I’ve discovered that life is better when I practice the discipline of a teachable spirit. It’s not always easy to do—because pride gets in the way—but one thing is certain: I need others. And when I do open my eyes and ears to receive, I find there’s no shortage of people who want to change my life with their ideas. While I’d love to give all of them my attention to consider their point, that’s just not practical. So it becomes necessary to be selective. Maybe you’ve found yourself in the same conundrum.
Because it takes so much energy to admit a new life-changing influencer into our inner circles, we tend to focus on the voices that sound familiar, so we press harder into the ideas we hear from people we already know. It makes the quality of our selection all the more critical. For better or worse, we live by the ideas we consistently think about—either soaring to new heights or screeching into a train wreck. We all allow our minds to dwell on something—it’s a question of “What?”, not “If?”—so we need to think about what we think about. How can we best navigate this sea of ideas?
It helps me to think of it like this: Ideas are best processed like a composer arranging backup harmony vocals, part by part, around an unchanging melody. Jesus has been singing the melody since before the dawn of time. Listen for words that fall on your ear like a wistful, backup harmony vocal—captivating but unfulfilling, relentlessly calling out to the melody. Let the harmony compel you to grasp His sweet tune. Once it’s in your bones, you will dance—you just won’t be able to help it.
It reminds me of the time I sang with the legends of the modern hymn, Keith and Kristyn Getty, under the bright lights on the stage of the historic Tennessee Theatre. Reluctantly, I will qualify that honor by disclosing that I didn’t earn the opportunity with my talent. No, it found me because I was serendipitously available and willing. The Gettys were bringing their Christmas show to Knoxville and looking to form a choir of local backup singers, so they sent word to several of the largest church choirs in the city, including mine.
They extended the invitation on short notice, so I knew from the start that we’d only be able to get the patchwork choir together for one practice before the show. Beyond that one hour together, we could only prepare separately with our individual part CDs—specially recorded versions of the songs with only the pertinent vocal part audible.
I may have supplied the least technical ability of anyone to that choir. I don’t read music; I have no vocal training. Instead, I rely on my passion for worshiping Jesus and my ear for carrying a tune. But I had no concerns about keeping up. This was, after all, a Christmas show, so I knew I had a lifetime of experience singing several of the songs on the set list.
When I cranked up the practice CD in my car for the first time, I got a little nervous. I was surprised by the intricacy of the tenor part for the lively Irish version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Then, when I heard the ethereal tenor “oohs” and “aahs” that would provide the backup harmonies for Kristyn’s angelic voice on “The Magnificat,” a lump formed in my throat, and my chest tightened. This was going to be harder than I thought. I worried I would embarrass myself in front of everyone at the Official State Theatre of Tennessee.
No matter how many times I practiced with my tenor part, I couldn’t get much better. It was the most dysfunctional choir practice I had ever experienced. Without the sopranos, altos, and basses, I couldn’t grasp the harmony. Without the more talented tenors by my side, I couldn’t tune out my own pitchiness. And without the melody showing the way, the once-familiar songs sounded unrecognizable to me.
In the end, the excitement of the opportunity to worship with the Gettys and the encouragement from my wife Sarah—who would also sing in the show—was enough to gingerly prod me forward. Bewildered but not deterred, I stepped onto the risers onstage that December Friday night, anxious to belt out whatever I could manage.
From the first notes struck on the guitars, fiddles, and flutes, the energy of Joy—An Irish Christmas and the glorious sounds of Kristyn’s singing filled the room. I was shocked. With the confident, driving melody doing the real work, and with the full complement of the choir surrounding me, the tenor part—that had seemed so goofy on its own—finally made sense. I found that I could sing again.
I will never forget when a few awestruck concert-goers recognized Sarah and me from the choir and approached us after the show that night—the only rock star moment of my life. They wondered whether the backup singers had traveled with the tour, and they wanted us to know how amazing we sounded. I don’t remember what I said—other than a stammering, “Thank you.”
Glorify the Melody
I hope this way of thinking about ideas inspires curiosity and motivates you to explore richer harmonies, with each new note building on the others. Any part, on its own, may sound interesting but will always be insufficient—always in need of the others to complete the chord. And even as lovely as the backup harmony sounds when complete with all parts of the chord, it assaults the ear if it’s not right for the melody. In fact, it has no other purpose than to glorify the melody.
Just as Paul told the Corinthian church, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:5). We will look the most like Christ when we surround ourselves with a diverse choir full of such faithful servants, singing every part of the harmony in tune with the melody—and wholeheartedly embracing that we’re all singing backup.