A couple of years ago, a thirty-something man in Bristol, England named Luke played the piano in a local park. That’s not exactly headline news, I’ll grant you, except that it was: first there was a story about him in the local paper, and then, as the article spread online, a furious debate erupted on social media between those who felt that what he was doing was beautiful and those who were outraged by it. The issue wasn’t what he was playing, or where, or how good he was; it was why he was doing it.
You see, Luke and his girlfriend of four months had recently broken up, and he was devastated. More than that, he had decided that he wasn’t ready to give up on the relationship yet; he wanted to tell her how much he loved her and how badly he wanted them to give it another chance. And then he sat down on the bench and began to play.
When a reporter from the Bristol Post heard about it and showed up, he explained himself: “I’m here to play piano ’cause I didn’t know what else to do. I fell in love with a really amazing girl, it was going wonderfully and then it kind of fell apart. So rather than just give up I thought I’d come here and just play, and I’ll play if it rains, if it snows, if I fall over or if I get arrested. I will be here, as long as I have to be here, hopefully the girl, and she knows who she is, will come talk to me and maybe we could give it another go.”
The original article about Luke in the Bristol Post depicted him as a hopeless romantic and his piano-playing as a real-life version of the “grand romantic gesture” that is a standard trope in film and literature. You know what I mean: generally it is done by a man who has either done something so wrong that it destroyed the relationship or waited so long to actually express his feelings that his beloved has given up and moved on.
It’s Mr. Darcy paying for Lydia’s entire dowry to show his love for Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. It’s Rick helping Ilsa and her husband escape the Nazis in Casablanca; it’s John Cusack standing outside his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom window holding a boombox over his head that is playing their song as she lies awake at night in the film Say Anything…; it’s basically the entire movie of The Notebook.
But while a grand romantic gesture might seem whimsical, bold, or moving onscreen, it can seem manipulative, creepy, or coercive in real life, and certainly when the person on the receiving end has already been clear that they are not interested or available. (And even onscreen, some of those gestures are problematic when you think about them.)
Many people seemed to agree with that; they began sharply criticizing him online for not respecting his ex’s decision, even for engaging in “emotional blackmail,” and within a day or so, he admitted he had misjudged how his gesture would come across and he disappeared, leaving the piano sitting abandoned in the park. In his mind, he was communicating his devotion and commitment to her and his desire for reconciliation with her through this extravagant gesture of playing music without stopping until he heard from her.
The grand romantic gesture, to someone who is not interested, is simultaneously too much and not enough. It is too much in terms of being both overwhelming and unsolicited; and it is not enough because it’s not real. Relationships are not nurtured or reconciled through extravagant stunts; they are nurtured or reconciled through sustained attention to what is real, what is actually desired and promised and expected: faithfulness, attentiveness, support, repentance, grace, compassion.
There is no stunt or gesture than can substitute for that kind of substance, no matter how grand the attempts might be. And going for the stunt rather than the substance diminishes the recipient to the point of objectification: it’s not really even about the person you supposedly love, it’s about you doing whatever it takes to win them, without even considering who this person truly is and what they will find meaningful.
In Micah’s prophecy, there is a breach in the relationship between the Lord and the people. God calls the creation itself as a sort of jury to hear the people of Israel plead their case, because “the Lord has a controversy with his people.” And Israel responds with suggestions about how to resolve that controversy, how to reconcile with the Lord. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” the people ask in the voice of Israel as a nation.
“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” That’s a decent response; the whole system of sacrificial offerings at the Temple was essentially designed to reconcile God and the people when there was a rupture between them. The idea was that such offerings are pleasing to God because they represent a sacrifice of something valuable to the people, namely livestock.
But in the prophecy, the people seem to understand that a standard sacrifice is not going to be enough under these circumstances. The breach between them and God is too significant; in their anxiety, they consider doing something bold and dramatic, a grand gesture to demonstrate the sincerity of their devotion and repentance to God: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,” they ask urgently, “with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” Thousands of rams is what crosses the line into excessive and even desperate, but ten thousand rivers of oil is far more than the Gross National Product would have been of the entire nation.
