Stage fright

By Marshall Scott

“See the man with the stage fright,

Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.

He got caught in the spotlight,

But when we get to the end

He wants to start all over again.”

(From “Stage Fright” by The Band)

I am commonly amused, and sometimes surprised, by the music that pops into my head. So, I had to wonder what it was going on when, as I thought about the arrival of Lent, the refrain from “Stage fright” popped in my head.

Perhaps it was that thought that I am accountable, and in that some stage fright. I know that I’m progressive, and open to historical critical interpretation of Scripture and all of that; but I still retain, if only for my own reflection, a pretty classical image of being accountable. I still think about literally “standing before the Throne” – yeah, literally. I trust in God’s mercy; but I still have this expectation of uncomfortable reflection on some events in my life that I’m not proud of, with perhaps some uncomfortable conversations with others who were involved. Talk about being caught in the spotlight!

And I’m there with the thought that I need to give it all my might. There is a thought I hear often enough from patients and family members: “I don’t go to church as often as I should, but I try to be a good person.” And I’m certain each of them is trying to be a good person, as am I. If perhaps we’re not always giving it all our might, we’re certainly trying for consistency. At the same time, every time I hear that, I think I hear an undertone of, “And I’m self-conscious, even anxious, when I think of how many times I fall short.” I know I hear that undertone in my own thoughts.

So, perhaps what I’m most aware of is that desire at a point of transition to start all over again. I long ago gave up resolutions at New Year’s Day, and yet year after year I stop to think about my discipline for Lent. I feel the need to stop, and to start over again.

That makes sense with the music, doesn’t it? Music has been an important part of my life, whether I’m participating or simply enjoying what I’m hearing. I have been part of various performing groups through my education. That has given me a clear memory of how one learns music. There is that old joke of the tourist who asked the street musician how to get to Carnegie Hall; to which the busker answered, “Practice, practice, practice!” That’s how we learn music: we practice over and over again. And, we don’t just practice whole pieces, whole songs. We break them down into pieces, and each piece gets its own attention. Piece by piece, and again once we have put the pieces together, we practice and practice – which is to say, each time we get to the end, we start all over again.

Growth in our relationship with God is like that. Indeed, any relationship is like that. I love, and in loving try to listen. All too often, I don’t listen well enough, whether from distraction or sleepiness or, to be honest, a moment of indifference. And with each little slip, no matter how brief, I have, in some sense, to start all over again. Some small part of the trust has been lost, and I have to step back, to recover some lost ground. My beloved wife and I say often enough, “Marriage is one negotiation after another;” but we might just as well say that it is “one rehearsal after another.” So, with each small slip, and also with the regular renewals of birthdays, anniversaries, and other family celebrations, we step back and start again, to practice and practice and so do better.

So we find ourselves in our relationship with God. The great Christian spiritual writers reminded us of this. I think especially of Walter Hilton’s Stairway of Perfection. He leads the reader up steps in the relationship with God, beginning with that “chiefest of sins,” pride. He notes, though, that the “stairway” is more a spiral than a straight line, and that sooner or later we will be brought back again to our pride, and need to begin again.

Hilton only confirms our contemporary experience. Not long ago, on that rare Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, we were called not to worry, translating a Greek word, merimnaw, that suggested just this splitting of our memory, our attention. We are all prone to find our consciousness, our very lives divided, and to allow our attention to our life in Christ to slip. It happens however hard we try for consistency, and once again we’re not listening as well to the words of Christ, to the call of the Spirit. By God’s grace, at that point we have the opportunity to step back, to start all over again, and by rehearsing go father than we had gone before the slip.

And we have Lent. As in our relationships there are those special events, those birthdays, anniversaries, and family celebrations, so in our life in Christ there are special events. We might have these thoughts at Advent, or even at each baptism, when together we repeat the Baptismal Covenant. However, the most pronounced of those annual family celebrations, if you will, is Lent. We are called to “a devout and holy Lent,” not to wallow in our wretchedness, but to stop, go back a few measures, and start again.

So, perhaps it wasn’t so strange that as I thought about Lent the refrain of “Stage Fright” popped into my head. Certainly, when we are honest and reflect on our accountability, we can be uncertain, anxious, and perhaps a bit resistant. We might fear that bright light in which God sees us, and our realization that in that light even our best efforts are punctuated by our moments of distraction, inattention, and indifference. And we can also embrace and appreciate God’s grace in Christ, so that, knowing that Christ is forgiving us, we can also forgive ourselves. We can literally practice our faith, rehearsing those passages where we struggle until we do better. We know we will not see perfection, except in and through Christ. But with each difficult passage, and with each completed song we can go farther; even if when we get to the end we need to start all over again.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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