The Sustain Pedal

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I play the piano. Not well. But well enough to play the hymns impromptu or accompany if I have some advance notice. (Like several weeks. Okay, maybe a month.)

When I was a senior in high school, my grandmother asked me to accompany our entire extended family (cousins, aunts, uncles) in singing a special musical number at their missionary farewell. The piece was called, “Here am I” and was written by my grandmother’s sister. My grandparents had been called to the Minneapolis, Minnesota mission and all their children and grandchildren had been dutifully practicing in small circles around living room pianos in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, belting out, “Here am I! Use me Lord!” to the robust strains of Great-Aunt Marie’s rallying chorus…that repeats. Twice.

I had been practicing too. The accompaniment consisted mostly of chords that moved quickly up and down the keyboard, from black to white, both hands pounding and leaping along. The piece was stirring but tiring to play. The flap of skin between my thumb and pinky finger was stretched weary, and I was having trouble making the chord transitions sound anything but choppy.

Then I remembered the sustain pedal and its wondrous mechanics. I began practicing with it, using it to lengthen my sound, to sustain notes that were otherwise out of my reach. It made my fingers sound smooth and fluid. In truth, it hid my mistakes.

Come performance Sunday, I was a sweaty mess. But I was counting on that sustain pedal to get me through. And it did. When the meeting was over, Aunt Marie slid her arm around my elbow and gently chided me. “You know that piece wasn’t meant to be played with the sustain pedal,” she said. She knew my skill level. She heard every note I had missed. But she understood.

Last Sunday, I taught the lesson in Relief Society about “Sustaining Those Whom the Lord Sustains.” And I thought about Aunt Marie as I read these words from George Albert Smith:

We would do well if we would magnify and honor [those individuals] God has placed at our head. They are men [and women] with human frailties, they will make mistakes, but if we will be as charitable to the mistakes that they make as we are to our own failures and mistakes, we will see their virtues as we see our own (Teachings of Presidents of the Church, George Albert Smith, p. 63).

With General Conference only a week away, a new Bishopric in my home ward, and wonderful, yet human people leading the church at every level, I am finding this to be wise counsel. My job, as one willing to sustain, is to look past any imperfections, to not judge, or criticize, but to support, bear up, and to nourish through my prayers and compassion. Sustain comes from the word sustenance, and it seems both leader and follower are nurtured by commitment to this principle.

I recently read an interview with Julie Beck in which she discussed what it has been like to be under scrutiny, to stand at the pulpit, rather than her kitchen counter, where she admits she is most comfortable. She said,

It’s never not overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve slept through a single night since I’ve had this calling. I can never take my head off and put on my resting head. I can never take these shoulders off and put on my resting shoulders. It’s always with me, but I’ve become more comfortable with how uncomfortable it is. The Atonement covers our ineffectiveness and insufficiencies, and it’s my whole dependence on the Lord that makes it possible for me to become more comfortable with the burden…The calling is lonely – it just is…There’s nowhere for me to turn except to heaven most of the time (LDS Living March/April 2012 pg. 50-56).

The honesty in Sister Beck’s words touched me. I pray regularly for our prophet. I pray for our local leaders. But I realized after reading her response, I had never prayed for the woman asked to worry over God’s daughters. So I began to pray for her by name, each night. And as I did, something beautiful, and humbling happened to me. I felt empathy and love for her like I haven’t for any church leader, at any time.

I don’t mean to gloss over this principle and tell you sustaining is always easy. I know there are those who’ve been injured or hurt, who are limping along as they try to carve out a place for themselves in the church. But I firmly believe sustaining isn’t so much about the individual(s) called as it is about our commitment to God. And he would want us to be gentle with each other. I, for one, am grateful when someone is willing to play the sustain pedal for me.

When have you felt sustained in a leadership position? Have you ever found it difficult to sustain a church leader and if so, how did you overcome those feelings? How do we best sustain those with whom we are asked to work or follow?

About Catherine A.

(Blog Team) is a mother of five small children including two sets of twins. She and her husband spent nearly eight years in Northern Virginia, but now call Utah home. She reviews books for Meridian Magazine, writes for Power of Moms, dabbles in poetry and works on the prose editorial staff for Segullah. She blogs about her wild and precious life @ www.wildnprecious.com.

24 thoughts on “The Sustain Pedal

  1. Catherine, I was happy to see your name on the Segullah post feed. Thank you so much for this.

    I’m thinking, too of how often we need ‘sustaining’ even in day-to-day life, outside of the realm of our formal callings. It can be really hard being a weak mortal. When we are gentle with each other, I think it makes our own mortality easier to face. And sometimes it’s the simplest of gentle, kind, sustaining gestures that can make all the difference on a hard day. Sustaining as you define it here sums up perhaps what it really means to be Christian:

    “But I firmly believe sustaining isn’t so much about the individual(s) called as it is about our commitment to God. And he would want us to be gentle with each other. I, for one, am grateful when someone is willing to play the sustain pedal for me.”

