True confessions of a reluctant music student lead to several ideas we can apply in religious community: Forget perfection. Practice in a group. Draw power from a deeper source. This text reflects the sermon as it was preached to the UU Congregation of York on September 27, 2015, by Rev. Lyn Cox. UUCY posts audio tracks from sermons on their web page.
“Shake, shake, shake,” egg shakers rattled from random places across the dark ballroom. “Tick-tack, tiki-tiki-tack,” a doumbek asserted from one corner. From the other corner, a djembe called out, “Bum. Bah-bah-BAH-da-DAH-da-Bum. Bah-bah-BAH-da-DAH-da-Bum.”
Unitarian Universalist youth entered the center of the circle, some moving to the music, some moving to their own rhythm. Other youth and their adult advisors stayed in the circle, supporting drummers with clapping and chanting.
We had come from all over the continent to meet at General Assembly. General Assembly is the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalist congregations; part training, part business meeting, and part revival. This event was youth-led worship. Youth and their supporters from all over worshiped as one community. Accents and inside jokes that distinguished one region from another disappeared into the circle of rhythm.
I have seen and heard music cement community bonds, transcend languages, keep tradition alive, and keep cultures moving forward. Although I’ve been here at the UU Congregation of York for a short time, I have already learned that music is very important here. Music gives us a unified experience in a diverse group. It reassures us that, whatever voice we bring, that this circle of sound is a religious home.
I’ve learned a lot from music, and I’m still learning. Three lessons from music come to mind. Forget perfection. Practice in a group. Draw power from a deeper source. All three of these lessons lead into one overall point: change and flexibility help us to be together in song and in religious community.
I remember when I first started studying guitar as an adult student, I had an experience when change and flexibility made a difference. Sheet music swam in front of my eyes. My left hand curled around the guitar neck in a death grip while my right hand turned to spaghetti. “Try again,” my guitar teacher ordered. My chest felt tight. I had been trying for six weeks to make my fingers form an “F” chord. At home, I would try, fail, get frustrated, and go do something else. My hand just refused to follow instructions. It was even worse when someone else could hear me.
From the back of my throat, an unfamiliar feeling pushed through my sinuses. Public tears leaked out from my eyes. “I can’t,” I croaked, and shambled out of the room halfway through the lesson.
I was almost to the door of the shop when I turned around and approached the counter. “I’d like to try a different teacher,” I said. The owner raised his eyebrows, then lowered them in concern as he saw my face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I think maybe I’m not capable of learning,” I said.
“Of course you are. You just need to figure out your own way. I thought for years that I couldn’t learn because of school. Teachers told me all kinds of things because I couldn’t learn their way. It took me awhile, but I proved they were wrong.”
“The pace seems reasonable, but it’s harder pushing than I can do.”
“The pace that’s reasonable is your own pace. Let me set you up with Melissa next week.”
I walked the two blocks back home and hid under the covers. The next week, I showed up a couple of minutes early to meet Melissa, hoping that I wouldn’t run into my other teacher. She welcomed me in, and we had a conversation about my goals.
“Someone told me that adult students expect to play perfectly without practicing. Do you think that’s true?”
Melissa looked thoughtful. “I think adult students get frustrated. The kids can play and have fun with it and not worry if it’s perfect.”
We tried “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I couldn’t keep up with every chord, but I could play the first chord in every bar. “You taught me a new technique,” Melissa said. “Play the beginning of each bar until you’re ready to fill the rest in.”
With affirmation like that, practicing became easier. My panic didn’t go away entirely, but we found ways around it. We broke songs down into smaller parts, or my teacher an easier version in her vast files, or we would come back to it later. Sometimes we would start with an easy arrangement, then she would pencil in the more difficult techniques. All of those techniques were things I might have remembered from being a music student as a kid, but somehow my adult brain forgot that it’s OK to slow down and try things differently.
My grip on the idea of perfection had been so tight that I almost choked myself. I thought that if I couldn’t do something perfectly, it wasn’t worth doing at all. Now I think that perfection isn’t the point when it comes to living things. I practice music because it helps me to connect with people and with the traditions I love. My abilities may never be ready for prime time, and I’m approaching a capacity to be OK with that. The relationships are more important. On good days, I can forget perfection.
Forget perfection. Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. The perfect is the enemy of the good. (Voltaire) Perfection belongs on a diagram or in a box or behind a glass case. Music and religious community are living systems, interdependent and adaptable.
Practicing in a group offers another challenge. When two or more lovely melody lines meet, they usually have to be adjusted in tempo or key in order to fit together.
Group practice is important because it keeps us limber, stretching as we reach out to one another. Singing with a group made me really listen to myself and to the people around me. One can benefit from being self-absorbed for only so long. Group practice helps me feel connected to other people and to the traditions I share with other people. Sometimes group practice helps me to appreciate the diversity of traditions in my community.
I was engaged in that most holy Unitarian Universalist practice of a committee meeting. We opened with hymn #211. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” I closed my eyes and belted out the next line. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder …” I stopped abruptly. The rest of the committee trailed off and looked at me. The next words out of my mouth were about to be the ones I learned in the United Church of Christ as a child, “soldiers of the cross.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t right for this particular group. (They would have challenged the religion-as-war part; the Jesus part was fine.) I kept my eyes and ears open as we tried again.
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing on.” The second time through, I was more aware of the group forming a network of sound. As I savored the words, I began to feel more like a part of the group than a loud voice outside of it. Making a mistake and learning from it had given me an opportunity to learn from a challenge in a group setting. The other members were forgiving and encouraging. I think of them fondly every time I hear that tune.
Practicing in a group is good for silence as well as sound. I was advising a campus ministry group, and the priest of the local Zen community was visiting as a guest speaker. We were in a busy student lounge, surrounded by lunchtime conversation and people rushing to class. Our guest led us in a two-minute silent meditation. Two minutes might not seem like a long time, but it was for me. As we emerged, we noticed that the lounge around us had gotten quiet. Beeping cell phones and watches had stopped. Nearby voices were calmer.
If I had been alone, I would have dismissed that impression as my imagination and forgotten about it. As a group, we affirmed the experience for each other. We felt like we had been through something unusual together, something that brought benefit to others around us. That feeling fueled the group for months.
As a side note, another thing I learned about that is that meditation and sacred space do not have to be silent, sanitized experiences. Spiritual practice can take place among living beings who cough, wiggle, coo, have rumbling stomachs, and maybe occasionally have to step out and return. A quiet place can be helpful sometimes, yet there is also a benefit in finding our center in the midst of the spirit of life and love.
Practice in a group. This lesson is as necessary for spiritual practice as it is for music. A religious community no less than a band or a choir relies on the ability of its members to listen to one another and to adapt. Members of musical groups and faith communities draw closer by reflecting their experiences back to each other and by meeting challenges together.
Forgetting perfection and practicing in a group help open me up to further instruction. A third thing I’ve learned from music is to draw power from a deeper source. By a “deeper source,” I mean something that’s larger than ourselves. That can be heritage or enduring values or a higher power. There are resources we draw from, sometimes without realizing it. Music and religious community can open avenues for those resources.
Music holds some kind of magic locator for that which is larger than ourselves. It helps us access transcendent mysteries that give us strength. I think religious communities can do the same things. Sometimes, tapping into a deeper source can make a person a little uncomfortable.
An interesting thing happens to UU communities in December each year. We sing Christmas carols, but don’t quite have full consensus about how they should be sung. There are passionate advocates for and against every perceived change to old favorites. Each person has to decide whether and how to connect with group singing.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is one of the hymns that evokes my personal struggle with this. In my childhood memory, the lyrics are:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
These lyrics are already a translation, they may or may not be the best expression of the original lyrics, but that’s what I remember. In our Unitarian Universalist hymnal, #225, the lyrics are:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And with your captive children dwell
Give comfort to all exiles here
And to the aching heart bid cheer
I don’t always know when I open my mouth which version is going to come out. I imagine that the one set is more connected with a text that’s been handed down since the 12th century, but also evokes political and religious chauvinism that I’m uncomfortable with. The other version feels more connected to the tradition of questioning and reforming, a faith that strives to be relevant.
As I look ahead to this year, I find that the lyrics don’t matter. I’ll sing whatever my neighbors are singing. With either version, I step into an ever-changing stream of song, a tune that carries hope in its currents. We all have felt like exiles. The music can give comfort. The specifics aren’t important.
By relaxing my expectations of perfection, listening to the group around me, and tapping into the deeper source behind the lyrics, music becomes a spiritual practice that transcends the particular.
Music is both a metaphor and a practice for religious community. In religious community, clinging to an idea of perfection makes it difficult to forgive ourselves and each other. We need that salve of forgiveness. Forgetting perfection makes it easier to adapt to changing rhythms.
Group practice is as important to religious community as group rehearsal is to a band. Whatever your practice of choice, be it meditation or prayer or hymns or community service, practice with a small group from this congregation. Say to each other, “We are doing this together as Unitarian Universalists.”
At UUCY, there are plenty of activities and small groups to choose from. Volunteer in the community garden, such as at the apple picking party. Join the choir on Thursday nights. Come to the drum circle on the second Friday of the month. Help build and maintain sacred spaces with the Building & Grounds crew. There are dozens of ways to engage in mind, body, and spirit.
Music offers the experience of something larger than ourselves, a supportive power available even when our individual resources are low. I hope this congregation is such a support for you.
Forget perfection. Practice in a group. Draw from a deeper source. These three melodies weave together to give us courage and joy for strengthening community. This is how we open our ears to the song. We don’t have to be afraid of some change. Open your hearts, everyone. With commitment, both music and religious community can offer a release from perfection, increase companionship, and open a channel to a deeper source. May it be so for you and for all of us together.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.