Now we’re getting into emotional blackmail territory. And yet they don’t stop there. No, they go on to ask the truly obscene: “shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Some of the nations that bordered Israel believed in gods that demanded child sacrifice, the ultimate grand horrific gesture for those nations to demonstrate the extent of their devotion and commitment to their gods. But the God of Israel never accepted such sacrifices, much less demanded them. And the Israelites should know that.
Exasperated, Micah reminds them that they should know that: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good.” God has not left it up to God’s people to try to read God’s mind or see into God’s heart; they don’t have to guess what gestures or actions will please God. God has already told them what is good, what God desires. Which Micah reminds them in one of the most famous verses in the Hebrew Scriptures: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” No grand gestures: no thousands of rams or rivers of oil; certainly not firstborn children. God wants them to do what’s right, treat others with compassion, and walk with God in trust and obedience. That’s it. Simple, right?
Thelonious Monk, the great jazz pianist, was one of those people renowned for a distinctive set of pithy quotes and observations. Things like, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Or “what you don’t play can be more important than what you do.” Or “you’ve been making the wrong mistakes.” My favorite one, though, is one that he may not have actually said. But the story is that one time a fan met him backstage and commented on how simple he made it look to play the piano, and he replied, “well, simple ain’t easy.”
And it’s not, and not just in music; any cook will tell you, for example, that some of the most difficult dishes to do well are the simplest ones, because there’s nothing to hide your mistakes or any shortcomings in the ingredients. This famous quote of Micah’s that tells us what God requires is quite simple: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. The simplicity is one of the reasons it’s so popular: you’ll find it emblazoned everywhere from stone engravings over church doors to coffee mugs to pictures online where it is superimposed over images of mountain streams or ocean beaches.
But simple ain’t easy. Doing justice ain’t easy. I’m not just talking about “doing the right thing;” I’m talking about doing the right thing when it’s clear that the wrong thing will get us more of what we want; or worse, when we believe that the wrong thing will get us less of what we fear. Loving kindness ain’t easy. I’m not just talking about kindness in terms of being nice to other people. I’m talking about kindness in the sense of mercy, which is really closer in meaning to the Hebrew word. Mercy is hard, because you can only show mercy to someone who deserves none in the first place. You can only show mercy when you’re doing justice, when you hold back from the full force that you are fully justified in administering.
And even worse, God requires that we do justice, but that we love mercy; it’s not enough to just do mercy, we have to love it. Probably because if we don’t love it, we won’t do it. And walking humbly with your God really ain’t easy. As Christians, we understand walking humbly with our God to include following Christ. That is the most basic definition of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Simply believing that Christ is Lord isn’t worth a whole lot; it’s far too easy to substitute our desires and fears of what a Lord is if all we do is intellectually believe in Christ’s Lordship.
No, we have to follow Christ as Lord, walking humbly with our God, which means going the places that God wants to go rather than the places we’d prefer to stay; serving the people that God loves rather than the people whom we like; and trusting that wherever we walk humbly with God, God continues to walk with us every step of the way.
There’s another story about Thelonious Monk when he was in the middle of recording an album. One day he walked into the studio with his band, sat down at the piano, and began to play. The band quickly joined him: the drummer swinging on the hi-hat cymbal, the bassist walking his fingers up and down the neck of his stand-up bass, the horns punctuating the progression with sharp staccato bursts. After a few minutes, the recording studio engineer was ready, and he interrupted and told them to stop. Monk asked him why. The engineer was confused. “Oh, I thought you were rehearsing,” he said. “Ain’t we always?” Monk asked, and started playing again.
Monk knew that real piano-playing, real music-making, is never about the grand gestures of singular performances, but rather is about living one’s music so consistently and constantly that to practice is to perform, and to perform is to practice. The same thing is true of faith, which is why this is what the Lord requires of us as individuals and as a congregation in our lives of faith: to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God, all day every day, always rehearsing because simple ain’t easy, but it gets easier with practice, especially together. And it is in that, finally, that that the real music that pleases God gets made.