  2. I learnt the most about being sustained (and thus, sustaining) when I was called as HFPE Counsellor in RS (when it had JUST changed from Homemaking to HFPE) – I’d been baptised less than 6 months, didn’t quilt, scrapbook, home decorate, cook wheat AND I had a ‘non-member’ husband AND I worked FULL-TIME AND my son was in care! I truly believed the Bishop had made a mistake. At the first meeting, a woman (quilter/cooker/scrapbooker etc etc extraordinaire) leant over, looked at what I was painting and said “Wow, you really CAN’T craft!” I looked around the room full of women who did all sorts of amazing home, family and personal enrichment stuff and worried… until I realised they were all supporting me in my calling. No doubt some of them thought they could do better, but everyone encouraged and sustained me (throughout the next year) in the activities I organised and held.

    From that, I learnt that sustaining someone was accepting that they had the authority and responsibility to work at their calling their own way, regardless of how I – or anyone else – may do it, without comparing how someone ‘better’ would do at that calling.

    At the time I believed that the calling was for my sake, for the growth and confidence I gained from it, but later I found out the way I did it (as a working mother, without the ‘perfect’ LDS home/story) encouraged others to come, participate and in turn grow and learn.

    And I agree that ‘being gentle’ is a wonderful way to sustain others.

  3. We live in a ward that is lovng and kind. Everyone sustains each other through gentle service and loving acceptance. It feels like Zion.

    I hope our next ward will be at least half as wonderful! (That is when we finally sell our house and move…to Ca or Ut!)

    Loved this beautiful post connecting the sustain pedal to sustaining our leaders. Thanks, Catherine.

  4. Thank you! I am the YW President in my Ward. It is the most humbling experience ever. I have never been more aware of my own lack and inadequacies. I appreciate that others are gentle and helpful to me. On the other hand, I think I need to do better or rather be more charitable to others and their callings. Thank you for the beautiful reminder to live better.

  5. Such a lovely post. I read that interview with Sister Beck as well and haven’t been able to get her convictions and honesty out of my mind since.

    I will never forget how sustained I would feel as RS President when the women in my ward would do their visiting teaching. It truly felt like a burden was lifted when I saw they were taking care of each other (and oh how it hurt when they didn’t). It has forever changed the way I serve in the Church.

  6. I like the quote from George Albert Smith. We’re all going to make mistakes in our callings, but we need to support each other as much as we can too. I love how this post emphasizes the supporting part of sustaining.

    But what do you do when you strongly disagree with a church leader, especially one that you feel might make a different decision if he knew more about the situation and/or the effects of his decision? I think often about the Canaanite woman in the New Testament who asked Jesus again if he would heal her daughter instead of agreeing with his first decision. It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus didn’t think she was out of line for questioning his refusal to do what she wanted him to do. Does that still apply today?

    I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions because I’ve felt this way regarding a specific situation I’m aware of and I’m not satisfied with the idea that sustaining might just equal agreeing and following rather than supporting.

  7. I love the analogy of sustaining throwing a cloak of mercy over our trivial mistakes. Having presided many times over organizations and also trained those who preside, I have to say that this principle (prayer for those you sustain) expands the capacities of all involved more than almost any other thing. The real stretching of our power and worth comes in the quiet moments of forgiveness.

    That said, I also hear the words of Anonymous today, who brings up a valid point. There is a time and a place to discuss our concerns. I have had to learn to have “crucial conversations” that I found personally uncomfortable but were necessary with those who were in authority. There is a way to do that without setting aside our ability to sustain. I call it Sarah’s Key and it has nothing to do with plural marriage. It is a necessary part of our communication with one another and edifies both individuals to the degree that it is between two open individuals (See D&C 50:22). Sometimes that doesn’t happen in the communication, but may happen as they process it later. It’s an art, really, to communicate that way.

    I remember some years ago when I applied for a job at the church office building. One of the key questions I was asked was whether I could speak candidly with the members of the Twelve without being intimidated by their position.

    What you discuss needs discussed if you think it does. What happens after that is between you and the Lord.

  8. Thanks for a beautiful post, Catherine.

    Anonymous today, your question is valid. I believe in serious situations, the leader should be approached and some sort of understanding can happen on both sides.

    The non-sustaining that really drives me crazy is the nit-picky stuff–“the refreshments at this activity are not as good as last year.”

  9. I haven’t much time right now to respond. I’ll return to the discussion later today, but I do want to respond to you, Anonymous, because I am grateful for your question. And I think it’s absolutely valid.

