The Sound of Trying

Philip Yancey concludes his book “Church, Why Bother?” with a thought worth its weight in gold for those laboring in the local church.  For those with their shoulders to the wheel, engaged in the fight, this is fuel! (An apology to the Milpitas High School orchestra. I'm sure things have improved greatly since the Rev. Palmer uttered the quote.) 


C.S. Lewis wrote that God “seems to do nothing of Himself which he can delegate His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.” There is no greater illustration of that principle than the church of Jesus Christ, to which God has delegated the task of embodying God’s Presence in the world. All of our efforts are examples of God’s delegation.

Every parent knows something of the risk of delegation, with all it’s joys and heartache. The child taking her very first steps holds on, then lets go, then falls, then struggles to her feet for another attempt. No one has discovered another way to learn to walk.

Yes, the church fails in its mission and makes serious blunders precisely because the church comprises human beings who will always fall short of the glory of God. That is the risk God took. Anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work, every Christian must learn that Church is only a beginning.

The composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote a new piece that contained a difficult violin passage. After several weeks of rehearsal the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said that he could not play it. He had given it his best effort but found the passage too difficult, even unplayable. Stravinsky replied, "I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it." Perhaps something similar is what God had in mind with the church.

I remember hearing a similar illustration from Earl Palmer, a pastor who was defending the church against critics who dismissed it for its hypocrisy, its failures, its inability to measure up to the New Testament’s high standards. Palmer, a Californian at the time, deliberately chose a community known for its unsophistication.

“When the Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is appalling,” said Palmer.  "I wouldn't be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave despite his deafness. You might ask, 'Why bother?' Why inflict on those kids the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra can attain that perfection."

“My answer is this: The Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in that audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will hear Beethoven’s message.”

I remind myself of Earl Palmer’s analogy whenever I start squirming in a church service. Although we may never achieve what the composer had in mind, there is no other way for those sounds to be heard on earth.

Philip Yancey, Church, Why Bother, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998) pages 99-100.