In the middle year of studies, students at Lancaster Theological Seminary participate in a cross-cultural experience, traveling to a location somewhere around the globe to immerse themselves in the culture and the experience of Christianity as it is lived out in that place. For my class’s trip, we went to Ghana, West Africa.
There are many aspects of the trip that are unforgettable to me, but one of the most profound elements of the trip was the use of music in the culture. Music was everywhere: in worship, in daily life, in recreation, in grief.
I won’t soon forget one day when we went on a “field trip” to Wli Falls, where we hiked to beautiful waterfalls and then back to the entrance of the park for a lunch that had been prepared for us. Hungry children with big eyes and salivating mouths stared at us from behind tree trunks until at last our tour guide told us that, yes, it would be okay to share our food with them. They ravenously and gratefully scooped our leftover rice and chicken into their mouths. They might not eat a meal this big again for days. But still, when the drumming began, they danced. Their feet moved in rhythm, they clapped their hands, smiles appearing, the music moving something inside of them that was bigger and more powerful than their rumbling tummies.
In Ghana, at any time of day or night, if you listened closely, you could hear drumming. Drumming far off in the distance, drumming close at hand. The drumming began early, maybe shortly after midnight on Saturdays, as the drums prepared to accompany funeral processions that moved through the various towns and villages. The Ghanaians dance and drum their dead to the grave.
In the midst of worship services, they dance their offerings to the front of the church, drums pounding and voices joined in song. “Life is a struggle,” they sing, and still they dance.
Lillian Daniel, a UCC pastor, writes that “In music, we transcend reality. In music, we imagine a better world.” Certainly, this is what the Ghanaians do when they sing and drum and dance. Ghana is one of the most developed and successful nations in Africa, but the lifestyle is still a far cry from what we experience here. Food is not plentiful, work is hard, water is unclean. But singing and dancing and drumming are transformative.
In one of our anthems for this morning, the Sanctuary Choir will sing, “We are made for praise.” The word “praise” is found 404 times in the Bible, counting mentions in both the Old and New Testaments. The word music is found only 42 times, although words pertaining to music, like singing, and drumming, and playing, are found frequently, adding to the overall mentions of music.
Human beings have been enjoying music since the time of creation. Praise is an innate response from us, especially in response to God and in the midst of a musical celebration. Babies clap their hands almost instinctively when they hear music. Toddlers bouncing along to a beat is one of the most precious sights I’ve ever seen. As we grow older, we turn to music to express deeply the feelings that we have. After an especially bad day, we might turn on a sad song to help us get the tears out. When we are in a great mood, you might find us rocking out behind the wheel on the way home from work. Most of us can name the song we danced to at a wedding, whether with our spouse, or a son or daughter. We can remember the hymns that we chose for funerals of family members. Whether in moments of praise, or lament, or intercession, or thanksgiving, music transports us to a place where words alone cannot take us.
This gift of music is absolutely from God. Just as God is creative, we are given the creative gift of music to enhance our lives, both in our daily routines and in our times of worship. And we can be sure that wherever God is, music is there, too. Thanks be to God for this wonderful gift. Amen.