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Opinions of Sunday, 29 April 2018

Columnist: Dr. Daniel Gyebi

How can we sing the Lord’s songs in foreign lands?

There are many Ghanaian Christians living in foreign countries. Those who were active Christians before they left Ghana or their native countries may have experienced some form of Christian culture shock in their new countries.

In the same way, in ancient times, the people of Israel experienced culture shock when they found themselves in exile and as captives in Babylon. Psalm 137 tells a small part of the story of the Israelites during their seventy-year captivity there.

1. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2. There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3. for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4. How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? 5. If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 6. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy (Psalm 137:1-6 NIV).

Zion was the name of one of the hills in Jerusalem. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem, The City of David, Israel, and even heaven (See, for example, 2 Samuel: 5:7; Isaiah 40:9; Jeremiah 31:12; and Hebrews 12:20). For purposes of this article, many in the diaspora may consider our homeland Ghana or our native countries as “Zion.” It is in Zion that we laid the foundation of our Christian faith, and nursed our hopes, aspirations, and faith in the Almighty God.

It is remarkable that even after decades in exile and captivity in Babylon, and in the midst of ridicule by their captors, the people of Israel did not lose faith in their God, did not lose trust in their leaders, and did not lose hope of returning to their homeland. They remembered Zion. However, they did not see the need to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. And to do so in order to please their captors was a mockery to them and the Lord. For them, the Lord’s songs should be sung in Israel and, in particular, Jerusalem, not in captivity in Babylon. They swore to never forget Jerusalem and invoked curses on themselves if they did not remember Jerusalem. Would it not be wonderful if Ghanaians in the diaspora could remember Ghana so dearly?

Singing is a form of worship. Singing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land is worshipping God in the foreign land. In line with the Apostle Paul’s advice, we should “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20 NIV). The dilemma faced by the Israelites in the diaspora – to sing or not to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land – is sometimes experienced by some Christians in the diaspora.

Some of the major issues faced by Christians in the diaspora revolve around differences in worship, such as the inability to sing the hymns and songs, conduct services, or listen to sermons, in their native languages; and the inability to sing loudly and accompanied by various western and traditional musical instruments, hand clapping, and dancing. As a result, some Christians in the diaspora have formed their own Churches based on the denominations to which they belong in their native countries.

As much as many in the diaspora consider themselves blessed and happy to settle permanently in their new countries, in some cases, the freezing cold weather, the heavy snowfalls, the hectic and multiple work schedules, and the differences in Christian values and worship, are a constant reminder that we have left our Zion.

When we consider the goodness, mercy, love, and power of God, we should sing the songs of the Lord with all our voices. How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? Sing the Lord’s songs and sing them with deep appreciation for the goodness of God, as in the words of John Gurney in “Yes God is good”: “Yes, God is good in earth and sky, from ocean depths and spreading wood, ten thousand voices seem to cry: God made us all, and God is good.”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? Sing the Lord’s songs and sing them with grace, as in the words of John Newton in “Amazing Grace”: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? Sing the Lord’s songs and sing them with all your strength, as in the words of Charles Wesley in “Captain of Israel’s host and guide”: “Captain of Israel's host and guide, of all who seek the land above, beneath thy shadow we abide, the cloud of thy protecting love; our strength, thy grace; our rule, thy word; our end, the glory of the Lord.”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? Sing the Lord’s songs and sing them with praise to His glory, as in the words of Charles Wesley: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!”

Some Christians in the diaspora miss the opportunity to sing their familiar songs at Church because they are not in the Churches’ hymn books. For example, a Methodist in Ghana now living in the U.S. as a United Methodist like me will find that some familiar hymns in The Methodist Hymn Book in Ghana are missing from the United Methodist Hymnal in the U.S. Here are examples: Yes, God is good; Captain of Israel’s host a guide; Peace, perfect peace; Ride on ride on in majesty; Ere I sleep, for every favor; Now the day is over; The sun is sinking fast; Master speak! Thy servant heareth; I am trusting thee Lord Jesus; and I bring my sins to Thee.

Then there is the role of Ghanaian Gospel music in worship which cannot be discounted even in the major Churches like Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian. Like hymns, Gospel music is based on Bible texts, universal truths about God, and Church doctrines. It may be in a form of praise or worship, depending on the tempo of the music. In addition, the music is usually written and sung in local languages accompanied by western and traditional instruments, clapping of hands, and dancing. The congregation may sing several songs continuously from memory for an extended period of time. The popularity of Gospel music makes it difficult for those immersed in it to appreciate worship without it in foreign lands.

Christians are strangers and pilgrims in this world. We have limited time on this earth and so we need to make the most of it now. As Christ’s ambassadors through whom God is making His appeal to the world (2 Corinthians 5:20), we are to propagate God’s messages of salvation and reconciliation through music, preaching, holiness etc. That means God has put messages and songs in our hearts and mouths and we are to deliver them to others for His glory and purpose.

We should not sit by the rivers of Babylon weeping and feeling miserable. The people of Israel had been taken into captivity because they had sinned against God (see Lamentations 1:1-8). We should not let sin, despair or distance rob us of our messages and songs. Instead, we should express our praise and joy through our Lord’s songs wherever God has placed us.

We have left rivers in Ghana such as Ankobra, Densu, Oti, Pra, Tano, and Volta. We are now based near Brazos River near Houston; Hudson River in New York; River Thames in London; Elbe River in Germany; Don River in Ontario; Potomac River in Maryland; Mississippi River; and Missouri River. Unlike the Israelites, we may not be physically sitting or walking along the banks of our new rivers – our rivers of Babylon--weeping and reminiscing about Ghana.

However, you are sitting miserably by your rivers of Babylon when you do not attend Church services because the Christian denomination to which you belong in your native country is not available in your new city or country. You are sitting miserably by your rivers of Babylon when you do not serve the Lord because the Christian values to which you hold firmly in your native country are not practiced or respected in your new country. And you are sitting miserably by your rivers of Babylon when you have lost your songs or hidden your talents because you do not want to express yourself differently. Don’t hang your harps on a tree or hide your native talents.

The Israelites’ belief that God would rescue and take them home someday was a good thing. However, by sitting miserably by the rivers of Babylon and feeling homesick and reminiscing about Zion, they were putting their lives and worship on hold in anticipation of their freedom and return to Jerusalem where they would sing the Lord’s songs. We should not put our lives, songs, and worship on hold till we return to Zion. Singing the Lord’s songs may help spread the Gospel to foreign lands. Therefore, we should make the most of the grace of life that God has given us wherever we are, keeping in mind that some of us may not make it to our Zion alive.

At the same time, we should remember and help Ghana, our Zion. When the Israelites in the diaspora yearned for Zion, it was not because things were great there. No, they knew that the Promised Land had been destroyed by the Babylonians and that conditions there were harsh. Yet, they wanted to go back there because it was their homeland, the place where their hearts were. Similarly, referring to Ghana as our Zion does not mean all is rosy there; it is not, but it is where our hearts are and our families, friends, and fellow Ghanaians live, so we should remember them.

Yes, we should sing the songs of the Lord in all foreign lands. From every tribe and nation in the diaspora, let’s shake off the feeling of nostalgia, lift up the crooked or melodious voices, and join with Isaac Watts in singing the hymn, “Come we that love the Lord (Matching to Zion).”

“Come we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known; join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne. We’re matching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re matching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” The good news is that there is certainly no better person than yourself, no better time than now, and no better place than wherever you are, to sing the Lord’s songs or worship God.

Prayer is the key. May God grant us the grace to seek Him daily through our prayers.

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