Wideness in God’s Mercy, III: The Music Within The Words
There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. —Galatians 3:28
Lisa Bond, one of the reasons we love you so much, among many reasons, is that with 90 minutes of rehearsal every week, you teach our choir to sing so that we can hear the words within the music.
That’s why we love you, choir, because within the music, we can hear the words. That’s not always to be taken for granted among church choirs, but with ours, it’s always this magical marriage of melody to meaning.
That’s Lisa’s job: to help us hear the words within the music. I take it as my task, on the other hand, to help you hear the music within the words.
Have you ever asked yourself which words in the English language are the most musical? The ones which marry meaning to melody? The ones that are understood in the ear, even before they reach the brain? Words that sing?
My vote for the most musical word in the English language is silence. I might be persuaded to vote for mystery. “Lo,” says St. Paul, “I tell you a mystery.” How about whisper? Or mellifluous; mellifluous is a mellifluous word.
Someone who didn’t understand a word of English might be able to tell you the meaning of the word ‘murmur,’ because its melody conveys its meaning. Or how about the word bombastic? It’s not very melodic, but it gets its point across.
The ever-helpful internet also comes in handy if you want to make a list of the ugliest words in the language: scab; blog; curdle; fetid; honk. Ironically, pulchritude, one of the uglier words in English, means beauty. By common consent, the most unpleasant sounding word in English is moist.
Silence; whisper; murmur: the most musical words in the language. You probably have your own ideas. I hope there would be a few votes for the word atonement. Atonement is a word which marries meaning to melody.
Let me tell you about the meaning, and then about the melody. We use the word atonement, of course, to refer to the work of Jesus Christ. Atonement is the reason Jesus lived and died and rose again. What the Church is trying to say when it uses the word ‘atonement’ is that in Jesus Christ, God builds a bridge over the vast and otherwise unbridgeable chasm which separates human beings from each other and from their creator. What Christians believe is that Jesus Christ breaks down the barriers that divide us from God and from each other, Jesus realigns the dislocations that keep us so far apart from each other.
Do you remember how C. S. Lewis describes hell in The Great Divorce? Though in Lewis’ imagination all of hell would fit on one of heaven’s postage stamps in the immensity of God’s love, hell nevertheless doesn’t seem cramped to its inhabitants. To them it seems all too spacious. In hell, every neighbor is infinitely distant from every other, because they cannot stand each other.
In hell people keep moving further out to the far-flung suburbs because they cannot abide their neighbors and are trying to get as far away as possible, so that for C. S. Lewis, hell is the prototypical instance of unsightly urban sprawl, neighbors trying to get away from each other; its asphalt unsightliness wanders off to the farthest horizon, like the strip malls and convenience stores and fast-food stands and filling stations on the Ohio Turnpike outside Toledo. And what’s more, God is nowhere to be found in hell. You can take a bus trip to heaven, if you want to, but no one wants to.
Did you ever feel that way, that even though you live on top of your neighbors in a one-bedroom apartment on the 13th floor, or on a tenth of an acre next to I-94 in one of the most densely populated metropolitan regions in America, you’re still infinitely distant from them and largely unknown even to your friends, that what marks twenty-first-century existence more than anything else is loneliness and insularity and detachment? And even God is nowhere to be found. You can take a bus trip to church, but no one wants to, so lonely and so hopeless have they become.
What Christians believe is that Jesus chips a breech in the walls between us or collapses the distance between us; choose your metaphor. And there you have the melody of the word ‘atonement,’ the music behind the word. Our pronunciation of the word ‘atonement’ partially disguises the music, but the music echoes out nonetheless.
Say it the way it’s supposed to be said: at-one-ment. Did you know that there was a time in the English language when the word ‘One’ was a verb? Yeah the number was a verb. It meant ‘to unite,’ so that a minister marrying a man to a woman could say, “I will one you,” or “I will make you one.”
Paul says that when Jesus comes along, he ones us, ones us with each other and with God. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither gay nor straight, neither rich nor poor, neither Christian nor Muslim. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, to know you are ‘at one’ with God and with the other, no matter how ‘other’ the other seems to be.
Most of us try to be good neighbors. Most of us are busy building communities that are peaceful, fair, and just. A few, though, keep chiseling yawning chasms between us.
