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WER BIN ICH?: MEANING AND SELF FOR THE ARTISTIC CHRISTIAN

Douglas Yeo


This article by Douglas Yeo was first given as a lecture on April 23, 2009 as part of a Performance Seminar at
Lee University, Cleveland, Tennessee.
2009 Douglas Yeo. All Rights Reserved.


I, Douglas, a servant of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Cleveland, Tennessee, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

I hope you will forgive me for greeting you as the Apostle Paul greeted the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1-10 ESV, altered). But it is an apt greeting: I am a servant of Christ, and you are faithful ones as well here in Cleveland, Tennessee.

The last 46 years of my life have been devoted, in great measure, to playing the trombone. From elementary through high school, then as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois, then as a graduate student at New York University, as a free lance player in New York City, as a high school band director in Edison, New Jersey, then four years as bass trombonist of the Baltimore Symphony before, in 1985, coming to Boston, where I celebrate the beginning of my 25th season with the Boston Symphony next month, a day has scarcely passed without a trombone in my hand. It has been a wonderful ride and I am deeply grateful to our God for having provided me with the opportunity to have such a life as this. I am also grateful for this period of sabbatical from the Boston Symphony which is affording me, this spring, the opportunity to travel around the world and interact with students, faculty and other performers such as I have been doing here at Lee University since I arrived on campus.

I have titled today's talk, Wer bin Ich?: Meaning and Self for the Artistic Christian. I would like to challenge you with a few things and perhaps get you to think about some ideas that, if not new, will hopefully resonate with you.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by Hitler just a few weeks before the end of World War II. His most important book, Nachfolge ("The Cost of Discipleship") is something I commend to you. If you have not read it, please do so. It is, after the Bible, one of the books that has had the most profound influence on my life and thinking. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his work challenging the Confessing Church in Germany to be faithful to Christ's true Gospel, and also for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Before he was executed on Hitler's personal order, Bonhoeffer, in prison, continue to write, including a poem titled, Wir bin Ich? Who am I?

We as artists face great challenges of identity and self. We are, by our calling, exhibitionists. That is, we do something and want people to know about it. I play the trombone. Later today, I will stand on this stage and give a recital and I'm going to tell you something with a trombone in my hands. While it would be nice for me if you find it to be interesting, I feel called - compelled - to tell you what I have to say with my trombone. Those of you who are teachers feel called to tell your students things. But even with this sense of calling and having a clear sense that we need to be involved in telling people something that we believe is very important both musically and spiritually - more on that in a minute - we can suffer a crisis of identity. There is often confusion - especially in our post-modern times - about the difference between our "person" and our "persona." Our "person" is who we are, with the lights off and no one else sees us; alone before God. Our "persona" is that which we project about ourselves to others. Unfortunately, many of us have multiple personas. To one group we project ourselves in one way, and to another group, a different persona steps forward. There is probably not a single person in this room - myself included - that can claim complete authenticity when it comes to the public projection of our true self. That is a problem. It can lead to insecurity, an obsession with "image management" and, over time, a crisis of not knowing who we truly are.

Bonhoeffer struggled with this as well. A year before he was murdered by Hitler, he wrote this:

I have found Bonhoeffer's words to resonate very deeply with me. As a performer - a member of the Boston Symphony - I go to work every day, and when I finish my job, 2000 people leap to their feet and clap and scream and say, "Well done." Now I'm not saying that is all directed specifically toward me although from time to time some of it is; now and then I step out from my generally supporting role as a trombone player and have a little solo that somebody might actually notice. But regardless of the particular part I play, this acclamation is a heady thing. And I would be lying to you if I didn't tell you that it troubles and sometimes confuses me.

I'm reminded of a very important axiom that trombonist John Swallow once told me. John Swallow played trombone in the Chicago Symphony for a time, and then moved to New York where freelanced and played in the New York Brass Quintet. When I met him, he was teaching at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where we were both on the faculty. He is, as am I, a very strong believer in the pluralistic life for his students, and he had a way of telling them, so they would understand a proper balance of all of all they had to do, this little phrase:

Trombone is something I do. It's not who I am.

