March 19, 2010, was undoubtedly the worst day of my professional career as a music professor. Having secured an invitation to perform at one of the largest and most prestigious trombone conferences in the world, I was looking forward to renewing acquaintances with colleagues and to presenting a piece of music that, while not exceptionally difficult, is very interesting and was at that time relatively unknown. I had performed at this conference in the past and in my student days had even won a competition hosted there, so I was no stranger to the audience, the staff, or the venue. I had every reason to expect to give another successful and well-received performance there, but that is not what happened. To use a colloquial expression, I “bombed.”
You see, a few days prior to the performance I began to develop some new symptoms that I would later learn were related to spinal injuries I had suffered previously. I was experiencing periods of numbness, weakness, and pain, and I was unsure of the cause of these. I was concerned that I might have a serious illness, and even that my career might be over. My doctor suggested that some of my symptoms may be caused (or at least worsened) by stress, and in hindsight, I think he was right. In any case, I dragged myself to the conference a physical and emotional wreck, and instead of the great performance I had anticipated for months, I gave one that I hoped my colleagues would quickly forget.
Over three years of reflection and analysis of this event have provided a certain amount of perspective. I have identified developments in my approach to my work in the months preceding that unhappy episode that made a poor performance practically inevitable, and have worked to foster recovery in my professional career in light of this understanding. More importantly, I have noticed some striking parallels between these developments and the steps which often lead to decline and even backsliding in our Christian walk, as well as restoration therein. While some of the “particulars” of my vocation as a performing musician and teacher will be foreign to many readers, I’m sure you will be able to see well enough the comparison that I am making.
The story of my early career is one of almost unmitigated success. After finishing my undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA, I was offered a teaching assistantship at a fairly large urban university with a music department more than six times larger than the one I had attended as an undergraduate. I won solo competitions at the local and national levels, and after completing my doctoral coursework was appointed to my first full-time university teaching position at age twenty-five. I was working very hard, and our Lord had clearly and graciously blessed my work. While I was quick to acknowledge His blessings, I did nonetheless revel in this early success.
Sadly, in time this early success began to breed a sense of complacency. The hard work of the early years of my career gave way to a certain “going through the motions,” and the hours spent in disciplined practice slowly decreased. This is not to say that I played badly, or that I did not spend the hours that I should have been practicing pursuing edifying activities. But, I had somehow come to believe (not entirely consciously) that I had earned a respite from the unmitigated hard work of previous years, and that I was accomplished enough as a musician and teacher to enjoy the same level of success as previously with somewhat less effort. And yet, as the Scripture says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
For a time, my diminished devotion to individual practice seemed to have little effect upon my professional work. I continued to give relatively successful performances, with no apparent deficiencies in my playing. And yet, simmering just below the surface was a real problem. Months and years of less practice time had led to some sloppiness in my approach to what we call “playing fundamentals.” The strength of the physical structures used in playing my instruments had lessened, as had my efficiency in using those structures. This was almost imperceptible at first, but when the crisis moment came, when I was physically sick and emotionally strapped and yet on stage giving a big performance, those problems that had been lurking just beneath the surface came rushing to the top. The inefficient approach to playing that I had developed simply would not work when I was in that condition. And there, in front of hundreds of colleagues and some of the greatest musicians in the world, I failed.
As you might imagine, a public failure of that magnitude would cause a person in any profession to engage in some serious self-examination. At first, I was reluctant to blame this occurrence upon my own lack of diligence. I really was quite ill, and I was relieved to receive a diagnosis and treatment for the pain and other issues which were at least partly to blame for my poor performance. And yet, even after treatment the underlying playing issues were not addressed. Next, I blamed performance anxiety, whether brought on by the pressures of performing for a particularly important audience or by my own physical issues. That also was a factor, but I have always suffered from performance anxiety to a certain extent (as do most musicians), and in the past have been able to manage. Finally, after weeks and months of reflection and “dead-end” thinking, I was forced to acknowledge that the main reason for my failure that day was that I was no longer putting in the diligent work that performing at a high level demanded. If I might be permitted to use this word in this context, I was forced to repent, not only before God for the lack of diligence in my work as demanded by Colossians 3 and elsewhere, but simply to turn away from the slothful habits I had developed and to return to a life of industrious, hard work.
