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“...I didn’t see a pastoral career coming. It hit me like a bus that runs you over while you’re looking the other way for oncoming traffic.”
I want to write about the providential intervention of God.
I want to write about how God teaches through the events of our lives if we are willing to pay attention.
I want to explore the sense of Scripture, and my experience that God works ever so slowly and meticulously in my life—in large measure by preparing complicated and multilayered interventions of experience and learning to create insight and maybe even “wisdom” (a harrowing word) in me. He seems to like to take people and recreate us. He seems to view us as eternally alive creatures, a view that invites patience in the work of a teacher. Unlike him, we seem to view ourselves as fighting time and the flight of life, people who must work fast to squeeze everything into a few short decades.
These thoughts echoed as Karen and I saw a play recently by famed playwright Moises Kaufman. The play seeks to understand a historic puzzle about the life of Ludwig von Beethoven: in 1819 Beethoven’s publisher challenged him (and several other famed composers) to write variations on a short and simple piece of music, with the idea that they would all be published in a book that might be profitable. Everyone cooperated but Beethoven. He delayed and delayed—for years! But in the end, he composed not one, but thirty-three variations on the original, all quite brilliant, so that the book published in the end was all of Beethoven’s design.
The seemingly illogical part was that to write thirty-three variations on the model, Beethoven had to put aside other seemingly greater and more lucrative works. He was in poor health, impoverished and nearly completely deaf. It seemed a very poor choice to waste time composing something so trivial. Even worse, why did he keep writing new variations when only one was requested and would have been fine?
Kaufman re-imagines this true event as the focus of a research project by a present-day musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, who is mystified by Beethoven’s poor judgment. She flies to Bonn, Germany, to do research in the library containing Beethoven’s original papers. While conducting her investigation, she is diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), and realizes she is rapidly losing the use of her body.
The play parallels Beethoven and Brandt. Across the span of two centuries, Beethoven cannot refuse the call of the music, and Dr. Brandt cannot refuse the search for an answer. At the end of the first act they both step to the front of the stage and address the audience. Together they say, “I have so much to do!” Beethoven says, “I must not lose this opportunity!” Katherine tags on, “This is my last opportunity!” Other characters in the play chime in with the repeated phrase, “Time is scarce!” The last statement is Beethoven and Brandt shouting together, “I must have the chance to finish the work!”
Like my ancestors, Adam and Eve—and Beethoven and Brandt—I have a strong tendency to want to go my own way. When I finally acceded to the truth that the God of the Bible exists and made me for himself, I knew it was logical on his part to set up a “goldfish bowl” of providential experiences to draw me further in. Nevertheless, I didn’t see a pastoral career coming. It hit me like a bus that runs you over while you’re looking the other way for oncoming traffic. Sometimes I’m still not fully aware that he is at work teaching me and changing me. At other points he reveals the hand he is playing.
The play was the first clue that, presently, I’m in one of those revealed-hand moments. The circumstances line up. I’m aware of the teacher and of myself as the student.
The second clue was being asked to take a three-month sabbatical, a period of rest and reflection more common these days to academia than the ministry. Typically, people take a sabbatical to write a book or do special research. I’m not doing either.
The truth is, I’ve never had a sabbatical before in my entire life (periods of unemployment don’t count), and I don’t have much of a clue what to do...or what to not do. I suspect I need a “pre-sabbatical sabbatical” to figure it out.
The pressure to fit everything “good” in, to get every experience in while I can, has suffused our times, and shines out in movies like “La La Land”. We must rise to the top (whatever that is) and make sure everyone else gets there, too.
The third clue was the deaths of two extraordinary ladies in our congregation. One, Mable Voorhees, died at 103 years of age. The other, Hilda Calendar, died at 102. I knew them both and cared dearly for them. They played significant roles in my growth as a Christian. They befriended and supported me over many years, and through burdensome struggles in my life. Both loved Jesus and served him. Each carried a rich vision of themselves as God’s eternal people, securely a part of his Kingdom. Both lived very long lives and died with a sanguine sense of readiness for what was next.
Neither of them seemed to think that “Time is scarce!”
Acts chapter 9 is crowded with momentous stories from the early days of the Church, but one of the most famous is the story of a woman in Joppa named Dorcas (Tabitha in Greek) who was described simply as “a disciple” (v.36). We are also told that she was a woman “full of good works and acts of charity.” In other words, she gave herself, her resources, her time, away to others. But, in the center of a busy life of ministry, she became ill and died.
Jesus’ friend and disciple, Peter, was (providentially) nearby, and was brought to her home where her body was laid out for burial. He was shown all the things she had made for others. He heard testimony from those she had helped. He understood that all her ministry had come to a stop with her death. He pushed everyone out of the room, knelt beside her body and prayed. He stood and said “Tabitha, arise.” And she did.
Nothing is said about what happened next in her life. Presumably she went back to helping the poor. The striking thing about this story to me is that giving her more days to serve the poor seemed to be fine with God, and fine with her. He brought her back. He gave her more life in her earthly body. We might ask why he didn’t do the same with Beethoven – who knows – we might have had one to two more amazing symphonies (“The Post-Resurrection symphonies!”). But it was the obscure and seemingly unimportant Tabitha that moved God’s hand.
I keep thinking there was a price to pay for this dear lady. She had to leave the immediate presence of God to serve back here in a sinful world. There was a very high price that we may not have noticed. Yet God made it happen.
For me, Tabitha highlights the biblical sense that my life and my time are not my own. For her it was the source of her joy to serve her Lord. Her time was God’s. When God directed her back, she came. I presume she would have served him happily there as well as here.
We are eternal people, but not immortal people. We need to use our time wisely, but biblical wisdom suggests that we give our days away, and take time to celebrate God and worship him. And that we also look for God’s hand as he weaves instruction for us not only from Scripture, but into events, people, stuff we read or watch, maybe even the occasional play. May we be wise enough not to ignore the clues, and never suffer the embarrassment of demanding of him “I must have a chance to finish the work!”
Jim serves Cornerstone through pastoral care and by overseeing internal ministries and administration.
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