Keeping the Bar High

If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? Jer. 12:5

For over twenty years I worked as a professional musician, much of it as a jazz flutist in Toronto and Vancouver.  I’ve done a number of recordings, have performed internationally and have taught and lectured on jazz in various contexts.  But as my life became more and more defined by pastoral ministry, I eventually stopped playing professionally so that I could focus more on the work God was calling me to in spiritual direction.  I still practice and perform on occasion, but for more than a decade now, most of the music I am involved with is on an amateur level.  I say this without regret.

For many years though, I have been aware that I had lost vision for myself as a musician.  Though I still practiced as often as I could find time for, it was mostly just to keep my technique up to a reasonable level.  For a long time, I know that my practice has been geared more to maintenance than to improvement.  Its purpose has been to simply keep me from losing whatever skills I have acquired over the years.

This past summer however, as part of my holidays, I went to a week-long jazz workshop with some of Canada’s best jazz musicians.  Those who know jazz will recognize names like Don Thompson, Phil Dwyer, Neil Swainson, Oliver Gannon and Ian McDougall.  It was a curriculum designed for professional and semi-professional musicians.  It’s been years since I’ve had opportunity to play at this level and the effect that this camp has had on my vision has taught me much about the similar dynamics of apprenticeship that happen in my spiritual life.

The opportunity to be around others who live their lives immersed in music resurrected in me many of the old passions I still feel for this art.  Playing alongside such stellar musicians naturally raised my game up a few notches.  The effortlessness with which they negotiate the various charts gave a vicarious grace to my playing as well.  I see this as very similar to what happens when I am in the company of others who share my spiritual passions.  I love being with people who know more than I do about the spiritual life, and who have more grace in living it than I do.  Something of their commitment and love for prayer kindles the passion of my own love for God.

The other value I recovered from this jazz camp was that of a renewed vision for what artistic growth might look like for me.  I came back with a much more specific sense of where I want to be as a musician, and with new energy to commit to the practices that will get me there.  Again, this is also what happens in me when I am with people who are truly committed to their own spiritual direction.  Something good rubs off that helps me set my sights far higher than I ever could on my own.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord encourages us to raise the bar of our own race so that we can compete even with horses  Who are the horses in your life, those who are perhaps running at a pace that makes you work harder just to keep up with?  Who are those who have not lowered the bar of Christianity in their lives, and around whom you would not comfortably do so yourself?

Our faith calls us to stand apart from the pack of “men on foot” and to aspire, because of God’s enabling grace, to run in high places with the grace of a deer (Ps. 18:33). What will inspire you towards such high places in your vision for the spiritual life?  A retreat?  Spiritual direction?  Meeting regularly with other motivated Christians?  We each carry a particular vision for the spiritual life that we think we could be living.  What will motivate us to be more dedicated to the spiritual person we feel God inviting us to be?  Who will inspire us to cherish that vision more than we do now?

We are most satisfied in our spiritual life the more we are actually living it. And the less discrepancy there is between the spiritual life we envision for ourselves and the one we are actually living, the more we will enjoy peaceful accord with the person God is calling us to be.