At its signature Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols, there is a long-held tradition observed by the world famous Boys’ Choir of King’s College in Cambridge, England: that the very first notes of each performance (from the opening hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City”) are always sung by a soloist. Musically speaking, this is not unheard of; but what makes this particularly interesting is that none of the choirboys know who among them will be the soloist for a given performance until moments before the music is about to start and the conductor of the choir points to one of them!
Since no one knows who the singer will be, each choir member must always be ready to sing, quite literally, at a moment’s notice. “We’ve always done it that way,” said current choirmaster Stephen Cleobury in an on-line interview I recently read. “It would be a terrible trial for a nine-year-old boy to go to bed knowing that he’s going to sing that solo. Better for him, and for everyone else, that he only knows at the last moment.” I suppose there’s some wisdom in that reasoning; after all, every member of that choir is a potential soloist on whom the whole performance depends; for without that one voice singing clearly and boldly, there is no Christmas program.
Can you imagine the pressure of being involved in something like that, much less being involved in something like that as a child? I certainly cannot: in fact, one of the great comforts of leading congregational hymn sings as a pastor (and, might I add, playing guitar while doing so!) is that I get to insist that everyone else joins in! Yet I can also tell you that for the “music people” of my acquaintance, this is what life is all about – answering the call to sing comes as naturally as breathing to them; truly, it’s what they’re made for! The uncertainty of the moment, the difficulty of the music, all the butterflies in the stomach – all this is secondary to what really matters. At heart, these people know they’re singers, and singers are meant to sing out; it’s who they are! As far as they’re concerned, to do anything less is a waste!
Much the same thing can be said of artists, poets and dancers, great athletes, deep thinkers and even parents of young children. Whether the venue happens to be that of a canvas or a lump of clay, stepping up to home plate, or the on-going work of bringing love and hope to a child, in the end whatever it is that you do and do well comes down to who you are inside; we are all defined by the wide and varied gifts of grace that God has placed uniquely within each one of us. And whatever our successes and failures in these endeavors – in the end, excellence can be defined as “being all that that you can be,” and moreover, living up to all that God has created and intended for us to be. We are, after all, who we are because God created us that way!
So it’s significant, then, that in his sermon on the mount, Jesus does not say, “You should be the salt of the earth,” nor does he advise us that we ought to try really hard to be the light of the world. In the manner of that choral conductor, Jesus simply points to you and to me and says, “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.” (Matt.5:13-14) It may seem like a subtle distinction, friends, but it’s the difference between suggestion and fact; and it’s an affirmation of what God has placed in each one of us to be: to be as salt which brings purity, preservation and flavor to all that it touches; and to be as light, which brings illumination to darkness and confusion.
We’re usually quick to take Jesus’ words here to remind one another that we need to bring a little bit more “saltiness” and a brighter light to our lives as Christians, and that’s true – there’s no doubt that we live in a world today that is sorely in need of the distinctive flavor of the Christian life! But we also need to remember that ultimately our faith is not defined by doing, but rather by being. Barbara Brown Taylor expresses this very well in her book Gospel Medicine, in which she describes God as saying to us, “’Stop doing a job. Start being a light. Stop doing your duty. Start being mine. Stop worrying about whether or not you have done a good job. Start leaving that up to me . . . you just let your light shine and let me take care of the rest.”
Pretty good advice, whether you’re standing in the choir loft waiting for a conductor’s downbeat or trying to decide which one of life’s many pathways you ought to travel. You are the world’s light, says Jesus. That’s who you are; that’s who God created you to be – so just live that way!
So might it be, friends. So might it be!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry