Working Back from the End to Today
You can’t know what something means until it is finished. If you drive by a construction site on your way to work, day after day, you’ll see a work in progress; beams going up, trusses for the roof, then eventually walls, insulation, windows, shingles, siding, and then you can decide if you like the house or not. You have some idea what it will eventually look like as it is being built, but until it is complete you don’t know how it will turn out.
This is true in so many areas of life. How are your kids? Will they end up productive, faithful, happy? You have hopes, but you don’t know until they get there. How about that book you’re reading? Is it a good book? Will you recommend it to your friends? I suppose that if you kept reading past chapter oe it can’t be terrible, but you can’t really understand the story until, literally THE END.
Some music works this way, too. Especially major symphonic works from the 19th century. Mozart just made good tunes, but Beethoven attached meaning to some of his works — “Für Elise” (is she an object of his admiration? A child? Does the relationship turn out happy or sad?), the Eroica and Pastoral symphonies, etc. One composer who attached meaning to his music was Mahler. His symphonic works are massive, huge, neurotic, all over the place. They are best heard in a concert hall, because the dynamics go from very soft to very loud in an instant. If you listen to it at home, you have to turn the volume down so your ears don’t split, then ten seconds later the music becomes so soft that you can’t hear it. So you turn it up, then comes a discordant crash of strings, brass, and timpani. Which prompts a yell from the other room to “turn it down.”
A Mahler work that became especially meaningful to me in the last couple of years is the second symphony, which he titled “Auferstehung”—the “Resurrection Symphony.” I heard it first at a performance by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra two years ago. Just about that time my father, who had been inflicted with some form of nasty early onset dementia, started to decline pretty quickly. So I began to make frequent solo road trips up and down I-55 between St. Louis and Chicago. Mahler, whose symphonies can run over an hour-and-half, became my travelling companion. And his Resurrection symphony became a regular topic of conversation in my head. My father was dying, and I wanted to hear how it ended.
My father was a builder (I find it interesting that so was John Gibbs). Not the way you think, though. Yes, he liked to build things, like tables, desks, the clock that is now in our living room (pic above), “water features” in the back yard the size of Niagara Falls. But more than building stuff, my father built people. For just over forty years he was a teacher and principal in Lutheran elementary schools. Like so many teachers I’ve met over the years he was completely dedicated and, in many cases, completely taken for granted and taken advantage of. Having helped to get his paperwork together, I can tell you exactly the highest salary that he was ever paid. It wasn’t much. Still, he invested in, he built up, people. A neighbor who needed a hand hanging drywall; a fellow teacher pouring a concrete driveway. But he invested most in kids. I didn’t realize it (nor did I appreciate it) when I was a student in his classroom—I was too busy trying to act the opposite of the “good teacher’s kid.” Actually, I didn’t comprehend fully his work until his funeral. It wasn’t at his old church, they had moved years ago to Ohio, then Indiana, and then just eighteen months ago to the Chicago suburbs, near my sisters. But twenty years and an hour drive distant from that old Lutheran school in the city, vaguely familiar faces started showing up. Former colleagues, teachers, pastors. And kids. Some I sort of remember, some I never knew. But my father had built them up, and they wanted to remember him.
One young man’s story floored me. He was the child of a single mother, African-American, in fact he and his sister were the first African-American kids in the school (I didn’t know it at the time, I guess I wasn’t paying that much attention). He didn’t live particularly near the school, but in a rougher part of the north side. He is now a lawyer, very articulate and impressive. He told my mother that the only reason he made it was because my father told him, repeatedly, that he was not going to give up on him, and he would not let this kid from the rough part of town give up on himself. And he didn’t. My father was a builder. When you get to the end, you can finally understand the meaning of my father’s story.
Mahler’s resurrection symphony works that way. I won’t give you a measure-by-measure interpretation of the entire 82 minutes and 29 seconds (get this recording), though I could. But the last movement, the end, gives meaning to the entire symphony. It begins with the trumpet call of the last day, but the trumpet is not obvious and cheery — it comes from offstage, barely audible (the effect of this in a concert hall is stunning). The theme of that trumpet call weaves through the movement. At times it is followed by the wrath and anger of judgment. At times it is following by a martial march. At times it evokes scenes of glory and majesty. But seventeen minutes into last movement all goes silent, and the distant trumpet signals again from offstage. This time, though, there is a response: Floating, birdlike flutes, dancing at the sound of the trumpet. The creation has heard the call of its Lord, and it is waking up, joyous that—finally—all is well, the end is at hand. Then the theme of the trumpet call becomes the flute’s call, then the whole orchestra joins in, and finally a choir picks it up and sings praise (auf Deutsch) at the coming of the King. The end; it was all worth it.
On this youtube video, the last trumpet comes in at about 7:55
I am not ashamed to say that I often well up into tears when I hear that last movement. Perhaps because of a sense of loss; but more because it creates in me hope. The trumpet will sound, and we will be raised. And because of that, because we know the end, we have hope. Not just for someday, but for today. That everything we do now has meaning, because we know the end. That’s why 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter, ends not on the last day, but back at today: “Therefore, be firm, immovable, abounding always in the work of the Lord, because you know that your work is not useless in the Lord.” (1 Cor 15:58). That’s the last word of 1 Cor 15: ἐν κυρίῳ / “in the Lord.” My father’s work was in the Lord, and was not useless. Far from it, it bore much fruit, because he knew the end, and that shaped his every day. And now he rests, waiting for that distant trumpet call from far away, when he will rise up and dance with all the saints who from their labor rest.
Glenn Kloha died in Christ on Oct. 29, 2012, age 66.
Editor’s Note: In the last six months, three New Testament professors At Concordia Seminary lost a parent. Each has written a devotional piece reflecting on that loss and hope in Christ.