09 March 2014

Who to Blame?

This was the title of today's sermon at the Lutheran Church where I serve as pianist since three weeks ago. (Perhaps I mentioned that I landed this gig when a church member, called as I was for jury duty about a month ago, recognized my name when the court clerk called the roll. Her brother, also an active member of the church, and his wife were introduced to me when I arrived in Holly Springs. They attended our holiday party and even stuck around to play Dixit after most of the other guests left. When the former pianist announced plans to move to Kansas, my name came up as someone in the community to consider as a replacement.)

Artist:  David Blaine Clemons "Who's to Blame?"
When I reached the church this morning, only the minister had arrived. He left the podium and his service preparations to greet me as I entered.  After hugging me (a little too tightly...again...it is apparently something I'll encounter every time I see him unless I make a request) and exchanging the usual "How are you/fine, and you" lines, he promised to try to provide me better signals from the pulpit this week.

Last week, during my first unsupervised performance, I missed a cue to accompany a 4-bar recitation sung by the congregation. I consider myself on a learning curve and anticipate some mistakes as I ascend it. I told him "I'm learning. I'm imperfect."

He suggested that we're all on a learning curve and noted my comment was in keeping with the theme for his sermon. He offered that lots of people are quick to criticize and regularly want to point a finger of blame at someone else when, in fact, they are the one at fault; and that only
God has ample breadth of vision to know who is truly at fault.

He expounded on this last idea a couple of times during the service, in the improvised prayers as well as in the sermon text, reminding us, for example, that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have limited authority since God is the true "Supreme" arbiter. "Just because the Supreme Court says it's right doesn't mean it's right" he said.

In a debate or conversational setting, I might have voiced some of the numerous questions that arose for me about his line of thinking. As it was, standing in the main hall of a Lutheran Church 10 minutes before Sunday service commenced, I did not "go there" with him.

Speaking about the human tendency to blame someone else, he told the story of a woman on his street who has criticized her husband many times "in front of people" in the12 years he's known her. He recently challenged her opinion about something by saying "Christine, you see it that way but not everyone else does."

He was happy and a little proud this morning to add, "And for a few months now, she's not so critical and she'll say 'Well, at least, that's what I think but I could be wrong' when she gives her opinion."

He said, "It must be terribly painful living day-in and day-out thinking you're perfect and right all time." I was listening with heightened humility after a few days in a voluntary, Lenten sacrifice of sarcasm and mean-spirited criticism. I responded that evidence of the imperfection of the world -- ourselves included -- is apparent; the perfectionist's dream is shattered in a hundred different ways every minute.  The lists of potential targets for our criticism and blame are long. "Yes," he agreed, "In our praise, we Christians acknowledge that only God is perfect."

For a long time now, whenever God's perfection is proclaimed I ponder the Christian tenet that we are created in His image:  So are we perfect or is God imperfect?


"The World was lost through one man -- Adam -- and redeemed through one man -- Jesus Christ" was one of a couple refrains repeated in today's sermon. For me, a knotted inquiry lay at the heart of the entire service.  The specter of a Perfect Being creating an endlessly flawed World arose again and again; also the additional conundrum of Christ's heroic compassion, dying for the "sins" of all people, for all time...and, yet, the ongoing requirement in most Christian denominations for those who believe in Him AND His saving grace to confess and confess again their unworthiness because of their relentlessly sinful natures.

Driving home, I decided that I really had no interest in discussing such considerations with the pastor -- or with most other Christians in my acquaintance -- primarily because their minds are closed, bound tightly by a set of rote, unexamined, routinely-rehearsed beliefs. There's no possibility for breakthrough, transformation, change of heart...

I have sworn off mean-spirited criticism but not criticism generally. Critical thinking, for example --  listening and pondering and exploring ideas and other stimuli -- is permitted. So I entertained a full range of cognitive interactions with the sermon this morning: deep listening, rejection, challenge, inquiry...  The capacity in humans for such activity is a gift. Those sites of interaction where the gift is willfully squandered or suppressed or denounced are at best amusing to me and, at worst, repulsive and/or dangerous.

Like sack racing:  fun and funny at a community picnic; but what if a trusted adviser defined it as a best practice for living and walking on two legs was stigmatized within the community? What if people who rejected the sack were viewed as heretics and scorned? What if, their legs encased in burlap and their hands gripping the edges of the bag, people were routinely falling and injuring their faces on the pavement, and then gathering weekly to comfort each other and sing songs like "Broke Another Tooth Today"and "My Soul Hops Happily"?

Today was my third Sunday at the piano and my fifth time at the church.  I understand from the liturgy and the hymns that as a non-believer I am at risk, to be pitied or converted, and under Satan's sway (since there are only two teams in this worldview:  God's team and Satan's team). I am not personally injured by any of this. I don't feel judged or defensive or attacked. Nor am I, so far, feeling moved to reconsider my rejection of Christian practice. I like playing piano. I like providing accompaniment to singing, group singing in particular. I like having work that allows me to do something I love. I loving confronting again the enormous and privileged endowment of being able to play piano.
Artist:  Thomas Slatterwhite Noble, 1869, "The Salem Martyr"

I am curious to see whether and for how long this community can tolerate an unrepentant sinner in their midst. Feedback suggests my musical work there is appreciated and greatly enjoyed. "R______ was solid but you are so musicial!" remarked a member after last week's solo debut.

In the fictional account of my sojourn with the Lutherans, on the occasion of some disaster -- busted pipes in the kitchen or a car wreck on the front lawn or ??? -- a funny feeling in one member grows into a whispered suspicion....and then into scattered but muted grumblings
throughout the community and finally bursts forth, blaming the non-believer at the piano for the misfortune.