Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Harmonic Resonance of Thriving Community

Couples learn a lot about each other on trips. Take for example the couple on a road trip that stopped at a diner for lunch. After finishing their meal, they left the restaurant and resumed their trip. When leaving, the woman unknowingly left her glasses on the table. She didn’t miss them until after they had been driving about twenty minutes. As they drove back to get them, the husband moaned and groaned under his breath about his wife’s forgetfulness. To her relief, they finally arrived at the restaurant. As the woman got out of the car and hurried inside to retrieve her glasses, the husband yelled to her . . . “While you’re in there, would you get my hat and credit card?”

Does that sound familiar? Men and women are so different, and it’s never more obvious than on road trips. The stereotype for men is generally true. We don’t like to ask for help. Why does it take millions of sperm to fertilize one egg? Because they refuse to stop and ask for directions.

Recently, Meg and I were driving from downtown Grand Rapids to Rivertown Mall and we didn’t have the GPS. We were on a tight timeframe, and it was taking a little longer than we expected. Meg said, “You’re lost. You have to stop and ask directions.” I replied, “We’re not lost. We’re just not there yet.” For a man there is no such thing as being lost. That’s why we don’t ask for directions. If there is still gas in the tank and hours in the day . . . , basically if you’re moving you’re not lost. Remember Moses! He wandered in the desert for 40 years without asking directions. That trip could have been so much quicker.

Seriously, why is it so hard for many of us to ask for help? Do we think we will lose face? Is it an ego issue? Have we fallen for the delusion of separateness?

Asking for directions is an essential spiritual practice in this time of massive change. So much is changing, whether it’s a new economic situation or a new spiritual paradigm. As someone said to me during the week, we are in uncharted territory. Many of the things that gave you a spiritual compass in the past no longer seem relevant. The Bible doesn’t have the same literal, inerrant authority. Your concept of God is changing and growing. Religion doesn’t provide the same certainty it used to offer.

While it’s true that you have incredible inner wisdom and resources, it’s also true that we need to encourage and challenge, sharpen and support each other. That’s why community is so important. We need each other for sustained spiritual growth. Spiritual community is a place where you can practice being human in an ever changing world, and create sweet harmony alongside kindred spirits.

Harmonic Resonance

What does harmony have to do with spiritual growth and life purpose?

A man was deep in meditation. He wondered to himself, “Is there a plan for my life? What is the plan?” He heard a voice say “It’s B flat”. He repeated it to himself, “The plan for my life is B flat!” He understood it immediately. He had a clarinet tuned to the key of B flat. His favorite pastime was to improvise with his B flat clarinet. The plan for his life was to improvise.

When you are in uncharted territory, you need to improvise. That’s quite different to what many of us have been taught in church. We have been taught to follow the rules, do what you’re told. God said it. Believe it. That settles it.

There is an awful church sign that says, “A free thinker is Satan’s slave.” The name of the church? Harmony Baptist Church! Harmony? The harmonic resonance in a community has nothing to do with group think. A community of free thinkers can experience profound harmony. There is something more subtle about harmony than group think or sharing a system of beliefs. Harmony is the song that we sing when we celebrate our diversity and the pitch we find is the sweet sound of unity in diversity.

Harmony is an experience that grows much like diversity. There is some pleasure in hearing the same note an octave apart. This was the ancient Greek notion of harmony. This is like the achievement of having Baptists and Presbyterians in the same room, or men and women singing the same note octaves apart. It is the most basic diversity. But there is a much deeper harmony. It was discovered in monasteries in the 9th century, the contemplative beauty of tones five notes apart. This is like the achievement of having Catholics and Protestants in the same room, or Republicans and Democrats finding common ground. There is a harmony even deeper still. The major third, by the twelfth century, sounded the tone of what we now think of as harmony. This is shalom. It is unity with depth, like people of all religions and no religion coming together and working on shared universal values.

