I’m scared. A lot. Right now, even as I’m writing in the cool of the summer morning with the birds singing and the sun shining down on me and my Macbook I am fearful. It’s not just fear of one thing (although if a snake showed up in front of my, I guarantee that all my fear would be focused on that creature). No, it’s fear of many different things. Some of my fears are rational, like the fear of the snake, and other fears are not so rational, like the fear of driving inside the Atlanta perimeter (wait---maybe that’s rational) or stage fright.
I have a long history of stage fright. I can remember the first time I sang loudly around some people at church who also sang. I remember thinking they’d be excited that I could sing what they were singing. They weren’t. The disapproval was palpable. It was clear that I’d overstepped some invisible singing boundary even if I didn’t know what it was. The experience terrified me. I thought they hated my voice. High school choir and drama helped me a bit. I learned to sing with a group and that people liked my voice and wanted to hear me sing. In spite of this, I still struggled with my fear. While I can sing with a group with no fear, singing alone turns me into a scared little girl again, and my lovely mezzo-soprano voice turns into a nasty falsetto, I forget lyrics, or totally miss musical cues.
Recently, I was listening to TedRadio on NPR, and the entire episode (“What We Fear”) was dedicated to the exploration of fear and how various speakers faced their fear. Joe Kowan’s talk stuck with me the most. He has stage fright too, which is kind of funny when you consider that he spends his evenings as a folk singer. He describes his fear manifesting in the same ways mine do—pitch of the voice goes up, audience gets uncomfortable because he’s uncomfortable, and then he forgets words and it’s just a horrible experience. Kowan did not stop singing, however. He made himself go to open mic experiences every week, and wrote a song about his stage fright (you can hear it on the broadcast). When he’s scared, he sings the song. He now makes records and is well known on the folk circuit. He overcame his fear by embracing his fear.
By now, you’re probably wondering how all this connects to the whole “perfected in love” thing from my chosen scripture. Anytime I hear or read the word “perfect” or “perfected,” especially in scripture, all that fear we just discussed rises through me. According to David Reagan (www.learnthebible.org), “the concept of perfection is greater than can be given in any of the words that are used as substitutes in other English versions of the Bible.” He goes on to observe that “perfection includes the idea of completion, but it includes much more as well.” Our modern usage of the word can be very constricting because it seems to lean more to an idea of correctness, as in “You did that perfectly.” In that context, this scripture is daunting. How can I be “perfected in love?” I can’t even be perfect in my general activities. My fear amplifies that imperfection in my mind.
Last night, I went to a local karaoke show hosted by a dear friend of mine. Thomas has been trying to get me to sing at his show for a while. My ancient fear rose up from my gut every time he asked. I could hear my falsetto lurking in the back of my mind waiting to pounce. He had two of our friends, Jeff and Alan, help him to push me. Alan offered to do a duet with me. I’m pretty sure that none of them really thought I’d follow through. I wasn’t sure if I would either. I was not perfected in love, obviously. I was scared. Then, I got mad at myself. How many times had I held myself back because of this irrational fear? How many times had people told me I had a nice voice? My friends were pushing me to open my mouth and sing. I agreed to sing with Alan. Now I was hung. If I didn’t follow through, I’d be angry with myself and my friends would continue to push at me. If I did follow through, I’d be singing into a microphone that would bounce my voice and all my mistakes around for the entire audience to hear. In an act of defiance against my fear, I downloaded the song we chose as well as a lyric app, and took them on vacation with me. I practiced everyday I was at the beach, learning the notes and lyrics, feeling the story, owning the song. Fear grumbled in the back of my head, but I sang louder. It felt good.
While I was in South Fort Walton Beach, I went to a bar called Redd’s Pumping Station. The owner of the bar is named (no surprise) Redd, and she is also the bartender. The special part about her bar isn’t her drinks (she makes a mean mojito) or the setting (it’s actually a functional gas station). What makes Redd’s so special is that Redd sings. While she muddled my mojito, she sang. While she served and spoke to each table, she also performed. She told us that this was her dream, and she was living it. Her joy warmed that tiny bar that night, and I’m sure it warmed it every night. She encouraged us to sing with her, and some of us (me included) sang. She also taught me something about my own singing. If you sing with joy and embrace that joy, then that is as close to perfection as you get. Redd loves what she does. That love is what allows her to live her dream.
I sang with Alan last night. I got in front of that microphone, shaking, but I opened my mouth. My voiced bounced off the walls. I don’t remember if people clapped or not. I do know that my friends all said I was great, even when I stumbled briefly. I know I made mistakes. It didn’t matter. I sang with joy. I loved the song. I faced my fear and it could no longer punish me. In that four-minute period, I was perfected in as much love as could be mustered by the universe. “Perfected in love” shouldn’t be focused on the “perfect,” the absolutely correct. Love should be the focus. Fear locks you up. The expectation of perfection locks you up. Embracing love, embracing joy opens doors to places you didn’t think you could go.
Thank you for those moments when we tear away our desire to be perfect and focus on the beauty of a moment. Help us learn to embrace joy and face those things that scare us.
Jessica Nettles is a writer, an English instructor at Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Georgia, and a burgeoning karaoke singer. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University. Her journey as a follower of Christ is ongoing. Her children are both adults, and she is having all sorts of new adventures that she couldn't have when her kids were young. She currently resides in a small 60s ranch style house in Cobb County, Georgia, and hopes to one day have a sponsor so that she can spend her days as a writer and possible karaoke singing beach bum.She's sure God laughs about this hope daily.
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