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Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
I Corinthians 12:4-7

“Harmony is better than unison”. I had just read this homage to harmony in an old sermon by the nineteenth century Scottish preacher George MacDonald; then I experienced its simple truth in life. It happened as my wife Rita and I were phoning our granddaughter in Dallas to sing her “Happy Birthday”. Being limited in my musical ability means that I tend to sing in unison. So imagine my delight, not to mention our granddaughter’s delight, when Granny Smith sang “Happy Birthday” in harmony with me. The diversity of our voices and our notes joined in a delightful harmony.

I then heard with my own ears that George MacDonald was right: whether in music or life, harmony is better than unison. The greatest music is the music of harmony, whether a hymn, a Handel oratorio, Beethoven symphony, or the Irish Tenors. The stunning beauty is not in the sameness but in the difference.

How I delight to hear the choir move from unison to harmony, as the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses take different parts in order to make beautiful sound. The beauty that we love comes from the harmony: counterpoint, dissonance, independent melodies, tension, and resolution.

Reflecting on the harmony of a simple “Happy Birthday to you…” got me thinking about how God also likes harmony more than unison. The three Persons of the Godhead all act and speak in harmony, not unison.

Theologians call this “The Ontological Trinity”. Those are fancy words meant only to say that each of the Persons of the Trinity are equal in their attributes and nature, but differ in how they relate to each other, to the world, and to you and me. They are different but they are one. It is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, blending in harmony to create, to redeem, and to complete. The Godhead always acts together, but each in His own individual way.

If harmony is more beautiful than unison for the Trinity, then harmony is more beautiful for you and me. Beauty exists not in the sameness, but in the difference, like when the sopranos sing their part, and the basses sing theirs.

Yes, it is easier to sing in unison, each voice singing the same note. But if we all sing the same note, it becomes dull and boring. It is not beautiful, nor is it like God.

In today’s Scripture text the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian Christians about the beauty of harmony among God’s people. That is because the Corinthians wanted sameness, wanted to clone spirituality by making everyone think and act alike. How boring! How dull! Rather devilish, in fact, is how Paul puts it. He wants nothing to do with cookie-cutter faith!

So Paul reiterates his point, pounding the pulpit on the theme that there are God created “varieties” among God’s people. There are “varieties of gifts”! There are “varieties of services”! Yes, there are “varieties of activities”! And all of the varieties are God-designed, and God-intended, so that the harmony comes from the “same God who activates all of them in everyone”. While we naturally tend towards unison, sometimes exploding into cacophony, the Holy Spirit wills to work His rich, lush, and complex harmony among us.

As I reflect on the experience of singing “Happy Birthday”, not in unison, but in harmony, I have two takeaways:

  1. I must sing my part! It is the part in life that God has given me to sing, and I must sing it, and I will sing it! Note: I always, and I means always, mess up when I try to sing someone else’s part. It sounds really bad!
  2. At the same time, I must also listen to the other voices. I must love the other parts they sing! I must honor their other ways of worship, their other teaching emphases, their other preaching voices, and their other attempts to grasp the mystery we call God! Without the counterpoint, without the dissonance, there will be no harmony or beauty. 

Grace and peace,

photo by garryknight

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