Years ago, my husband and I were privileged to attend a Ladysmith Black Mombasa concert in Bethlehem, PA, as part of the annual Musikfest. I was enthralled. Twenty Zulu men from South Africa, ranging in ages from 15 to 65, were singing acapella in perfect harmony while swaying and leaping with such exuberance and grace that, though I didn’t understand the words, I felt like joyfully jumping and singing with them. Their vibrant harmony never wavered. I listened for a sharp pitch, a missed note, wobbly phrasing, but every pitch, note and phrase was spot-on perfect. It was phenomenal. They ended their concert with Amazing Grace and the beauty made me weep along with nearly everyone else in the concert hall.
I did a little research and discovered that this music style is called Isicathamiya and is unique to the Zulu people. Recently, my mother-in-law saw an interview with an English choral director, Robert Hollingworth, who has studied this style of singing. It is impossible, he said, to force this music into perfectly notated format. In European choirs, it comes across stiff and unnatural. Hollingworth spent time with one of the Zulu choirs, trying to determine why this style of music is so difficult. Voices are voices, after all. Surely he could compose and direct music that, when sung by the right people, would produce the same results as that of a native Zulu choir. His findings were surprising. The swaying and joyous leaping that I marveled at during the concert I attended wasn’t simply choreography. The movement is integral to the music, integral to the singers themselves. The harmonious singing is a natural outflow of the movements. It comes from the inside out—not from the outside in.
Jesus said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit…The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:43-45).
The singing of the Zulu men reminded me of this verse. It isn’t my actions that change my heart and make me holy. Only a heart truly changed by God can produce actions that are in harmony with His Word. Does that sound narrow? It is. You and I cannot attempt to copy the holy life by simply following a set of rules or living a “good” life. The results are disastrous. Following God’s commands without undergoing the Holy Spirit’s version of open-heart surgery produces, at best, an ego stroke for having done a “good deed,” and at worst a bitter, disillusioned life when we realize we simply can’t do enough to earn our way to God.
Perhaps this is why David sang to God, “Create in me a pure heart” (Psalm 51:10a) rather than “Create for me a To-Do List.” Earlier in Psalm 51 he writes, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (v. 6). God knows us intimately; we cannot pretend in His presence. His work in our hearts is sometimes painful and requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of our personal agendas and plans, sacrifice of our preferences, sacrifice of our comfort zone.
David writes “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart…” (v. 17). I will be honest, I would far rather David wrote, “The sacrifices of God are giving up the things you didn’t really like anyway….like kale, and cleaning gutters, and spending time with difficult people.” No. God desires a broken spirit and a contrite heart: people who are humble. People who are humble are honest in their hearts, selfless, and quick to seek forgiveness. 1 Peter 5:5 says, “…all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humility is not an addition to our wardrobe like a jacket. It is not an item on a check list. (“Be humble….got it, check!”) Humility is a heart attitude out of which comes the sweet, sweet sound of amazing grace.