by Kirsten L. Fryer
LSTC finalist, James Kenneth Echols Excellence in Preaching Award, 2009
It was a warm night in the middle of July. A friend had asked me to help out with the back up vocals for a song on her band’s new album. For this song, she wanted to record not in the studio, but in the sanctuary of our church. So that evening, after everyone else had left the building, we set up the studio in the sanctuary. The fans were too loud. So we turned them off. The lights buzzed. So we turned them off. The air conditioning hummed. So we turned it off. All that was left was the faint light of the setting sun coming through the stained glass windows, our recording equipment, and the eight singers and our recording engineer in the huge sanctuary. Finally satisfied with the silence, the recording engineer gave Julia the go-ahead. In the quiet sanctuary, her voice rang out. It was beautiful. Then, Gretchen joined in. Two voices intertwined in the almost darkness, blending together in harmony. Before long, a few more joined in, then a few more. Eight voices singing together, each individual voice lending to a beautiful harmony.
Another moment comes to mind: the Christmas Eve service (or the first week of Advent this year at the seminary), when the congregation spontaneously breaks into the harmonies during “Joy to the World.” Candle-lit faces singing together the harmonies of “Silent Night.” Or the time my college choir finally solidified a difficult harmony and brought tears to our director’s eyes. The list could go on and on.
Perhaps it is inherent in my Lutheran self that I love breaking into those harmonies. We are after all, according to Garrison Keillor, “bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony.” We are blessed with a “talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage.”(*Garrison Keillor, "Singing With the Lutherans.")
And so when I read Paul’s words in Romans 12, translated as “live in harmony with one another…,” I cannot help but think of these moments. These moments when beautiful music is made only because there are many voices working together, each offering his or her voice to the song, and, together, creating music that could never be made by one person alone.
Paul writes to the Romans giving them instructions to help them create a harmonious community. Principles for living together with other people. Not just instructions for living among other Christians, but instructions for living with all people. Together. Harmoniously. It is, indeed, awfully hard to rejoice with those who rejoice, or weep with those who weep, alone. Harmony requires community. Community, however, does not necessarily create harmony.
From the very beginning, we hear stories in the Bible that remind us of this reality: community does not always equal harmony. Brothers fight. Families argue. Peoples war against one another. Communities disagree. Those in power rule unjustly. Misunderstandings ensue. Living together is hard. Our world is one where some voices strive to be heard over others. We live in a world where some voices are stifled; where too many voices are never heard. How can we ever hear harmonies when this is our reality?
We, with Paul, ask this question. We wonder, sometimes silently and sometimes aloud, how long, O Lord? How long will some voices be stifled while others overpower? We yearn to hear harmonies where they have never existed. We yearn for harmony in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our countries, in our world.
Listen to these words of Genesis: "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God she created them; male and female God created them." We are created to live in community. In the first story we hear in the Bible, God creates people. God creates not a single person, but a community of people, together capable of producing harmony. God creates us in such a way that we can make harmony.
Anyone who has lived with another person knows that this harmonious living is by no means always the case. We know it in our community. Paul knew it when he wrote to the Romans. Yet, even though he knew it was hard, he did not give up. He wrote to the Romans about living as one body, even with its many members with different functions. He wrote to the Romans about how to live in harmony. In this letter, we hear “extend hospitality to strangers, bless those who persecute you…rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink….” A letter not to one Roman, but to the Romans. Instructions that expanded the meaning of community to include even the stranger and the enemy. The Romans could not sing in harmony alone. Neither can we.
Paul writes in the name of the One who creates us to live in harmony; in the name of the God who creates us to live in community. In the name of the One whose vision for what that community looks like is surely much bigger than ours. And so the stranger and the enemy are included, the hungry and the naked are there, the rejoicing and the weeping are part of it too.
Living into God’s vision of community challenges us. It compels us to stretch our imaginations. It makes us redefine our definitions. It challenges us to make room for many voices--none stifled--but all lending to a new, rich, beautiful harmony.
Every year I sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” with Minnesota All State Lutheran Choir and its alumni. Though the whole arrangement is quite beautiful, with parts sung in both unison and harmony, there is a particular harmony that sticks in my mind. In the middle of the piece, the organ cuts out, leaving only voices singing in harmony: “see from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down!” As we sing these words, in harmony, the conductor makes the sign of the cross…reminding us of the cross about which we sing and the cross that has been traced on our foreheads at our baptism. Reminding us of the cross that brings us together to sing in that beautiful harmony.
The one who compels us to stretch our imaginations to re-envision what community looks like is the same one who stretched out his arms to gather in the poor and the lame. The same one who stretched out his arms to feed the hungry and heal the sick. The same one who stretched out his arms on the cross. The same one who stretched out his arms, blessed the people, and ascended into heaven. With arms outstretched, Christ compels us to imagine: a community that is gathered together by the God who loves us all. A community that is joined together by the grace of the triune God. A community given gifts that are meant to be shared. A community called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. A community that includes the enemy and the stranger. A community that rejoices together and weeps together. A community where no one is left alone and where harmony is not only possible, but performed.
Perhaps it is not just the Lutheran in me that loves harmony. Perhaps it comes not so much from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass as it comes from being a member of a community that is created in God’s image. Being part of a community created to live as a part of the amazing harmony that God intends for all of creation.
I sang with the University of Wisconsin Chorale. We were a very diverse group of singers, from every college on campus, from different places around the world. We held very different beliefs—Jews, Muslims, Christians, non-believers. For one concert, we sang Credo, Vivaldi’s setting of the Nicene Creed. Knowing that not everyone professed the faith we sang, one day during rehearsal, our conductor looked at us and said, “I don’t care what you believe during the rest of your life, for the eleven minutes you sing this piece, you believe every word.” The result was marvelous. Sixty voices blending together in haunting harmonies. I remember that moment not so much because of what we were told to believe for those eleven minutes, but for the way that we were able to set aside differences to work together and make beautiful music. Perhaps this moment, when differences were set aside and our shared love for good music was lifted up, resulting in a harmony I remember years later, was a foretaste of what is to come.
The instructions in Paul’s letter are certainly high orders. Attaining them will be difficult. But let’s stretch our imaginations and think about the consequences. Imagine what harmonies will be made when all of God’s people live in a way that welcomes the stranger, feeds the enemy, rejoices with those who rejoice, and weeps with those who weep. When all of God’s people recognize that harmonies will never be made alone, but can only be sung when many diverse voices join together, each lending his or her own voice to the sound. When all of God’s people join together in community that is always harmonious. We rejoice, with the triune God, in the hope that this day will come.
Sing choirs of angels, sing all the saints on heaven and on earth. “It is not right for man or woman to be alone….” So God created harmony.