Unsurprisingly, I found once again that hard work, well, works! By returning to the practice habits that brought about the early successes in my career, I was slowly able to regain the proficiency that I had before. Our Lord also has blessed me with a new teaching position at a larger university than the one where I taught previously, with all of the resources that accompany a job at a bigger school. The pain issues remain, but I am grateful to have been able to manage and even thrive in spite of them, the Lord graciously blessing my efforts as well as increasing my faith through these trials. Indeed, I have come to view this entire sequence of events in light of my Christian walk, and if I have not yet lost you, dear reader, I would like to present the following reflections that I hope you will find helpful.
This Story as a Christian Metaphor
The beginning of the Christian life is, for many of us, very much like my early career. After coming under conviction of our sin and misery and the mercy of God offered through Jesus Christ, and receiving salvation through faith in Him, do not many of us experience something of a “high?” We are excited, eager to serve, and diligent in the use of the means of grace, marveling at the free gift of salvation by grace through faith alone, and yet demonstrating in thought, word, and action that saving faith is “never alone.” We revel in the company and in the service of the people of God, as well as in communion with our Lord in the prayer closet. Ever growing in grace, our eyes are truly fixed upon Christ, even as the apostle exhorted us. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Sadly, from time to time that devotion wavers. As we begin to pursue lives marked by personal holiness, service to the church, devotion to Christ, His Word, and His people, our good and faithful beginnings too often give way to slothfulness. At first, this is almost imperceptible, even to ourselves. We continue to “go through the motions” of Christianity, putting on an outward show of zeal and feigned holiness, when in reality our hearts have wandered far from the Lord. And just as my façade of conscientious musicianship collapsed when the crisis moment came, likewise when we are faced with life’s crises such as illness, financial hardships, or even death, we see the utter inadequacy of a mere outward show of religiosity.
Happily, our Lord will never abandon His own, even when we turn away from Him. Christ promised that no one would be able to pluck His sheep from His hand (John 10:27-30), and Paul promised further that nothing would separate Christians from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). And in this context, what a great comfort it is to know that when we turn from our sins unto God in repentance and faith, we find Him always ready and willing to forgive and to restore us! (2 Chronicles 30:9, 1 John 1:9)
This is not to say that restoration is easy. Regaining my previous level of musical skill began with determining that I would leave behind slothfulness and return to a life of diligent work, but months of such work passed before I was fully “up to speed” again. Thankfully, my comparison fails somewhat at this point, as we know that we are saved even as the merits of Christ’s finished work are applied to us. (John 19:30, Hebrews 10:12-14) Still, the work of sanctification is ongoing, and after a period of spiritual decline restoration to the full enjoyment of “assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 36) is difficult and often painful. How hard it must have been for Peter when he was confronted by our Lord following his tragic denials, and yet how joyous he must have been to experience renewed fellowship with his Saviour, Lord, and Friend!
Professionally, my return to “due diligence” has been rewarding. I am doing better work, have restored confidence, am experiencing greater success, and am enjoying myself better generally as I fulfill my earthly calling. How much greater is the reward when we turn again unto a whole-souled devotion to Christ! How wonderful it is to enjoy sweet communion with the triune God! How comforting it is to know that even when we sin we have a faithful and compassionate High Priest who is our Advocate before the very throne of God! (Hebrews 2:17-18, 1 John 2:1) How marvelous it is to have the Spirit helping us in our infirmities! (Romans 8:26) What a wonderful and merciful God we serve!
In the midst of writing this short piece, I have noticed that my own story bears a passing resemblance to another, much more famous metaphor. Just as I had grown weary of hard work and had begun to seek greater ease, and just as we as believers too often forsake the way of faith for the easier life of a mere outward show, so our friends Christian and Hopeful grew weary of the difficulty of the path and turned aside to the easier way found across By-Path Meadow. Having no intention of straying from the Way, we nevertheless yearn for and eventually find an easier path, and choosing that path, we continue only vaguely aware that we are marching not toward holiness, joy, and fulfillment in Christ, but rather toward despair, and if we do not repent, death. Thankfully, our merciful God will not suffer His own to finally fall away, but will restore us, though often with great difficulty, just as was the case with our pilgrim friends in Bunyan’s story.
How often we must be reminded that while our salvation is free it is not easy. Do not forsake the narrow path, and if you have done so, repent and return before it is too late! It is a life often fraught with toil and difficulty, and many will mock us for our efforts while they take their ease and perhaps enjoy a fleeting prosperity. And yet, what joy there is in knowing that they that endure to the end (Matthew 10:22) can say with the Apostle, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)