Monday, January 21, 2013

The Salieri Syndrome

The eighties in many ways was a lost decade for me.  It was then I began raising a family and building my career.  I was too busy to notice much of the cultural developments going on around me in those days, particularly in the pop music scene.  I did watch Fame and the Cosby Show religiously every week; so I hadn’t completely isolated myself.  I also went to movies on occasion.  Probably my favorite film from that decade, and one that has made my personal best list is Amadeus.

They would have had to have really messed Amadeus up, bringing it to the screen, for it not to make my list.  Amadeus encompasses much of what I have liked for about as long as I can remember. Mozart has been my favorite composer ever since reading a biography of him called, The Wonder Boy, when I was in the third grade.  And as you might predict, I adore classical music.  And of course, I am a student of history.  Amadeus couldn’t miss, and Forman’s  picture didn’t disappoint us.  Indeed, Amadeus took eight academy awards in 1985, including best picture, best director (Forman), and best actor (Abraham).

As with all great works of art, Amadeus teaches us something about the human condition.  What it has taught me is what I have affectionately dubbed, The Salieri Syndrome.

Antonio Salieri was a real composer who lived contemporaneously with Mozart.  A legend arose after Mozart’s death claiming Salieri had poisoned Mozart out of jealousy.  The story gained legs because of the mysterious circumstances that had surrounded the commissioning of Mozart’s Requiem Mass, which would be his last and also unfinished work.  Salieri was purported to have been the anonymous patron in question, and allegedly his intent was to claim the piece as his own after eliminating Mozart.  The legend has been kept alive by the playwright, Pushkin, and more recently, Peter Shaffer, whose play Forman adapted to the screen.  The legend makes for great drama, but is almost certainly a myth.

However, The Salieri Syndrome (hereafter called The Syndrome) is all too true.  At its heart, The Syndrome is what I describe as coveting your neighbor’s purpose.

As the story has been told, Salieri aspired to become a famous composer, and did, indeed, attain to a high degree of fame as court composer in late 18th century Vienna.  Being a religious man, Salieri likely attributed much of his success to God’s favor.  So far, so good.  But the appearance of Mozart would soon cast a shadow of doubt over Salieri’s healthy perspective.  Salieri had enough giftedness to recognize Mozart’s greater gift.  This point was driven home in the film when Salieri told a Priest, who was hearing the story, something to the effect of, “I looked through the bars of the music and beheld an absolute beauty.”

Unfortunately for Salieri, instead of thanking God for having given Mozart such an awesome gift, Salieri began to resent the fact God had not so gifted him; Salieri started to covet Mozart’s purpose.

And see what happened as this covetousness took hold within Salieri’s heart.  First, Salieri could no longer enjoy the fruit of God’s gift to him.  Many people were blessed by Salieri’s compositions; his works were celebrated by the public and awarded by the Emperor.  But perhaps more importantly, Salieri became a highly regarded and sought after teacher.  God had given Antonio a position and a platform in that society.  Salieri had the attention of a great many people.  He was in the enviable vantage point to shine the light of God’s love and grace across a vast expanse of needy people.  Instead, because he allowed The Syndrome to infect his heart, Mozart’s purpose quickly blinded Antonio to his own accomplishments and his own purpose.  Salieri would end up squandering his God-given opportunities by exploiting them in an attempt to bring ruin upon Mozart.  As I said, the tale is fiction, but The Syndrome it portrays is a tragic reality of human nature.

The second ramification of The Syndrome for poor Salieri was it stunted his growth.  Salieri’s relationship with Mozart afforded Salieri a tremendous opportunity to learn from one of the great musical geniuses.  True, Mozart was no great teacher; yet Salieri had enough innate talent to hone his own compositional skills through his close association with Mozart, just by soaking in Mozart’s many instructions, comments, and ideas.  Sadly, consumed by The Syndrome, Salieri cheated himself of a rare chance by attempting to steal Mozart’s purpose for himself.  What a colossal and horrible lie it is to take what belongs to someone else and actually believe it has become one’s own.

Nothing robs us of the real joy we can have with our Creator more than all the various ways we attempt to live other people’s lives.  Instead, of being whom God created us to be, we allow ourselves to become sickened by The Salieri Syndrome.  And this choice diminishes both ourselves and the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Living Tribute to a Dear Friend

Every so often a person enters your life who makes a significant positive impact.  My dear wife, Sara, is one such person in my own life.  I cannot imagine my life without her.  But others have come in and out of my life over the years who have also made a positive difference.  Some of these old friends who had drifted away because of life changes, have since reentered my life in a new season for us.  That's what I've observed about true friendships, you can always go home again and pick up as if you had only departed company the night before.

Now, a dear friend, mentor, and pastor of twelve years has retired to move away to a new venue in another place.  And he will be sorely missed by all of us he has left behind, here, and especially me.

Dr. Harry Shields was the one who married Sara and I.  The simple transforming truth--a teaching and preaching concept championed by him over his august career--he gave us and those in attendance on that beautiful, sunny, warm afternoon through his homily  has been instrumental in keeping our marriage strong and healthy all these years; it was this: "Keep your eyes fixed on the conductor."  Sara and I have never forgotten this--not that Harry would let us, because the message of keeping our full attention on Christ has been central to all of his teaching.  And rightly so, because Christ is the core of the Gospel.  Thus, it isn't the transforming truth that has sustained our marriage, but the transforming power of our living Lord.

I will miss the post-service discussions with Harry in the cool serenity of the empty sanctuary.  Many times Harry and I have conversed about theology, new book titles, family issues, church issues, or even humorous anecdotes in this setting.  How can one begin to assign a value to such a simple joy of two kindred spirits in conversation?  It cannot be done; it is priceless.

