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Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14, 2009 A Call to Excellence

Psalm 33 (NIV)
1Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
2Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
3Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.

Often in church circles you’ll hear someone say that they “make a joyful noise” – a term that comes from Psalm 100. It may be said with a chuckle, implying that the speaker doesn’t sing well but is still passionate about singing God’s praises, nevertheless.

There’s a lot to be said for effort and enthusiasm. And there’s a place for those for whom effort and enthusiasm represent their level of expertise. God, certainly, sees our hearts, and accepts our worship on that basis, rather than the ability (or inability) to stay on pitch. On the other hand, the person who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, as the saying goes, shouldn’t be offended he or she isn’t chosen to lead the praise team or singing a solo.

There’s also something to be said for excellence. In the passage above, the psalmist encourages the reader to “play skillfully”- which takes things to another level altogether.

How many times have you heard someone at a piano concert comment, “Oh, I wish I could play like that!” We recently went to the Triangle Youth Ballet’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” in Chapel Hill to see my cousin’s daughter dance…the entire troupe personified the logical outcome to natural talent combined with hours and years of practice, coupled with dedicated instruction. I’m sure many little girls and boys watching thought, “Oh, I wish I could dance like that!”—but relatively few will take that thought and turn it into a reality.

They may not have the natural “build” for a dancer, they may lack financial resources, they may be able to find time for video games and television but not for long and arduous practices. Whatever the reasons, they will always watch dancing wistfully and appreciatively, but never partake in it…at an advanced level…themselves.

To be skillful means to be sacrificial—the minister who delivers a thought-provoking, heart-changing sermon on Sunday has spent hours of preparation…years, actually, as everything he or she has experienced beforehand (good and bad) has added to the flavor of the message. The singer who gives life to words, the writer who communicates what someone has always felt but never been able to convey adequately, the artist who captures the glories of creation in unique ways and through varied media, the actor who takes someone’s vision and makes it believable…it all comes at a price, and few are willing to pay it.

Ministers research and study and compare and pray. Singers train and memorize and watch their diet and prepare in ways that most of us take for granted. We just know they sound good, without looking at what they’ve done for that to happen. Writers write—to the exclusion of other activities they may wish they had more time for. Artists sketch and study and try different techniques, perhaps throwing out ten attempts before getting the results they’re after. Actors rehearse, toiling over lines and blocking and direction, and those who make it look the most effortless, have put the most effort into the preparation.

The psalmist challenges us to take things to another level. Step it up a little. Stretch ourselves. Not just play at life, but play skillfully. Not just get by, settling for mediocrity and what passes for “normal” in our neck of the woods, but to keep pressing on toward excellence.

If I started ballet training today, I would never achieve the skill to perform onstage in “The Nutcracker.” But I can still take my desire to move and communicate music and stretch myself by worshipping God in the dance, whether privately or in a sacred, corporate setting. If I were to begin to run daily, I would never become an Olympic competitor, but I can try to run further, or faster, tomorrow than I did today. As a writer, I need to continually challenge myself to write better, with more discipline and less complacency.

Most of us will never be “stars” in the eyes of the world. We each have limitations, whether being tone deaf, or handicapped in some way, or not having the financial freedom to take the best classes or go to the finest schools, or having obligations that prevent the single-mindedness that is necessary for being “the best.” Indeed, God is often in such limitations so that we turn God-given interests and skills into objects of worship.

Instead of using these limitations as excuses, however, we need to realize what we are capable of and what God expects from us…to rely on God’s abilities, not our own, and to use the talents and abilities he has given us, to achieve the most for his glory and his kingdom as we can.

It is “fitting” for us to praise our God.