I learned to play guitar as a seminarian nineteen years ago. I was in my late twenties but looked like I was eighteen, and my pastoral theology professor, Charlie Cook, counseled me that most likely some parish would eventually hire me to be the youth minister. “If you can’t strum three chords on a guitar, Mr. Thompson, you need to learn,” Charlie advised. So I went to a music store and purchased the most inexpensive guitar I could find. Each evening, I sat on the front stoop of our rental house in Austin, attempting to learn the muscle memory required to fret chords and maintain a rhythmic strum pattern. At first it was difficult. Neighbors kept stopping by the house to see if I was torturing a cat. Eventually, though, I figured it out. The transition from a G to a C to a D became fluid, and with great joy I learned to strum songs. I never did become a youth minister, but playing guitar became a therapeutic and relaxing activity. I was grateful that Charlie Cook spurred me to learn.
Years later, my daughter Eliza, who is much more musically talented than I am, taught herself to play the ukulele. She and I would teach each other songs, and we’d spend glorious father-daughter time playing together. But as often happens, life got in the way. I now own a nice Taylor guitar, but it mostly sits in the corner of my bedroom unused. Last week, when I had a rare moment to spare, I picked it up. I was so out of practice that as I fretted chords, my fingers ached and my hand cramped. When I took my guitar into Eliza’s room, and we began to play in tandem, Eliza said, “Daddy, you’re way out of tune.” So I was. Our music was dissonant, and I hadn’t played in so long I couldn’t even hear how flat I was until I attempted to meld my music with Eliza’s. Only after I carefully re-tuned my guitar did our music resonate and harmonize.
Switching gears for a moment, here we are at the beginning of another semester, a new program year of Cathedral ministry. It’s gotten me thinking about beginnings—origins—especially about how God begins, how God creates. There are different theological ideas about God’s creative act. One prevailing notion is that God is like a sculptor or a painter, and the cosmos is God’s canvass or lump of clay. On one level I like that. I have seen painters and sculptors work, and I have witnessed the passion and love with which they make their brush strokes and mold the clay into something beautiful. There is a relationship between the artist and the art which does bear some analogy, I think, to God’s relationship with us. But even so, there is also a separation between artist and medium in these instances. If Rodin walks away from the Thinker, there the sculpture still is. The connection between them was real, but it was also transitory, and in a concrete way they were never part of one another.
The great medieval theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart offers a different model for God and creation.[i] Eckhart says a much closer analogy is that of singer and song. The song is never apart from the one who sings it. It is made of the very breath exhaled from the singer’s lungs, and the vibration of the singer’s own vocal chords. The song comes from the diaphragm, from within the very center of the singer. It is literally, rather than metaphorically, part of her, and always so. The moment the singer stops singing, the song is gone. The song has no existence apart from the singer’s continued singing. It is always of her, emanating from her, and only because of the continuing movement of her breath does it endure.
That, friends, is the closest explanation we’ll ever hear to our relationship with God. God is not a Deist sculptor who molds the clay of the world and walks away. God is the singer whose Spirit—which in both Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek is the same word as breath—becomes, in each and every moment, the song that is creation. If God ever for a moment quit singing, we would cease to be. Blessedly, God’s song goes on. The world, including us, emanates from God.
Ekhart takes his model of creation an important step further. We, as human beings created in God’s very image, are rightly to be reflective of God’s song, to be the echo chamber of God, the steel drum that sings the song of creation back to God. That is our purpose and role in the world, and to do it—to reverberate with God’s own song—we need to be in tune.
For many of us, the summer has held other attentions. Our thoughts may have strayed from grace and God, and God’s song may have become faint background music. Like the muscle memory in my guitar-fretting hand, we may have lost some of the soul memory that comes with regular fidelity to worship, prayer, and one another. In the observance of our faith, we may be out of practice and out of tune. How do we re-tune our hearts to God’s song?
The Gospel tells us today. It gives us the scales to practice and the exercises to rehearse. In this passage from Luke, the Pharisees, who are so out of tune with God that they cannot even hear the dissonance, indict Jesus for easing a suffering woman’s pain on the Sabbath. In response, the notes of Jesus’ song are like a symphonic crescendo! Acts of humanity, service, adoration, and grace are the very way we tune our hearts to God, Jesus says. They are the steel drum reflection of God’s own song. The reverberation of our acts of love participate in God’s creation of the world. Through such acts, we are re-tuned, and our lives move in harmony with God.
In Robert Robinson’s beloved hymn, we sing:
Come thou fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace!
Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! Oh, fix me on it,
Mount of God’s unchanging love.
Our hearts are retuned in the doing. By coming together with our fellow parishioners in worship, formation, and service; by standing and kneeling and approaching the altar rail; by the work of our hands by which the pain and hunger of suffering people is eased; we regain the soul memory of adoration for God. We retune our hearts, so that they resonate with grace and our lives move in harmony with the God of love.
I am excited about all that will happen at the Cathedral this year, most especially what will happen immediately following this Holy Eucharist, as we pack 100,000 meals. I’m limbering my soul, and I hope you will, too. This fall at the Cathedral we’ll tune our hearts to sing God’s grace. Together, we will reflect the song of God.
[i] Smith, Cyprian. The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life As Taught By Meister Eckhart, pp. 58-71.