In God’s Symphony, No Solo Acts

Simon Cowell stares at the “American Idol” contestant, disgusted at what he has just heard. “You were awful,” he says. “The worst thing we have heard all day.”

We almost pity the poor celebrity-wannabe for her humiliation. However, to our amazement, even as the tears flow and her voice breaks, she pokes out her bottom lip and with fire in her eyes, says, “You’re wrong. I have a great voice and someday you will eat those words. I’m going to be a star.”

We members of the vast television-viewing public sit at home enthralled by such self-deception. “How could she think such a thing,” we wonder. Doesn’t she know how terrible she is? Hasn’t anyone ever told her the truth?

I know what her problem is, because I’ve been there.

On our Alabama farm, during the summers of my 15th, 16th, and 17th years, I spent six days a week in the fields plowing. As a rule, I was a half-mile from any other living soul, and at times, when I plowed the bottomlands we called Bunkum, a full mile away. With no one in earshot, I felt free to sing, and brother did I ever. I opened up and belted out a country tune, a hymn, or the latest gospel quartet number at the top of my lungs. When I wasn’t singing, I was whistling. All day, every day.

All alone.

Then one day when I was in college, roommate Joel Davis and I had a temporary boarder named Kenneth Hogue. Now, Kenneth had a tape recorder, one of those old reel-to-reel things (the only kind in existence in 1960). And that’s how, one afternoon while no one else was in the apartment, I plugged it up and turned it on and recorded myself singing. And had the surprise of my life.

Through all those years of singing in the fields, I had been hearing the full musical instrumentation behind me. In my mind, the piano was playing and the quartet was singing, with my voice blending in.

But the tape recorder would have none of that. There was my voice, standing all alone out in the field, stark naked, exposed for all the world to see and hear.

It was one of those moments you never forget.

These days, when I watch “American Idol” — I’m only fascinated by the first part when they do the “cattle calls” in which anyone can walk in and audition — I see myself standing there and remember my comeuppance when the tape recorder brought me out of my delusion and back to reality.

There is a great spiritual lesson for Christians here, one found all through God’s Word. We’ll begin with this verse…

“No scripture is of private interpretation,” we read in II Peter 1:20.

Now, there are three ways of looking at this verse, all of them valid and all helpful:

–one, Scripture did not originate all by itself, but came from numerous holy men (and possibly women) of ancient times working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit;

–two, we are not to take a single Bible verse and build a doctrine on it, but all scripture works in harmony with the rest;

–and three, God’s Word is not to be interpreted by a believer in isolation, but within the community of believers.

The final point — that a believer living alone and formulating his own unique interpretation of God’s Word is a risky proposition — is one which many young pastors encounter sooner or later. They find a great verse of Scripture and think of a new way of interpreting it and wonder why they alone in the universe were the first to see it. They mention their discovery to an older pastor who, maybe gently and maybe not, pops that little balloon by reminding them of all the teachings to the contrary found throughout Scripture. It’s a great lesson.

Pity the pastor who has no mentor or close friend or teacher who loves him enough to prick his balloons of pretension and ignorance. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

I suspect that many a heresy has arisen from the absence of just such a friend.

Whether we are the minister or a layman, when we try to live the Christian life alone, we risk all kinds of error. Like the teenage plowboy in the field singing his favorite hymns, we hear music that is not really there but concocted by our imaginations. We so easily delude ourselves into thinking we are doing something we’re not, that we are something we were never meant to be, that God has promised what He hasn’t.

The Christian life was never meant to be a solo act. Think of the leadership God gave to believers….

“And He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastor-teachers — (and all of them) for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.” (Ephesians 4:11)

The Lord knew believers would be needing strong leaders and one another for teaching, counsel, correction, confession, encouragement, and balance. And for fellowship, too–let’s not leave out that essential element.

“We are better TWOgether.” I made up that little motto for the hundred-and-thirty-five churches of our association some five years ago. Katrina came along and wiped many off the earth, but as God’s people from across the world descended on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we saw the truth of it demonstrated vividly. These days, one would be hard-pressed to find a single church in our part of the world that has not been restored by the work (sweat, contributions, prayers) of the Lord’s people from across the land.

Pity the church that prides itself on its independence.

