when her dad passed away resurfaced when her uncle became ill and eventually passed away, too. Life seemed so fragile and unsure to her, and fear began weighing her down.
“It’s hard to put the pieces together when people you love are constantly stripped from you,” she says. “Not only did I experience sorrow, but watching other people suffer was a huge weight.”
When Miriam’s dad passed away in 1996, two things happened. First, she developed an intense compassion for people who struggled with loss and death, like herself. And second, she became skeptical of life, afraid of when the next loved one might die.
the next loved one might die.
“That didn’t really hit until my teenage years of high school,” Miriam says. “I became very torn because I had always prayed to God as my father and I never doubted Him as a father, nor did I blame Him for my dad’s death. But I just felt very lost with the purpose of life...I knew it was short, but I had no purpose, so things sort of went all over the place.”
As a result, Miriam felt like she had to protect herself in any way she could. She built an emotional wall up, making sure that she wasn’t too vulnerable or too honest with anyone. And if any conflict or tension arose, Miriam would shut down.
When she and her mom fought, Miriam would say disrespectful things, sometimes scream them, and then run to her room, slamming her door on the way. She would stay angry for days. And even when she was wrong, she refused to apologize.
If leaders at University Bible Fellowship (UBF), the church she grew up in, ever tried to address her bad attitude, Miriam would simply badmouth them and disrespect them even more. In fact, her best friend Mary remembers that Miriam would even go so far as to get other friends to turn against them, too.
Miriam continued with this façade for as long as she could. But rather than addressing these ever-increasing strained relationships, Miriam spent a large fraction of her senior year of high school on the piano, in hopes of getting into the music program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In February 2007, Miriam got accepted into the program, and she was ready to just move forward.
But when she began her studies in choral music education that fall, Miriam had a jolting realization.
“I was not equipped at all for the program,” she remembers. “Everyone had their band jackets on and were just really intense. They were all much more prepared than me...they were just on a different level.”
Feeling overwhelmed and unqualified, Miriam’s grades quickly started to drop.
“I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t study well,” Miriam says. “I started feeling like this music program wasn’t for me.”
To make matters worse, during her first year of college, her mom moved from Chicago, her hometown, to Champaign. So when all of her college friends went back home to Chicago for the summer, Miriam was stuck in Champaign, with no one around but her mom.
For the first time ever, Miriam felt completely isolated. From birth, Miriam grew up immersed in a tight-knit community of friends and family at UBF, where her parents met and attended. After her dad passed away, the role of her church family became that much more integral in her family’s life. But suddenly, being away from home, Miriam felt uncomfortably alone.
God placed her right in the middle of Champaign, isolated and suddenly vulnerable, to have a word with her.
“My identity with God came through my environment. I was a part of this intense church and just another UBF girl,” Miriam explains. “But now being in isolation in this small town, in the summer, not having anyone with me, and feeling like I failed in school, I had to see who I was apart from all of that. And what my faith was apart from all of that.”
She began examining her faith. Did she know God personally or was it all from memory? Did her faith mean anything to her? Was it her priority?
When it came down to it, Miriam realized that her understanding of God didn’t come from any kind of personal relationship, but rather, a taught concept of Him. And being honest with herself, Miriam recognized that her faith had never been a priority in her life. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“When I was stripped from that bubble, I actually became really insecure,” she says. “I realized that my self-worth came from that bubble.”
So, Miriam began reading the Bible because, quite frankly, there was nothing else to do that summer.
On one particular day, however, she felt a sudden urge to get on her knees. Her heart began beating a little harder and the words in Matthew or the Psalms (she doesn’t quite remember) started jumping off the page. Alone in her room, Miriam spoke to God.
“It was very, kind of, supernatural,” she explains. “Something in my conscience was changing as I was reading, so I just started praying, which ended up being a very long time. It must have been hours of just confessing my unforgiveness for people.”
All the years of hurt and bitterness and angst Miriam had buried, bubbled up to the surface. She remembered this person hurting her and that person saying something rude and that other person wronging her family member. As she began confessing years of suppressed pain, she realized just how much resentment had hardened her heart.
Miriam knew she had to forgive every single one of these people, but she also knew she couldn’t do it herself. Too much had happened. So, she asked Jesus to give her enough strength and courage to do just that.
Hour after hour on that summer day, Miriam completely emptied herself. She wanted all of the unforgiveness and hurt to be gone, so that she could berefilled with inspiration and vision. She finally understood that God didn't intend for her life to be mediocre or complacent.
intend for her life to be mediocre or complacent. But rather, impactful.
Her final prayer: God, I know You have more for me, even though I don’t know what it looks like. I want to follow You. I will give up all the things I know, Father, if You will provide for me a new way.
And in a day, Miriam’s entire paradigm changed.
“There was a moment of huge transformation and inner growth,” Mary explains of Miriam, “and her talents and passions in music just started to bloom. She always tells me that in the quiet places is where God did a huge work in her heart.”
Just as Miriam had prayed, God gave her a new confidence to succeed in school. Rather than give up, she resolved to go to every office hour and teaching assistant until she got her music theory down.
Soon enough, although the courses were getting more difficult, Miriam started excelling in her classes, gaining her professors’ attention at the same time.
