Pentecost Year B
May 20, 2018
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
Benjamin Zander, now in his 80’s and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, also teaches music at the New England Conservatory. As you might imagine, this world of high achievement and extraordinary competition consumes most of his students, and he noticed that their chronic state of anxiety over grades and musical performances kept them from taking any risks or venturing into new – unknown – territories as musicians. [I know none of our students here in Chatham know anything about that chronic worry and anxiety, right!?]
So one September, on that first day of school, Mr. Zander walked into his classroom and said to his students, ‘In this class, I am going to give each one of you an A for the course.’ Immediately, he had the students’ attention. But there was just one requirement. Within the first two weeks of class, each student had to write Mr. Zander a letter, dated at the end of the school year, the following May. And the letter was to begin with the words, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because . . . .” He wanted them to tell him, in as much detail as they could, the story of what would happen by the end of the school year that would make this extraordinary grade fitting. [The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, 2000]
Now, I’m going to pause right here, because I’m sure, for many of you, your mind has already gone there . . . and I want to say that this is NOT the same thing as t-ball, where everybody receives a trophy just for showing up. No. Because Mr. Zander expected growth. And that’s what he received. One by one, as the students managed to let go of their anxiety surrounding potential failure and being judged and began to take risks with their musicianship, they started to notice a difference. They named those changes – and projected their growth for the future - in the letters they submitted.
One young flute player wrote:
Dear Mr. Zander,
I received my A because I became a new person through your class. I used to be so negative, even before trying. I couldn’t accept my mistakes. I blamed myself for everything. But now, I enjoy making mistakes because I learn from them. I used to just play notes. But now I find real meaning in the pieces, and even play with my imagination. I have found my value and the reason why I play music.
A Taiwanese student wrote:
Dear Mr. Zander,
I came here, ranked number 68 out of 70 students, but you say I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I say to myself over and over, “I am Number 68. But Mr. Zander says I am an A student . . . I am Number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A.” One day, I discover I am much happier as an A than as Number 68. So I decide I am an A.”
The gift of Ben Zander’s practice, giving the A in advance, allowed the students time and space to name and focus on their desired outcome – whether that be innovation, creativity, playfulness, or simply the love of music – rather than trying to please their teachers, outperform their classmates, or be ruled by anxiety and competition.
In a sense, in this classroom context, Mr. Zander invited sinews, flesh and breath to come into the dry, brittle bones of his students. Hope and life, as the prophet Ezekiel described, returned to their lives.
This year, on this feast of Pentecost, we did not hear the traditional scripture reading from Acts which describes a crowd gathered from all corners of the earth in Jerusalem, all hearing about God’s great deeds of power in their own languages. Instead, this year’s scripture passage offers us the chance to hear Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, coming to life. It is a remarkable vision of God breathing life back into God's People.
And while we may not be living, literally, in a valley of dry bones, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for us to name the micro-deaths that take place in our lives, over and over again. Everyone has a story of suffering to tell: the story of a marriage ravaged by addiction or infidelity; the story of a difficult diagnosis and even more difficult treatment plan; the story of betrayal by someone we thought was our friend; the story of being passed over, or losing a job. We know what it is to be dry. To be consumed and covered by dust.
Jesus’ disciples knew this too. They were huddled together, filled with fear for their lives and remorse for their shortcomings, unsure about how to press on without their inspired leader and friend, the Son of God who had been crucified, raised from the dead, and now ascended to the Father. That is, until that day of Pentecost, when Ezekiel’s prophecy was fulfilled and the breath of the Holy Spirit raised them to life.
That new life was the beginning of the Church.
Now we all know that in over 2000 years of Church history, we have seen plenty of anxiety, competition, and pain. And right now, there are dire predictions of the Church’s impending death. But the story of Pentecost – the powerful breath of life that God breaths into the dry and dusty valley of death – makes us (using Mr. Zander’s student’s words) an A.
Just like the very beginning of creation, God’s breath inspires us, leads us to innovation, creativity, playfulness, and as our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry preached yesterday at the royal wedding, gives us the power of and the power to Love. So, take this as your invitation. Not from Mr. Zander, but from me. From God. You are an A. [Feel free to write me a letter, and date it next year’s Pentecost – June 9, 2019]. What will your story of growth be? How will you risk using your imagination? Move into new places of faith? Stretch to Love?
You are – we are - a new creation. Living, breathing, bringing life to this world full of dry bones.
You are an A. Now go out and live it.