I heard this proverb spoken in Congo:
“Mbonda elelaka mpamba te” – The drum doesn’t sound alone.
Suddenly a deeper level of this rhythmic worldview is introduced.
Goat skin and a hollowed tree are everyday items, but when strong hands beat that skin the sound can move people to dance and laugh and sing and walk without fatigue and fight and weep.
So whose hands play the everyday things of this world that we react to?
My Congolese friends would say that the spirits do. The author of the book Gods of Power writes that for the animist, the physical and spiritual world are one fabric. I have heard it said, “I cannot see the wind, no. But I see the flag move. I cannot see the hands, no. But I hear the drum beat.”
I was among the Zande people for a three month internship last year. The Zande people know of the water spirits. They have seen what can happen on the rivers and bodies of water in their area, and out of fear obey traditional ways to appease the spirits and stay the hands that beat such terrible rhythms.
Would you, coming from a Western worldview, tell them not to fear the spirits? To our minds, we know that nature and chance are to blame, not spirits. There are no hands, we say. And in the past our missionaries have tried that approach. It is true, they urged. There are no hands. The drum beats simply because it is a drum.
That introduces a new problem. Steyne writes this solemn warning, “Wherever we don’t take the existing religious faith of people seriously and deal with it specifically, they will continue to hang on to it and find their answers to life in an alternative power source, other than God.” (204)
Steyne’s warning brings this question: should our goal be to deconstruct the spiritual aspect of their life? Are we crusading against belief in the supernatural? When we kill the spiritual, the sacred falls with it. How, Steyne asks, will newly converted animistic believers appreciate the holiness of God if they have been freshly taught to disregard the powerful spirit beings they previously knew?
During my time in Congo, this question lingered at the hems of my thoughts. How then do we respond to a worldview that is so alien to ours and yet, just like ours, is not consistent with the Bible’s teaching? How does the fear of spirits give way to the fear of God?
My Congolese friends would say that there is only one way to know the colour of the cloth you hold in your hand, and that is to bring it to the light.
So it came to the day when I heard my answer.
I am seated among Congolese pastors and church leaders in the remote town of Bangadi. The sun streams through the windows. Light gathers in puddles of light on the floor and on people’s laps. Nyemuse, the missionary who I travelled with, tells a story. We all listen closely. I can see the boat she speaks of. It is small. They are on a deep lake. The men in the boat struggle to keep moving. It has been a long journey. Suddenly, without warning, a storm comes! There is thunder and lightning and crashing waves. The boat tips one way. The boat tips the other way. The men all cry and panic and weep – all of them, that is, but one. One man sleeps through it all. The others rush to wake him. “Master,” they wail, “do you not care that we are drowning?” The man stands up, steadying himself. He opens his mouth and speaks two words. Just two words! “Be still.” Just like that, the storm dies down. He turns to his disciples, “Why did you not believe?” is his question.
In amazement at this turn of events, we are one with the disciples and their question is ours – “Who is this man, that even the wind and the waters obey him?”
Who is this man? It is Jesus. God Himself.
This incredible, true account speaks directly to the Zande people. It speaks the message that waters and rivers are not simply masks malevolent spirits wear to torment them. In essence, they fear the hands of a robber. The spirits they seek to appease did not make the drum. They do not own the drum. They do not even own the song. God is the Creator of all things and all things, even spirits, must obey when He speaks the word.
The cloth of worldview has been brought to the light. Now we can see the true colours.
I see creased foreheads and heads slowly nodding agreement to this wondrous tale. But it is not just the Zande people who have heard their answer. I too have been given an answer in the story, if I will hear it.
Not by replacing the spiritual with the secular will animistic believers become Christians. No.
There is only one road to get to that place of a transformed culture. The road is the man who stood in the boat thousands of years ago and calmed the fury of a storm with two words. It is the man who stood wearing the stains of sins he never committed. It is the man who died and the whole world stood still and the sky darkened. It is the man that even the great power of death could not keep. It is the man who now sits at the right hand of God, Creator, most powerful of all spirits.
He is conqueror, he is king, he is Jesus.
Just like he calmed the storm with two words, he spoke just this one phrase to me through the story.
I asked as Moses did so long ago, “How will they ever believe that you are indeed God? What name should I give them?”
The answer: “I am who I am.”
Creator of song, the one who ultimately determines the rhythm life dances to, the only true hands to the drum.
Mbonda elelaka mpamba te – the drum only cries when there are hands to hit it.
Even when evil spirits try to steal the drums and play competing rhythms for this world and this life – the sovereign God turns all those errant beats into a rhythm that fits with his overarching song of the kingdom.
And because we know the hands that hold the drum, we do not fear the song…
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