Deborah Fortel – Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

Reflections for Ash Wednesday, 2019

It must have been an amazing performance. Herbie Hancock, the great jazz pianist was playing with Miles Davis, the legendary trumpet player. They had launched into the improvisations on a familiar melody and it was beautiful and exciting…until Hancock, he said later, played the wrong chord. It wasn’t sort of okay. It wasn’t just a tiny bit off. It was wrong. Completely and thoroughly wrong. And quicker than it takes to tell you about it, Miles Davis heard the chord that Hancock had played and he played with it, weaving it into the melody, taking what had been a mistake and turning it into an integral part of the music that they were making.[1] It was a gesture of compassion: Davis couldn’t have missed Hancock’s distress and he responded graciously. It was an action of deep commitment to making music: music mattered more to Davis than the rights or wrongs of a particular chord. It was a signal of commitment to a shared musical future: there was more music to make and more performances ahead of them.

I’m pretty sure that if you were to ask Debbie about it she would say that’s what musicians do when they’re performing. Even if there’s a wrong note they keep making music. Sometimes they strike the wrong chord, sing a bit flat, forget to repeat the refrain. Musicians, like all the rest of us, even the greatest musicians, are human. So they – and we – make mistakes. And they – and we – go on. The point is not to focus on the wrong chord or the mistake or the sin and count up the lifetime total we’ve accumulated. If you’re like me, you would have lost count a long, long time ago. The point is to figure out where we go from here, how we take the wrong chord, the mistake, the foolishness, or the sin, and weave it into the melody of our lives. Because making music matters more than who made the mistakes, and because compassion is more important than human foolishness and sin, and because even when our compassion falters, God’s compassion is more than great enough for all of us.

So we begin with compassion. We start there because otherwise, we are likely to get bogged down in the mathematics of mistakes, noticing only what is wrong, paying attention to what isn’t perfect until all that we see and all that we expect is the imperfect, the wrong, the sinful, the foolish. When we play that gotcha game on ourselves, it becomes a constant excuse for giving up and not really trying. When we play the game on other people, we build ourselves up at their expense, puffing up our own sense of worthiness by telling ourselves that we don’t make mistakes or sin (at least not as often as other people, or at least not that other people know, or so we hope.) Jesus never played that game. He wasn’t interested in a focus on sin, but in  healing and justice and compassion and transformed lives.

This doesn’t mean that there are no wrong notes, no mistakes, no foolishness, or no sin. Christianity is not a religion that engages in wishful thinking or pretends that human beings can be perfect. On the contrary. We can be and must be honest about the imperfect world we live in and the flawed and faulty people we are. But that honesty is neither the first nor the last word, but only a step along the way to transformed lives. Because God loves us, and because God is compassionate, God invites us to begin again.  And begin again.  And again. And again.

Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Disciplines

It’s traditional on this day for Christians to be invited to observe special Lenten disciplines. Often we choose to “give up something for Lent.” So perhaps some of us will choose to give up eating red meat for this season, as we’ve been invited to give up red meat at least for our potluck lunches. Maybe some of us will choose to join many other Christians and give up single-use plastics so that we don’t continue to overwhelm landfills with materials that cannot biodegrade. Perhaps some of us will choose not only to give up something, but to add a daily practice of being as deeply honest as we can be about ourselves and our world. I hope if we choose that discipline we will combine it with the practice of deep compassion for ourselves, for other people, for our world – even the for people who are most troubling to us. We know that our calling as disciples means living in harmony with God’s intentions for us and shaping our lives according to the rhythms of God’s love. Even when our honesty is superficial and our compassion is limited, God’s compassion is enough for us all.   

[1] Told by jazz pianist Chuck Mahronic at a workshop at the Presbyterian Center, February 1, 2008.