All posts by David Powers

Abiding, Risking, Creating

Ken RobinsonKen Robinson was the commencement speaker for the VCU Brandcenter graduation last weekend. Robinson has written two books, Out of Our Minds and The Element, and is a well-traveled speaker on the topic of creativity.

He was talking about the importance of taking risks. Robinson concluded his challenge to the graduates by quoting French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

“Instead of standing on the shore and proving to ourselves that the ocean cannot carry us, let us venture on its waters just to see.”

Robinson said, “That is the great principle of the creative spirit. You don’t know the outcome, but you have to trust in your own creative impulses to bring about something worthwhile.”

I think those creative impulses are the Spirit of God living within us. If we take time, have patience, and listen carefully to what God is whispering to us through those impulses, we find the full meaning of what Jesus was talking about in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Sermon in the Oboe Solo

A modern oboe with a reed.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was one of those situations where TV just can’t capture the experience.

We try to overcome the medium’s limitations. Sometimes we succeed. Other times, we fail miserably. Mother’s Day was one of those other times.

It was a beautiful worship service. Eunice Kim’s piano prelude ushered us into the presence of the Living God. We sang and prayed. We dedicated two babies. The Church Choir and the Youth Girls Ensemble sang beautifully. Dr. Somerville preached an insightful and prophetic sermon. And 15-year-old Sarah Kyle played an oboe solo: Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song.”

Sarah said during rehearsal that she was having a hard time hitting one of the notes. But during the 8:30 worship service, she played it almost perfectly.

As she was standing at the side of the platform, ready to move up and play again at the 11:00 worship service, she was horrified when she looked down and saw that her reed was split. She had a spare, but not in the room. No time to change it. So she bravely took her place and started to play. Nothing came out. Just air… and an occasional squeak. The accompanist played on. And Sarah kept trying. As much as she must have been tempted to run off the stage, she stayed with it all the way to the end. She held her composure, showing maturity beyond her age.

From my vantage point in the TV control room, I could see choir members behind her silently rooting for her. Some were obviously praying for her.

When the piece ended, the congregation applauded. It was one of the few times I’ve appreciated applause during a worship service. With their applause, they were not saying, “Good job! Thank you for entertaining us.” The members of this community of faith were showing their love and support for Sarah. And perhaps they were expressing their solidarity with a fellow imperfect human being who was willing to risk embarrassment to be creative in their worship of God.

At the end of the worship service, as is his custom, our pastor, Dr. Jim Somerville, offered a charge and benediction to the congregation. He mentioned that one of our members, Millie Barnes had hit a hole-in-one at the church golf tournament the day before. And then he said, “I’m guessing there are lots of times that Millie swung her club and the ball didn’t go in the hole.  But that’s how it is with golf.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“I was thinking about Sarah Kyle who got up to play the oboe today…  And I was thinking about how heart-breaking it must have been for her to stand there and struggle to make music when all she got was squeaks and breath.  But I also know that I was here in the 8:30 service when she played beautifully.  This is how it is with playing oboe.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  And any of you who have tried playing Mendelsohn on the oboe in front of hundreds of people know exactly what I’m talking about.

“I remember that Olympic diver Greg Louganis used to say that when he stood on the end of the diving platform, he would always say, ‘even if I blow this dive, my mother will still love me.’  It’s what made it possible for him to take risks and to try things other people were afraid to try.

“I’d love to think that this congregation would be that kind of safety net for people who are bold enough to take some risks. So that if a young woman stood up to play the oboe and she began to fall, we would catch her with our love. That she would know this is a safe place to try and fail and get up and try again.

“I’d like to think this would be the kind of congregation where everyone would feel free to take some risks. To live their life in a more open and fearless way than ever before because they knew the safety net was there. And that if they fell, somebody would be around to catch them. Maybe that could be our charge in this week. To be those kind of people, to catch the ones who fall, to pick them up, to set them on their feet again, and to tell them, ‘listen, no matter what, we will still love you.’”

I’m not sure we handled this well in the television broadcast of the worship service.

We brought Sarah into the studio after the worship service and got her to overdub the oboe part while watching the video and listening to the piano accompaniment. And that’s the version you’ll see if you watch it on TV this Sunday. We edited out Jim’s comments at the end. Someone watching the TV program wouldn’t have any idea of what really happened in the sanctuary that morning.

I’m thinking that, for the sake of a more polished TV program, we sacrificed the “teachable moment” that God had provided. Sarah’s oboe solo… the congregation’s spontaneous show of support… Jim’s using it as an illustration of what it means to be a community of faith… that was the real sermon Sunday morning.

With Sarah’s and Jim’s permission, here it is – unedited. Be sure to watch all the way to the end, to see how the congregation responds to the pastor’s comments at the end of the service.

Tell the truth

Joseph Pew, founder of Sun Oil Company (and whose children later set up the Pew Charitable Trusts), is credited with coining the phrase, “Tell the truth and trust the people.”

I first heard the phrase from one of the best church communicators I’ve ever known: Floyd Craig. He was talking about how to communicate in tense situations, when there’s controversy or division in the church. Floyd is now president of Floyd Craig Communications in Franklin, TN, specializing in crisis communications. Among the several books Floyd has written are Christian Communicator’s Handbook, and a publication written for the United Methodist Church, Not IF, But When – a Crisis Communication Manual.

Over the last 30 years in church communication I’ve evolved a variation on the phrase: “Trust God and tell the truth… early and often.”

Before, during and after everything else: Trust God. And simply tell the truth.

The advice doesn’t apply only to crisis or controversial situations. If you’re starting a new ministry in the church, or contemplating a change in the way things are done, or challenging the congregation in a particular area of spiritual growth – trust God and tell the truth.

“Early and often” – It is certainly true in crisis situations: The first telling of the story is the standard by which all subsequent versions are measured. The first speaker is proactive. The next ones are reactive. If the first version of the story is corroborated by the following ones, the story is verified. If different versions begin to appear, the truth of the original is called into question.

Be the first to tell your story. And if you tell it the way it is, you won’t have to remember which version you told to which group. Your message will be consistent across all channels of communication.

And if you make a mistake, admit it. Be the first to claim the mistake. Trust God and tell the truth.

Floyd shared another anecdote in an email message the other day. He wrote, “Congressman Brooks Hays and I were walking in a hall of the capitol and a lady came up to him, poking at him and went about complaining about some issue on which he had taken a stand. He listened and listened and when she finally ran down, he said, ‘You know, you may be right!’ The lady immediately ceased her tirade, smiled and said, ‘Thank you so much, congressman.’ As we walked on, he said under his breath, ‘And she may not be right!’ I wish I had learned to say more ‘you know, you may be right’ statements. I probably would not have died on so many small crosses or wasted my time on some things.”