I love Bach.
I love just about everything written by him for the piano (and other instruments, but I can't play any of that).
This stuff just flows straight from my hands into the keyboard and the rhythm is relentless and the beat is very steady. It's emotional music, but the emotion isn't so erratic as the rapid heart rate I get from playing Brahms or Chopin. It's a reserved kind of expression - everything is in the harmony, the structure, and all you have to do is play straight through it, keeping good time.
Oh - and if you want to hear some nifty recordings of Bach keyboard works, go find some Glenn Gould recordings. Fascinating person. Great pianist. Here - listen to this one while you read:
Go on - click that "play" button and zone out for a minute.
Today I came in from work, and it had been a good day. I baked some bread and ate dinner with my husband. I went to the piano to write, but was unable. There was just too much going on in my head. No focus. Do you ever feel like that?
I tried to write for a good 45 minutes and finally gave up.
My first instinct in this situation is to pull out Bach's French Suites. Something about this austere, tuneful writing puts my mind at ease.
I played straight through 3 of them (under tempo . . . I'm not that good, y'all).
A familiar section seemed so comfortable that I brought the tempo up and attempted to fill it full of ornaments and turns. Everything fell apart.
I'm ashamed to tell you what I was thinking about when it all fell apart - notes tumbling away from my fingers, odd sharps and flats slipping into the carefully crafted melody.
I was thinking about what other people would think of me if I played this piece up to tempo in public - "They'd be impressed." and "They'd look at me differently then."
You can't think about things like that when you're playing.
You can only think about the page in front of you - the notes running through your ears, the keys beneath your fingers, and why you love the music . . . . not why other people should love you.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called "If" that I've held close to myself for many years.
Good words about life.
Every line is wisdom.
At one point it says, "Don't look too good nor talk too wise."
Friends, can I confess to you that I struggle with this deeply? At every level?
The thing that distracts me most from the peace I receive in the presence of God is my own wish to be seen as good and wise. It's just like playing a familiar piece of music and having the whole thing crumble in your hands.
When you stop looking at the page in front of you . . . when you stop looking at God . . . everything that makes meaning falls away. The harmony. The meaning in our lives.
My job as a teacher is to create meaning for kids - to take abstract concepts and make them concrete (music is extremely abstract to a 7 year old).
God takes all of the abstracted corners of my existence and pulls them together into something concrete - something that can be worked with. This is really how I feel about my faith.
But when I look away from God and allow my mind to wander back to those old questions, I get lost.
What am I worth?
If I wear this will it make me fit better? - yeah I still wonder that at age 27.
Colossians 3:12-14 has been running through my head recently. It says this:
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony."
When I was younger I had the opportunity to travel several summers with a group of people who wore this kind of spiritual clothing. I can remember the feeling of peace I had being in the presence of so many people who were intentionally loving, forgiving, humble, and kind. A huge group of them! It was amazing. I learned a lot through those trips, working with so many good people.
Practicing the presence of God is a lot like practicing the piano. Slow and steady. Full of distractions and mistakes. But when we train our eyes on the page in front of us and focus on the melody, we find it a little easier. We're able to see the meaning where there was no meaning before.
And when we do mess up?
It helps to have a community of people who are wearing that clothing - the humility and peace . . . the forgiveness. Those things "bind everything together in perfect harmony."
So I put my Bach away and I turned out the light in the piano room.
I thought, "It's not the fault of the music that I get distracted the way I do. It's the culture we live in."
We want so badly to be a certain way.
It's in our Christian culture, too.
There aren't any easy answers. There's just the practice of the presence of God.
Practice makes Permanent.
Nobody ever said anything about perfect. Not in this world.
And that's OK.