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Look For the Ancient Paths

This article by Douglas Yeo was first given as a chapel message on February 16, 2009 at
Northwestern College, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
© 2009 Douglas Yeo. All Rights Reserved.

This chapel message was preceeded by Douglas Yeo playing a trombone solo, the Rhea Miller/George Beverly Shea hymn,
I'd Rather Have Jesus Than Silver or Gold.

I recall very well my days as a student at Wheaton College in Illinois. I sat through many chapel services like this. At times I received the word with rapt attention - such as when Corrie Ten Boom, that diminutive elderly saint who inspired so many, chided us for applauding her after she spoke - as she leapt back to the podium to scold us, "Don't clap for Corrie Ten Boom. Think of Jesus." But more often than not, I sat with my mind wandering, oblivious to what the speaker had to say. So it is not for me to ask for your attention this day. But having been asked to bring a word to you at this time, I hope perhaps that God might grant us a shared moment together as I speak to you while at the same time I am reminding myself of an important truth.

I am not a theologian or a pastor, neither a missionary nor a martyr. God knows I am not a Saint with a capital "S." Those of you who know my work as a musician or were paying attention just a few minutes ago, or if you come to my recital and masterclass at 7:30 PM today in Nazareth Chapel, know that I have been given a talent to play the trombone. This is a talent over which I try to exercise good stewardship. Aware that God has given me all that I have, I work to honor my God-given talent and return His investment in me in a way that will reap rewards for the Kingdom of heaven. Whether playing in church or at a college chapel service, on stage in Boston's Symphony Hall or the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna or Suntory Hall in Tokyo, my goal is the same: to play the trombone to the very best of my ability as an offering of thanks and praise to the God who entrusted me with this gift of music making.

And so it is with each person in this room. God has entrusted each of you with particular gifts and talents for which you have been named steward. You may not have thought of your abilities in this way, but the fact remains: of all of the people in the world through all of time, God has ordained, in his Providential will, to gift you in a particular way that is absolutely unique among all people. And this God demands that you exercise stewardship over your gifts and talents.

Yet you may cover your ears at this. Here you are, in college, some of you far from home. The world is changing around you. That which seemed so secure only a few months ago seems to be adrift. The economy appears to be in a shambles and nobody seems to know what to do about it - except point fingers and print money that somehow doesn't manage to get to people who need it. Retirement portfolios and college endowment funds are fractions of what they were just a few months ago. The moral fabric of society seems to be confused. The television news - which exists to make us fearful, and advertising - which exists to make us dissatisfied, competes with the Truth we know: "It is I. Do not be afraid." (Matthew 14:27). The siren call of the material world works to intoxicate us with the here and now, fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy of a people who would say, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (Isaiah 22:13).

But this is not new. I am not being the "grumpy old man" in observing the challenges we all face. But I am aware - as a father of two daughters who are in their late 20s and as one who has worked with college students for nearly 30 years - that there are special challenges facing your generation. It was not long ago that nearly every store in my town had a "Help Wanted" sign in the window. While visiting my youngest daughter in San Francisco two weeks ago, I passed a restaurant that was hiring two waiters. The line of applicants stretched around the block and included both students and men my age in business suits. "The times," as Bob Dylan said, "are a'changing."

And through all of this, our politicians and leaders, pastors and parents, pundits and bloggers, all call out for "change." It is said that new ways of thinking, new programs, new plans, new ideas are needed to get us out of the quagmire.

But I don't think so. Ecclesiastes tells us, "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9) If we can put aside the noise of the information highway for a moment, and get out from under the weight of the narcissistic chatter of Facebook, and quiet the roar of our own voice, we perhaps might be able to hear the word of one who is wiser than the talking heads. Because we have been through this before.

Hear the word of the Lord through his prophet, Jeremiah:

A few years ago I received an email message from a young trombone player who asked if I thought it would be OK for him to get his tongue pierced. I found the question to be audacious, for I had no way to reference the thinking behind it. I could not imagine a young trombone player putting a metal stud in his tongue, for I could not imagine how anyone who was serious about playing trombone would do anything that could possibly diminish his playing ability even one percent. Sacrifice your nipple if you must, but your tongue? I recall wondering at the time, "How can this be?" I understand youthful rebellion. As difficult as it may be for you to imagine now, when I left home to go to Wheaton, I grew my hair long. Very long. So long that an appointment was made for me to see the President of the College about it. But when my rebellious period was over, and I looked in the mirror one day and said to myself, "Doug, that looks dumb," I cut my hair and went forward. Self-mutilation is another thing - the consequences of industrial piercing and tattooing may not be in the mind of a youthful college student, but I have met more than a few people in their 40s - even in their 30s - who now are dealing with the remorse of irreversible decisions they made in their rebellious years. The Prophet Jeremiah reminds us that it is not "all about me" and what I want. It is not about "how I feel" and meeting my every want and desire, it is not about getting noticed or provoking a response. The most important news headline is not, "Me, And How I Feel Now." No, the prophet reminds us - you and me both - that instead of looking for "change," instead of looking at how we can satisfy ourselves with the toys and faux relationships we have gathered around us, we need to be looking for the path that will give rest for our souls. In a world that is prescribing more medication for anxiety than at any time in history, is it not time to do the counter-cultural thing and "ask for the ancient paths"?

