I love music. I've always loved music. But when I started playing a musical instrument in fourth grade I had no sense of rhythm. In fact, it took me many years to develop that sense. My mom and I would drive a half an hour to my private violin lessons with Mrs. Small, a tiny lady who used to be my mother's music teacher when she was young, and who insisted that now that she was over 85, she was allowed to subtract a year from her age for each birthday. I can still remember her asking me, week after week, "Are you counting this?" and "You didn't count this week, did you?"
The truth is, counting was something I reserved for math class, and I found the process of counting to four repeatedly, while playing the violin, to be very difficult. My mind didn't seem to want to do those two things simultaneously, and honestly, I didn't really see the point of it.
I was well into my high school years, I think, before I really began to develop a sense of rhythm. How did I survive all those years of playing recital pieces, and playing in an orchestra?
I used external cues. If Mrs. Small was accompanying me on the piano, I would listen for her to play a specific note/chord, and then I would know it was time for me to come in. If I was in an orchestra, I would often wait for the violinist next to me to lift her bow, and then I would know it was time to start playing. Of course, neither of these techniques were very good, and often resulted in me starting a fraction of a second too late, because I would hear, and then play.
As my sense of rhythm developed, it was not because my mathematical abilities improved (I was an award-winning math student and competitor, so counting to four over and over produced no mathematical challenges for me!), but because I started to feel rhythms internally. My toes started tapping, and my fingers started drumming, and my head started bobbing. And the more I felt those rhythms physically, within my body, the less necessary it became to count.
When playing with an accompanist, I didn't need to listen for a note to happen; I could predict when it was going to happen. If I was in an orchestra, I wasn't watching and listening for my neighbor to come in; I could feel the right time within my body.
Counting, under these circumstances, becomes something you do to help you understand the structure of a particular piece of music, rather than something you do because it's the only way to keep time.
I realized that this is very similar to my life as a Christian in this world. At first, nothing comes naturally. My behavior is not internalized. To know how I ought to behave, I watch the people around me to see what they do, and I take my cues from them. It's not internalized.
But God wants the Christian life to be internalized. This is why there are repeated statements within the Bible that say God wants to "write his word on our hearts, rather than on tablets of stone."
The process of internalizing the Christian life is very similar to the process of internalizing a beat. At first, it all feels unnatural, and you end up mimicking others in order to "fit in," but as God does His good work in your heart, what was once externally motivated becomes internally driven, because your character and your heart are more and more aligning with the one who was born with a perfect moral rhythm.
Where are you in this process? I'm not talking about what your behavior is; I'm talking about what drives your behavior. Is it driven by a follow-the-leader mentality? Is it driven by a desire to fit in? Or is Christ steadily (albeit perhaps slowly) transforming your heart, writing the rhythm of his own heartbeat onto yours?
Oh Lord, change my heart, make it ever true. Help my heart to beat in perfect synchrony with you!
Have you ever been to a concert of a symphony orchestra? There's something quite dramatic about watching a group of musicians working together under the conductor's leadership to produce beautiful music. If you go to a concert, there are certain members that will stand out to you, and attract your attention.
The conductor, obviously, captures our attention as they wave their hands and baton, and use even the slightest body motions to guide and direct the members of the orchestra.
Then there are the violinists, who often carry the melody, and do so with dramatic sweeps of their bows across the strings. Watching a section of violinists playing in unison and unity is an impressive and beautiful sight.
The timpanist, too, may capture our attention; their arms beat out a rhythm, or create a rumbling thunder sound, occasionally producing sounds that make us want to tap our feet, and occasionally sounds that make the music sound ominous.
There are other musicians who are less likely to capture our attention.
The clarinetist, for example, even if they have a solo (like in the haunting opening phrase of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue), you might not notice them, because their body and arms do not make any grand movements. There is no bow to draw across the strings, no mallet to bang against a tightened drum. Just fingers moving on the instrument -- and if you're far away from the stage, you won't see much movement at all!
And what about those poor bass viol players? Most of the time you could even forget that they're standing there. They don't get the fast, or the melodic, or the dramatic passages to play; most often they are simply plodding along with deep bass notes that you may not even consciously notice.
The church, the body of Christ, is an awful lot like that orchestra. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 12:22 about parts of the body of Christ being like the violins, and parts like the bass viols.
Okay, those are not the words he uses, but he talks about members of the body that we deem as more honorable, more valuable, and the members we talk about as being less honorable.
The more honorable members are like the violinists. They are the ones who get all the attention, all the praise, all the respect. Everyone sees what they do, and they laud them for it.
But others are like those bass viols. Day after day no one notices what they do, no one says, "Wow! That was amazing what you did yesterday!"
"Great sermon," we tell the pastor.
"What a great job you did cleaning the toilet," we don't ever say to the person who volunteers their time to make sure the church's restrooms are sanitary.
But please allow me to let you in on a little secret. The bass viol is every bit as important as the violin. You might not consciously notice the bass player doing his thing in the background, but if he was gone, you would be very quick to say, "There's something wrong with this piece of music!"
