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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kim

Shostokovich's 5th

Matthew 6:6 “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”

Last week in inner healing, we continued on exploring rooms of my spiritual house that needed some cleaning. For the last of the rooms that we explored that night, I closed my eyes and saw a large concert hall, much like the one I used to perform at in my youth orchestra. But attention shifted to the green room attached to it (where artists prepare before getting out on stage). It was actually painted green, and quite crowded because cardboard boxes were strewn about.

My ministers asked me what was inside the boxes and I replied “I think they’re words from God, and I need to internalize them and commit them to my heart before heading out to give them to the world?” “Ok why don’t we try opening one of them up. What’s inside?”

“Oh… it’s the manuscript for Shostokovich’s 5th Symphony.”

“OK, what does that mean to you?”

“When I was a senior in high school, I contracted a severe case of senioritis, and my grades went from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. The Dean of Admissions at Upenn sent me a letter stating that my admission to the University had been revoked due to poor performance. I had applied early-decision as the program at Penn was my first choice, which meant that I hadn’t applied anywhere else and didn’t have a backup plan. In fact, my life as I knew it was basically over if I had to reapply to schools with this huge black mark on my record.

So I wrote to the Dean, explaining that I had lost faith in humanity during my senior year. I had felt that many of my friends had abandoned me in my time of greatest need, and that even though everything seemed fine on the outside, I fell into deep depression.

I went on to explain that in my youth orchestra at the New England Conservatory, we had been playing Shostokovich’s 5th Symphony. I learned that this piece was the composer’s response to Stalin’s frightening tyranny. The dictator had made an open enemy of Shostokovich and killed many of his family and friends during The Great Purge. Plagued with depression and fearing for his life, the composer created a masterpiece in the 5th Symphony that publicly praised Stalin and the Iron Curtain. But underlying the overt sentiment, the listener could sense a deep underlying sadness.

This tension between external elation and internal sorrow very much mirrored what was happening in my life, which is why I felt Shostokovich was the only person in the world who could truly understand what I was going through. So I wrote about this in my essay to the Dean, and he decided to let me back into Penn.”

I've told this story hundreds of times before, but as I recited, I realized that I had it all wrong. It wasn’t Shostokovich who was with me in that moment... it was God.

I could see a picture of Jesus just weeping as I struggled through high school. He had one of his closest friends sell him out for a bag of silver. Another one of his closest friends betrayed him three times before the rooster crowed. In the last supper, in the garden of Gethsemane, up to the very end he endured much more internal pain in the midst of folks thinking life was just fine than Shostokovich or I had ever done. He felt my pain, and he wanted to comfort me, yet I was so far from him and just like Peter and Judas I had turned my back on him.

My ministers asked me what they felt God wanted me to do with the boxes. I replied that I was to burn them. Shostokovich is obviously not the enemy, but the lie that I was alone, that no one in the world could understand me except for a dead Russian composer, that I needed some sort of sheet music or script from God to inspire others… all that was holding me back.

So as I started to burn the boxes in my mind, I saw my perspective shift to look down from above, and the green room turned into shiny white marble and started to grow. It grew bigger and bigger until it dwarfed the size of the concert hall. My ministers asked me what I thought it meant.

“I guess God wants me to know that I don’t need a map or a musical score to show me the way. He IS the way. And I guess he’s saying that delivering his love to others is not the reward. He IS the reward. And that spending time with him in the secret place, behind closed doors and away from the crowd… that is the main act and the real substance of my story. That's what really matters.”

God you're so good. Your mercy endures forever. Thank you for being there, even when I had no idea that you were there for me. Thank you for being patient enough to wait for decades before I came to this realization. Wow. In Jesus' name, Amen.

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