Sunday, March 25, 2012

Performance: A Conversation

When I walked in for breakfast this morning, two of my students came up to greet me and began complimenting me.  I responded with a polite "Thank you," then stood and listened as they continued to sing my praises, one of them affectionately stroking my arm.  I love these young ladies, and know their compliments were sincere, but I grew increasingly uncomfortable.  And I knew I had to stand there and "take it."

I had taught the students during the first week of school how to receive compliments, and not engage in a false humility that tries to deflect them.  Artists must withstand critique; missionaries must withstand close scrutiny not only of their ministry but of their spiritual life.  In the critique sessions, we are teaching students to both give and receive constructive criticism, without flinching.  I have taught them to reply with a simple and gracious "Thank you."  To not defend themselves, to not accept all criticism and think they have to act on it, and how to separate the helpful from the irrelevant.  (Of course, one must be careful what one teaches....they have caught me on a number of occasions deflecting their compliments to me.) 

And now, in a classic student/teacher moment, these two were testing me.  As they continued to compliment me, they noticed my discomfort, and smiled.  

"It's hard for you, isn't it?  But you have to say it!" 

They let me squirm a while, until I managed another, weaker, "Thank you!"--and then burst out laughing. 

"Gotcha!" they called over their shoulders (well, the Finnish version at least!) as they left the dining room.  I plopped into a chair, relieved my 'pop quiz' was over...only it wasn't.  The Lord popped a hard question:

"Why is it so hard for you to receive nice things being said about you?  What if I wanted to say something nice to you?" 

I was mulling that one over when another student sat down with me. 

"Why is it so hard for us to receive compliments?" I asked her.  We debated for a few minutes, and another student sat down with a cup of coffee.  And another...and soon four of us were discussing our performance-based cultures over coffee (the greatest form of discipleship!) and our difficulty receiving compliments.  One would think it would be as much a delight as our cappuccino!

We then went on to discuss what healthy performance would look like.  In our artwork, we know when we're pleased with a piece, and when we're not.  It's easier to talk about the former, and easier to sell the latter!  What is false pride and what is appropriate pride?  In the spiritual life as well as the creative life?  Can there be a proper and healthy performance in the spiritual life?  A way to perform in such a way that you are left with a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, which can linger into the next day? 

One woman mentioned she felt guilty for feeling such a sense of joy, a sense so deep that she has trouble sleeping at night.  I admitted the same thing happening to me, but I enjoyed the delight of reliving the moment, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the sense that the Lord had been with me in it, augmenting skill, creativity, patience--whatever--beyond what I was capable of myself.  Should these not be energizing times of sleepless delight?!  Should we not celebrate these moments?  When our true selves are at work, not our performance-driven ones, is not joy and thanksgiving our "reasonable acts of worship"?

Paul wrote, "We however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us--a sphere which especially includes you." (2 Cor. 10:13)

May I boast about my students? 

I've had more than a few nights where it has been tough to fall asleep.  The artwork and dance I'm seeing, the music I'm hearing, the testimonies and astonishing breakthroughs that are now happening almost daily--all keep me awake in the dark, worshiping God, for the privilege of being here, of experiencing what I'm experiencing.

These are in fact times of private worship, which sometimes erupt into spontaneous corporate times of celebration and praise.  And as artists--actually for any believer--I think we need more of this: the ability to stop, skip, dance, shout--whatever it takes to rejoice and thank God for the healthy, life-giving, joyful and energizing acts coming from our true selves.  This I will boast about, whether it happens in my own life, or in the lives of my students--just as Paul did. 

And this elicits far more than a tepid "Thank you" after a compliment, but I'm working on it!  And so are the students.  May we say "Thank you!" because we truly are, and are more focused on what God is doing in us and through us than on our appearance, or ability; may we recognize God has been at work among us.  May we all relish moving in our gifts, rather than minimizing or denying them, and may we execute something truly incarnational, in collaboration with God's Holy Spirit. 


  1. That simple "thank you" is difficult for the Christian artist, perhaps because we know that we are holy spirit driven and the praise belongs to him. Yet jumping to deflect praise from ourselves onto him isn't always the graceful way to go, nor is it always appealing. We are able to do this work because he paved the way and allowed us to prepare ourselves to do the work that is appealing to others. He is speaking through us, through the work of our hands and heart, but he's also working through those who aren't artists. The Christian plumber doesn't deflect praise for his work onto Jesus whenever he tightens a fitting or installs a new dishwasher, does he? It wouldn't be appropriate. A simple 'thank you' is enouogh... as we say a profound and heartfelt thank you in our hearts to the Lord of Creation.

    1. Thoughtful comments, Jo, and good point about Christian plumbers :) Thank you.