Substance or Shadow?

Art carried the fifty-year old guitar case in and set it down on the counter yesterday.  I am an enthusiast of many instruments, but my heart always beats a little faster when I see the old Fender guitar cases.  If what is inside is a match to the case, this is an instrument which was built in the heyday of some of the finest and most well received guitars of any era.  They also happen to be some of the most valuable on the market today, but that is secondary to the enjoyment of holding and playing one of these historical artifacts.

We discussed the instrument’s features at length and verbally dissected its condition, fair for its age, but still intact, with all the original parts present, give or take a screw or two.  I even had the honor of being the first person to ever remove the neck from the body to confirm the age indicated by the serial number.  The guitar is exactly fifty years old this month!  Its value is not extraordinary, because it is a less desirable model than some, but it still has significant worth.  I felt privileged to spend some time with the fine old instrument.  Art, Chris (another lover of fine instruments who was present), and I stood for more than a few moments in conversation.

Art spoke to us of where the instrument had spent most of its life.  He talked of Kenya, in Africa, and the desperate need there in the seventies and eighties for musical instruments of any kind.  We learned of the program which provided many guitars to the native churches and also heard of a few instruments which were destined to be used in recordings he participated in making while in Africa.  This guitar made the trip with him over thirty years ago and had been left there when he and his wife returned to the United States a number of years after that.  The guitar itself has just returned in the last few days from its sojourn in Africa.  Ah!  If the old instrument could only speak instead of simply playing notes!  What a story it could tell…

Intrigued by the thought of instruments from the States being exported to a country like Kenya, so rich in its own musical heritage and indigenous instruments, we inquired about the circumstances that instigated the journey.  We were regaled by the story-teller for a few moments as the unexpected truth came out.  I was (and am) stunned.

It seems that, as the early missionaries to the “dark continent” won their first converts, they insisted that the natives forsake their native melodies and rhythms.  In the place of these, the missionaries substituted the traditional hymns of the western churches, translating the words into the native languages to be sure, but still forcing a completely alien style of music on the new believers.  Instead of songs laid out in the “call and response” style familiar to them, the odd sounding four-part harmonies of the western choral style were substituted.  No other type of music was acceptable in the church, nor even in the private worship of the natives.  Worse was still to come.  The teachers banned the native instruments, including the stringed melody-producing ones.  Drums were out completely.  The rationale was that the items had been used in the demon-inspired ceremonies before conversion occurred, so the people must never touch them again.  In many cases, the converts were forced to burn the instruments in a symbolic act of leaving behind their old lives.

How sad.  I will not malign these well-meaning missionaries, with lofty goals for the flock that had been given to them.  They believed they were doing the right thing.  It was never their intention to deprive the people of something that was good, but to protect from evil. That’s just not the way it worked out.

Art and his fellow workers understood that the people needed something which spoke to them in a more personal and familiar way than the recycled Western hymnal, so guitars were made available to the natives and they were encouraged to write songs in the native style, but with words which drew their hearts into worship.  The first few men took a few days to get familiar with the instruments and then the race was on!  Everyone wanted guitars.  The demand far outstripped the supply and it was all Art and crew could do the keep a supply coming.  When guitar strings broke, anything that would sound a tone was fair game.  The musicians would appropriate brake cables from old cars and motorbikes and, peeling off the outer wrappings, would employ the core wire for a string.  When the mechanical tuning machines broke, a wooden peg was inserted up through the hole, violin style, to bring the instruments up to pitch.  It was a wonder to behold!  The music was theirs again!

The final chapter told of the conference he attended, when several thousand men, women, and children were gathered to share worship.  Several different people had played and sung, with the crowd remaining engaged and somewhat noisy.  Then the old man stepped on the platform, with a simple, single-stringed instrument.  A hush came over the crowd as they sat and listened with rapt attention.  Not a sound was heard except for the playing of the instrument and the voice of the singer.  When it was over, the crowd let out a collective sigh, almost as if they had been holding their breath for the whole song.  “What happened?” queried Art to some of his Kenyan friends.  The only explanation they would give was to reveal that this instrument, above all others, had been labeled as “demonic” for most of a century and it was only now that they could hear songs of the Savior they loved, played on an instrument which they had longed to be able to hear for most of their life spans.  What an emotionally moving experience for them to sit and take in the joyful sounds once more.

The parallels to our current day experiences almost make my head spin.  But, I have filled enough of the white space on this page for tonight, so I will not waste your time in pointing out the obvious.  You may be able to fill in the blanks yourselves, if you will.  Just a little shove in the right direction and you’re on your own…Intolerance of generational and cultural differences in styles has plagued and sidetracked us for eons, when the better focus might be on the substance itself.  

Perhaps, it is time to take the view of each other that our Creator takes of us.  The outer trappings are nonessential; the heart though–that bears just a little more consideration.

“The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
(I Samuel 16:7 NIV)

“Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”
(Aesop~Ancient Greek author of fables~620 BC-560 BC)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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