I’m an amateur musician – at best. I played trombone when I was younger, fairly well. I even considered majoring in music – but I wasn’t THAT good.
I can read music. I sing, within a narrow, LOW, vocal range. I can play a variety of ethnic percussion. I can strum a guitar. I can even clap, in-time, with the music (which I’ve noticed many others CANNOT do!)!
Now, please, take note, I said I’m an “amateur” musician. I enjoy music. I enjoy singing and playing. But, I’m not claiming to be a “talented” musician, or to have any great expertise. It’s just something I know, do, appreciate, and have a little bit of understanding.
For those of you with greater musical knowledge, talent, or ability, I hope my use of musical terms in this context isn’t terribly inaccurate or simplistic. For those of you “un”-musical types, I hope to not lose you completely. In other words, please bear with me!
As an amateur musician AND follower of Jesus, I’ve been thinking lately about spirituality and life, in musical terms. How so? I’m glad you asked…
When my children were small, they had a toy xylophone. Mostly, they just banged on it – LOUDLY. But, even that toy was capable of playing simple tunes; like, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Happy Birthday,” or “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” With a toy xylophone and a single mallet, a person can play the melody-line of a song. A single singer can do the same.
But, now imagine, two people have two toy xylophones, who want to perform, “Jesus Loves Me,” together, at the same time. This will require some coordination.
Because a toy xylophone only has a limited number of notes, the two musicians will need to play the same notes at the same time. This is called “melody” – two or more musicians playing or singing the same notes – “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” – creating the familiar tune of a song, in unison (meaning together, at the same time).
But, there’s more. In addition to playing the same notes at the same time, they need to play the same tempo (meaning, speed). They need to strike the same notes, at the exact same time, at the same rhythm and speed. It’s also helpful if one musician isn’t playing much louder or softer than the other – after all, this is a duet!
Now, imagine our two musicians have mastered playing the melody on their two toy xylophones, in unison and in tempo, and are ready to graduate to professional xylophones. The main difference is that the toy only has eight notes (a major scale), whereas a full-sized concert xylophone may have as many as forty-eight different notes – including whole notes, sharps, and flats – enabling the musician to play the same notes as on the toy, AND many, many more.
Two musicians playing concert xylophones can continue to play the same song, playing the same eight melody notes, in the same tempo, in unison. Or, now, with more notes available, the two musicians can begin to add other compatible notes into the song, creating harmony to accompany the melody. In fact, two musicians, playing with both hands, can play the same simple tune, “Jesus Loves Me,” with amazing complexity, adding a variety of sounds and rhythms.
In fact, more musicians could be added, playing a variety of other instruments, to add even greater variety and complexity. In fact, an entire orchestra and choir could be added to compliment that simple child’s xylophone.
But, for the music to remain beautiful, the musicians must still play within a certain set of parameters. Some notes sound nice together, creating harmony. Other notes sound terrible together, causing dissonance and cacophony. Some rhythms are complimentary, while others are incompatible, and conflictive.
Amazing tonal and rhythmic complexity is musically possible, but only within the predetermined parameters.
If you’re still reading, you may be wondering what this has to do with God and spirituality. Allow me to explain.
Imagine God is the lead musician, playing the melody of our song. Now, imagine God invites you to play along, making the music a duet. You can play the same notes and tempo, as God, joining the melody. Or, you could play something different, yet still harmonious and complimentary. Or, you could play out of tune, and off-rhythm, creating dissonance with God’s melody. You could potentially not even try to play along with God, playing your own, different tune, competing with God for center stage.
Sometimes, at least for me, I need to bring my life in perfect alignment with God. In other words, I need to play EXACTLY the SAME notes and melody God is playing. I need to be in perfect rhythmical alignment with God. Imagine a drum-line of percussionists playing snare drums in perfect synchronicity. Or, perhaps more accurate, imagine again that toy xylophone and those simple eight notes. Sometimes I need to keep it simple – spiritually speaking.
