Why I was grumpy on Easter

Our church’s Easter celebration included a potluck breakfast and a worship service, both collaborations with the Hispanic church that shares our building. Earlier in the year, when the musicians had a meeting, we discussed having some special music for Easter. Because I don’t often feel comfortable doing special music during worship, I offered to play during the breakfast instead. The performance itself was fine, but I sure was grumpy.

A) Worship and special music.

I like to perform. I like playing music well, when I can, and I like enjoying my playing. I like being listened to and appreciated — I like when people like my music and like me.

Sometimes there seems to be some conflict, or at least tension, about how music should be done during worship. You’re not supposed to merely entertain, and you’re not supposed to draw attention to yourself or your own performance.

I value the personal and relational in music — I’m a person and the people listening are persons, and I like to do music in such a way that it fosters awareness of personhood and fosters relationship and connection.

I think there’s a good strong place for worship in that mix, because God is a person (three, actually) and is the author of personality and relationship; but it’s hard to find that place in a church setting, somehow. Sometimes church settings feel so concerned about focusing on God that it somehow translates to ignoring or denying people and selves and fun. As if by simply ignoring or denying people and selves and fun, you’re automatically focusing on God. Especially if the latest fashionable God sounds come out of your mouth or go in your ears. Other times churches can be so focused on doing the “right” music — the most relevant, the most stylish or slick, the most entertaining, and that’s just as offensive.

As for special music — in other words, a solo or small group performance as opposed to congregational participation — I have mixed feelings. Some people say they find special music really does (or can) positively impact their worship. That hasn’t happened often for me. Sometimes it seems like the performer is boasting or flaunting. Sometimes I have a hard time getting past their musical weaknesses. Very often I have a hard time getting past the accompaniment trax they use.

The point is, I don’t usually like to do special music — I’m not comfortable with it. Sometimes I’ll do something for a prelude, or for communion — that seems more reasonable than just a random solo in the middle of worship.

B) Subject / Object

I have a tendency to react instead of act — that is, I tend to live more like an object than a subject. I observe, try to discern what would be a fitting response, sometimes try to discern what response I want to do, and then I do one or the other. Sometimes this means that even when I want something and can go about pursuing it, I don’t, because I don’t want to ruffle feathers or bother anyone or call attention to myself — it’s safer to be an object sometimes. Except sometimes not getting what I want bothers me and ruffles my feathers, and I end up blaming both myself and everyone else.

We had not discussed logistics — where I would set up, whether or not I would have sound reinforcement, whether I should do background music or more concert-like material.

I planned a set suitable for a concert — some dulcimer solos, one on bowed psaltery, and several songs, mostly with guitar, one with dulcimer, and one a capella. All were selected with the Easter season in mind. I assumed I would have mics and some help with sound. I guessed I would be set up near the tables where people would be sitting.

It turned out that I was to set up in the opposite corner — rather hidden by the stage, and far from the tables. No one offered me a mic or sound check, and I didn’t want to ask for any — I didn’t want to mess up the equipment the worship team was going to be using, and I guess I figured if they didn’t offer a mic they didn’t want me to have one.

The room was loud. People were talking. That’s fine. But I should have planned a different set — no songs to sing, just pretty tunes to play. It wasn’t so bad as long as I was playing dulcimer — I like playing dulcimer even if no one’s listening. But when I picked up the guitar and began the first song, I felt — just weird.

Here I am, sitting in the corner, singing words I wrote very carefully, a song that took several years to write, a song about Eve and the Fall and the poignancy of realizing the separations the Fall precipitated, and I don’t know if anyone can hear my voice or the guitar, much less understand or even care about the words. I wasn’t sure whether to sing and play as if my audience were right there in front of me, or whether to try to sing and play loud enough that if anyone wanted to hear they could. Selfishly call attention to myself? Or be pointlessly quiet?

Someone brought over a mic after that song. I appreciated it, but I also felt foolish — like I should have known it was my job to get a mic to begin with. And besides — what if having a mic for my voice meant everyone could hear me singing (how loud did they turn it up?) but not hear the guitar or dulcimer?

The point is, I carried in my own inner tension — between my performer / subject self and my object self, and circumstances did not help clarify or resolve the tension.

(A little later, a few people came closer to sit and listen, and several applauded at times. That felt a little more comfortable — certainly more interactive, more relational. But still weird because it was still at church. Are people allowed to clap when they like music at church, if it’s during breakfast?)