Miriam credits two professors, in particular, who helped her succeed and understand what vision and purpose look like, something she lacked until now. Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, her choir director, and Cynthia Haymon, her voice professor, quickly became mentors to Miriam. Dr. Davis gave Miriam opportunities, while Professor Haymon taught her discipline.
If Miriam arrived to her voice lessons seemingly unprepared, Professor Haymon would immediately cut the lessons short, so that Miriam could practice more.
“I remember one day she told me, ‘Miriam, if you do not get fully disciplined and learn this craft, you will be missing out on part of God’s calling for your life,’” Miriam recalls. “So you bet I closed my books and went straight to the practice room.”
went straight to the practice room.”
In the midst of her burgeoning musical studies, Miriam felt the need to revisit the death of her dad and uncle. But instead of feeling the paralyzing weight of sorrow like before, Miriam had a simple request. Father, everything I’ve failed at, please redeem, she prayed.
Death had been devastating. Her words were used to hurt. Defense became her natural inclination. Disrespect was her default response to protect herself. But Miriam didn’t want that anymore.
Today, Miriam sits in absolute awe of how God so tangibly answered her prayer. He turned the person who once despised authority and shut down at the face of conflict into a woman open to correction and now, the first to admit her faults. He transformed her mouth that once spewed words of hurt and anger into an instrument for music and praise. And He took her once-broken relationships and transformed them into an opportunity for her to show grace and forgiveness, just as He had shown her.
And after not knowing for years what her identity or purpose was, Miriam understood that it was simply to be loved by God as His daughter.
“His love literally rescued and transformed every aspect of my life,” Miriam says. “Staying in self pity doesn’t help anyone. I have peace in pain I don’t understand, but now I have been able to use all of that to help others who experience something similar.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in choral music education in 2011, Miriam went on to teach music at a public elementary school in Champaign. The school’s mixed demographic consisted of children from high-income families as well as low-income.
One third grade student, in particular, proved difficult in her class. Not only did he refuse to participate, but he always had a bad attitude.
only did he refuse to participate, but he always had a bad attitude. One day, Miriam decided to keep him after class to figure out what was going on.
“Look, did Miss Cowen do something wrong? Is there a reason why you don’t want to participate?” she asked him.
“I just miss my dad,” he confessed.
“Where is he?” Miriam asked.
“He’s in jail and I can’t see him...I just miss him so much,” the boy responded.
Miriam understood. She looked at him and said, “You know what? I miss my dad, too. My dad died when I was 7-years-old...”
Upon hearing that, the student began crying. So Miriam started crying. And as the two of them sat there, crying because they both missed their dads, she said to him, “But, you know, as much as that’s difficult for you—and I know that’s really difficult for you—you can still have a wonderful, happy life. And when your dad gets out of jail, you’ll meet him again. Can we work together to get those happy moments until then?”
After that, the student never proved difficult again. In fact, he became one of her best.
“I recognized myself in that child, shutting down as a defense mechanism,” Miriam says. “If I hadn’t experienced that as a child, I might have just scolded him and sent him on his way.”
For Miriam, it’s easy to fall into a state of despair and sadness. But God constantly reminds her that there’s a world out there that needs hope, and He wants to use her to bring that hope.
“I think that the human mind left alone will always go to that place of despair," she explains. “But the spirit of God allows us to do things that we could never do in our fleshly state.”
Two years after Miriam watched her uncle die in a hospital bed from a brain tumor, she found herself back in the hospital, again surrounded by illness and death. But this time, it was different.
In the summer of 2009, Miriam learned that a professor at the university played drums for patients in hospitals in Africa. Interested in doing something similar, she inquired, expecting to not hear back. But almost immediately, the professor replied, saying that he would help her with anything she needed. For the next six months, Miriam raised funds, connected with local missionaries, and learned how to play the guitar because taking a keyboard to Africa wasn’t feasible. By January 2010, Miriam was on her way to Africa to sing for local hospital patients.
The doctors took her to all the different wards. And with her guitar and memorized songs, Miriam began singing for children and adults alike. Everyone from patients getting chemotherapy to women recovering from child labor.
They even took her to the emergency room, which she was not thrilled about. She tried refusing, suggesting that it might be more intrusive than anything else. But the doctors insisted.
Just before she stepped into the ER, the doctors informed her that there was a man named Albert, who had just gotten into a taxi accident. He had been in the front seat, and his daughter and niece were in the back. Everyone, including the taxi driver, had died but him. He was in critical condition.
including the taxi driver, had died but him. He was in critical condition. Suddenly, an intense fear struck Miriam and all she wanted to do was go
home. Instead, she prayed.
Father, this can only be done through Your spirit. Otherwise, this could be really traumatic. Please give me the anointing to open hearts.
She walked in and sang “Amazing Grace.” After four minutes, she decided to sing it again. Okay, she thought, no one’s screaming at me yet.
Suddenly, as she repeated the words, “When we’ve been here ten thousand years,” Albert began to cry. And she started to cry. And the doctors started to cry.
He didn’t say anything. But after an hour, Albert took Miriam’s hand and said, “God is good.”
Just hours prior, his life had shattered, and yet, he could say, “God is good.”
“It was in those moments that music found me,” Miriam says. “When you give yourself to God with complete trust and you give up things you hold onto because you think it protects you...
“When you give those things up, He has a world of grace and opportunity to use you in ways you could never imagine.”
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