I’ve played in drum circles, where a single drummer starts the rhythm, then the other drummers join-in, mimicking the initial pattern. Slowly, each drummer begins to add their own personality and flair, which can be quite rhythmically complex and interesting. But, too many competing rhythms can cause the whole thing to fall apart, necessitating everyone to return to the original pattern, in time with the lead drummer.
Another example: though I’m capable of singing harmony – especially as part of a group, with the help of instrumental accompaniment, and sheet music – I struggle to sing harmony by ear. Inevitably, I revert to singing the melody. It’s safe. I find the same is true with God. Listen for God’s melody, know God’s will, and imitate as closely as possible.
Spiritual melody works. It’s basic.
But, I’ve also come to believe God allows us a significant amount of freedom. God continues to play the melody, but allows us the freedom to add our own unique harmonies and rhythms. I’m thinking of jazz music, when musicians “improv” a solo. I’m thinking of Latin music, and the varieties of percussion – bongos, congas, timbales, maracas, clave, etc. – all playing different rhythmic patterns. Yet, for music to beautiful, we must practice our freedom to “improv” in coordination with the melody and the tempo, and style of the music.
In other words, God allows me tremendous freedoms to live creatively – to exercise my free-will. But, some choices are harmonious with God, while others are not.
Though, as a trombonist, I played in High School Jazz bands, I was never confident enough to improv. To improv, you really have to be confident and you really have to understand the parameters. You have to understand the freedom to create, within the boundaries of the song itself. It takes a certain degree of expertise to improv – in music, in spirituality, and in life.
But, when you can, it’s soooo cool.
And, if I’m completely honest, some days (maybe most days) I’m like the guy singing along, out loud, with the music coming through my ear-buds in my ears, oblivious to the music going on around me. I’m just singing along, completely out of tune and out of sync with the music of the world around me – God’s music. I’m just making noise.
Daily, I become focused on the agenda I’ve set – the things I want to do, and the things I want to avoid – regardless of what God is doing in me and around me. I get WAY out of sync!
I want to sing in tune – both musically and spiritually! I want to move in time with God’s rhythm! I want to make beautiful music with God!
I’m wondering if this is could be a more helpful – and possibly, more accurate – understanding of “obedience” and God’s “will?” Too often, I think of obedience as forced compliance to God’s demands. There’s no joy in compliance. There’s no relationship in compliance. There’s no freedom in compliance. Mostly, compliance suggests coercion and fear of repercussion. Too often, I think of God’s Will as being too narrow, too limiting.
Rather, what if God’s “will” is more akin to God’s beautiful music, and the gracious invitation to pick up our own instruments and join God’s concert? What if obedience is simply like the musical rules that help music be performed most beautifully?
Stop for a moment. Close your eyes. Still yourself. Listen.
What do you hear? Can you hear God playing or singing a particular melody?
Concentrate! Do you hear it? Are you listening?
It sound like reggae to me.
How will you join God’s chorus/symphony/band/drum-line/orchestra today? How will you join in the melody, or add your own improvisational harmony, today?
Or, are you just making noise?
2 thoughts on “In-Tune and On-Tempo With God: A Musical Interpretation of Spirituality”
Wow! What a beautiful image of walking with God. Returning to the melody, perfectly in-sync, resting in the simplicity, trusting the familiar and well-loved. Complementing the melody – adding harmony or rhythm or more – to God’s great delight. Thank-you.
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Daunting, especially I’m one of the non-rhythmic clappers. But I do love to dance and when I’m really present and tuned in, I dance well enough to enjoy myself. The thought of participating in the “Divine Dance” is enticing, friendly, freeing and endearing me to the Trinity. I also appreciate how forgiving God is of clinky notes and clunky steps. I believe as Thomas Merton said, it is my desire to do God’s Will that is appreciated by God, not the impossibility of my perfection.
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