I play in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is a wonderful job; I get to do something that I love to do and I get paid cash money for it. It might be tempting for you to say, "All of this is easy for him to say. He got what he wanted." But the "Douglas Yeo" you see before you today is not same Douglas Yeo that was once 20 years old like many of you. I was not born with a gilded spoon - or trombone mouthpiece - in my mouth. I had struggles and foibles like each of you. I worked five jobs to put myself through college. My parents were not very supportive of my chosen career path. For five years out of college I worked full time office jobs to support my young wife and myself - and, in time, my young family. I even struggled with my calling as a trombone player, surrounded as I was in college by many who were preparing to enter full time vocational ministry as pastors, missionaries or church music directors. Their Greek flash cards turning through their hands as if they were fondling Rosary beads nervously, the presence of so many who seemed to be heading to vocational Christian ministry seemed to mock my calling as a musician. No, the "Douglas Yeo" you see today is but a snapshot in time. What you don't see are the many years of practice and self-denial, the doubts, failures and rejections. Like each of you, I was once in college wondering if I would ever achieve my dream.

But, with God's grace, achieve it I did. It came with leveraging my God-given talent with an awful lot of hard work. But there was something else needed - something else that was far more important. What I have achieved - what each of us may ever achieve - was gained because our sovereign God had ordained it. I am keenly aware that I was placed in the Boston Symphony not because I played the best audition or because I was the very best player in the world, but because God had work for me to do there that transcended the trombone.

This was a concept that was very important for me to understand, and its clarity came to me while I was a student in college, long before I had any inkling that God would lead me to the Boston Symphony. While struggling with my sense of calling, my mentor and then Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, Dr. Harold Best, reminded me that my calling was every bit as significant as that of others who seemed to be traveling down what seemed to be a more "holy road." Dr. Best reminded me of the example of Eric Liddell, the great Olympic runner whose story was told in the movie "Chariots of Fire." Liddell's sister could not understand how her brother could devote so much time to running when there was so much work to be done to impact the Kingdom of God. Liddell's response was revelatory. He said, "Because God made me fast." Liddell understood that God had particularly gifted him and the example of his life has inspired countless people who followed God's leading to be an example in myriad professions. Dr. Best also reminded me that if all Christians trained to be vocational Christian workers, who would bring the Gospel to the office place, the school, the symphony orchestra. "Who knows, Doug," he said, "you may have a chance someday to tell Leonard Bernstein about Jesus." Ten years later, I did just that. Who would have known such a thing would be possible? God did.

But there have been bumps along the way. As anyone who has succeeded in any field can tell you, the trouble with success is that the evil one works diligently to mess with your head. Instead of being grateful to God for gifting me with my talents and abilities, and working to be a good steward of all that He has entrusted to me, I began to believe the lie that somehow I had brought all of this on myself. At the end of a night's work, when two thousand people in Symphony Hall would stand up and applaud, I found myself self-satisfied with my efforts, preening and strutting as if I had created my success and I was owed the adulation of others.

But, of course, I hadn't. And in time, after God had gotten my attention by leading me through some hard falls - when, by His grace, after my repentance he picked me up again - I realized the truth of the piece I played just a few minutes ago.

This is the truth sent from above: that whatever I might accomplish on this earth, whatever accolades might come my way, whatever success might be offered me, whatever applause might be directed at me, none of that - NONE of that - means a thing compared to Jesus. If I woke up tomorrow morning and found that my lips would no longer vibrate and I could not play the trombone, I know that God would care for me. I do not just say this in an off hand way - I say this because I really did wake up one morning several years ago to find I could not produce a single note on the trombone. That was a shock, to be sure, but the greater shock was that I found myself at a peace about it. That God, for His purposes, saw fit to allow me to continue playing the trombone is another story. What is important is for you to know is that I have been through the deep waters and found the peace God promises us when we rely upon him along the ancient paths. The paths of devotion to God, humility, caring for "the least of these." For I had learned the important lesson:

Remember this, my friends. Do not eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die. Eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow you will LIVE. Celebrate the i nexpressible gifts the Father has bestowed upon you. You are the light in a dark world. Your love of God is the antidote to the hurt and suffering you see around you. But you will not make this difference if you do not return to the ancient paths.

Don't take my word for it. Here are the words of one who has gone before, one who struggled, failed, repented, was a reluctant leader, and who loved God. Moses was his name:

Ask for the ancient paths. And walk in them. THIS is the "change we can believe in."

Now, go into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold on to what is good. Honor all men and women. Share the Gospel. Love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ with all of your heart, mind, soul and spirit. Do not defer it nor neglect it, for you may not pass this way again.


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