A dance or a prayer
It is so easy to become bitter. Life deals us some cruel blows. In the logic even of some Christians, God himself deals us some cruel blows, and they can find plenty of support for that in the Bible. I don’t buy it. It just isn’t that simple.
The Book of Job is an extended reflection on whether Job is suffering because a) he has done wrong, and b) God is just and must punish him, or whether God is unjust because a) Job has definitely done no wrong, but he is suffering all the same. Both positions are based on the underlying assumption that only good people should prosper, and only bad people punished.
I included the word ‘only’ there – twice – because our human sense of justice demands that no bad person should enjoy the fruits of their crime. We like things to be neat and tidy, don’t we? The trouble is that – as I said – it just isn’t that simple.
The difference with good and Godly people is how they handle both prosperity and suffering. Job may complain, but he never stops talking to God, he never breaks relationship with him. Just as God never breaks relationship with Job.
The Book of Job can be pretty confusing, but it is clear that even in the midst of suffering – whatever caused it – God is at work. Here are a couple of verses from chapter 36 that ring true for me (here in the New Century Version, which puts it particularly well):
15 God saves those who suffer through their suffering;
he gets them to listen through their pain.
16 God is gently calling you from the jaws of trouble
to an open place of freedom
where he has set your table full of the best food.
So why did the book of Job come to mind, and what has it to do with my choice for the day? Well, it came to mind because I wanted to share with you my absolute favourite composer of all – J.S. Bach (not exactly an original choice).
And as I thought about which piece of his to share, I thought about his beautiful suites for solo ’cello. And that took me to one of my favourite performances of them by David Watkin.
Both Johann Sebastian himself and David Watkin are men who have known inexplicable suffering. Bach was orphaned at the age of ten, widowed once, lost more than half of his 20 children in infancy or childhood, and died blind. But just listen to the music he wrote, some of the best of it as his blindness got worse.
David Watkin made his recording of Bach’s ’cello suites shortly before he had to give up playing because of advanced scleroderma. The performances are all the more poignant once you know. But what does he do now? He teaches – as Head of Strings at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire – and he conducts – and he glows with life.
Let me quote an interview he gave to music critic and presenter Kate Molleson. She wrote that:
“When David presses down on the strings, his blood vessels break. Now he can demonstrate a few bars in a lesson but hours of rehearsal is out of the question. ‘I managed to get that recording done in early December,’ he says, looking down at his hands. ‘My fingers would be black and blue by the end of the day, but I got it done.’ ”
You can read Kate’s interview with him here. There’s a 2:33 minute clip at the end. which you really should watch.
Just under half-way through he spoke of playing the suites as being like leading the listener “sometimes in a dance, and sometimes in a prayer”. Why not both at the same time, David? Why not?
Like I said when I was talking about Job, the difference with good and Godly people is how they handle suffering. Now, I know that J.S. Bach had a deep faith. I have no idea about David Watkin’s faith. But his life and teaching are inspiring. Just read the full interview to see what I mean.
I find my reaction to his performances is pretty much like Kate Molleson’s, even though I first heard them without knowing the story, whereas she first heard them immediately after meeting him. She says:
“I head home and put on the first disc, and find myself in tears by the end of the first suite’s Allemande. Watkin’s playing is breathtaking: poised, tender, searching, eloquent. There is grit and solemnity, pain and resolve, but no trace of the anger that his illness must have caused during the recording. Watkin shapes his phrases with all the time and love in the world. It’s a beautiful parting statement.”
Only it wasn’t a parting statement – it is the character of the man, and the way he continues to live his life in the light of his suffering. To paraphrase Job 26.15-16, he has suffered through his suffering, and listened through his pain. He has been gently called from the jaws of trouble to an open place of freedom, where God has laid a new table for him.
That inspires me. Now, please join me to enjoy David Watkin playing some Bach – with his fingers black, blue and bleeding. And I defy you not to weep and be humbled too. I hear both a dance and a prayer. What do you hear?