The Many Ways We Hear God's Word

We hear it at different emotional pitches, in different tones, at different times. It takes multiple attempts to learn, and comes at us in a variety of ways before it sticks.

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Posted in , May 8, 2018

Pipe organ

On Sunday a friend dragged me to the community chorale’s spring concert. In New York City, where there is an abundance of high-quality (but underemployed) singers, it’s easy to hear a good concert just about anywhere, even at the church down the street. This one was of Bach’s Cantata BWV 21, which addresses the struggle of the soul.

The text translation was filled with lines like ‘I had much affliction in my heart, but your consolations restore my soul” and paraphrases from Psalm 42. As the voices wound in and out, echoing each other and themselves, I found myself wondering, for perhaps the hundredth time over many decades, why choral composers repeat the same words many times before moving on. And then as the German words for “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” cycled through my ears and heart, I knew: it’s because that’s how we think.

The Word of God does not come to us just once, in just one way. We hear it and then hear it again differently. We hear it at different emotional pitches, in different tones, at different times. It takes multiple attempts to learn, and comes at us in a variety of ways before it sticks. It haunts us, lifts us up, invigorates us, guides our hearts. It’s simple and complex, straightforward and repetitive. It is music, in the purest sense.

I floated on Bach’s music through to the final chorus, offering glory and honor and praise in my heart. The last words, even in German, were ones I could claim: Amen. Alleluia!

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