‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:1-8
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 3:7-10
Like many children, I took piano lessons. By the time I was in high school, both my teacher and my parents heaped a great deal of pressure on me when it came to recital performances. It wasn’t enough that I play well. My mother, in particular, would say over and over again, “I want it perfect-perfect-perfect.” I sometimes think that if she hadn’t recited that mantra over and over and over, I might well have continued to study music, enjoyed practicing and performing. Instead, both practicing and performing became chores for me. My personal goal was to the best job possible, and to cover whatever mistakes I might make with a bit of showmanship and flair. At least in my mother’s case, I knew she was not only tone deaf, but pretty much ignorant of music, so I thought I could make it through. Dad, however, was a different story. A classically trained violinist who studied at Carnegie Hall after high school, Dad knew music intimately. Then, of course, there was the teacher, who sat off to the side, and whose facial expressions and body language were always in my peripheral. Most of the time I did well enough; the last recital of the year, our teacher expected us to have the music memorized, so that we could concentrate on performance. For me, this was an exercise in muscle memory combined with showmanship.
I only have one memory where things went wrong. I think I was a Freshman in high school, and I was performing “Six Etudes” by Beethoven. The thing is, they were just that, six simple studies in harmonic construction, fingering, and dynamics. None of them were difficult. Yet, I distinctly remember completely blowing it. To the point that both my parents were red-faced with anger. That was the point at which I resolved I would not only no longer care about “perfection” but vowed that the moment I could do so, I would run as far from performing music as I could. This kind of pressure, I just didn’t need.
It’s a regret I continue to carry with me. Not least because, had I been a tad older and wiser, I would have allowed my mother’s repeated admonition to float in one ear, out the other, and vow to do what I could, the best I knew how to do, and leave the rest up to the audience to figure out. I have performed often enough in the years and decades since – high school bands, solo competitions, community bands, solo guitar and voice, playing guitar and drums and even saxophone with church praise bands – that the whole idea of “perfection”, at least when it comes to performance, just doesn’t exist for me. My hope and prayer is always and only that I do the best I can, and let the rest be covered by the audience and congregation’s ears.
Unlike that time with my parents when I was in high school, however, all too often, I hear all sorts of compliments for my performances. In all honesty, these compliments embarrass me, because I am all too aware of my deficiencies when it comes to performing and singing. My gifts are few; that I do not practice regularly makes picking up a guitar to join an ensemble difficult. I have to remind myself, sometimes, of even the most simple chords and changes. I have to run through a number several times before I become comfortable playing and singing at the same time. Even with the addition of monitors, giving me a chance to hear myself, that only reinforces when I’m flat (men tend to sing flat, while women tend to sing sharp; a high school church choir director taught me the trick of raising my eyebrows when singing, especially high notes, to keep from going flat) and part of me wants to stop because the dissonance is a bit too much for me to bear.
It isn’t just music, though. Hearing throughout one’s life, whether from family or acquaintances (friends are always better for the ego; by laughing at all the nice things people say, they actually help keep you humble) or even strangers, how intelligent, insightful, talented, whatever, one is . . . part of me wants to tell these people they have no idea what they’re talking about. Truth to tell, I’m none of these things. Whether it’s a musical instrument, a book, a class in college or graduate school, whatever achievements I’ve had are the result of a combination of work and luck. Nothing that I have done in my life couldn’t be done better by others, hasn’t been done better by others, and that people don’t or won’t recognize this bothers me.
On the other hand, I’m human. After a few years, then decades of people lauding something or other that I’ve done, not least among those being my wife, it is nearly impossible to prevent one’s head to swell. It’s almost unnoticeable at first. Soon, however, when you need a cart by your side to carry your head as you walk, because your neck isn’t strong enough to hold it up, it becomes necessary to fail in some spectacular way, if for no other reason than to burst that bubble that was once my ego. There have been times in my life – far too many that I care to admit – that I have taken inordinate pride in one or another accomplishment of mine. As if playing an instrument or reading a book or putting words down on a computer screen were some special thing available to only some chosen few. I have, thankfully, had those who burst my bubble, sometimes in the most marvelous, direct fashion imaginable. Nothing says love and friendship like reminding another they are, in the end, a person who not only needs to be reminded to zip up your fly but maybe, just maybe, make sure your shoes are tied before you trip, fall, and really hurt yourself.
The road on my Lenten Journey has come upon a square. In the middle of the square in a plinth, upon which stands a statue. As I get closer, I realize it’s a statue of me. I look around for something, anything, to deface or perhaps even destroy this abomination. Then, I wonder if it’s bolted to the base, or if I can get enough momentum up and just push the damn thing over. So, up I climb, but not before reading the plaque, which seems to read the same on all four sides: “Musician, Scholar, Author, Prophet, Parent And Spouse Extraordinaire, Faithful Christian”. It’s absurd. I can’t decide if I want to cry or puke. Lucky for me, like all such idols, for all their beauty, the feet are clay. It takes just a small shove, and the clay crumbles and the horrid statue tumbles to the ground shattering in to a thousand pieces. But not only the statues. The plaques that seemed bolted to the plinth, they fall, shattering in to shards of brass that are scattered everywhere.
The truth is simple. I’m just me. I have neither special gift nor talent. I struggle at being both a husband and parent, failing as often as I succeed, like most of us. What I have managed to accomplish in life isn’t all that much at all, beyond helping to bring two marvelous, special, beautiful, talented, smart, and funny young ladies in to the world. Of all the things I’ve done, helping bring my children in to the world is probably the one thing in which I take pride. Beyond that, all the rest – the music playing, the reading, the education, the writing – really isn’t a big deal. Indeed, several times each day I’m confronted with how little I know; how much better at those things I love so much so many others happen to be, for which I am always grateful.
And none of this is false humility. On the contrary, I claim no humility at all. To claim humility is the action of a proud person, and I want nothing to do with pride. I struggle through my days, giving to God any good that comes from whatever I might accomplish that day. The rest, well – the faults and missteps, the wrong words spoken at the wrong time, the attempt to say or do something special and failing spectacularly, the sense that each day I have to start over always beginning with a confession and prayer of forgiveness – that’s all me.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate compliments. I do, in a way. I just wish people would recognize whatever they’re complimenting isn’t me at all. It’s God acting and working through me. I would, in the end, prefer people give God the glory while I remain invisible.