Aunt Becky? A housewife who is desperate indeed? You know what’s so stunning about the chutzpah of this college admissions scandal? It’s the heedlessness, the recklessness, the callousness of the rich and famous. Not a fleeting thought for the disciplined middle-class child of auto mechanics or bricklayers or gardeners or police officers who deserves a seat at the University of Southern California.
If you had $500,000 you didn’t know what to do with, and your daughter didn’t want to go to college anyway, why not invest it in an S & P 500 Index fund, send her on a trip around the world, and then give it to her with interest when she’s 22?
Just last year, the monthly professional journal The American Lawyer named Gordon Caplan one of the “Dealmakers of the Year.” Mr. Caplan was co-chairman of Willkie, Farr, and Gallagher, a global law firm in New York with 700 lawyers. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Mr. Caplan paid $75,000 to arrange for a smart adult to take his daughter’s ACT test for her so that her score would rise from the 22 she was getting on her own in practice tests to the 32 that would get her into Cornell, her father’s alma mater.
Mr. Caplan told Rick Singer, the crooked admissions counselor, “I’m not really worried about the moral issue. I just don’t want to get caught.” Dealmaker of the year. Well, I guess so. The human community cannot be ‘at one’ unless and until we all play by the same rules.
It happened in Christchurch. How’s that for a bad joke? In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither Christian nor Muslim.
In Christchurch. At-one-ment was working so beautifully in New Zealand. It is a serene Pacific island, in more ways than one. Peter Jackson brought its spectacular landscape to our living rooms with The Lord of the Rings.
Forty-nine people died, more firearm deaths than in the last seven years in that low-crime haven. They invited Muslims from war-torn lands to their homeland with open arms. The victims had come from Egypt, Syria, India, Kuwait, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Someone described those Christchurch mosques as a United Nations of Muslim Kiwis.
It happened in Christchurch. That’s the first bad joke. The second bad joke is this: this terrorist attack unfolded on and because of social media. SOCIAL media.
They’re so wonderful, aren’t they? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Geniuses created them. Mark Zuckerberg is a genius, and he created Facebook to connect us to each other. I wonder how many old friendships have been reestablished and new friendships created by social media. Match.com; OkCupid. They are instruments of at-one-ment.
Ironically extremists use SOCIAL media to pry us apart into warring camps. The last thing some people want is for the human community to be ‘at one.’ They want us to be distinct and separate and discrete. Some of them are Taliban and ISIS; others are white supremacists, but they all work to pry us apart. It will not work. It cannot work.
My new hero: Jacinda Ardern. “Many of the victims had chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.” They are us. Yes?
It happened in Christchurch. Let that be an everlasting memorial for us that it is only in Christ that the human community reaches at-one-ment—with God and with one another.
Jesus does not care if you are Jew or Gentile. Jesus does not care if you are male or female. Jesus does not care if you are rich or poor. Jesus does not care if you are Pharisee or tax collector. Jesus does not care if you are saint or sinner. In fact he loves the sinner more, because saints can be sanctimonious, and sinners are hungry for God’s grace. Jesus does not even care if you are Muslim or Christian. He just wants every last one of us to recognize the sometimes hidden but always indisputable fact that we are all one. They are us.
Not long ago my friend Doug Kindschi retired after 28 years as Dean of the Sciences at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Now he runs an interfaith institute at Grand Valley which is devoted to building relationships between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, or people of any faith.
Doug told me about Aly Mageed. Dr. Mageed is the Bone Marrow Specialist at DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. He is the go-to transplant guy on the west side of the state of Michigan.
Aly is from Egypt, educated at the University of Alexandria in Egypt and at Emory University and the University of Florida in the United States.
He was working with a 12-year-old girl who needed a bone marrow transplant, probably leukemia, right? He got to talking about immigrants and refugees with the little girl’s mother, who said to Dr. Mageed, “I wish all those Muslims would go back to where they came from.”
Dr. Mageed said, “Would you like me to go back before or after the transplant?”
We can’t make it without Dr. Mageed. We can’t live without Dr. Mageed. We need each other so much. They are us.
David Owens, “Greenwich Lawyer Indicted in College Admissions Scandal Placed on Leave by His New York Law Firm,” Hartford Courant, March 14, 2019.
Charlotte Graham-McLay, Damian Cave, and Benjamin Mueller, “They Found a Haven from Strife, Only to Mourn,” The New York Times, March 16, 2019.
Richard Pérez-Peña, “Extremist Hate Fuels New Zealand Massacre,” The New York Times, March 16, 2019.