Perhaps you find all of that rather dull and uninteresting.  But it is such encounters which make the more exciting experiences of life meaningful and vivid, and make the more terrifying moments bearable.

Indeed, a great lie is the notion to live means to keep one's self in a perpetual heightened state of varied distractions--from rockus music, roller coaster rides of all sorts of flavors, to a smorgasbord of stimulants to feed and gratify--and yes, multiply--our appetites.  The vast majority of humanity see living like a wall of mail slots you sometimes see behind the desk in posh hotels; life to most people these days is making sure each little cubbyhole has been filled; our culture has described it as the bucket list to be checked off before death.  Not that there is anything wrong with running the rapids once and awhile; the mistake is to believe this is the whole of what it means to live.  No, real living is found in the quiet, honest, and transparent relationships that begin between us and God and then proceed between each of us under His direction.  It is these encounters filling in and around the adventures of life that nourish us for growth.  And the health they engender is eternal.

Harry is a great man because he has never forgotten the primacy of relationships and has faithfully modeled the principle for us. Harry's determination to foster and  maintain  relationships under the auspices of the Christ has made him an extraordinary human being.  For this reason, as is also true of my wife, you want to be around him; because the power of love is so evident, you will always find certain rest in his presence.

People such as Harry and my wife have discovered that the universe was created by God who is both infinite and relational, and so the universe will not function short of healthy relationships; the cubbyhole philosophy just won't cut it.  As Harry has modeled for us, healthy relationships take time and an investment of ourselves because that is what true love is.  The cubbyhole mentality might have a compartment labeled, "relationships," but sadly, all one will likely find there is a bunch of associations.  The "cubbyholist" views relationships as nothing more than just one more thing to fill out his or her life.

The truth is, relationships are life.  For relationships to be right, we must first be in a right relationship with our creator; it can be no other way.  This is why God entered our world: to first restore our relationship with Him so our relationships with each other can be restored, and His creation can then be brought back to the state He intended it to be, all along.

Thank you, Harry, for not only tirelessly preaching this great principle of kingdom life, but for consistently practicing your preaching.  God has taught Sara and I and many others much through you; we will miss having you at church this Sunday.  No doubt, God will send someone else to teach us other important lessons.  Just know how much you are and have been appreciated.

Fortunately it doesn't need to end there for any of us.  Harry has put together a personal website where we can all go and learn more trhough him..  Check outat


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

All Pomp and Circumstance?

Late on Christmas Eve we watched the Christmas Eve service at the Vatican.  My wife and I were deeply moved by the proceedings and the important message given by Pope Benedict.  During all of this, someone in the room with us asked, "What spiritual benefit is there in any of that.  It's nothing more than pageantry."  I said nothing because I was tired, but more importantly, because it was a rhetorical question.  It was really a criticism--nay, a repudiation--couched in a question.

Now I would like to at least ponder what this person was suggesting.  I will answer the question with another question: What is the spiritual benefit of the banal, austere, drab, and, yes, rote ceremonies typical of so many protestant services?

I do get the person's alleged concern.  In this person's thinking, all the pomp and circumstance of the high church service equals spiritual complacency, ritual, and worship without substance.  And I would quickly agree that to many of those attending St. Peter's that night, all that pageantry was nothing more than just one more bulb to be hung on this year's Christmas tree.  But am I supposed to believe such hypocrisy is avoided by reducing the service to the din of rock music, kiddie recitals, and Silent Night sung in a large auditorium lit only by hundreds of candles held high by the happy attendees?  Sorry, all too many attending that so-called "sincere" service only saw it as seasonal entertainment.

The pomp and circumstance, or the lack thereof have no bearing whatsoever on the spiritual benefit to those attending.  The spiritual benefit comes solely from an emptying of one's self to the splendor, beauty, power, and ineffable love God has shown us through the unexpected, humiliating, and austere incarnation of Himself in a human infant.  Jesus, which means, "God saves," and Christ, which means, "The Anointed One," is the Emmanuel,"God with us."

God didn't display such awesome power for our entertainment.  He came as He did because we are a lost and doomed people.  And even though we didn't deserve it, God has intervened to save us from ourselves.  Because that infant child laying in a manger would grow up and obediently enter death for us by dying on the cross, and then overcome that death by being raised to life, and then ascend to heaven to rule over all from the right hand of God, we no longer have to live in fear of death; we no longer are without hope; we are no longer a marginalized and beaten humanity.  No, all of that is past for us if we simply trust this Jesus for our life, purpose, meaning, and provision.

In the presence of such good news, in the power of such love, shouldn't the question become, "How can any of us fail to fall prostrate before God in total adoration, reverence, awe, and abandonment?"  The venue we find ourselves should have little bearing on our response to our Good, powerful, Creator, God.  Who God is, and what He has accomplished should bowl us over with little provocation from outside stimuli.

Until we come to fully comprehend just how much God loves us, I'm afraid our church services, whether high or low, will tend to devolve to routine.

Having said all that, doesn't God deserve the pomp and circumstance?  Check out the throne room descriptions recorded in the scriptures (e.g., Is. 6:1-8).  They simply aren't low key affairs.  I think the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches have made a valuable contribution to worship by trying to replicate the ecstasy and beauty of the throne of heaven.  The only caveat I would have to this is the Lord would not have us stay there, but go out into the dark, tormented world and spread the light of His love.  The administration of mercy to the afflicted--regardless of who they might be, or disposition we might find them in--is the kind of pomp and circumstance that will always result in spiritual benefit.