excellence | identity

Originally published on www.madenewblog.com.

All I really remember about my first few years of lessons is that I wanted to play.   My brother and sister both played, and it looked like fun.  When I started it was the pure joy of creating something beautiful and meaningful out of nothing.  Poof – Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”  Just by pressing down white and black keys, I could make tears come to my mom’s eyes.  How cool is that?

During my teen years, I got serious.  As a teenager and college student, I entered wholeheartedly into my craft.  I was good at piano, people liked it when I played, and I had fun doing it.  Everybody told me I should pursue it as far as I could go, educationally and otherwise; that I had a career ahead of me.  So I pushed ahead.  Possibly due to the trauma of puberty (or something more inherent), I began placing higher and higher value on the affirmation and criticism of others.  I began to fear performing.  I began to stress out about recitals and competitions and master classes.

To avoid what I perceived as the cardinal sin of the musician – messing up in performance – I pushed myself harder, practiced more, made sure every note was as perfect as possible, every page memorized.  I Christianized this concoction of pride and fear by labeling it “pursuing excellence”.  That somehow rang better in my ears than “self-aggrandizing” or “wildly afraid of failing”.  In fact, I think that’s where it all intersected – concurrently in my teenage Christian life,  I was struggling deeply with the shame of sins I couldn’t shake, and the desire to be admired for my holiness in front of my peers.  Naturally, this spilled into my musical life.

As a young pianist, if I didn’t do well on a performance I blamed it on everything from letting my pride get in the way to not practicing hard enough.  It most certainly would have been wiser to memorize Bach than memorize the Lost Woods maze sequence from Ocarina of Time (a hypothetical situation, of course… but if you’re interested: right, left, right, left, straight, left, right). The point is that it came down, somehow, to not loving the Lord enough to discipline myself and work hard.  Because after all, He’s the one who gave me my abilities, and wouldn’t it be a waste of those God-given gifts to not work hard(er) on them?  And isn’t that what God wants – for us to hone our talents for His glory?

We are given such good gifts in the arts.  The ability to manipulate sound into exquisite sonic patterns that can rip a soul apart or mend it.  The opportunity to mix and match colors, lines, textures and shapes to represent something of profound meaning.  Communicating depth of feeling and truth with little black lines and arcs on a blank page.  These are neither small nor simple gifts, and therefore not easily mastered, if ever.  Thus, we have a joyous responsibility to play skillfully, to seek excellence in our craft, because honestly – such truth and beauty are worth pursuing.

But my heart in this matter was centering my pursuit of excellence on who I was and hoped to someday be, rather than being made new (shameless, I know) in Jesus Christ.

Fast-forward to my first few years of college, and I was optimistically wrapping my dreams for the future around my craft, like overstuffing a flimsy flour tortilla with taco ingredients (something I still struggle with).

I think the breaking point was when I performed rather abysmally during a master class for a visiting pianist my senior year.  I remember vividly the anger and disillusionment I felt afterward.  I felt that I was simply not good enough, to make a living, to get noticed, to be famous, whatever it was I was searching for – I didn’t really know what that was anyway.  At that moment I just felt lost.  If I didn’t have my musical ability, what did I have?  I had poured my heart and soul into every aspect of this artistic endeavor, seeking to make it the best it could be, and then (cue sad violin music) tossed it out into a cold, cruel world, where critics and misunderstandings and the mediocrity of mass culture at large ripped it apart.

Obviously,  I’m poking fun at my younger self and how devastatingly serious I was about this moment.  I even wrote a blog post shortly thereafter entitled: “The Moulder of Dreams” which was meant to be a broodingly brilliant pun.  The editors changed it to “Molder of Dreams” because they didn’t think anyone would catch the British spelling.  How primitive of them.  But I’m thankful for the angst because it pushed me to a living truth; I’m not sure how else I would have received it.

I associated doing the best that I could at my craft with who I was.  In this vein, my struggle to perfect my art mirrored my struggle to perfect myself.

This slowly became evident to me.  Accumulated shame, disillusionment, and a class about unity with Christ converged and I realized what I had been avoiding all along – that in Christ, my identity is not mine to form or control (thank God!), but in Him, through Him, and because of Him.  I remember actually crying from the relief of this truth finally penetrating my heart.

It’s often difficult to put feet to this.  I can realize I’m out of shape, but until I get up off the couch and exercise, there will not be a transformation.  Again, hypothetical.  And that is where I am now – ironically, sitting on the couch typing this post, but that’s not what I mean.  I am struggling to relinquish control while striving to live a holy life.  Seems like an oxymoron, but mostly what it’s done is to bring this moron to his knees a lot.

So, with all of that said, what about excellence in art?

I speak this to my forgetful self:

Excellence is not beating myself up until I get it right.

Excellence is not what defines the success of my art.

Excellence is not an indicator of how much I love God.

Excellence is not designed to impress Christ enough that He loves me.

Choosing to pursue that which excels – the joyous, the peaceful, the living, the holy, the viscerally true – is a real thing, motivated by real love.  That all-too-familiar maxim of the apostle Paul takes on an identity focus:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Excellence denotes that which excels, is above, is high and lifted up, lofty and beyond our understanding.  Paul placed it in a litany of words such as true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  We know of only one Artist deserving of such language.  And that Artist has chosen to reflect His excellence in His Art.  He has created, on and in and around this world, things breathtaking, arresting, terrifying, beyond comprehension in their power, beyond understanding in their delicacy.

And in this, true excellence in [anything] is linked, finally, to identity – not to a what or a how, but a Who. Excellence in art-life should be an outpouring of worship to Him, crafted thoughtfully and with truly high standards because of who we are in Christ.

Oof.  Now to get up off the couch and, trusting Christ for the results, see it through.

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