January 19, 2020
One of my legal clients has a lot of engineers on staff. They brought me in to try to explain an area of the law. I wrote them a memorandum of about eight pages detailing how they should go about this project from a legal perspective and what documents they would need to file. Everything seemed fine to me; I left them with the memo and went on my merry way. Then a month or so later they called me and asked me to come in and explain the same issue again. They kept asking the same questions over and over again. Finally it dawned on me: I was speaking to engineers. I asked, “would you like me to draw you a diagram or a flow chart?” I came back with the flow chart and suddenly everything made sense. I was speaking their language. And when someone speaks your language—when you truly feel not just heard, but understood—that is an amazing thing.
“It’s wonderful to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood.” ~ Ellen DeGeneres
What Paul calls us to do in Romans 15 is to respond to those we disagree with not by making arguments to the contrary or rushing to judgment, but, as St. Francis of Assisi put it, seeking first to understand, not be understood. This understanding is mentally putting yourself in the shoes of the person you disagree with; it’s a high form of empathy, which I believe is divine. After all, in Christ God put himself in our place, not counting equality with God something to use to his advantage, but emptied himself, taking up our cross, disregarding its shame, as Paul says in Philippians 2.
Empathy with others is of special importance within our own Christian community. Paul describes the ideal church as one of harmony.
Romans 15:5-6 NIV May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I love this image of harmony. We don’t tend to talk about it much, but there’s great meaning to congregational singing. Have you ever heard a singer who sings over other people, as though wanting to be heard? That’s the opposite of what we are called to do in congregational hymn singing. As Paul said, what God is seeking is the beautiful harmony, the richness of many voices joining together in one song. I love John Wesley, the founder of Methodism’s, rules for congregational singing:
- Directions for Singing. That this part of Divine Worship may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions.
- I. Learn these Tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
- II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
- III. Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
- IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
- V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
- VI. Sing in Time: whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
- VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Just like the passing of the peace, the singing of hymns is an expression of the church’s peace. So pay attention to your singing!
“Peace may be translated ‘harmony.’ Harmony with one’s self is integrity; harmony with life itself is gratitude; harmony with people is brotherhood; harmony with God is faith. All this adds up to the meaning of peace. It is the gift of Christ.” ~ Oscar F. Blackwelder
Peace in the church is of the highest importance to Paul. He wants the people to recognize that the entire point of the Scriptures is to build up and encourage the church, not to tear people down. Furthermore, it’s important to Paul not only that we tolerate each other because it’s in our own interest, but ultimately because we care about serving our neighbor. In Scripture and in our Christian tradition, what we do is not so important on its own; it’s why we do what we do, the motivations behind all our doings and speakings and thinkings.
Romans 15:1-4 NIV: We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. 3 For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5
We know this. We know this as Christians, I’ve preached this many times and I know that every pastor before me has preached it many times. And yet, so often we still see division, pettiness, selfishness, and pride within the church. I have great concern for Starr as the church goes through a period of transition. Brothers and sisters, there is no disagreement, no argument, worth tearing down another person’s faith. We know this; we know how Christ calls us to treat one another.
It’s not so much that we will what is wrong, but that we forget what is right.
And this is true of so many of our sins; we simply forget. That’s why I’m thankful Paul takes the time to tell us what he is doing; reminding us of what we already know.
Romans 15:14 I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters,[b] that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. 15 Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God…
Reminders. Because of our sin, we need to fill our lives with reminders. Why do you think God called his people, in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, to bind His Word to their foreheads and doorposts, to teach them to their children, to talk about them when they walk in the way and when they lie down and when they rise? Because the more you surround yourself with God’s Word, the easier it is to remember in your time of need.
And there’s a million ways to do it. Write out your verses and put them on your mirror so you read it when you brush your teeth. Put a verse as your background on your phone so it’s there every time you open your device. Order a bracelet or a keychain with a verse you want to remember. There’s even a really cool app you can use called Remember Me that makes memorizing Scripture like a video game.
One study found that eighty percent of the thoughts we think are negative and ninety-five percent are repetitive. Eighty percent! Yet most of us, I would argue, have much less than eighty percent going wrong in our lives. We have food to eat, a place to sleep, and people who love us. Our negative thoughts fuel negative words and eventually negative actions that hurt other people, creation, God, and most of all ourselves. And most importantly, those negative thoughts are very often based on lives! So surround your life with reminders of what is true: the goodness and love that surrounds you every day, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, who is greater and stronger than all the pain this life can throw at us. Tune your words and your thoughts and your deeds to be in harmony with the great song of creation: the song of God’s unfailing love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.