Sunday, October 21, 2012


Ambition. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have ambition? Ambition is a desire for personal achievement. What can be bad about that?

According to the dictionary, ambition is an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power. It could be a desire to achieve a goal for yourself. Like you want to become a college graduate, or a homeowner, or the President of the United States. What could be bad about that?

Ambition can also be defined as a desire for activity. When we say that someone has no ambition, it’s not a good thing. It’s the sort of thing we say when our grown kid moves back in with us and they spend all day lying around on the couch watching T.V. No, a lack of ambition is not good. Every parent wants an ambitious child: the kind of kid who has a fire lit underneath them, a go-getter, someone with dreams and aspirations. I mean, really, what could be bad about that?

Through the years, great thinkers have had a lot to say about ambition. Sigmund Freud once said that “the psychoanalysis of neurotics has taught us to recognize the intimate connection between wetting the bed and the character trait of ambition.” I guess Freud would conclude that ambition is a bad thing.

The tennis star Venus Williams quipped, “My ambition is to enjoy my life and to do exactly what I want to do. And I'll do that. I will be free.” That sounds like a good thing and it seems to have worked for her.

According to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied.” Um. That doesn’t sound so good.

And the spiritual giant, Thomas Merton, stated his opinion on ambition quite succinctly: “When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Like Longfellow, he equates ambition with a state of never being content, always longing for more. And when you put it that way, if nothing is ever enough, maybe ambition isn’t all that helpful to us in our quest for an abundant life. Of course, if there is a quest for the abundant life, you’d have to say that ambition is somehow involved.

Oy! Are you as confused as I am? Maybe the best we can say is that ambition is neither good nor bad. And it can sometimes be good, like when it gets you up off the couch. Or it can sometimes be bad, like when you’ll do anything (lie, cheat or steal) to get what you want.

When we’re raised in a culture like ours, one that’s very achievement-oriented, other people admire us when we’re ambitious. So when someone challenges us about it, it can be quite a slap in the face. We’re supposed to be praised for our ambition, not criticized for it, right? Well, despite that, I think we all know that there are some ambitions that we would be better off keeping to ourselves. Our ambitions can’t be too grand or other people will figure we must think too highly of ourselves. We don’t dare voice them out loud.

And that’s where James and John got into trouble. They had a grandiose ambition that they dared to voice out loud. Actually, it went further than that. They not only wanted something that was grande, but they also had the cojones to ask Jesus to do it for them. They come to Jesus and they ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Can you imagine? Well, instead of saying, “Are you crazy?!” Jesus plays along, and he comes back with, “Okay, so what is you want?” And here’s what they say: “We want to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Seriously? Is that all!?

Jesus must be ready to pull his hair out here. Not because James and John think they’re so special. And not because their ambition is so over-the-top. But because he just finished telling his disciples that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Jesus lays it all out for them. For the third time! And this is how James and John respond?

(Of course the other disciples are outraged as well. Probably because they wanted the choice spots when Jesus came into power for themselves and here James and John are calling first dibs.)

Were they really that dense? Was it selective hearing? How could Jesus tell them what was waiting for him, repeatedly, and have his disciples so completely miss what he was saying? Did they have no clue about what was happening around them? Did they not understand Jesus at all?

But they were just being ambitious, weren’t they? Is there something wrong with that? Well, in this case, it meant that they didn’t get who Jesus was. It meant they were missing out because they were stuck in a world where people aspire to be among the rich and powerful and Jesus was inviting them to something more. Jesus was inviting them to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

Their ambition was misplaced. Before they could really understand what Jesus had been trying to teach them, they had to see it. His greatest lesson of all would come to them when he hung on a cross, flanked on his right hand and his left hand -- by two thieves. Then they would get it. Finally, their ambition would become to live and die like the one who came not to be served, but to serve.

Michael W. Smith wrote a song about this called, “Secret Ambition.”

Young man up on the hillside
Teaching new ways
Each word winning them over
Each heart a kindled flame
Old men watch from the outside
Guarding their prey
Threatened by the voice of the paragon
Leading their lambs away
Leading them far away

Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the Holy Veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
(But) Nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Performance anxiety: when your greatest goal is to avoid screwing up

Back when I was a younger, I was a serious musician. My whole life revolved around being the best flutist I could be. I would practice for hours on end every day. As I remember that time of my life, I don’t know if I was driven so much by my desire to make beautiful music as I was by my desire to achieve perfection.

Performance anxiety was a big problem for me. Once when I was in college and had an end of semester jury, it got the best of me. This was when you played for a panel of faculty people who critiqued you. I had gotten myself so worked up over it that I hadn’t slept for days. Finally, I decided that the only way I was going to get through it without falling apart was to drug myself.

There was an over-the-counter medication called “Nervine” that sounded like it was exactly what I needed. Just a little something to relax my nerves. I took it about an hour before I had to play and it relaxed me, all right. It was all I could do to keep myself awake while I played my piece. Not my best performance. I don’t remember if I made any mistakes or not. But I do remember that I just wanted to lay down on the floor right there and go to sleep. I made my way through it and went back to my dorm and crashed.

One of the last things I did as a musician when I was in college was play this beautiful flute solo in the Bach B minor Mass. There I was, standing in front of the orchestra and the choir, in a huge auditorium filled with people. I don’t know how I got through it. But I remember that the whole time I was playing, I was praying that I wouldn’t mess up. Well, I didn’t. But I can’t say that I enjoyed the experience. It was like torture for me; I was scared to death of making a mistake.

If you’ve ever played for a piano recital, you may understand the idea of performance anxiety. It’s what happens when you become so worried about messing up that the joy of making music becomes lost. Your goal has little to do with the music at all. It’s all about avoiding making any mistakes.

But, you know what? Performance anxiety isn’t just a problem for musicians. It’s a problem for non-musicians as well. Whenever we become so pre-occupied with our mistakes that we miss out on the joy of living, we’re suffering from performance anxiety. It enslaves us.

In Martin Luther’s day, people experienced the ultimate performance anxiety, living under the heavy weight of eternal damnation if they didn’t get it right. Luther knew how oppressive this could be. When he became a priest, before he said his first mass, he was so terrified of making a mistake that he threw up. That moment was but a microcosm of his larger tormented life. He tried to take matters into his own hands by punishing himself, whipping himself, torturing himself, all in an effort to avert God’s wrath and avoid the fires of eternal damnation.

But then, by dwelling in Jesus, Luther came to see the truth and he knew freedom for the first time in his life. That truth said we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do, but simply by the grace of God. It was a truth Luther couldn’t keep to himself. He went public with it so other people would stop living in fear, too. He wanted them to know that God isn’t an angry tyrant in the sky who’s out to zap us whenever we mess up. From Jesus, Luther learned that God is all about unconditional love. This was a message of freedom 500+ years ago. And it’s a message of freedom for us today, as well. Because performance anxiety still enslaves us.

Do you live as if your worth is all wrapped up in how well you perform in this life? The Good News from Jesus is that God is about mercy and forgiveness. This is a message of freedom from performance anxiety. You don’t have to focus your energy on avoiding mistakes in life. You can be free to be fully alive, as the person God created you to be.

The author, minister and peace activist, Marianne Williamson understands this so well when she writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

We can spend our lives freely, daring to risk for the sake of loving ourselves and others. It’s the sort of thing Luther was talking about when he spoke about the bondage we’re in by living in constant fear of making a mistake. Christ frees us from that kind of bondage. “God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners,” Luther said. “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

How different that is from living a careful little life that’s like an endless piano recital where our greatest goal is not to mess up. Freedom in Jesus comes when we realize that we don’t have to go through life playing a boring little piece like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” very carefully with one finger over and over again so we don’t risk making a mistake. Freedom in Jesus is more like playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the organ with all the stops out and all our fingers and toes moving at once. Yeah, we’re sure to make a lot of mistakes along the way --- but who cares? Certainly not Jesus. The more time you spend with Jesus, the more you realize that truth. God is love. He’s not looking for an opportunity to condemn us for our mistakes. God revels in the joy of our music.