My children are taking music lessons.
Every morning, Toby is downstairs playing I Will Always Love You on the keyboard, while Theo is strumming the chords from Back in Black on the electric guitar, upstairs. We've made it through the whole rigmarole of online lessons through lockdown, when the music lesson was the one fixed point in their whole week. I figured out how to record Toby so that he could take his Grade 1 exam by video (he passed with Merit!) And they've spent ages on pentatonic scales, finger exercises, and chord changes.
But it's not the idea of practising endless scales and arpeggios that motivates someone to pick up an instrument. It's that moment when it all comes together and actually sounds really good. When Theo plays along with his teacher and the backing track and says, "That was great, Mum!" When Toby's teacher tells him he was "perfect" at playing a piece. Suddenly they get a glimpse of what all the practice is for.
Recently I went to a Floyd in the Flesh concert with Graham. It's a Pink Floyd tribute band, and in the second half, a couple of the songs included a saxophonist. The rest of the band were already playing, when the lady with the saxophone strolled onto the stage, nodded to the other musicians, stood there for a few minutes absorbing the rhythm - and then played the most beautiful, beautiful sax solo. She acknowledged the applause and strolled off stage again, as if it was nothing, no effort at all.
That's the dream, for anyone who makes an attempt to be musical. That idea of playing something amazing, effortlessly; of being able to join in with anyone else making music and contribute to the whole.
Of course, being able to do anything effortlessly requires a lot of hard work!
In a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul compares the spiritual gifts to playing an instrument. He says:
Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? ... So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. (1 Cor 14:7,8,12 NIV)
Try to excel, he says. Get better at these things, work at them. Sometimes I think that we have the idea that we shouldn’t be able to get better at being a Christian. Either we should be instantly brilliant at everything (because God has given us all the gifts we need) or we can never be any good at anything (because our efforts count for nothing, it’s only God’s grace).
I find both of these options quite depressing, because most of the fun in life comes from learning something and getting better at it. So I'm glad Paul talks about striving to excel, and Jesus talks about being trained for the kingdom of heaven, and Robert Schnase talks about intentional faith development!
It's encouraging to know that if I don't pray very well, I can learn to do it better - it's not just that I don't have enough of God's grace. It's encouraging to hear from others how their faith has grown and changed as they have tried new things.
And the other encouraging thing is that in faith, as in music, we don't have to be at the top-notch level to be involved. A few years ago I was part of a community gospel choir. The leader was a wonderful inspiring musician. She'd get us to breathe deep, relax our stressed shoulders, open our mouths, and somehow our mediocre voices would combine to produce something wonderful, which brightened up our whole week.
So it is with the church. Most of us won't be great evangelists or prophets, but we can still take part in the great orchestra that we call the Body of Christ, whether we're first violin or tinkling a triangle at the back. And together, we produce something which is much more than our individual talents.
I hope my children catch the vision of what music can be, so that they see why the work is necessary to experience the excitement of playing with others. And I hope we all catch the vision of what the Christian faith can be and find the enjoyment that comes from learning and growing - striving for excellence at every level, even if that final effortless beautiful music is only possible in heaven.
This post was adapted from a mini sermon that wrote for an online service over lockdown - very mini, since only two people were present to listen to it! So I thought it deserved another outing.