Would all of you remember that? Substitute whatever word you want: trombone, cello, voice, teaching - whatever it is that you feel is so important to you that you feel called by Christ to do - and remember that it is NOT who you are. It is something you do. Trombone is something I do. It is not who I am.

To John Swallow's wise words, I add a corollary. And it is this:

My Christian faith is who I am. It's not something I do.

Our faith is not an overlay that goes on top of our life, like the trombone. The trombone is not essential to my being. If God had not called me to play the trombone, he would have called me to do something else. And he would have called me to do that with purpose and excellence, exercising good stewardship of the talents he had given me and leveraging those talents to impact the Kingdom of God. But no matter what it might be that He would call me to do, it would always and simply be something I would DO and it would not - it could not - be my identity. And when I ask myself, "Who am I?", the answer to the question is NOT, "The bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra." When that which is so important to us is recognized as simply something we do and not the causative thing that gives our life meaning and purpose, we can be open to whatever God would put into our hands. When we keep a loose grip on the world and all that it has to entice us, we can truly be available to impact the world for the Kingdom of Christ.

I am aware that God has called each of us to DO particular things. If that "something" has become so important to you that you cannot imagine life without it, you cannot hear that still small voice that God puts in your head when He calls you to do something else.

When I was a student at Wheaton College I struggled with this sense of calling to be a trombone player. Walking around campus were many bright young men and women with their Greek flash cards studying to later go on to seminary. Many in the Wheaton Conservatory of Music were pursuing programs that would lead to full time vocational ministry as a church music director. Yet whenever I would ask God what it was that He wanted me to do, He kept saying, "Play the trombone." It didn't seem very exotic or "Kingdom building" compared to learning Greek and Hebrew.

I recall speaking with my mentor, Dr. Harold Best who, at that time, was Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. Some of you may have read his important book, "Music Through the Eyes of Faith" or his most recent book, "Unceasing Worship." He is my friend and brother in Christ, but at Wheaton, he was also my advisor, and he kept challenging me. He would remind me: "Doug: If everybody on campus was training to be a full time vocational minister, who would tell musicians who have no inclination to darken the doorway of a church about Jesus?" In fact, he said, "Who knows? Someday you may have the opportunity to tell Leonard Bernstein about Jesus." Ten years later, I did. I had a lengthy conversation with Leonard Bernstein about Jesus Christ before a Boston Symphony rehearsal at our summer festival home, Tanglewood. He did not fall on his knees and accept Jesus as his Savior; a lightening bolt did not come down from heaven and convict him of his need for Christ. I do not know the status of his heart before he died, but I do know that he knew of Christ because God gave it to me - a trombone player - to talk with him about Jesus.

And so it is with all of you and your sense of calling. Remain open to God's leading even when it doesn't seem to make sense. If we keep a loose grip on things we think are so important, we can keep anything God calls us to do in a proper perspective. And if that thing you think is so important is taken away from you - through injury, illness, loss or in any other way - your life will not crumble because you have not built your sense of identity and self-worth around that thing. It is WHO WE ARE, not WHAT WE DO that gives us standing before Christ and which gives our life meaning and purpose. Do not forget this.

We live in a very confused world right now, a world that is looking for answers. It is not always easy to keep a proper perspective on everything that we do. I'd like to ask you a question. What, do you think, is the most important question facing people today? Here are some possibilities:

Yes, they are all good questions, and they are questions that people are asking every day. Deep questions, questions that beg answers, and questions that, in Bonhoeffer's words, "mock me" when answers do not seem to come easily.

Yet there is another question that is the one that I think is the most important question ever asked and how you answer it has great implications on how you view and act in the world. I'd like to read a passage from the Gospel of John, Chapter 18, that gives us this question:

Have you ever had a discussion with someone about the subject of truth? Often it's not very comfortable. The old assumption - that was in place even in the early years of my generation - where you could point to the Bible and say, "This is true and therefore you should believe it," doesn't resonate to post-modern ears. "Who are you to say that the Bible is true?" they say. "You have your truth and I have my truth and as long as we don't hurt each other, it's beautiful."

