Friday, June 20, 2008

"The Sound of Pentecost"

This is my column which appeared in the Huntsville Times on August 8, 2008 - Steve West

Years ago I heard music that would change my life. I was traveling to China on a mission tour with Christian youth from Alabama. One Sunday, we visited a Protestant Church in Nanjing.

I smile when I remember I was not entirely looking forward to it. The trip had been tiring and morning had come early. We had heard that the service was entirely in Chinese and the sermon was forty-five minutes long.

When we arrived, they had reserved space for us near the front. It was a good thing, too, for the room was absolutely full. I remember the face of an old woman with tattered clothes who sat right in front of me. She smiled at me warmly.

Drawn into a mystical experience, my spirit was captured by such wonderful, familiar music. We began by singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Chinese. I knew only one verse in English, but I sang it over and over just the same. Throughout the service, I found every note strangely familiar. The choir sang John Steiner’s “God So Loved the World,” with beautiful Chinese intonation. A shock wave moved through my spirit, for I had directed the choir of my home church in the very same piece two weeks earlier!

During the sermon (indeed forty-five minutes and in Chinese), I found myself intrigued by the songbook. Instead of the Western hymnal I was used to, it consisted simply of Chinese words with numbers printed above. I can remember the moment it dawned on me how the numbers represented the tune. “Jesus Loves Me,” for example, was notated “5-3-3-2-3-5-5.” Once I saw this, I searched from hymn to hymn to find tunes of my faith inside this book on the other side of the world. The magnitude of our connectedness filled my soul.

We sang again. By this time my heart was racing and my voice bellowed with whatever verse or phrase I could remember. I will never forget the face of the old woman sitting in front of me. In the midst of the song, she turned and looked at me with tears streaming down her face. It was my “Pentecost moment”, a profound experience when I realized that though we were separated by a world of culture, we could hear each other in our own language.

There is strangely familiar music that binds us together as God’s people, spanning the globe and moving through the centuries. Our spiritual lives do not develop in a vacuum. Our journey has context. We are notes of God’s creative instrument, beautiful on our own but having no meaning unless heard in the context of a phrase, a melody, a song, a symphony. We are breathed into existence with larger vision in mind. When I came out of that crowded church in Nanjing, I had seen a glimpse of God’s dream for humanity, a people wonderfully diverse but forever bound by the song of our hearts.