The early Methodist church practiced a tradition that I didn't learn about until just this year - the Covenant Prayer service. Take a moment to read.
"Let me be full or empty."
"Let me have or not have."
"I yield all things . . ."
"So be it."
This text has been treated a number of different ways. Some versions of it will include the phrase, "Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you" right before the section that says, "I freely and heartily yield all things . . ." These are not words we should be comfortable with if we're really thinking about them.
They are not words meant to comfort us. They are meant to challenge us.
Sometimes very good things are very difficult.
My own faith community participated in a Wesley Covenant service this past Sunday morning. It has come to me in a timely manner. I needed to say out loud, "Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you." I need to be saying that every single day, multiple times a day. It needs to become a mantra.
I'm a church musician who very often finds herself in a "healing" role - that role usually has a clear beginning and ending.
I have lots of friends working in church music. When I say "church music" I'm mostly talking about folks who accompany singers using instruments, people who direct choirs or groups of instrumentalists, people who stand on stages and sing for worship services, and even a lucky few who are writing original music for their churches. Anybody who offers this kind of skill to a worshiping community is a church musician.
My church musician buddies came into this work for different reasons.
Some of them came into congregations that might be considered "high church" because they adore the great choral works, most of which are religious. These traditionally oriented worship services and chancel choirs are great places to engaged with great, beloved anthems that people have been singing for hundreds of years.
Some of them came into this work because it was part time and the sight reading was simple - my accompanist friends do their best to support everybody who is "up front" singing a solo or directing a choir. They play the ultimate supportive role, making it possible for those often called "the talent" to sing - playing pianos, guitars, pipe organs, drums, violas, and a whole host of other things (ALWAYS GIVE YOUR ACCOMPANISTS LOTS OF LOVE AND RESPECT- THESE ARE IMPORTANT PEOPLE - SAYING THIS IN ALL CAPS IS IN NO WAY OVER DONE - YOUR ACCOMPANIST IS ALWAYS VALUABLE, ALWAYS NEEDED, AND ALWAYS DESERVING OF YOUR PROFESSIONAL CONSIDERATION . . . . never assume that it is appropriate to walk all over them . . . . and never ever ever assume that they play only for you - they play because they love to play and you and I are just fortunate that they would play WITH us - accompanists are partners in creative endeavors, not servants to a soloist or ensemble . . . . end rant).
Some of my friends have found their home on a contemporary "stage" in front of a congregation that worships with the help of a rock band (don't go thinking "that's blasphemous" - Bach was on a pedestal and he is about as old school as we get these days - everybody treats their version of modern music like rock music). They often have a very deep faith backing up their songs, but if we're all being super honest here - most of us church musicians enjoyed performing before we chose to do this. It's what we learned how to do. We learned it in college or private instrumental lessons or by playing on open mic nights in coffee shops. We already knew we wanted to be up in front of an audience.
My college career, which was a Church Music degree program to begin with, consisted of many performances, countless private lessons, lots of critique, lots of practice, and then even more performances. There is nothing wrong with this. It's a performing art.
Some of my friends came into this work because they felt a spiritual calling - often it's a combination of that sense of calling and also a love of the other things I've already mentioned - the ability to perform, the love of performance, and comfort with the needed skill set.
What's the big deal, Sarah? What are you rambling about? - yeah I'm totally rambling. But I promise I have a point.
The Covenant Prayer makes me uncomfortable.
It is me admitting out loud to God and other people that I am willing to lay all of my intellect, talent, and ambition on the line for whatever is useful at that moment. It is me saying out loud that I am ok being "laid aside" for a purpose bigger than my own.
A couple of years ago I went through a very dark and bitter experience. Never in my whole creative life have I felt as abandoned and ignored as I did during that time. Never in my whole life had I watched such a tangible and desired dream become available and then immediately unavailable . . . nonexistent overnight. It was heart breaking. I was depressed over it. I was angry and confused. Laid aside from the thing I thought was going to be best for me.
What came from that? What good came from that bad experience?
Good was not immediately yanked out of my bitterness. I'm just being straight forward with you about this. It was ugly. I was ugly about it. And I can't tell you that my behavior was good or that my heart was in a right place as I worked my way through it.
A few years removed here is what I know:
- I love disappearing behind the giftedness of other people while coaching music for the purposes of the church. I love to coach a choir, a soloist, or a group of instrumentalists . . . and then I love for them to go on without me. It's a teacher thing.
- I love to write original music inspired by my faith in God, but I don't love to attach that music directly to my church community. I would rather take that music out into different communities. It's healthier for me that way.
- I trust that God can help me know when to be employed with my gifts in the church and when to be laid aside from sharing those gifts in the church. Because it's not always my turn. Very often it's somebody else's turn . . . .
- I have learned that a Music Minister's job is not to have his or her dreams be realized by other people . . . or to use other people to make their artistic dreams come true. It is to help other people to find their unique place . . . their dream . . . their way of sharing giftedness with the faith community.
- I have learned that it's ok for me to have performance outlets away from the Church so that when I am within the Church, I am not pinning all of my performance related desires on the face of a worship service. Because . . . news flash . . . . NOBODY IS SUPPOSED TO BE WORSHIPING MY TALENT OR ANYBODY ELSE'S TALENT . . . . that's idolatry. That's kind of bad.
You're thinking, "That doesn't sound good, Sarah. That actually sounds kind of crappy."
It doesn't sound crappy, friend. It sounds humble. And there is a greater freedom in this than I have experienced in a long time.
Some of my buddies have struggled because they only ever perform in a church. It's the only place they ever get to sing or play. And when someone else is playing or singing there, they automatically face that artistic jealousy we tend to feel when someone else is in the spotlight. Hey - this is me, too. I've felt this way, too.
The freedom comes from the trust that if I have useful gifts, they will be used. They will be used when and where they are needed. When it is time, I will know. When it is not time, I will experience peace in my silence. I'm serious. I have experienced peace in my own silence - peace from catching bronchitis right before a big liturgical season and giving away every solo I had scheduled for myself - peace from being laid aside for a short time. Or a long time. Trust.
Trust that even though our artistic culture says that we must be THE BEST, we can turn a deaf ear and smile on somebody else's talent knowing that our own talent will be smiled on by somebody else some other time.
This is the Grace that lets deeply creative people function together and give to each other without bickering. This is a promise worth making. That's what a Covenant is, remember? A promise.