But we do know that there is Truth with a capital "T." I live in the Athens of America - Boston - that has the pretentious self-proclaimed nickname, "The Hub of the Universe." Over 30 colleges and universities make their home in the Boston area. And among them is the flagship school of the American education system: Harvard University. Does anyone here know Harvard's motto? "Veritas." Truth. But think about it. What does "Veritas" really mean? Can truth have meaning if it is not informed by something that is, well, truthful? What is the truth that informs Harvard's truth?

Harvard's motto was not always "Veritas." There was more to it at one point. Over the years it got chipped away, to the point that what is left of it is but a single word. In fact you can only see Harvard's original motto in two places on campus. You find it high up on one of the great iron gateways to Harvard Yard, completely out of sight, and you also can see it on the back wall of the stage at Sanders Theater in Harvard's Memorial Hall where it stares at an audience that is oblivious to its meaning. The motto at Harvard's founding was not simply, "Veritas." There was more to it.

Veritas pro Christo et ecclesia.

"Truth for Christ and His church."

With that full phrase, the word "Veritas" now has meaning. Now we can understand what the word "Truth" is referencing. We're not talking about the truth that you may hold and the truth someone else may hold - the truth that says, "You have your truth and I have my truth and as long as we don't hurt each other, it's beautiful." No. We - and the founders of Harvard University - are saying that there is an objective, quantifiable Truth with a capital "T": Truth for Christ and His church. And this Truth informs everything we think, do and say.

In the Gospel of John, Chapter 8 we read:

Truth with a capital "T" sets us free. Now many people look at that and say, "Christianity is just a set of rules. It's telling me all of the things that I shouldn't do. How does that give me freedom?" Really? Is there not freedom in rules?

Last week I was teaching at a parochial school in Toronto where there are 125 students in the band program. I spoke with them about this truth that sets us free. These students all wore uniforms. And I said to them, "How fortunate you are that you have the freedom that comes with wearing a uniform. You are not judged by the quality of the fabric or the name of the designer on your clothing, or the quantity of gold hanging from your ears, or the rings on your fingers. When you wear your uniform, what people see when they look at you is - YOU. Not your status, not how wealthy your family is, not how many things that you can afford to buy. No, you have freedom to be yourself, unencumbered by the pressure that comes from our intoxication with the things of this world. How fortunate you are."

And so our life in Christ is full of similar kinds of freedoms. It's not about a set of rules that imprison us. No! It is truth with a small "t" that imprisons us. That kind of "truth" gives us no moorings, no standards. When you try to relate to someone who operates their life with truth with a small "t", you realize you can't really trust anything they say. Why? Because they might later change their mind. Their understanding of truth changes with the wind, unfettered to any standard or reference point apart from their own feelings. And we wonder why so many marriages break up? We wonder why our politicians are dishonest? Small "t" truth is hostage to the moment. It holds us hostage to personal preference, what I "feel" like doing. It holds us hostage to political correctness, the setting up of a set of arbitrary rules about what we may and may not say which, of course, are determined by someone's own version of "truth" and which can change at any time. Truth with a small "t" holds us hostage to the need not to offend. And, of course, who decides what is so offensive and what is not? Only what someone feels and, of course, that can change at any time, too.

That kind of truth diminishes our "self" to be reactive and not proactive. With small "t" truth, we are always wondering if we've stepped on something - we need to constantly look over our shoulder because that "truth" is set up on shifting sand. But capital "T" Truth, well, that frees us to obey and conform to a sovereign God who has, at the heart of his nature, love for us. As messed up as we are - and we are all desperately messed up - we are free NOT to be ruled by our desires, our musical instrument, our goals and our passions. That is great, great freedom. As the hymn writer so eloquently said, "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand."

Music is a great, great gift of God. But music is only itself. We must be careful that we do not make music an idol, something that we worship, something that defines us. The temptation toward idolatry is enormous. I tell you this as one who knows. We do well to remember that because music is not who we are, we must not worship it as something we do that feeds us. Because if it feeds us, it will make us ill, because as food, music is empty against the great banquet that God has for us with His Truth.

