In the end, we always performed our choral works with orchestral accompaniment. During my years at Bethel College we performed Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and the Faure Requiem. But first came the rehearsals where I, as the rehearsal accompanist, attempted to approximate the glory of orchestral majesty initially contained in eighty-eight piano keys and the limited hand span of this particular pianist. (I was occasionally assisted by the basses who would whistle the parts I could not quite grab, and who took great delight at making this freshman accompanist blush in the process.)
I probably encountered many spiritual truths during those years with my fingers on the keys and my eyes riveted on the conductor. But here is the one that returns to me this morning. A piano reduction is a limited vehicle for a composition meant for a full orchestra. And a human soul is a limited instrument on which to play “good tidings of great joy.” My new best book friend, David F. Ford, puts the challenge this way: “We are created for joy, and salvation is inseparable from it…We are therefore constantly stretched to accommodate more joy, and this affects not only the tone of our lives but its very shape” (The Shape of Living).
I remember how hard it was for my fingers to reach for chords that were larger than my hands. And I have been learning how difficult it can be to press into this great joy that is so much larger than my little human heart. So what enlarges these souls of ours so that we, Christmas by Christmas, year by year, can be “stretched” so as to contain a bit more of this great, orchestral joy in our limited piano reduction hearts?
Why is the answer “suffering?” There is a long, strong and deep Christian witness attesting to the efficacy of this all-too-human soul-expansion exercise. As Christians we neither run from suffering nor go looking for it. But when it comes can we see it as one of God’s chief invitations to change the shape of our hearts from a keyboard to an orchestra?
I spent yesterday with an old friend who is a young widow with two precious little ones. We laughed and we wept, and we talked about how important living in the moment can be. What re-shapes a heart to receive joy in the midst of such aching sorrow? The little things: the hilarious things children say, the friends who come in and out of her door. The hugs, the smiles, the remembered memories of the beloved husband one moment, the cup of tea and living room decorations the next. At one point my friend said, “The grief and the presence of Jesus are both here. And I live with both of them moment by moment.” Sorrow and suffering, in whatever form they take, are two of the chief joy expanding activities of a human soul being captured by our salvation’s good tidings of great joy.
During this Advent, I think I will listen to orchestral pieces. Flutes and trumpets and violins and oboes—and yes, even tubas. And I will do so with the prayer that my own sorrows and those of the world might continue to expand this limited instrument to contain just a little more joy.