The Letter or the Spirit?


In fourth grade, I started taking piano lessons. I didn’t like them. I labored through each week, learning to read the notes on the page. Through the years, I got better at reading the notes, but it was not enjoyable work, it was toil. Later on, when I could really starting playing songs from the sheet music, it became more fun, but it still had some significant limitations. Intuitively, I knew there must be something more. 

Then, in high school, I met Tommy Tinder. Tommy was an African American man who met Christ in mid-life and became part of my church. Tommy had played the local club circuit in our area for years and was an excellent musician. My preacher asked him to do concerts at our local church camp, and Tommy asked me and a buddy of mine if we would play with him. We were ecstatic! We couldn’t believe that this master musician would let a couple of hackers play with him. :)

Our first rehearsal rolled around and when we were getting ready to play, I asked Tommy, “Where’s the sheet music or chord charts?” He just smiled at me and said, “We don’t use music!” Tommy taught me to play by using my ear and intuition rather than just by playing by the notes on the page. It was a freeing experience! 

My years of being trained by the notes on the page were a good starting place and foundational for playing by ear. But if I had stayed with just playing the notes on the page, I would have been locked into a small musical world that ultimately would not have been filled with life and growth. I haven’t abandoned musical notes on a page. I still use them extensively, but I know that they are simply the representation of something larger.

The apostle Paul spent a lot of time and energy trying to teach the early church the difference between trying to do life with God by the Letter and life with God by the Spirit. The Jewish people had been used to relating to God on the basis of Law. The moral heart and precepts of the Law were good, but trying to walk with God on the basis of rule-keeping was death, not life. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” When I try to follow Jesus by keeping a list of rules, it always squeezes down love into a little box. 

Also, church history teaches us that even though God is always the same, the Spirit is continually doing something new in each generation to teach us and save us. If I am living by the letter, I will be more resistant to that.  

I have to still work at playing by ear rather than just the notes on the page. It isn’t something that just happens automatically, it has to be practiced. In many ways, I still feel like a beginner at it. But I know that it is the way to greater freedom and life in music. Eventually, you can come to a place where the music, like the love of God, just flows through you!