At my recital tonight, I'm going to play a number of different kinds of pieces. Songs, Concertos, collaborations with several players. But I will end my recital with a very simple piece. No sixteenth notes, nothing flashy. Nothing loud, nothing I had to sit up all night sweating over. But it is the most important piece on the recital. Because behind the song are the words of Rhea Miller:

And now the second verse:

And you hear those words and you say, "O Lord, just give me a chance to try the worldwide fame thing." But I tell you this: I've tasted it. In a niche market, I'm famous. There aren't that many bass trombone players in the world. I walk into music stores and see a poster with my face on it. I've done wonderful things in my career. But I can say - I can truly say - it means nothing - nothing - compared to knowing and serving Jesus. I can tell you that symphony orchestras are populated with people who have achieved world wide fame but who are miserably unhappy because their instrument has become who they are and that kind of definition of self has let them down. It always does. I know this from my own experience: world-wide fame is hollow. It is not enough to sustain a sense of self, meaning and purpose.

I'm reminded of the second verse of Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God":

That phrase: "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing," comes to my mind every single day of my life.

The narcissism of this present age, the, "It's all about me" attitude, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter - where the only headline is "ME and how I feel now" - is hollow. It is empty. The narcissism of all of this, the assumption that people actually want to know what you're doing at this exact minute in time, the elevation of the trivial to status of being meaningful has resulted in a re-definition of the world "friend" and has moved us to a new kind of faux - false - relationship and a re-defining of what the word "community" means. "But those people on Facebook are my friends!" Friends? What does that word mean any more? Will they be there for you when you need them? Will you be there for them when they need you? Or will you just Twitter, "Lots of luck pal, I'm with you!", as you move on to the next person's Wall? Could it be that what drives you to these "friends" is the simple, selfish act of wanting to be noticed? When what is important about relationships is reduced to the trivial and meaningless, we get sucked lower and lower into the emptiness of virtual "friendship" and, at the end of the day, we are left empty, alone in front of our computers and iPhones, pushed ever further away from the touch of another human being.

I'm reminded - in this failure of our time to adequately show us how we "do" community - that the Bible, as always, tells us we need to know. Do you want to know how a symphony orchestra can play transcendent music at concerts? Do you want to know the model for a university wind ensemble or choral group so it will work together well? Do you want to know the model for a functional, God-honoring family? Do you want to know the model for friendship - true, lasting, meaningful friendship?

Turn to the book of First Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul writes:

The Apostle Paul is talking, here, to the Church, specifically to the church in Cornith. The Corinthian church needed the Apostle's direction to help them get back on track. Paul is talking about how not one of them is more important than another. In this the Apostle has given us a model for any kind of group, not just the church. From two people to a thousand, Paul's words tell us what true community is really all about. Can you imagine what a symphony orchestra would be like if everyone in the group bought into this? The third trombone player would say, "I do not have the most significant part in this group, but I have a role to play, and I know that everyone appreciates it." Can you imagine that? It can only happen when we each understand that we have a part to play in our communities, and even if it is not a flashy one, it is an important one. And even if you have a flashy part to play, it is not the most important one. It ALL works together to make the body.

Do you think the fourth toe on your left foot isn't very important? Ask someone who doesn't have one. Someone once told me that the only time you notice the second oboe player in a symphony orchestra is when he makes a mistake. His part is nearly invisible because his is a supporting role. But the reason you don't notice him is because he does his part with excellence. He is playing his role with a great understanding of his purpose.

So my message to all of you today is that we all have a part to play in the body of Christ. In the world-wide Kingdom of God, the Universal Church, from all time past to the present in the great meta-narrative of the history of the great I AM, and on to the life in the world to come: we have a part in all of this. Do not let anyone tell you that your role is insignificant or unimportant. Do not let anyone tell you that their part is more significant or important than yours. Because in God's sight, what He has called you to do is the thing that is most important for YOU to do. The truth that sets us free truly sets us free from the idolatry of making music into who we are, and it frees us from the narcissism that infects our present age.

This I tell you to encourage you, because it is my hope for you, as it is for me, that, "I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold."

Who am I? You know me, O God. You know I am yours.


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