    One of the questions I posed in our RS lesson was, “Is it okay to question those in authority and what they say (or do)?” The discussion that ensued was very enlightening. We determined that yes, questioning is an essential part of God’s gospel. He wants us to question, to search things out in our hearts, to seek improvement where possible. What matters however, is to whom we go with our questions and in what spirit they are asked. If it is a doctrinal concern, the Lord wants us to bring our question to Him. I quoted Elder Marion D. Hanks who said, “the simplest, clearest, and most effective formula for balancing faith and reason is to search the scriptures, seek the Lord in mighty prayer, and serve faithfully in whatever church calling comes to you.”

    I also remembered something Eugene England said once about observing something you might view as “wrong.” He said, “What you can do… is not leave [or] desert… You must reach out in love, trying to help – and also trying to learn through your cooperation and common service, from the perspective and commitments of others with different gifts than your own.”

    If it is a matter of mechanics, or the way something is being done, a traditional or cultural practice that doesn’t need to be perpetuated, we determined it was indeed appropriate to voice a question to those who make decisions. For example, one woman in our ward after moving to Utah realized that women never said the opening prayer in sacrament meeting. So she simply asked about the protocol and it turned out, somewhere down the line a leader had felt that was the way it was supposed to be done, but the current handbook indicated any member of the congregation could open the meeting with prayer. So thanks to her question, that was rectified.

    bonnieblythe – I think your take on the art of communication is also very helpful. And I love what you were asked when applying for work at the church office building. I’ll return later to comment further. Thanks to all of your for sharing your experience and thoughts here.

  10. Cath, what a beautiful concept of sustaining, one that resonates with me, of course! Hooray for the damper pedal!

    I have had more than a few instances lately when I have been criticized harshly by those I thought loved me, and more than a few instances lately when I have been loved, cherished, and uplifted by those who obviously love me. I’m sure you can guess which of these circumstances led me to want to be better… Yes, I’ve done much soul searching as a result of the first situations, and I hope that I will be a better woman because of them, but I’m not sure that the positive outcome will equal the pain.

    I hope that I can give that same gentle acceptance and love to my leaders. I know I’ve needed that while serving in leadership capacities. We can all find fault if we’re looking for it, but we can all find things to praise, too.

    While reading Rough Stone Rolling, Joseph Smith’s humanity was laid bare to me, and I loved him more for it. Reading it (and watching leaders around me) taught me to love myself more, too, and to recognize that all of us are asked to serve despite our glaring faults.

    I’m going to take your analogy one step further (and one pedal over to the left). The sostenuto pedal, the middle pedal on grands and a few uprights, is rarely used, but so valuable when used appropriately. Its function: when a pianist holds down certain notes, then depresses the sostenuto pedal, it allows only those notes that were pressed down to vibrate. If you’ve held down the notes of a C major chord, for instance, whenever you play any of the notes of a C major chord (CEG) anywhere on the keyboard, those strings whose notes you depressed will vibrate. In my mind, it’s just like choosing to support those around us by allowing their strengths to be sustained (and reminding them of their strengths every so often) while allowing their weaknesses to drop off nearly unnoticed…CERTAINLY not sustaining our interest in the weaknesses.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Loved it!

  11. Beautiful thoughts, Cath. I love how you tied together the two ways we use the word “sustain”. That quote from Sister Beck was so candid and sincere and makes me love her even more. It is very clear she cares deeply for us all.

    Some scriptures jumped to mind as I thought about your post today, namely those of prophets who readily confessed that they felt inadequate for their calling. Moses and Enoch both claim to be “slow of speech”. Ammon declares he is “nothing”. I know there are others who mention their “weaknesses”. My favorite is probably Paul who talks about “a thorn in the flesh” given to him. When he begged for the Lord to remove it, the Lord reminded Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me…for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10) Gotta love his humility! Earlier in 2 Corinthians, there’s this other verse which I love.: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5).

    Thank you so much for the gentle compassion you regularly exhibit in your life. I thank you again for the post you did earlier on scripture study. It has changed my time studying the scriptures so much. xo

  12. Anonymous,

    I think this is an important question. I’m reminded of what my husband has talked about learning as a bishop’s counselor. I think it’s important to speak up, especially if it’s related to one’s stewardship to do so. I think with local leaders, we also have the opportunity to share thoughts, information, and concerns.

    But then I think we also should respect the stewardship of the one who has the position to do something (or not do something) with the information we share. I think part of working in the council system is to both learn to communicate but also learn to accept that others may process information or make decisions differently than we would.

