Percussion, Winds, and Strings

Scripture can be found here.

Last week we had a glorious service of worship here,

and a good part of the reason for that glory was the music.

The choir, a brass quintet, the full bell choir, a commissioned anthem and hymn…

and with almost every seat taken, the congregational singing was inspiring.

What a wonder-filled celebration of Pentecost we had!


So I got to thinking again about the power of music,

and the mystery of its making!

I wondered why it is that some people can play more than one instrument and sing,

and others of us can hardly hum.

I wondered why one person is a prodigy,

another can play or sing only because of years of commitment to technical skills

and practice, practice, practice.

And others can play only  MP3s and sing badly in the shower.


And, added to these wonderings,

I wondered how all this might lead to a sermon for Trinity Sunday!

And then it struck me! How “Trinitarian” the orchestra is!

For all its instruments, from the smallest piccolo to the most grand grand piano,

from the triangle to the tympani, all the sounds come from only three sources:

percussion, winds, and strings.


Which came first, do you suppose?

Percussion: foot tapping on cave floor? Stick against rock or stretched hide?

Winds: whistling? breath through a blade of grass or cupped hand?

Strings: plucked gut string? (Yes, so much more sophisticated!)


Does chronology matter? No.

Is one instrument more important than the others? No.

Oh, the musicians may debate that, but the mystery for the rest of us

is that all those sounds come together with melody, harmony, and rhythm

to calm, to excite, to inspire, to move us to join in the power of music, even to dance.


When it comes to understanding the Triune God,

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

we are like children first plopped on a piano bench and told to play something.

What?! So many keys, and so many cracks between them!

Long white keys and short black ones.

And the child is wondering what’s inside the box that makes the sound anyway?

It’s all a mystery!

Like the Trinity.

So, we learn to play, one note, another, a chord, a ditty, an etude, a concerto.

But, it remains always and forever, a mystery.


Some folks try to explain the Trinity in chronological terms.

First came the Father, or Creator, and then the Son, and then the Spirit.

but the Spirit was there at the very beginning, in Genesis, chapter one.

And John’s gospel says the Logos, the Word, which we take to be Christ,

was in the beginning with God.

So, no, chronology doesn’t help us at all.


So, maybe “function” would be a good way to break God into manageable pieces.

Father: that would be Creator.

But God is also the Divine Judge at the end of all things!

Son: the Savior, dying on the cross to save us.

But wait! There’s more! He’s risen and he continues to pray for us, even now!

Spirit: Holy Comforter, inspirer, guide.

Like a shepherd…but, the Lord is my shepherd.


Holy confusion!

There’s no easy way to grasp this in a totally rational way.

Again, can we not learn from the orchestra that the instruments

do not play one at a time, or have certain defined roles in every composition?

The percussion, the winds, the strings — though many, all are one.


So, explain the Trinity?

Such foolishness.

That’s why, though the Bible speaks of the Triune God,

it never uses the term, and certainly never tries to explain its theology!


Let’s turn to the epistle reading for a moment.

Paul’s words in this excerpt from Romans 5,

include the vocabulary of this festival day: God, Christ, Holy Spirit,

and later in chapter 8, Paul writes of Abba (Father), Christ, and Spirit.

And Paul weaves these images of God into a tapestry of relationship.

Inseparable are the images of Trinity,

and that powerful union builds relationship with humanity,

adopting us all to make us children of God.


The Apostle Paul writes so graphically.

The musician can hear the symphony in the images Paul suggests. 

Paul’s words are full of  color and sound:

sufferings, grace, glory, eager longing, revealing, futility, hope,

bondage, freedom, groaning, redemption. 

Take any word and give it a shape or a sound, a color, a texture, a rhythm.


But now it occurs to me that Paul’s words,

the Psalmist’s song of glory and human dignity (Ps. 8)

and all the Kingdom parables of Jesus

find their center in the good news of God’s steadfast love.

So, inspired by the music I’ve enjoyed over the past few weeks,

I’ve written a cantata.

Percussion, winds, strings…and human voices!


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The cantata opens with all sixty-six performers introducing the central theme. 

For sixteen measures you would hear a musical theme

that sets the spiritual foundation of the composition,

a theme that found me by the grace of God, a theme both simple and majestic, unpretentious, yet gloriously uplifting. 

My imagination cannot take credit for it, yet I heard it in my spirit. 

It came not from any memory, it was not borrowed from somewhere,

but it may have belonged to the ages.


I consider the theme to be God's gift, and even without text,

the music itself brings to mind images of creation, rebellion, and redemption. 

You only sense the theme the first time you encounter it, this first movement. 

You hear it again, and perceive it more clearly. 