C) Amy paranoia

I don’t have a guitar stand, so I lay the guitar down on its case next to my chair. On the other side, the bowed psaltery sat on its case. When I was playing dulcimer, my back was to the chair and the other instruments.

Amy is not always gentle with instruments. I like to do music with her, but only when I can pay attention.

Twice Amy was wandering around my chair as I was playing. Do I stop playing — disrupting the music and possibly calling attention to myself — in order to tell her to go to her daddy? Do I try to play and turn around to watch her at the same time? Do I forget about her and stop worrying about it, and just play, and if she breaks or untunes something deal with it later?

At least it was humorous when I stopped playing and called “Mark?” over the mic (because calling across the room without the mic didn’t get his attention, and because Amy wasn’t listening to me tell her to go to him).

D) Sharing

This is a minor detail like C) above. I sometimes have a hard time sharing. Sometimes it’s pure selfishness. Sometimes, though, it’s because when there’s too much going on, each thing loses.

In college, one fall I went on a weekend conference where I heard the gospel in a way that changed my life. I’m not normally one to preach all that much, but I so wanted to share this message, so I called a church friend and asked his help to host a meeting of our friends so I could talk to them about what I’d learned. It was arranged — but another person was also invited to speak about one of her meaningful experiences. I was upset. I just wanted us to have our separate turns — different nights — so that we could each have the full attention and significance for our message.

Maybe this sort of thing also contributed to my grumpiness on Easter. There was the breakfast, my music, the regular worship music, a kids thing, a Last Supper reenactment, a dance…

Maybe that’s not always a bad thing. Maybe it would have been fine if I’d have stuck to pretty background music. Maybe the point is that I would have felt better about my own performance if it was at the coffeeshop without any other show except the occasional noise of the coffee machines.


5 thoughts on “Why I was grumpy on Easter

  1. Ah, Marcy, I feel your pain.
    It is hard to find yourself in a position where you feel a lack of control. Thankfully God is always in control and I think He nudges into place where we can learn that terribly hard lesson. I know He has done that to me.

  2. Thank you, Jan.

    I hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of control. Looking back, I see where you can see that, especially in the subject / object section. I think that’s a little different — we’re never completely in control, but we’re rarely entirely without any power at all. Part of being a healthy person is being able to choose, will, act, etc — to know the limits, yes, but also to know the limits themselves are limited.

  3. The music thing is a hard thing for many people who are too tuned in on themselves and doing the right or wrong thing playing music in church. I dealt with this, as well. The attitude, which you probably have run into, that says anyone who shows any desire to play a solo in church is being “prideful” is not a new thing. My first wife, to whom I am no longer married, had that misconception. As with all musical performance, to truly be expressive musically, one has to attain a certain level of proficiency on their instrument or with their voice in order to perform artfully, expressively, and inspiringly (OK, that probably isn’t a word – the spell checker on here didn’t like it, anyway). To truly speak to someone and inspire or move them emotionally or even spiritually, one has to be to the point of proficiency to be past merely playing one note after the other in the correct order. One has to be able to do that with feeling, and to do it worshipfully.

    When playing in church, I always intend my performance of the music to be in worship of God. And I seek to perform expressively, letting the Holy Spirit move me. This takes years of allowing Him one step at a time to take us there. It’s a growing experience. But when one can perform, either solo or with others as special music, or in worship, and allow the Spirit to speak through the music, one has come to a wonderful place where those who hear them are inspired and blessed and moved by God through it.

    As we each grow from where we each are to the next level (we don’t get transported as on Star Trek), God uses us where we are knowing we won’t stay there, but will grow on to where he sees we can be. Being open to His Unsafeness and Goodness is scary, but really the only thing that is worth the perceived risk.

  4. Concerning the Subject / Object part….

    No matter where I am, I always find out those “mundane” details – where will I set up, will I need sound reinforcement, am I supposed to background music or put on a performance, etc., etc. I have a checklist that I go through no matter whether it’s at church or not. That saves a lot of last-moment second guessing of myself, etc. Sitting down ahead of time, thinking out the questions I need to ask and issues I need to address and writing it down to ask when being booked for any performance (in church or out) keeps me from having those types of situations. When you do that away from the performance time, it helps one do it with some measure of objectivity. Then one has to trust one’s objectivity when the time comes to use the list. 😉 It’s not easy, but does get better over time.

    The other thing is – if you’re not playing for a worship service at church, it’s like any other venue – IMHO. 😉

  5. I endeavor to play my best, before God, whether in or out of church — but it comes more naturally outside of church.

    I know what you advise in your second comment — for whatever reason, I just didn’t do it this time.

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