For Mother’s Day I bought lawn tickets to see Itzhak Perlman perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in August with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia. Ravinia is the outdoor home of the CSO and a wonderful place to see (or just hear) a concert. The “Ravinia Experience” for us is picnicking on the lawn as a family and getting to hear the world’s greatest musicians being accompanied by one of the world’s finer orchestras. This is our first year back at Ravinia since 2008 and we are going twice, once also with our friends, the Magnesses.
A number of years ago, when our daughter Emily was 3 (probably 2005), we were at Ravinia when Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings was on the bill. I love the work, but I had come to dread hearing it since Oliver Stone planted images of burning Vietnamese villages in my head through his movie, Platoon. In that movie, Stone used the Barber Adagio at a point when American soldiers are leaving villages they have ransacked and set on fire for suspicion of being VC strongholds. Such a lovely work had been coopted into my visual memory and now this wonderful work was associated with images that I would much rather not remember.
When the CSO started in with their rendition, I grabbed Emily and left the grassy area to walk up to the back of the seats and watch the orchestra. With Emily in my arms I watched Christoph Eschenbach conduct the CSO as if he had left this temporal plane and was caught up only in the music and, for a brief time, the visual associations from the movie were not there. Listening to the Adagio again just for the joy of listening, I found myself getting emotional.
“Daddy, why are you crying?” Emily asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just that it’s so…so perfect,” I answered.
“I like it. It’s beautiful” Emily answered.
(The philosopher in me was marveling at her 3 year old use of the word/philosophical concept “beauty” rather than merely “nice” or “pretty”).
It dawned on me that for her this piece had none of the visual associations it had for me. Oh, to have the mind of a three-year old (!), less stained by the world and its utter fallenness. I suspect this is part of the reason why children are such a blessing to us.
For me, Barber’s Adagio is a standout piece in the career of an otherwise average American composer. I’m no fan of Samuel Barber, but his Adagio touches me at the level of the soul. I resonate with Barber. I feel as a person and as a pastor that I am always striving for perfection but have never attained to it. Barber’s Adagio was one of those moments where a hard working composer got it not only right, but hit the defining work of his career, the closest to perfection he would ever get. I don’t know if Barber ever saw the Adagio as God’s gift to him, but he should have.
Barber was not Mozart, whose easy way with composing leaves one wondering why God gifts some with talents so extraordinary that they cannot handle them. One gets the feeling from Barber’s music that composing is not easy. It is hard work. Part of the reason we fail at our own attempts for perfection is that we are always striving so hard for it. I feel that this is true for most of us in whatever vocation we find ourselves. Our best performances in life are often unrehearsed and totally unplanned for. If we tried any harder, we would surely mess it up.
And yet, all the world today seems to be able to tell people is “try harder.” Productivity, productivity, productivity. And so, many American Christian churches tell their people that as well. It’s popular, but I must say, it has no creativity whatsoever. It doesn’t see things the way God in His Word sees them.
The Gospel of Christianity is uniquely wired, it seems to me, toward explaining why this is true. Just as you cannot work your way to heaven, you cannot simply set a goal of perfection, or even excellence or beauty, and attain it simply through hard work. Even the old canard of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration belies the truth that there can be no beauty without that 10%. (Mind you, I am not reducing Christianity itself to a game of percentages. “Nothing in my hand I bring…”). There is no beauty, no joy, no perfection that is not first a gift of God. I have nothing in my hand except that which God has placed into it. When I lose sight of that and fall back on my own efforts, beauty, perfection, excellence, all of it goes away like so much garbage. All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away (Isaiah 64:6 NIV).
For one moment in his career, God had uniquely blessed Samuel Barber with the composition of a work which, it seems to me, transcended his own abilities as a composer. Beauty from above.
“God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does,” seems to sum up Luther’s teaching on good works. God didn’t need Barber’s Adagio, but He graced a lot of people’s lives through that work and its ability to penetrate down to the core of human emotion. Perhaps he knew how much that work would come to mean for a lot of people. We need beauty, just as we need all those other gifts God alone can provide, the most important of which is salvation itself. He doesn’t need you to strive for perfection for His name’s sake. He grants you His “perfect (complete) law” in Christ Jesus (James 1:25). He sees Christ’s perfection in you through the forgiveness of sins. And your neighbor? He sees that perfection (Christ) much the same way I have learned to recognize God in works of beauty like Barber’s Adagio.
Emily didn’t know what deep thoughts her little comment began in me that day. All she knew was that it was beautiful. Now, 8 years later, she sits at her cello and shows us beauty every day. Yes. She works hard at it. She is a wonderful worker. But those talents are a gift to her and, much like David soothing Saul with his harp, Emily brings much joy to her family through her music. I am blessed to have a cellist in the house, “soothing the savage beast.” Our other children do too, but there is something about a cello.
And now I am able to listen to Barber’s Adagio and leave my visual memory in the dust. Beauty is a gift from God, for our meditation and for our appreciation of the One who grants it.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil. 4:8 NIV)
God grant you some beauty for your meditation and your appreciation of His good gifts.