Just as you would be very quick to say, "There's something wrong in this church" if people stopped cleaning toilets, or painting walls, or paying electric bills.
And finally, please let me tell you one last secret. Preacher, evangelist, miracles, helps, administration, they're all important. Paul says so. But he says not to bicker about which is greatest, because there's one thing that's more important than any of them.
Love. It's the more excellent way.
If you've been following the content of this site for very long, you've probably noticed by now some of my hobbies, because I do write about them from time to time. I like to play the violin and the guitar. I like to climb mountains. And I like to to paint.
Interestingly, each one of these hobbies has, in some way, changed the way I view the world.
Because I like to play music, whenever I hear music, I don't just sing along with it, I notice how it is structured. I notice the timing, the bass line, the percussion, and a lot of things that I never would have noticed before I started learning to play a musical instrument.
Because I like to climb mountains, I can't even drive down a country road without noticing every single mountain in the distance, and being amazed by their beauty. Strange...before I started climbing, I never even noticed those mountains.
And since I've started up painting again, I can't go anywhere without noticing the brilliant, vibrant colors all around me, and thinking things like, "What color paints would I mix together to get that particular shade of blue?" or "I wonder if this scene would make a good starting point for a painting?"
I think it's interesting that each of my hobbies has, in one way or another, heightened my awareness of the world around me. I didn't start climbing mountains because I always thought the mountains were so beautiful. Nor did I start painting because I noticed and understood color and structure and composition.
No, it was the other way around. My appreciation for mountains, my understanding of color, and of beauty -- these things came after a lot of hard work on my part. The work came first, and then the understanding and the appreciation.
You might not have realized it, but the Christian life is very much the same way. I occasionally hear Christians pray, "Reveal yourself to me," but really, that's sort of a lazy prayer, because Jesus already told us the circumstances under which He reveals Himself to us:
If we want to more deeply understand God, and the work He is doing in this world, it doesn't just happen. It happens because we have his commandments, and are doing them. And we are doing them because we love Him.
The work comes first, then the understanding. I never would have come to such a deep appreciation for mountains without first putting a backpack on my shoulders and doing some very hard work. I would never have understood music so well if I hadn't spent so many hours doing tedious scales and exercises.
Do you want to understand God? Do you want Him to reveal Himself to you? Don't just sit around waiting for it to happen. Put your nose to the grindstone and actually do his work, follow his commands. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, it is sometimes discouraging, and yes, there are sometimes a thousand different things you would rather be doing. But do God's work with the same stubborn determination that a musician practices his scales, or a hiker keeps on climbing, no matter how tired he gets.
In the long run, the benefits are worth it, because bit by bit, God reveals Himself, His character, His love, and His work to us.
And that's more wonderful than the tallest mountain, the most beautiful song, or the most magnificent painting.
One of the hymns I enjoy singing in church is "Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul." It's a hymn that has a nice little echo part on the chorus ("filled my soul/made me whole/filled my soul"). The echo part is sung by the tenors and the altos.
Unfortunately, in our church, not many people are confident enough singers to do those echo parts, so you usually can't hear it very well. But last night was kind of interesting...
From where I was sitting, I couldn't hear any women singing the echo part, except on the "s" of "soul." "S" sounds tend to cut through a mix of sound (which is why recording studios have "de-essers").
But here's what was interesting about hearing this "s" sound: I was sitting on one side of the church, and my parents were sitting a couple pews away on the other side of the church, but even as far away as I was from them, the moment I heard that "s" sound, I thought "Oh, my mother is singing the echo part."
Now, I never would have thought that my mother's voice is that distinctive, and I certainly wouldn't have guessed that I could recognize her voice just from an "s" sound!
And then I got to wondering...would anyone else there at church have recognized her voice just from that one sound? Probably my dad, and my brother, but I doubt any other people would have picked her voice out of the crowd. Why? Because they don't know her voice as well as we do. For the first eighteen years of my life, I grew up hearing her voice every day, and I know her voice. Not many people know her voice that well.
Then, this morning, I bumped into Jerry, and we got talking about his grandchildren. He has two granddaughters who are identical twins -- Erica and Lindsay. Jerry said, "My wife can tell them apart, just from hearing their voices on the telephone." Amazing...it's enough of a challenge for me to tell them apart when I can see them!
This all made me think of something Jesus said in John 10:
Interesting, isn't it? Jesus says that his sheep will recognize his voice, but they won't recognize the voice of strangers. The implication is that Jesus is not a stranger to us. How many people expect to hear the voice of God in their lives, but are not willing to get to know the shepherd?
To know Jesus, to understand who He is, and to immerse yourself in the stories of His life, His death, and His resurrection, as found in the gospels and epistles, this should be one of our deepest desires and goals in life.
It doesn't come naturally -- a year ago I wouldn't have had a hope of telling Erica and Lindsay apart, but as I get to know them better, I recognize the differences between them more and more. So it is with Jesus -- the better I know Him, the more easily I will recognize His leading in my life.
It is one of my habits and practices in Bible reading that, no matter what else I might be reading in scripture, I plan to read through each of the gospels at least once during the year, so I never forget the voice of our Savior and our Shepherd.