Saturday, April 10, 2010

So Live, That...


Every year the two most important days of your life go by. One is your birth day. The other is your death day. The one you know, and celebrate. The other passes unbenownst to you or anyone else.

I attended a memorial service Sunday night for a friend I've known for some two dozen years. She was a major figure in the classical music world, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 30 years, a highly respected violin teacher, and a much beloved mother, wife, and friend. She passed away in November after a seven-year battle with cancer. A life-long Christian Scientist, she had a profound relationship with God that eclipsed that of many a professed Christian.

The memorial service was held in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music. Dozens of musicians from all the facets of her life presented a nearly three-hour long concert in tribute to their mentor, teacher, colleague, and friend. In between the musical pieces, friends, fellow musicians, and former teachers shared their memories of this amazing woman. As I sat there listening, I heard mention of a life lived with passion and joy. One speaker talked about her calling as a teacher, about the profound influence she had on his and others' lives, both musical and personal.

I can't say I was jealous of all that was being said, but I certainly was inspired. My friend lived her life in the moment, and for the moment. She knew that each moment mattered, and she made certain it mattered for all she spent time with. She knew, in the end, that God's love made all the difference in the world, and she made sure to let everyone else know that too. It was amazing, in that mostly secular setting, to hear person after person talk about God's love as it shone through their friend and teacher's life. The final speaker, my friend's husband, talked about her peace and contentment, right up to the end of her life. She died, he said, without regret.

Thursday, I shared William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis" with the juniors. Bryant was an American poet, Massachusetts born and raised, who first made his mark on the literary world in the early 1800s at age 17 with the publication of this meditation on death. A fairly long poem, it addresses the natural cycles of life, the importance of living that life so that when death comes along there is no fear, no worry, only peace and contentment. I learned the last nine lines of this poem when I was a junior in high school. The words made an impact on me then, but I didn't realize what they really meant until later. And they've been haunting me since Sunday night. It was no coincidence that Bryant was in my lesson plans this week. In needed his reminder of the importance of living our life so well that when our time comes to leave this life, we can go peacefully, and with no regrets. Bryant put into words what my friend put into reality. Both challenged me to re-examine my own approach to life and living it to the fullest, and with confidence and joy:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumberable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, an lies down to pleasant dreams.

When the juniors and I talked about this poem a few days ago, I paired it with the Mark Twain quote at the beginning of this article. We talked about the fact that we don't know the hour of our death and the necessity of living our lives so that our day of death is not an issue, our life is, and our relationship with God. It was a timely message for me that complimented the memorial experience on Sunday.

Friday, April 02, 2010

At the Cross

My father is a violinist. He's many other things--an educator (principal at GBA in the 70s!), a theologian, a carpenter, a gardener, a philosopher--but at heart he's a musician, and a pretty good one at that. When he was in high school, he had hopes of being a concert violinist, or at the very least a professional orchestral player. But then he went to college and God called him to the ministry--both pastoral and teaching. Growing up, I heard him play many times--all kinds of classical music. But my favorite memories of him playing are of when he'd play for church, always just a simple hymn. He wanted to reach out to everyone with his music and hymns, for him, did that. Hymns like "Face to Face with Christ my Saviour" and "Into the Woods my Master Went" and "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" were among his favorites. Hearing them played under his skillful hands made them my favorites as well, especially after I looked the words up in the hymnal and realized the impact of what he was playing.

Every year at this time, I am drawn to the music of the time. The hymns my father put into my mental iTouch always start to play in my mind and take hold of my heart, especially Paul Gerhardt's setting of the ancient Latin hymn "Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded":

O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, Thine only crown;

How pale Thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!

How does that visage languish,
which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered,
was all for sinners’ gain;

Mine, mine was the transgression,
but Thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
’Tis I deserve Thy place;

Look on me with Thy favor,
vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

This week, as those words swirled through my head, the images they created jammed up my heart and made me grateful anew for what my Saviour actually did for me. They also brought to mind another, related hymn, "At the Cross":

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sov'reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Chorus:
At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown,
And love beyond degree!

So, what, then, does it mean to me that Jesus became a human being and lived as a man for 33 years and then died for me? A man that got hungry, tired, thirsty? A man who had intense feelings? A man who knew temptation? Does all of that really affect my life today? What difference does it make? Well, for me, Jesus’ life means four things:
1. He provides atonement. Since Adam and Eve chose sin, with its penalty of separation from God, only Jesus, according to the preconceived plan, could pay the penalty and thus change the consequences of that sin. The man Jesus provided atonement--at-one-ment—and restored harmony between man and God.
2. I better understand God. To face Satan’s accusations about God and His character, to bridge the distance resulting from sin, to heal misunderstandings likely in that relation-ship, God chose to give the watching world, and me, a living example of what He was really like. Jesus went beyond telling to show me what His Father was like. How could I love or serve some impersonal, cosmic force? But now, I see God Himself through the life and person of His Son.
3. He better understands me. Because I am convinced that He has felt my pain, I will more easily turn to Him for encouragement or forgiveness, confident that He will care, He will sympathize, He will understand.
4. He provides a pattern, a role model. As a person subject to pressure, bound by time, plagued at times by fatigue, I carefully watch Jesus’ life for His responses. And I see unqualified love (John 15:12), unhurried purpose (John 12:27), constant depen-dence (John 5:19), and responsive obedience (John 14:31). What a contrast to my self-centeredness, indepen-dence and defensive-ness!
The words and music of Easter encourage me to look at Christ’s life on earth which, in turn, shows me that what God expects of me is not impossible. Someone else has gone before me and shown me the way. Because of His life, I know how to live my life. Because of His struggles, I know how to get through my struggles. Because of His earthly death, I have the promise of eternal life. And so do you.