“Be the donkey.” To this day, this is still the single greatest advice I have ever received as a vocalist.
Early in my participation in Floris UMC’s contemporary worship team, a few of us attended a vocal workshop. At this training, we learned proper techniques and bad habits we should avoid vocally. Then the training sessions dug into the heart of the worshipper. The leaders used a story we generally associate with Palm Sunday to help put our role into appropriate perspective. During this session, she recounted the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As he approached the gates of Jerusalem, Jesus asked his disciples to retrieve a young donkey. In fulfillment of scripture, Jesus then rode the donkey into Jerusalem. The gathering crowd began to cover the streets with their cloaks and tree branches while shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
After retelling this story, the leaders asked us to imagine that the donkey was walking through the streets thinking, “Wow! Look at all these people here. I must be pretty awesome because they came just to see me! Praise me, you peasants!” We all roared with laughter. Then she said, “Right. It’s ridiculous. That is exactly how ridiculous you are when you think it’s about you in worship.” Woof.
A little fun fact—many musicians struggle with egos. This is particularly true of vocalists, for which sins of pride can plague even the most devout Christian. Perhaps it is because music is our primary mode of soul expression, and it is so dear to our core that any form of criticism can feel like an attack on our personhood. It could also be due to the fact that many musicians struggle with self-esteem issues; yet, their proficiency in an instrument or their voice is the one area in which they feel esteemed. Rather than feeling worthy simply because of who they are, personal worth gets tied into the positive feedback they receive when participating in a musical performance.
During middle and high school, I definitely struggled with this. At a time in which awkwardness abounds and self-esteem plummets, I found myself receiving compliments whenever I sang. I didn’t really know what to do with this, but it felt good. Over time, I started to crave the good feelings that came from the compliments, and I think I lost sight of the purpose of worship. Instead, I eagerly anticipated the next time I could sing, as that would help feed a part of me that desperately felt “less than.”
As I grew up, I departed from the church scene, but upon my return I felt myself continuing to struggle with my inner ego. Once again my self-esteem was rolling around in the gutter, and I craved the little “hit” of praise I received following a worship service. The problem was that I was so focused on myself that I wasn’t allowing room for God to work. In my mind, I was only worthy if every note was sung to perfection, so I spent so much time focusing on vocal perfection that I forgot to pay attention to the words I was singing. During a service, I was thinking about breath control and vocal tone and could not open myself to the movement of the Holy Spirit. If I messed up, I felt worthless, and if I succeeded, I felt prideful. It was ultimately about me. Not a pretty picture.
It wasn’t until I started doing serious soul work that I realized how skewed my motivations were. Even though I had sung in a church setting my entire life, I didn’t really have a true understanding of worship. Through small group study, I began to learn that worship should be multi-directional—inward, outward and upward. I learned that ministry should be a part of every minute of our day, not simply when we are on stage. Slowly I began to transform myself and rid the ego from the platform. I began to experience true worship, which is probably the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received.
I don’t believe that issues with ego and pride are only reserved for vocalists and donkeys. The beauty of the church is that it is made up of a variety of people with a multitude of gifts that are necessary for Kingdom work. However, we can each get caught up in the pride of doing and lose sight of the humility that Jesus demonstrated so flawlessly. If we are serving for the purpose of pumping up our own ego, our actions are worthless.
So whether you are a teacher, preacher, mentor, A/V technician, writer, small group coordinator, usher, greeter or coffee maker, take a second to check your motivations and remember that we are simply donkeys. Are you doing God’s work to feel good about yourself or to please others? Or are you truly trying to honor God’s calling in your life at that moment?
If you’re getting it right today, check in with yourself again tomorrow. This battle is one we will fight continuously throughout our lives. It’s our job to carry Jesus into the world with us so others can experience a loving relationship with God. However, at the end of the day, it is not about us. It’s about the one we serve. And remember that the people certainly should not be laying out palm branches for us. Just be the donkey.