And you hear it a third time and it is as much as planted within you,

even before the chorus begins to sing of God's steadfast love,

a lyric set to the main theme, cantus firmus

The harmonies are rich and stirring. 

Psalm-like, the words tell story through prayer—or pray through story—

and as the first movement ends,

the listener will barely distinguish a solo voice singing just beyond the chorus,

the same words, the same musical theme,

a fragile line between individual and community.




The second movement introduces variations on the main theme,

beginning with a Mid-eastern setting, a hint of an Israeli folk dance,

timbrel and strings and pipes, rhythm and joy. 

But the pipes grow quiet, the timbrel's rhythm fades, the strings give way to voices,

and a cappella male voices chant a Gregorian variation on the theme,

with a note of profound mystery,

as voices are joined by the natural echo of the surrounding space. 


Within this movement comes another variation on the theme,

as women's voices join the chorus with a sound reminiscent of a German chorale.  Polyphonic variations intrude with welcome reminders

of French and other European styles. 

An Alpine horn (made in Gene­va) sounds from the center of the hall,

and this movement ends with the startling sound of bagpipes, from an outside hallway.  With all these variations, or in spite of them, the main theme is still in mind,

still anchoring the piece at its very center.




When the bagpipes have wheezed their last,

we are not surprised to hear the third movement begin with a variety of folk instruments plainly stating the cantus firmus in their own musical language. 

What is surprising is that these folk variations are coming from little ensembles

scattered throughout the hall. 

A Korean folk tune back there.  South African voices over there. 

Mexican trumpets and Brazilian guitars.  An Irish flute.  An American banjo. 

Each ensemble plays quickly through the theme,

and the movement ends with the only notes borrowed from another composition,

"In Christ, There Is No East or West."




The fourth movement begins with a bow toward the African-American spiritual. 

A contralto voice is lifted in praise, breaks, and bends the main theme toward the blues.  Now comes the biggest risk: the orchestra begins to sound like a big band,

and the central theme is syncopated, a joyous celebration of good news

that would move fingers to snappin’, hands to clappin' and toes to tappin'. 

This movement is dangerous because the ensemble has the composer's permission

to re-interpret the theme through free-flowing improvisation. 

Take these notes and go with them! 

Let the influence of the seamier side of Kansas City, the dives of Chicago,

the smoky clubs of New Orleans move this grace-filled gift of song

into the gritty lives of people who know they are sinners and pretend to be no better,

but lean with desperation on the hope of the gospel. 

The risk is that the main theme will be lost as saxophone wails its lament,

and trumpet cries its complaint and drums rage toward liberation.


If the improvisation breaks the central theme into riffs too cacophonous to be called music, all may be lost: the performance could end in discordant anarchy. 

But if the musicians have embraced the thematic heart of the cantata,

their free (but Spirit-led) reflections may enrich the whole work

and keep it always reforming, always a new thing altogether.




Finally, all voices and all instruments return to the familiar original theme. 

Sixteen measures in unison, one voice honoring one God. 

The work concludes with a hymn which invites, indeed demands,

that the listeners join their hearts and voices in a melody

that will follow them into the streets and neighborhoods that lead home to Kingdom Come.  In music, as in life, the inexpressible Word is central to our common pilgrimage

from Creation to Eternity.


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(I suppose it might be interesting to include in the score

a footnote at the bottom of the last page suggesting the powerful symbol

of the conductor laying aside her baton, picking up a towel and basin,

and washing the feet of the musicians. 

But that might distract from the central theme, rather than interpret it.) 


One cannot appreciate or enjoy any musical masterpiece

by pulling individual notes out of the score,

no matter how well or how loudly those scattered notes are played or sung. 

The heart must sense the whole sweep of the work,

aware of, in awe of its unity.


On this Trinity Sunday, one might expect that my imagined cantata

had been composed and performed to the glory of the Triune God,

and God’s saving message of grace and love and peace. 

That is our common bond.  Our unity.  Our vocation.  Our fulfillment.


So, now, go write your own cantata!

Imagine what you could do with percussion, winds, and strings, and voices!

But begin by listening for the Spirit's music in your heart. 

And center your life on the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Let it be your only rule of faith and practice, practice, practice.

And all God’s children will follow the Lord of the Dance into Glory!


[Oh, one more thing….I’m afraid if one has to explain a parable, it sucks the life out of it.

But—my cantata was about the history of the church, in the Reformed tradition.

Sixty-six musicians? How many books are there in the Bible?

From an Israeli folk dance to a horn from Geneva,

from Scottish bagpipes to jazz improvisation –

the main theme, the cantus firmus, is God’s steadfast love.


And that, my friends, is to be the cantus firmus of our lives, day by day, and forevermore.]