When Not to Listen

November 28, 2011

For the first time in decades, my husband and I are singing in the same choir, he in the bass section, me with the sopranos. It’s a small group, twenty in number, comprising staff and volunteers of the local hospital. This week we begin a series of thirty-minute concerts for the hospital’s seasonal events, corporate dinners, and convalescent facilities. Our director is getting very picky now, which is to be expected, demanding blend. The challenge is particularly acute for the sopranos, who make up almost half of the whole chorus. The exhortation is to “listen to one another and stay together,” which is particularly effective when we singers are attempting to match tone quality. However, it is not an effective approach when the whole section is sinking in pitch as much as a half step within sixteen bars of music!

Without the aid of accompanying piano, the chorus is required to stay on pitch. Given the propensity of the whole to go flat, how can this be achieved? It turns out, in our chorus, one or two of the sopranos has perfect pitch—a functional musical memory that allows them to “hear” the correct notes and sing them regardless of what else is being sung around them. Of all the people in our section, they are the ones who should not listen to the others, but rather stay on pitch and let the others match them, trusting that they will keep the whole section from sliding into musical oblivion.

The parallel to the church these days is obvious, to me, at least. Many on the other side of the aisle in the PCUSA are saying, “We need to listen to each other as a way of listening for the Spirit.” I’m all for listening to each other, and I’m all for listening for (and to) the Spirit, but it is questionable whether listening to mere human beings can guarantee we stay in tune with the Holy Spirit. What I see happening instead, among Presbyterians, is too much listening to the cacophony of voices that are dragging us all down, out of tune with our Savior and out of unison with each other.

Ah, but you say, that is fine and good that we should listen to the ones with perfect pitch and match our tone to theirs. But who among us is worthy, or how can we tell who will not lead us astray? There are certainly many contenders for leadership in the church, and many claim the sort of perfect pitch others should have confidence to follow. But where is the equivalent to the tuning fork, that gives accurate pitch or the A=440 kind of standard by which all other tones are judged? Uh, that would be God. Do not receive this news with cynicism or contempt, which I have seen unfold during our debates of ordination issues.

You know what I am going to say: God has invested quite a lot of effort and care in making his will and way known to us. To say this is unavailable, clouded, or ineffective is to diminish God’s power to reach anybody with the message he desires to give. God’s Word is the reliable, sufficient, understandable, and trustworthy pitchpipe, and notes not in tune with it are going to throw the music off. In other words, if every Presbyterian believer were to tune his or her life to God as revealed in the Scriptures, the church would be experiencing harmony and a common direction. The precepts, commandments, and teachings of Scripture will not only shape personal behavior but also shape the church for its mission. The church and its detractors can no longer hide behind the claim that there are many interpretations of particular Scriptures, insisting, then, that they cannot offer any norm that would keep us all aright. It is time to affirm that there have been reliable witnesses and practitioners through the ages of a godly way of life, of spiritual transformation, of sacrificial obedience, and prophetic bravery. We should follow those who follow Christ and obey what he has commanded. Only then, in a spirit of humility and repentance will we find our voices blending and the Presbyterian Church making compelling music for the world to hear.

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4 Responses to “When Not to Listen”

  1. Houston Hodges Says:

    Wish I could hear you!

  2. Derek Simmons Says:

    As a singer with want to go flat–and a sinner with want to go against His fetters–I absolutely loved the analogy you used today. I found the “cacophonous PCUSA choir’s failure to get this part especially poignant:
    “God’s Word is the reliable, sufficient, understandable, and trustworthy pitchpipe, and notes not in tune with it are going to throw the music off. In other words, if every Presbyterian believer were to tune his or her life to God as revealed in the Scriptures, the church would be experiencing harmony and a common direction. The precepts, commandments, and teachings of Scripture will not only shape personal behavior but also shape the church for its mission.”
    Keep on listening to those pitch-perfect sopranos and to His Word Written.
    Your Brother in Christ,
    Derek Simmons

  3. Viola Larson Says:

    Mary, you know my piano tuner husband is going to absolutely adore this posting: )

    When I did a series on Reformation movements in history several months ago I was amazed at how almost always the reform began with the reading of Scripture. In fact I had not intended to head my postings that direction, but that direction they went. And it was Scripture taken for its commonsense reading not looked at with suspicion and/or over dissected by human experience.


  4. Mary, your are right on target with your observations. Scripture is our objective authority by which everything else in life is measured, just like a tuning fork is for music. I’m a guitar player, an instrument that inately prone to going out of tune, so I know the importance having an established reference point and returning to it constantly. However, the world (and our system in the PCUSA) resists such authority. I hate to be cynical, but if anyone insists that there is objective revealed truth, he or she will be labled as narrow-minded, bigoted, divisive, schismatic, or worse. In our broken world, everyone wants to play as their own pitch, speed, and volume. We miss the fact that the Master would rather that we play under His direction and make the beautiful music of His design.

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