In isolation, both individuals and congregations go to extremes. We think too much of ourselves or too little. We grow egotistical and self-sufficient or we get depressed and discouraged. Without the balancing counsel of colleagues, friends, and peers around us to steady us and keep us on track, we veer to the extremes of the right and the left. We grow too introverted, too critical of others, and too self-sufficient.

We lose all touch with reality.

Over and over, the Manual (a.k.a., The Holy Bible) calls for togetherness among the Lord’s people….

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

“All that believed were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:44)

“Striving together for the faith of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27)

“Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark those who so walk.” (Philippians 3:17)

“Be comforted, being knit together in love.” (Colossians 2:2)

“Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)

Veteran pastor and radio Bible preacher J. Vernon McGee writes in his commentary on II Peter 1:20, “If you have ever seen a person ride on (the) one wheel of a unicycle, you have noted that he does a lot of twisting and turning and maneuvering around to stay balanced.”

Dr. McGee told of going to the circus and seeing a man on a unicycle, the kind with the giant wheel. “All of a sudden it went out from under him, and he fell backwards. Believe me, he had a bad fall. And I thought, ‘Oh, how many Christians are like that today.'”

The really funny thing about those of us with lousy voices is that when we go to church and join the choir, a certain kind of alchemy takes over. I cannot explain it, but a choir of average voices can sound incredible when they sing together. The total becomes far more than the sum of their parts.

So, even if you fail “American Idol” and slink away in humiliation, come on down to the church and join the choir. You’ll not be a celebrity, but you’ll be somebody!

3 thoughts on “In God’s Symphony, No Solo Acts

  1. You’re correct. When you sing with others, there is chemistry and the whole can be much better than the individual singers. This reminds me of two things: 1) You were in college and home for a brief while and you and I sang one night at a revival at Old Poplar (Freewill Baptist Church). After services at “meet ‘n greet”, the older ladies could be heard oohing and aahing about “how Joe sings like an angel”. Then they came up to me and said, “We didn’t know you could sing.”

    2) Then years later at Aunt Ruby Chadwick’s funeral, the congregation was singing a hymn and on the last verse we left the sanctuary going to the back where lunch had been prepared. I was sitting (and singing) between Johnny Kilgore and some lady I did not know but our three-part harmony was some of the prettiest I have ever heard. I mentioned this to Johnny later and he said that’s what it’s going to be like in Heaven.

    You know, I think he’s right.

  2. Ah…I remember your singing! I also remember the mule acting up for days afterward…of the crops wilting…of the wild animals in the woods disappearing for weeks. But…you must have learned to sing somewhere on the road of life. The good part is…we now have something to sing about.

  3. Brother Joe – you are a living example of the “Better TWOgether” way of leadership and discipleship. Why do pastors and staff members suffer with relationships in their churches – because they try to be the big man and go it alone. Pastors are reluctant to ask and follow a staff members or church leaders advice because they are supposed to enter the ministry already knowing everything about church and how to lead them to new heights. Staff members are hired to do a job for which they should have been trained (that’s another issue for another day). Therefore, no one in the church can tell them how they may be more successful in this particular local body in getting the job done. They are willing to go to seminars and get all excited about what they hear – but no seminar leader or fellow participant comes home with them to help them plow their particular ministry field. And they are back to going it alone.

    Why are our churches doing such a poor job at discipleship – because we have accepted the “American Idol” notion that “I sound great all by myself.” If I start “singing” (being accountable to) with other people, someone may try to make/help me become a better “singer” (disciple).

    An interesting thing about “American Idol” – the folks they select to go on to the next level – the producers and musicians who work with them are responsible to tear them apart at every level – how they look, how they move, how they interpret songs, pitch, tone, diction – everything necessary to make them a better soloist. However, they never work with them on one of the most important aspects of music making – the thing that would actually make most of them better musicians and performers. They never train them to work in concert with other musicians on a regular basis. They are solo artists in the making. However, the real musicians are the back-up singers and the folks playing in the band and orchestra. I guarentee that these professional musicians who practice their craft behind these budding solo artists have a much different way of assesing musical worth. They have spent a lifetime of making music with other musicians – they have been sharpened by being held accountable for every note that they have played or sung.

    Pastor/Staff leader – it’s time to build a team that holds you accountable for every note that you contribute to the symphony that is Kingdom ministry. In the Kingdom – the great ones are never solo artists.

    (Joe actually asked me to comment on this particular piece. This man is a pastor that I would “sing” with any day of the week and while plowing any field.)

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