Risky Behavior

We were urged in Sunday’s sermon to step out of our “comfort zones” into our “stretch zones.”  As it happens, that relates to an article I’ve been working on for The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians. I’ve been talking to several musicians around the country who work for their diocese, collaborating and teaching and advising parishes, usually small ones with limited resources, about musical matters,. They are very different musicians in very different places, from New Jersey to Montana, but they were clear about a shared goal of helping everyone they work with find ways to make music an important part of spreading the Gospel. Each also, independently, wished that all the lay and clergy leaders they encountered in those parishes were more willing to take risks. To not be afraid. To step out of their comfort zones and into their stretch zones.

Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.   Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince 

I think we all have a conventional notion of what risky behavior is – something dangerous to our bodies, minds, or souls. Drug abuse, driving while intoxicated, jumping out of airplanes or climbing mountains. And then we have to begin breaking risk into two categories. Those things that are simply harmful, and those that promise in equal measure the potential for creating good or harm, success or failure, presence or absence.

There are those who find themselves at a moment in time when they could or should risk something big. But who sets out to risk something really big, without having walked a road of many, many small risks first? A road that had created an inner voice saying “yes” when everyone else might be saying “no?” And who defines what constitutes your version of risky behavior anyway? Only you, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately.  What is it, who has it, how is it demonstrated? I’m convinced that the world needs more of it, but how to nurture it in everyone?  At its heart creativity is about taking risks, isn’t it?  You’d be very surprised to learn how nervous I am about the risks I take as a church musician – hardly a risky occupation by any standard.  Getting off the organ bench and teaching a new hymn, unaccompanied, to a congregation…scary.  A feminine pronoun-ed hymn with tambourine at Easter Vigil…will everyone think that’s just weird? Changing something on Sunday morning which could potentially make the service flow more smoothly, but which is different from how it’s always been done… heart palpitations. These seem like laughably small decisions, these creative risks, but they might also be nurturing a spirit of readiness for bigger risks when the world calls.

And that’s really my point. Whether it’s caution or laziness or fear which keeps us from risky behaviors, we are always better when we’re stretched – physically, emotionally, or musically. We might just open ourselves up to a more meaningful way of being in this world when we begin by risking something small.  And then, as we are sometimes reminded before being sent back out into the world at the end of a worship service:

May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
Grace to risk something big for something good; and
Grace to remember the world is now
too dangerous for anything but the truth and
too small for anything but love.  – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin


A Life in Three Parts

We often think of things in threes. Rock, paper, scissors…primary colors…Father, Son and Holy Spirit…youth, middle age, old age.  I had the good fortune to spend a week at The Chautauqua Institution in western New York this summer, and among the many wonderful speakers I heard, two spoke about a three-part progression in our quest for a life of purpose:

San Francisco chef and food justice activist, Bryant Terry, who is chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora, believes that we must “start with the visceral to ignite the cerebral and end with the political.”  He talked of the smells and sounds of his grandmother’s kitchen as transformational, emotionally connective experiences which inspired his advocacy for food justice to help people gain information about and access to healthy food. His movement from visceral through cerebral to political is inspiring and this YouTube video gives you a glimpse: Urban Organic

That same day I heard a porch talk (Chautauqua is place where books and conversations are continuously savored on one porch or another) by author Sherrie Flick, who brought her own three-part perspective to how we might shape our lives.  She talked about developing our creativity in ways which open us up to feel more empathy for others. Not sympathy, but a heightened ability to listen to others without judging, something which just might push us a step further into a movement of contagious empathy. Those kinds of sweeping cultural shifts which reveal to us our common humanity in places where we might previously have only seen differences.  Gender equality.  LGBT rights. Black Lives Matter. DACA.  Flick’s article on this will appear later this fall in Creative Nonfiction.

There is an oft-quoted mantra for church musicians who take their work seriously which defines a church musician as a pastor, a teacher, and a musician. In that order, so Eric Routley, who wrote about these three roles of the church musician, adamantly insisted. It’s parallel to the three-legged stool Anglican theologian Richard Hooker outlined – scripture, tradition and reason. And others have talked about another three-legged stool – a Sunday morning version in which liturgy, music and preaching share the weight.

As we know, it’s an unsteady seat when one of the legs is longer, and for 35 years of working as a church musician I have tried to keep the three legs of my work equally balanced. I can’t imagine how one exists without the other in fact. I can’t teach if I don’t continue to develop my own musicianship. I can’t lead people musically if I haven’t addressed their pastoral concerns in one way or another, and as a pastor I try to teach (or model) the behaviors and skills that will inform the music – e.g. caring enough about the value of music in liturgy and spiritual growth to rehearse and prepare it properly, all in the name of offering God the very best of ourselves. Of course, let’s be honest, leading choirs can sometimes be a three-ring circus instead of a three-legged stool!

One more three-part lesson to share with you.  I have become devoted to my practice of yoga the past few years and one day the teacher I work with most often used a set of three words several times during class.  The Hindu half of me felt an East meets West moment as she urged us to think of our bodies sinking into the earth while the wind of our breath moved through our bodies and our minds became as open and light-filled as the sky.  Throughout class that day she simply said:


But what I heard was:

Father…Son…Holy Spirit

And sometimes she said:


And a three-part prayer formed: May we strive to know the mind of God, as we become the body of Christ and notice more often the moving breath of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Peace.  Namaste.  Amen.