Sermon: The Fear of Wrong Notes

06.15.2014    Preaching Text: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a)

Once Lynn Carver, our handbell choir director, on the first day of learning a new piece, commented on all the eighth notes dotting the page. After observing the stricken looks on our faces, she explained that we had just exhibited, albeit unwittingly, the classic phenomenon of what’s known in musical circles as “black note panic”.

That’s when a musician sees nothing but short, densely-packed notes littering the page, notes that require speed and dexterity to play properly (as opposed to the longer notes which can be handled with far greater ease and relative calm).

When faced with a whole series of short staccato notations, the natural inclination is to tense up, causing players to rush their notes, which in turn can produce a muddled mess!

What lies behind all this, of course, is the simple, basic fear of embarrassment, in this case of playing the wrong note (or notes).

One of the cardinal rules of bell playing, as Lynn also once explained, is to never betray to your hearers that you’ve made a mistake! Just continue on as if nothing happened! It’s great advice, I will tell you.

Then again, I myself failed miserably at this the last time we played in church. As I was going along, blithely, having successfully wended my way through the most difficult part of the piece (with all the black notes!), I suddenly heard the rest of the choir triumphantly sounding the last note, which involved shaking the bells loudly and spiritedly.

The only problem was that I was still playing the line above – a full line above! In utter shock and disbelief, I grimaced madly. So much for covering up my mistake.

In any event, the time-honored wisdom of the musician’s maxim to not betray one’s mistakes implicitly assumes that, for one, mistakes are going to happen, and when they do, we should take them in stride and not be thrown by them. For if we allow our fear of hitting the wrong note to control us, we become paralyzed and unable to effectively play our part.

In today’s reading from the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus offers what has come to be known as “The Great Commission”. In it Jesus instructs his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he says, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything that I have commanded you.”

“And remember,” he adds as a postscript, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I imagine his followers being handed a musical score of sorts, one fashioned by the divine Maker, the invisible, mystical Heart and Mind of all that is, beckoning all Christians to play their part in this glorious cosmic symphony, one promising transformative peace, born of the power to inspire and save.

Over the last year or so, I’ve re-discovered that part of learning to sing in a choir or play in a bell choir does mean making mistakes. Yet I’ve also come to realize that in time one does learn and does indeed gain confidence.

When I first joined both choirs here, I was pretty rusty and a bit unsure of myself. But as I’ve kept at it, I’ve become more comfortable and thus freer to approach any given piece of music.

If I may be permitted to stretch an analogy (as if I haven’t already!), one of the main problems I see in the church today is that we’ve become skittish about the gospel. It’s as if we’ve lost confidence individually and collectively in Christianity’s power to inspire and save.

As I’ve been saying of late, the church in general seems to have forgotten how attractive and appealing Christianity is, in part, I think, because our culture has decided it’s neither, that it is instead largely life-negating.

But if we in the church don’t think Christianity has anything to offer, why should anyone else? If we were to follow Jesus’ “Great Commission” in reaching out to our world, we might sound defensive and unsure, betraying our fear and embarrassment.

As we learn our part, however, the part God destined us to play, we grow in confidence and become ever more capable of presenting an appealing and compelling message for which our world, deep down, truly yearns, whether it knows it or not.

Witnessing for Christ does not have to be done in thoughtless, uninspired, unintelligent ways (the caricature all too often made of us). Rather, it can and should be done in a way that bespeaks the highest human flourishing, embodying the simple yet profound joy of being alive. Amen.