    I’ve experienced both, where ideas and information were acted upon, and other times, when decisions were made that I didn’t necessarily agree with. Either way, I do what I can (or feel I should), and then I try to let it go. I also try to follow the Spirit. Is something bugging me because it’s just bugging me, or is it bugging me because I’m being nudged to say/do something?

  13. I also try to follow the Spirit.

    Can I just add that sometimes it’s really hard to figure out if my feelings are my own or from the Spirit? I had something a couple of years or so ago that was eating at me a lot. Hubby and I discussed it, and I really wanted to say something. He felt it best to say nothing. I wrestled and wrestled and finally decided to let it go, too. And then later, in an unexpected way, the opportunity simply presented itself for the concern to be shared with a leader. We still have no idea what happened with the information, but it was interesting to go through this process of being concerned about something, having the timing for sharing it unfold in its own way [I think my husband was wise…I can be a bit impulsive], having a leader listen with openness, and then feeling the relief of being able to let it go.

  14. Lovely image–I’ve never thought of sustaining with the “covering mistakes” concept before. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  15. Michelle – Thanks for all your insightful comments about prudence in knowing when to speak, or ask, about trying to follow the spirit and assess the reasons behind your feelings. So helpful.

    Kellie – I LOVE your nontraditional experience of serving as the HFPE counselor. No doubt those women learned so much from you, things that matter much more than toll painting! ;) You’re always such a refreshing voice here. Love you.

    And Kerri – wow. I’ve always wondered what that middle pedal did! Only a very talented pianist like yourself could make that leap and teach us with such a beautiful metaphor the purpose of the sostenuto pedal. Thank you. I so appreciated this – it rounded out our discussion so nicely: “In my mind, it’s just like choosing to support those around us by allowing their strengths to be sustained (and reminding them of their strengths every so often) while allowing their weaknesses to drop off nearly unnoticed.” Wise and beautiful.

    Anne Marie – “It is very clear she [Sister Beck] cares deeply for us all.” Yes, that was very obvious to me too. And what wonderful scriptures you shared with us. Thank you, especially for the reference in Corinthians about Paul wanting the “power of Christ to rest on him” – that was helpful to me today in an entirely different context. Love you my friend.

  16. Thank you for this wonderful analogy, Catherine.

    As I read I thought about the time I was called to be a Relief Society President, as well as some other leadership positions.

    My first reaction, after being assured that it was not a mistake, was the thought “That means I have to stop yelling at my kids! I have to be an example!” And I felt totally overwhelmed, unprepared, and definitely NOT the “type.”

    But I did my best.

    Sometimes, however, I felt that others in the congregation set me up on a pedestal, as if somehow by virtue of my having been called, I must be better than they were. And then when I disappointed them by not being the perfect person they thought they had placed on the pedestal, it was as if they threw rocks at me to knock me off that pedestal I had not asked to be put on in the first place.

    A pedestal can be a lonely place–especially when I felt myself not to be above those I served, but more like the pillar below them, trying to boost them up.

    It’s unfortunate that even at times when we are trying our best, we unwittingly make mistakes that hurt others. I’m glad that the Lord sees the heart and the intent, and that His sustaining of us can, in the eternal scheme of things, hide those mistakes, whether we are on a pedestal or whether we are the supporting pillar beneath it.

  17. Never in my life did I imagine I would read about Aunt Marie and “Here Am I” on a blog I love so much. Catherine, your aunt is my grandmother Wanda’s sister. Her daughter/my mother Karen, my sister and I have sung Aunt Marie’s songs for decades, making up our own simple trio. While I sang with rather more ill temper than I care to admit in my teenage years, I just can’t deny that the spirit rang through those melodies and taught me the power of music. Especially in harmony. Which then taught me the power of sustaining each other as we stand together, arms and voices linked, to make it through this many times difficult life. Those lessons of how to and why we support, taught to me in that Manwaring heritage, have saved me, emotionally and spiritually and physically when the tides roll over us, but we are anchored in the sustaining rock of Christ. Thank you for sharing this.

  18. Kathleen – This was such a wonderful, honest persepctive: “A pedestal can be a lonely place–especially when I felt myself not to be above those I served, but more like the pillar below them, trying to boost them up.” I love the idea of supporting from beneath. I agree, it can be a hard and lonely place, but I loved your gracious words about the Atonement and how the Lord sees the intent of our hearts. Thank you.

    Holley – Hello cousin! I’m so glad you commented here. I would have hated to miss this opportunity to connect. My Grandmother is Lorraine, younger sister to Wanda and Marie. Hard to believe they’re all gone now. I hope they are standing arms linked on the other side having a chuckle over this story, while also smiling at their posterity and those of us who have been so blessed by their faithful service to the Lord and His church. Your image of standing together to make it through difficult times is a beautiful one. Thank you!

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