I was a music major at Michigan State University, where for four years I played trombone under the direction of Kenneth Bloomquist, MSU’s director of bands. He was a demanding musician and a very capable leader. He was also famous for “Bloomquistisms.” One of his classics was “How could you get out of bed in the morning, knowing you were going to make a mistake like that today?”
Band members laughed over that (not until after rehearsal!), and I still do. Still he was a fine leader, as I said, and under his direction I learned lifelong lessons that extend far beyond music. One of the most important was another Bloomquistism: “Don’t make soft mistakes!”
His point was clear: When a musician plays, he plays to be heard in public, which requires a solid sense of authority and confidence. Now, suppose that during rehearsal he’s not quite sure of himself. Maybe he’s not confident he has counted the measures correctly during a long rest, so he’s not sure when to enter again. The temptation—oh, I know it so well!—is to come in very cautiously, carefully, softly, so no one will notice if he gets it wrong.
What Mr. Bloomquist knew was that self-protection of that sort might be good for the reputation, but it’s deadly for the ensemble. A musical group can always recover from a false entrance, but there’s no recovering from a habit of insecurity and timidity.
This was in rehearsal, of course. Mr. Bloomquist didn’t mind much if we couldn’t play a new piece of music on the first day we saw it, but he insisted that we have our parts down cold by the second day of rehearsal—no matter how many hours of practice that took. He knew what he was doing. By the time we performed in public, we knew what we were doing, too.
There is a message in this for Christians. The church is too much in the habit of making soft mistakes. We are too cautious. We need to learn how to recover from our habits of insecurity and timidity.
Jesus’ final instructions on earth (Matthew 28:18-20, among other locations) were anything but cautious. He told us in no uncertain terms to go change the world. Is someone not following Jesus? Call her to be His disciple. Is someone not following Christ’s way? Teach him to obey all that He commanded. Now, in case you hadn’t noticed it, that involves meddling with people’s beliefs, cultures, and worldviews—and not just for a few people, but the whole world.
That’s bold. It raises the question, what right do we have to do that?
It’s a question that reminds me (as I continue recalling my days as a music student) of the closing bars of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It’s famously noisy, with cannons blazing and bells ringing, and with instructions for the trombones to play at ffff volume. Those four fs mean forte (loud) times four, or in other words, really, really loud. (Anything louder than ff is rare in classical music.)
We played the 1812 Overture in the last concert I performed at MSU, and we took ffff seriously! I was rather pleased with myself, I must admit, when at the end of the piece the saxophone players turned around to glare at us trombonists. I think some of them had new parts down the middle of their hair.
Now, what gave us the right to make such a racket? The music did. We were acting under authority. Not only did we have the right to play that loud, we had the responsibility.
When Christ told his followers to go change the world, he did so in the context of His own authority (Matthew 28:18). He told us to act with authority, under his authority. We can be bold in his name because Christ himself has given us that right—and that responsibility—in His own name.
Paul’s encouragement to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:7) is relevant in this context: “God did has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (or “sound judgment,” NASB margin). That verse includes three important qualifiers for boldness. It’s not about indiscriminate blaring, for one thing. I’ve only publicly played ffff once in my musical career, and only when instructed to do so. In contrast to that, I’ve also spent hours rehearsing Bach chorales in trombone choir, with the conductor insisting over and over again, “Softer! Play it softer! Make it beautiful!”
There is one kind of strength that comes from volume, and there is another that comes in quiet beauty. The musician must interpret the music to deliver the appropriate strength. It is a matter of musical judgment.
In the same way we Christians need to speak out, but only under the discipline of sound judgment, as the passage in 2 Timothy reminds us. “Discipline” is of course a familiar word among musicians. To play well, especially in classical music and jazz, requires years of study on music theory, history, interpretation, styles, standards, and much more. And then of course there are the hours of practice, alone and in ensemble with others. For me to speak out with my instrument (as it were), not having done the work to prepare for it, would have been ugly.
Likewise in Christ, the godly discipline of study—both alone and with others—coupled with practicing our faith in prayer, fellowship, witness, and work, should lead us toward sound judgment, and to the beauty of speaking well what is true and right.
There is yet one more crucial reminder from 2 Timothy 1:7, which is that love must infuse all that we do. Just as music is (or should be) an offering of love, so should a Christian’s voice be an offering of love in the world. To invite others to live their lives under God’s good, just, and gracious rule is always and supremely an act of love, provided that we have prepared ourselves to do so with sound judgment and in Christ’s name.
It is an act of love we are too often reluctant to make. Lately here at BreakPoint, Chuck Colson and others have been speaking of the “spiral of silence.” You might think of it as making soft mistakes. Although we know God’s Word—the music on the page, so to speak—and we have his authority behind us, we speak timidly if at all, for fear of getting it wrong.
Soft mistakes are more comfortable than loud ones, aren’t they? I had to get over my tendency toward comfort, and especially my fear of embarrassment, if I was going to be qualified to play music in public. I did it by learning music, and by learning through practice how to play with authority.
At this point, though, I must break away from my extended musical analogy, lest I scare some readers away unnecessarily. I would not want to cause anyone to think, “Look at all the talent it takes to be a musician. I could never do that, and I could never have the talent to speak out for Christ, either!”
That’s not true, for we all have the authority Christ gave us, we have His Spirit in us, and each of us has a story of His work in our life that we can tell. That’s all we need to get started.
And yet we can—and must—go beyond that. Sure, it’s okay to be in the learning process, all our lives long. We can practice in private through the disciplines of study, prayer, thinking, worship, and so on. For a season we can perform (so to speak) in safe places like our churches, in front of people who, like my parents at my earliest seventh-grade concerts, are bound to give us grace no matter what.
But we have a message of love and life to offer the world, founded in the very authority of Jesus Christ. It’s time we took our message beyond our practice rooms and seventh-grade concert halls. It’s time we learned to speak publicly with the authority of truth.
Let’s not make soft mistakes.
Tom Gilson is a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs at ThinkingChristian.net.
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