Can I Tell You a Story?
It’s an amazing story. It first appeared as an article by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post on Sunday, April 8, 2007 and subsequently was published in a collection of his articles entitled, The Fiddler in the Subway. Here is my version of the essence of the story.
At 7:51 AM on Friday, January 12, 2007, a rather non-descript young man entered the L’Enfant subway station. It happened during the height of the morning rush hour in one of the busiest stations in Washington, D.C. Josh Bell, perhaps the greatest violinist of his generation, positioned himself in front of a wall near a trash can and then from the small case he carried, he removed a violin. This was not just any violin; it was hand-crafted in 1751 by none other than Antonio Stradivari who by most accounts was the greatest violin maker of all time. Bell had bought the instrument for $3.5 million dollars. He carefully removed the instrument from its case, swiveled the case around to face the crowds, threw in a couple of dollars as “seed money,” and began to play. For exactly 43 minutes, Bell played six classical pieces that would challenge the best of violinists. These were masterpieces that had endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, music that had filled the most majestic cathedrals and the greatest concert halls the world over. He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his passion for the music was clearly seen in the movements of his body. He made his violin sing and dance, laugh and cry. Yet he never drew a crowd, never even a group of three or four at one time. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, how many of the 1097 people that passed his way do you think stopped to listen? Maybe half? That would be 548.5. No. Maybe a third? That’s 365. No. Surely a fourth? 274. OK, at least 10% stopped, right? 110 people. No. Would you believe that of the 1097 people in that 43 minutes only 7 people stopped for at least 1 minute?
One of the world’s greatest violinists was playing some of the world’s greatest music on one of the world’s most valuable violins. Yet for 1090 out of 1097 people, Bell and his music were of little consequence. As far as they were concerned the musician and his music were simply irrelevant. Bell was there, but they were unaware because they did not care.
When I first read that story, it hit me like a ton of bricks and I find myself returning to it often.It was not just a story about a great musician and an unappreciative crowd of people. It was a story about my relationship to God, the Great Musician. I’m pretty sure that if I had been in that subway station that day, I would have been one of the 1090 who were so “on the run” that they had no time, not even a minute to be attentive to the incredible beauty of the music. Generally speaking, both my body and my mind are always “on the run.” We live in a culture that defines who we are by what we do and the more we do the better. “Busyness” is a virtue, and anything less is a sin. In 1831, a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth. It is the American way.
I can’t help but wonder about what we might be missing along the way.
Might we be missing the voice of the God who is with us? Matthew frames his gospel with the announcement that God is with us. At the beginning of his gospel, we learn that Jesus will be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” (1:23). At the end of his gospel, the last words of Jesus are, “Lo, I am with you always” (28:20). What if this God who is with us is actually trying to speak to us? Are we prepared to listen? Do we have room in our schedule to give our attention to the God who is speaking, or will we pass him by on the way to our more “important” things?
Might I suggest that one thing we have learned from this time of pandemic is that our “normal” can be radically altered almost overnight. Maybe this offers us an opportunity to begin to think seriously about the radical changes that the God who is with us might be calling us to make. If you are willing to take that risk, here are some questions that might just get the ball rolling:
If our relationship with God is, indeed, the primary relationship in our lives, how should this relationship manifest itself both in our prayer closet and the public square?
If I take this relationship seriously, am I as willing to listen to God as I am to speak to God?
If I take seriously the presence of God in my life, what am I doing that I should not continue doing?
If I take seriously the presence of God in my life, what do I need to be doing that I am not now doing?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life oblivious to the great music and art and literature, etc. that comes my way. More importantly, and everything else pales in importance, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life oblivious to the presence of the God who is with us every moment of everyday.
In one of the beautiful prayers in his book Confessions, Augustine (354-430) writes these haunting words, “You were with me, but I was not with you.” The good news is that God is with us. The question is, “Are we with God?”