The Fellowship of the Living Ring

Her feet stomp right
then to the left,
from front to back
and round again
just like her sister
leading the line
just like her sisters
following behind
arms all swinging
back and forth as if
cutting ripe grain
to bring in harvest,
or now bent low
they pump the air
like shovels plunging
into the earth
cultivating
working hard for
Jesus their Lord
who called them
rescued them
made them a Family
his own beloved
daughters who join
the circle of praise 
the pulsing line
of Life and Truth
that dances joy
in the welcome shade
protective shade
out of the angry
merciless sun
delight in the beat
that glues them tight
in this harmony
of Body life
then the leader hears
the call of the song
to pump it up
surrender all
her feet together
her body leaning
into the ring
she jumps it forward
one two three
a pause to swing
those muscled arms
and pump them into
living praise
and sisters follow
one two three
and back and forth
and one two three
not minding the heat
the babes on their backs
going to sleep
in the soothing pulse
of their mother’s leaps
and the melodies 
of the balaphones
rippling north
and south on the keys
while the calabashes
clack and shush
and the drumbeat
punctuates the air
one calling others
to come and share
the fellowship
of the living ring
the daughters of
the one true King
as the circle grows
a smaller one forms
inside for the youths
who pump it up
and the women watch
and keep the beat
the solid rhythm
of passion shared
as they circle
their loved ones
spinning now
and a little girl
follows mom in the ring
learning the way
to shuffle and pray
in the Family way

The balaphones were rippling wild praise, calling the villagers to come to the service. I sat in the third row, jumping up to give hugs or shake hands, delighted to be back at this other “home church,” one the Lord brought into being by sending us out as his servants. Now I could hardly wait to serve with my sisters. The service started, and as the singer began to call out his song, the congregation responding by singing their repetitive response, Mineta rose from her seat on the first row. Her metal scraper rhythmically accompanying the beat, she began to shuffle quietly forward and then counterclockwise to lead the dance. I jumped from my seat to join her and the other women leaping up to shuffle forward into the widening circle. Listening to the song, they chose the arm movements and joined the response to the call. I felt joy seep into my soul. Here I was again, after so long apart, dancing praise with my sisters in the house of the Lord!

That was last Sunday!

When you live in northern Côte d’Ivoire, dance is a normal part of the worship service in most evangelical churches. Do you find this unsettling? It is worlds apart from what is often experienced in the United States! I admit that I was one of the American missionaries who found joining in the circle dance a wonderful release of the yearning to move that was inside me.

Praising the Lord is meant to include the dance, wherever it is meaningful to the worshippers:

Let them praise his name with dancing! Let them sing praises to him to the accompaniment of the tambourine and harp! (Ps. 149:3 NET)

Praise him with the tambourine and with dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and the flute! (Ps. 150:4 NET)

Another element in this form of worshipful dance is the expression of community. The dancers are following each other, blending into the whole, each one free to interpret the song with their arms or full-body movements as long as it does not disrupt the circle. Children are welcomed in. Young men and women sometimes create a smaller circle inside in order to put more energy into their joyful dance.  

If the song is praise, some will lift their hands and faces upward. When there is an exhortation to serve, they may bend over and swing their arms as though threshing the grain, or join their hands and pump them as though pounding in a mortar. (You can watch a snippet of this dance here: Serve the Lord with all your heart video https://youtu.be/rZsQtaJJg7Q  and the vigorous last measures here: Serve the Lord, dance ends with children https://youtu.be/mIkpLXHNm6o )

Those elements are all particularly aligned with dancing to the music of balaphones, long instruments like xylophones made of wood with gourds serving as the resonance chambers—and the scale is pentatonic, five notes per measure. That is what has been retained in many spirituals and gospel music in the U.S.

The Nyarafolo Group has been meeting in the courtyard behind the house where we used to live for decades, in Ferkessédougou. We joined them on Sunday afternoons; this was the one place in the town where they could pray, sing and study the Word in their own language, until just this past year! They began their music ministry with balaphones, but when the balaphones became worn out they could not afford to repair them. So their leader, Moïse, brought in the “pire” (pronounced pray), which are two drums traditionally used to incite energetic work when young men were brought together to prepare a field for farming. Now this group has become well known for saving the musical culture as well as for making a new genre of believers’ songs!  They were even invited to sing at a concert sponsored by “Afrik Arts Culture” in a nearby big city earlier this month. The bass and the tenor drums answer each other, and the dance follows along. This time it is done in rows with different foot movements, but the arm motions are much like the onese in the dance to the balaphone. (You can watch a song and dance from this past week here: Let your light be seen (shine),with pire drums  https://youtu.be/T7Z6zRmsHOI )

Once again, this is all about serving the Lord with songs that tell his stories, that evoke jubilation and praise, or that even become personal testimonies.

I’ve learned so much from these brothers and sisters about whole-body worship! It makes it difficult for me to stand completely still in the U.S. churches, but I work at adapting. And I know not everyone experiences that same call to worship or to joining the Body through dance. It may even just be distracting to many who have not experienced it before. We are different personalities with different responses to music—that has become an issue in many churches as generations change in the congregation, or diverse cultures express longing for what speaks to them.

It seems evident to me that the Lord understands and loves diversity. He made all those kinds of flowers and trees and birds and animals and people! What matters is using what he has given us to honor him: our bodies, our voices, our instruments, and most importantly, our hearts. We must be focused on him as we sit quietly and sing, or as we join the circle with humility and love. When the Body of our Lord joins together to praise him, he is delighted.

24 Your procession, God, has come into view, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. 25 In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the young women playing the timbrels. 26 Praise God in the great congregation; praise the LORD in the assembly of Israel.  (Ps. 68:1 NIV)

I have three more Sundays to enjoy Nyarafolo worship to the fullest! May you worship the Lord with all your heart and soul too, wherever you are!

Published by Linnea Boese

After spending most of my life in Africa, as the child of missionaries then in missions with my husband, I am now retired and free to use my time to write! I am working on publishing poetry and on writing an autobiography. There have been many adventures, challenges and wonderful blessings along the way -- lots to share!

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