Bach took harmony to new levels of subtlety. He said this about his music:

“In the architecture of my music I want to demonstrate to the world the architecture of a new and beautiful social commonwealth. The secret of my harmony? Each instrument in counterpoint, and as many contrapuntal parts as there are instruments. It is the enlightened self-discipline of the various parts, each voluntarily imposing on itself the limits of its individual freedom for the well-being of the community. That is my message. Not the autocracy of a single stubborn melody on the one hand, nor the anarchy of unchecked noise on the other. No, a delicate balance between the two; an enlightened freedom. The science of my art. The art of my science. The harmony of the stars in the heavens, the yearning for brotherhood in the heart of man. This is the secret of my music.” – Johann Sebastian Bach

As Radar from the TV show M*A*S*H would say when trying to impress a woman on a date, “Ah, Bach.” He has captured the essence of harmony in community. Ah Bach! Enlightened freedom. Mature freedom. The delicate balance of freedom and responsibility to the whole.

Nature herself offers the pattern of community membership in her delicate harmonic resonance. Do you know the sound that comes out of a black hole? B flat. 57 octaves below middle C; so, human ears can’t hear it. It is the same frequency that occurs when lightning strikes water. It is the sound of creativity.

In the beginning was the word, or to say that another way, in the beginning was sound. If anyone had been present to hear the Big Bang, would it have struck a chord? Yes. I believe it would have been a minor 6th in B Flat like the opening music for the classic film Love Story. Resonant harmony is all about relationships! Even the heavens declare the glory of God in harmonic tones, as the Psalmist said. Your life, all of nature, human community; they all have their own divine harmony.

Praise and gratitude are one expression of creation’s harmony. Listen to this amazing recording of crickets. Crickets have a short life span, so if you slow down the life span of a cricket to that of a human, the recording sounds like an incredible choral symphony. There is no instrumentation added to this recording.

All of creation makes the sound of praise and gratitude. Harmony also depends on some tension, or counter point. Life is full of syncopated rhythms, surprising you and filling you with wonder and awe at the constantly evolving serendipity and second chances that open up all around you.

Everything in the cosmos has its own sound, even if we can’t hear it. Our human hearing puts us in the middle. The sound coming from the planets is too low for us to hear. It is cosmic bass. The sound of the atom is too high for us to hear. It is cosmic treble. We are musically midway between the macro world of the universe as a whole, and the micro world of the atom.

Maybe this is part of an answer to asking for directions, seeking and being a help to others in community. We are part of a whole that is so much bigger than the parts, and yet life is experienced one atom at a time. Sweet harmony happens when one guides another to a resonant pitch.

A thriving community will share so many of the wondrous qualities of harmonic resonance:

1. Praise and gratitude

2. Improvisation

3. Surprise

4. Unity in diversity

Your Place in Sweet Harmony

All musical theory aside, here is the bottom line. You participate in human community to find your voice and to help others to do the same. In the words of Mary Oliver, “. . . there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world.”

The world needs you to sing your own note to create the sweet harmony of community. If you aren’t present and engaged in community, it’s like a note on a piano being ripped out or a string torn from a violin.

Maybe you feel, like me, that you don’t have much to offer the community musically. I’m not a hugely musical person. When I was a kid in church, I always thought that Agnus Dei was the name of the old choir director. When the bulletin said refrain, I thought that meant “don’t sing.”

For those in West Michigan, check out this amazing opportunity to sing in community on October 24.

We all bring our unique notes. What is your note? Let me end with a story about musical participation.

A simple, uneducated Jew with no great religious learning was invited to a Sabbath meal. The Rabbi presented a brilliant sermon on the Torah portion of the week. “I don’t understand,” exclaimed the guest, with a puzzled expression on his face. One of the elders then told a story, a wondrous miracle-story. “I still don’t understand,” whispered the guest, tears beginning to form in his eyes. After a while the group began to sing a tune of joy and of love, a song of shalom, a Sabbath harmony. Slowly, the visitor began to sing along, to move his fingers to the rhythm of the music, to join hands with his friends as they rose together to dance. With tears in his eyes and a heart wide opened, he said, “Now I understand.”

Music touches and connects us beyond word, beyond concept, and beyond religious belief. It is the sweet harmony that unites people across all manner of difference, to find the common heart that beats for peace. May you find your voice, grow and thrive, and help others to do the same.

For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups) -

1. Why do you think it’s so hard for some people to ask for help?

2. How does community enhance your spiritual life?

3. When do you experience harmony; both within and in relationship with others?

4. What does music teach you about spiritual growth?

No comments: