Monday, February 4, 2013

  “Our Lives are an Experience, not a Performance”

The first time I came to Baltimore was to audition at Peabody Conservatory for their entrance in their voice department to obtain my Bachelor’s.  Auditions are pretty stressful.  As we all know, anytime we are being individually evaluated and judged we get nervous. My teachers and coaches encouraged me by saying, “Remember the faculty hearing your audition they want you to do well, they want you to succeed!” 

But I never felt that.  Standing beside a piano, at a famous institution, in front of a panel of senior voice faculty, sitting comfortably behind a table, eyes looking me over, or not looking at me at all – all I felt was scared.  The fluttering of butterflies in my stomach, the sweat constantly pouring off my palms, the slight tremor in my right knee that would invariably kick-in the minute I opened my mouth to sing – which would always be as parched as a desert, no matter how much water I had just gulped down.  Never once did I enjoy the experience of auditioning.   

And that cold February afternoon at Peabody was no different.  I finished the first aria, one of the faculty glanced at the other 4 choices I could sing for them, looked up and said, “That’s it.  Thank you.”  I went outside and told my mom I didn’t think I’d be moving to Baltimore. 

Fast forward a six months and I was moving to Boston having been accepted at the New England Conservatory.  Now you all know the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice!”  Well that’s exactly what conservatory students do from 6am in the morning until midnight. Anytime you walk into a conservatory building, you will be surrounded by the sounds of practicing. 

On my third day at NEC, I finally walked into one and closed the door and listened to all the beautiful music being played and sung around me.  Who are these people, I thought.  They don’t sound like they even need to practice!  And I pushed a note on the piano to start my warm-ups and opened my mouth, and out came, “Ahhh,  ahhhh.”  Nothing, nothing was there.   

The auditions were over and I had passed but I was still terrified.  Terrified of someone in another room hearing me and thinking, who let her in here?  And that terror brought an epiphany: everything from now, the next four years and ever after, everything would be a performance for which I was to be judged.   

People, clergy too, sometimes view worship as a performance.  Just this week I heard someone say, “I love church.  It’s such good theater, right?” Wrong.  But I understand where that’s coming from; special clothes, designated parts, reading scripted words, enacting choreographed movements, and stylized gestures.  And when we do all of that standing front of others we certainly want it all to go perfectly. It can feel like performing.   

Which is why when there is a baptism rehearsal or wedding rehearsal it is important to say to the participants: this is not a performance.  This is worship, the work of the people.  And our purpose isn’t to perform for God, it is to give thanks to God. And, thanks to our liturgy, I’m always 99% sure that will happen, no matter what else does.

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across a Harvard Business Review article on job performance that used a worship experience as the foundation for the author’s point.  Peter Bregman, a CEO, TV commentator, author, speaker, consultant, etc. and he was reflecting on his wedding rehearsal.   

He remembers he and his wife being very nervous as they worried whether or not they could remember all there was to say and do. Their minister eventually took them aside, looked into their eyes and said, “This is one of the most important days of your life so try to remember:  this is not a performance, it’s an experience.”

Thirteen years later, Bregman’s epiphany was how applicable that is to our work.  Many of us go through our days performing, and feeling judged.  And, let’s be honest he writes, it’s not just a feeling, it’s true.  We judge ourselves against each other.  We know others do the same with us.  We judge our work – we judge the work of others – our bosses, our colleagues, competitors, parents, peers and colleagues.  There are so many people for us to impress.  We are always reinforcing the experience of being judged – which, in turn, fuels our desire to perform. 

And this, he argues, is not only a recipe for stress and unhappiness; it also leads to mediocre performance, because, if you want to get better at your work you need to experiment with an open mind, to try and fail, to willingly accept and learn from any outcome.[i] 

Performance is all about me - will I look good, will I impress, will I get accolades, approval, and acceptance; whereas the mindset of experiencing is exploration and openness.  It is being comfortable with who you are, and what you offer, always trying to see, “what would happen if...”   

“When you're performing, your success is disturbingly short-lived. As soon as you've achieved one milestone or received a particular standing ovation, it's no longer relevant. Your unending question is: what's next? When you're experiencing though, it's not about the end result, it's about the moment. You're not pursuing a feeling after, you're having a feeling during. You can't be manipulated by a fickle, outside measures because you're motivated by a stable internal one.” 

Now maybe some of you are thinking I’ve decided Harvard Business Review preaches better than our scripture?  No.  But spiritual wisdom going back centuries pervades much of current professional leadership psychology.  And this concept is one of them.  Experience over performance, letting go of judgment – that is a big part of the Christian life and a truth that appears in all of our readings this morning; but I will highlight two. 

Jeremiah, in our first lesson, is terrified that God is asking him to perform.  It’s as if he is at an audition he feels utterly incapable of passing.  God anoints him a prophet and his reply – a what?  I can’t even speak – I’m just a boy!  But God equips the called, not the other way around.  God says, you can do this. Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  I have been with you since before you were even born!  There is nothing for Jeremiah to prove. God wants him for who he is, because that’s who God created.  God is asking Jeremiah to be open to the experience God is presenting, trusting whatever it may bring.  

And in the gospel, we hear Jesus who is motivated by that stable, internal presence – that peace we prayed for in our opening collect.  Jesus is not in his synagogue to perform.  He reads scripture which wows all who are present.  They hear it as a performance, showering him with accolades for his gracious recitation.  But Jesus keeps talking.  And he speaks some hard truths about how God wants them to be engaging in experience, not performing in worship.   Just like the prophets Elijah and Elisha did in the past. They let God lead them out of Israel to new experiences, unknown places and unknown people to help and heal.   And those words clearly pushed some buttons, because apparently everyone in that synagogue got so enraged they literally charged.

Picture if you will a team on a football field.  The offensive line rushing to tackle Jesus!  Chasing him towards the end zone with their goal being to push him off a cliff!   But in some inventive play, because he was always in the moment, Jesus zigs and zags his way right through them and continues on his way. 
Now why would I chose a football analogy today?  Because as we all know there is an exciting performance in the life of this community tonight, yes (Superbowl Sunday)?  And since I haven’t lived here since college, it sure seems to this outsider, everyone has been caught up in the experience of the Spirit that will lead to that moment.  And, as heretical as it sounds, I bet there are people who would rather the performance never came because they don’t want to lose that spirit.  That feeling is what everyone in this town wants to last.

We do more than improve on our work when we move from the mindset of performance to the mindset of experience.  That is a spiritual practice - requiring practice.  But experience is where we meet God.  A God who is not looking for us to perform, but who is asking us be present and open to what is going on around us and to live into those experiences - with faith, hope, and love. 

Because our lives are not a performance, our lives are a gift; so may we open ourselves to the gift of that experience and where God is calling.  Amen.

4th Sunday After Epiphany The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30 Church of the Good Shepherd