While listening to a cantata recently I was reminded of voice lessons that my daughter had taken. At one lesson, her teacher, Ralph Wooley, told her to not just try to read the notes, but to feel them. It was the difference between technical perfection and artistry. And it occurred to me that many musicians consciously or unconsciously choose sides when performing. Do they focus on the technical perfection of each note, making sure it is exactly as written? Or do they concentrate on the song, taking liberties with the foundation before them? The former takes the chance that they will lose sight of the song by only seeing each note. The latter takes the chance that they will lose sight of the document that got them there.
Now why is this important? Because it is not about music at all. This is basic Christian theology. Where did Jesus come down on this issue? Some might say that he focused on notes. I see the notes as the teaching that comes from the law and the prophets. That was the foundation on which he was operating. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear …” (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).
Jesus told the people to look at the notes of the composition. And as he explained those notes, he took them to a much greater depth than anyone could imagine. It is not just murder, but anger and hatred. Not physical relationship but lust. And on and on. Obviously Jesus was focused on the notes.
But others come to a different conclusion. They look at Jesus and declare that he thought the song was much more important than the notes. Consider this encounter with the religious leaders: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden hers, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone … And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:42, 46 NIV).
Obviously Jesus was telling the religious leaders that they were focusing so much on the notes with such strict adherence, that they are losing sight of song, the melodies that God wants to hear coming from the hearts of humanity. Obviously Jesus was focused on the song.
The reality is that both sides are wrong. He could not lose sight of either the notes or the song. And neither can we. In fact the notes and the song need to be in a supportive relationship with one another. The notes are the law by which we are directed to make decisions; by which we are to act. The song is the grace in which we are expected to live and give to the world around us. If we lose one or the other, we are not, cannot fulfill who we are ultimately called to be. The law is necessary to provide standards and principles in life. Grace is necessary because we are called to forgive rather than condemn.
In the United Methodist Church there is a cantata being performed over issues of same sex unions and gay and lesbian behaviors. One side is accused of ignoring the notes, the law. The other side is accused of ignoring the song, the grace. And to some extent, both sides are wrong. Can we find a way to live in grace without leaving the law, the standards, the notes behind? Can we find a way to uphold the law without sacrificing grace to judgment? Can we be the Church Christ calls us to be without embracing both law and grace? Our Lord and our world await our answer.
Rev. Chuck Sprenkle