Grace and Law Drumming: Lessons from Whiplash

I just finished watching Whiplash, a movie about a drums student, Andrew, who studies at a musical conservatory in New York. The student meets a teacher named Fletcher, who conducts the school's best jazz band. Fletcher is known for his skill in producing quality students, but it is because he pushes them as hard as they can go. Andrew makes it into the jazz band on Fletcher's invitation, and begins his study by having a chair thrown at him by Fletcher. After several practices and a couple competitions, Andrew ends up tackling Fletcher (on stage, after a car accident, no less!) and being dismissed from the school. 


The point of the film was to convey the efficacy of profound, explicit law in its effect on improvement. Almost in a manner of reciprocal exchange, Andrew's failure would be met with Fletcher's anger, and the drive to please was the engine on which Andrew's success ran on to finally come to the denouement of a long struggle, taking over Fletcher's show and proving himself to be a skilled drummer. Deceitful and often times softly enticing, Fletcher's teaching style was built up by drawing him in with promise, but breaking him down with conviction. 

Fletcher's demand for perfection, excellence and nothing short of the best is what I so often demand of myself and of others. This chair throwing mentality bleeds into my relationships like a broken gutter, and I can't but help realize that my golden image of perfection, as it were, is unrealistic and selfish. When I, or anybody else, views a person, what do we compare them to? For Fletcher, it was Louis Armstrong and Buddy Rich. Yet he says towards the end of the film, "I never had one," in reference to his students. The measurement always comes up short, like not enough spare change to pay for a coffee. 

I just finished reading A Meal With Jesus by Tim Chester over a pleasant spring break in San Diego. Chester points out that measuring up to standards is not the style of Jesus' ministry. Rather, he quotes a man who paints a parallel portrait of Jesus' love towards the prostitute in Luke. He writes about a dinner party, where a speaker has come for a prominent conference. The party is in a church leader's house; all of the important people are attending. Then, a prostitute comes in and goes straight to the speaker. She hugs him, crying. Everyone thinks that he must be a client, or that he'll perhaps push her away. But he hugs her back, saying "You're mine." 

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of a woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." (Luke 7)

The prostitute was the equivalent of, for Fletcher, a failure musician; for me, the person who I have nothing in common with. For the rest of us, it may be any number of reasons. The Pharisee looks at the sinner and says, "What is she doing in my house?" Jesus looks at the sinner, and says, "I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven." 

The law says that because somebody is distant, I don't have to pursue them, and that I have a reason to boast because of one thing or another. Deep down, I love being Fletcher, throwing the proverbial chair at people who I can come up with an excuse with to not love, if not to just keep them at bay. But one beautiful part of the Gospel is that when I look around, there are no more chairs to throw. Like the woman Jesus defends in John 8, he says to me, "Let him who is without sin among you throw the first stone (chair) at [the undesirable]." 

Introduce grace, which in one soft blow, topples my card-castle fantasy of self-entitlement and good things to say about myself. Sweet and kind, it warms my heart and calms the storm in my soul. The Fletchian anger and character-quality grocery list subsides, and I feel like I'm sitting next to the fire with my Dad (an analogy a wonderful man who is discipling me uses). This is the peace of resting in God, and it feels so full.

God gave all of us not simply a feeling, though, but a truth. "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love in which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved." Truth is so much better than a feeling, because feelings are fleeting. One of the best things about truth is that we certainly can't create it, but only spectate and marvel, onlookers of a distant but so close glory that is inexpressible, in any other words than praise and gladness. Grace invites us to invite others, saying, "Look at this!" In other words, I don't have to measure up or measure others anymore.

How does this relate to our - my - struggle to love people and love God? We have this hope: there is nothing we need to prove. Letting that sink in as I think of it, it demands something unheard of. The glamorous and flashy is made dull, the wise are made fools, all the splendor we heap up for ourselves is snuffed out like a candle. I am set free - and loose, God help everyone - into this world with this one message. It's difficult, certainly; people are not easy to love, but how difficult were we?

This is not easy, especially for me. I fail at this often times more than I succeed, if you could call it success. I will choose to ignore people, to avoid others when I see them, lash out in anger, not be able to understand them, and I will fail to be available, above all else. Most of my biggest regrets are what I've done and said to  others inconsiderately, throwing out Jesus' love for me. My mother told me once that when I was a baby, she hoped I was empathetic. How I've failed at that.

In the end game, we are left with a contrast of the good and the bad. This life is difficult; we are dealing with circumstances and people that are often confusing, frustrating, and hopeless. But we have this present hope, that this time is but for a little while, and we live in freedom and baffling, full, joyful grace to meet this life with a fury of love and self-sacrifice. This allows us to love people without bounds, expecting nothing, seeing the Gospel grow in hearts.

Participation in sharing is anything but forced; rather, it is enjoyed. And we participate as beholders but for a little while, before we jump into the painting itself, as it were. Van Gogh couldn't have put it better in his first sermon, courtesy of a fantastic Mockingbird article (yes, he was a pastor at one point):

I once saw a beautiful picture: it was a landscape, in the evening. Far in the distance, on the right, hills, blue in the evening mist. Above the hills, a glorious sunset, with the grey clouds edged with silver and gold and purple. The landscape is flatland or heath, covered with grass, the grass-stalks are yellow because it was autumn. A road crosses the landscape, leading to a high mountain far, far away; on the summit of the mountain, a city, lit by the glow of the setting sun. Along the road goes a pilgrim, his staff in hand. He has been on his way for a very long time and is very tired. And then he encounters a woman, or a figure in black, reminiscent of St. Paul’s phrase: ‘in sorrow, yet ever joyful.’ This angel of God has been stationed there to keep up the spirits of the pilgrims and answer their questions. And the pilgrim asks: ‘Does the road wind uphill all the way?’ To which comes the reply: ‘Yes, to the very end.’ And he asks another question: ‘Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?’ And the reply is: ‘ From morn to night, my friend.’ And the pilgrim goes on, in sorrow, yet ever joyful.