Friday, May 15, 2009

The Instrumental Music of Ministry

Most people are right-handed. So when most people begin playing the guitar, they strum or pick with the right hand, and press the strings to the fretboard with the left. That's the right-handed way. Seems a little ironic, doesn't it? But, really, it isn't.

Right-handed beginners naturally focus on the left hand because it's the one that has to figure out the frets. Once the fingers of the left hand are in position to play a chord, the right hand then has a relatively-easy job. One stroke and the strings make a sound.

But at first, it's hardly ever a good sound. The fingers of the left hand aren't quite strong enough. The finger tips don't yet have their callouses. So the strings buzz. Or maybe one of the fingers is out of position and the chord is just off. The first few attempts at playing are rarely, if ever, good.

These less-than-pleasant sounds bring out the determination in some beginners. Like Bryan Adams in the Summer of '69, they play 'til their fingers bleed. That is, the fingers on the left hand. All along, the right hand is almost entirely ignored.

Some beginners eventually give up, the objects of their old affection now hanging in a pawn shop, or gathering dust in the corner of a closet. The others finally make a break through, the awkwardness of the early days all but forgotten.

Of those who make it, there is at least one thing that distinguishes guitar players who are mediocre-to-good from those who go on to become truly great. All of the great ones learn to develop not only the left hand, but also the right. Some of them repeat this mantra: The left hand plays the notes, but the right hand plays the music.

To say that is to repeat something every true musician knows: the vital element in music is rhythm. Nothing else is so important, so very basic. Many sounds have a definite pitch. But not all of those sounds, even in a sequence, add up to music.

The left hand plays the notes, but the right hand plays the music.

I've thought about that as an analogy to Christian ministry. Aspiring church leaders almost always give attention to what you might call the left hand. I know I did.

When I was very young I memorized many verses of Scripture in that beautiful language of the King James Bible. Most of what I memorized were the passages used to prove the points that the tradition I grew up in thought were essential. Those texts stood at the center of our religion. They were our "Bible within the Bible."

Sometime later, I attended a Christian college affiliated with my group and majored in (what else?) Bible. There I studied the Scriptures in English, learned a little bit of Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and read some church history. I was told about the tenets of Higher Criticism. In the larger religious world where such theories held an honored position, I needed to know what they were and why they were mostly wrong. It was left-handed stuff, exactly the sort of thing that beginners dream about.

During that time, there was one command I was sure to keep: don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. My right hand--my self, the inner man--just wasn't getting much practice.

Of course, I was nice to other people. I made friends. I was even voted a class favorite. But I wasn't doing much to develop the person out of whom I might carry on an authentic ministry of the Word. In time, my neglect of the right hand resulted in me hitting some truly sour notes.

Like a lot of guitar players, some ministers never get over this tendency to emphasize only the left hand. To them Christianity is all about facts and figures, plans and patterns, Greek and Hebrew, books and (dare I say it?) blogs. If they're not careful, because of the lure of the world, the ABCs of their ministry become Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. Their teaching can become no more than the right responses to a carefully-selected set of questions.

To be specific, left-handed-only ministry shows up in a number of ways. Here are a few:
  • Bible reading only for the sake of preparing lessons, never for simply feeding on the Word and hearing the voice of God.
  • Prayer occasioned by the latest emergency or public event, but not by the need to commune with the Almighty.
  • Non-Christian acquaintances thought of as "contacts," not as fellow beggars hungry for the Bread of Life.
  • Sunday-morning centrality, with times like Tuesday night and Thursday afternoon being completely up for grabs.
  • A glaring lack of self-discipline.
How different that is from the ministerial pattern left for us by Jesus. Mind you, he didn't neglect the left hand. Jesus knew the Scriptures and the traditions of Israel. He understood the times in which he lived and the enduring questions of life. But above all, Jesus developed and lived out a passion for doing the will of his Father, being the man God had called him to be.

I have to confess, I've spent a good bit of my life as a Christian minister focused on left-handed stuff. I know I'm not alone. Even as I write and publish this, it feels like I'm exposing my own shallowness. At the same time, it's something I want and need to say.

Here and there, I've spent some time trying to develop the right hand. I hope it results in a better sound.

The left hand plays the notes, but the right hand plays the music.


Bill said...

Have you been reading my journal? With the words of this post you have cut the very core of what many of your fellow ministers have struggled with for years. More than this, though, you have brilliantly offered us an opportunity for rehabilitation. Thank you! I don't play the guitar, but I'm off to practice my strumming.

God bless you, brother!


Adam Gonnerman said...

I appreciated this.

After getting back from a two-month mission trip to Brazil in '97 I was all fired up about going back as a "full-time" missionary. One way I sought to prepare was in buying a guitar. Remember that I've never embraced the man-made anti-instrument law (that one's for the guys with wonderful senses of humor). Over the course of three years I had three different tutors in three different cities, but never really learned to play. I sold the guitar to a young lady from a local Bible college when I finally moved to Brazil. It was a Fender, and she got a really good deal.

There's an analogy to my overall ministry experience in there somewhere.

Stoogelover said...

As one who preached in coCs for over 30 years and has played guitar for over 40 years and who is now no longer worshipping with coCs, may I say, "Excellent!"

Greg England
Winchester, CA

Wade Tannehill said...


Arlene Kasselman said...

beautiful analogy

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I need to hear this message because it is all too easy to worry just about the left hand.

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts

Keith Brenton said...

One of the best metaphors - possibly THE best - I've ever read concerning the struggle between what we think is important and what God thinks is important.

Of course, you face the wrath of many for even considering the use of a musical instrument in a metaphor like this!