Last week, I received this Facebook message from an old friend, “Several years ago you had David Lockington play his cello during your sermon…The piece was originally played in the city square of Sarajevo. Just the cellist. Can you let me know the name of the piece?”
David Lockington was the Conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony (Michigan) from 1999-2015, during the time when our family lived in Grand Rapids. It was October 27, 2002, All Saints Sunday, when we recognized and honored all of the saints of First United Methodist Church who had died over the previous year. I had invited Maestro Lockington to play a specific piece at First Church that Sunday that I believed expressed the essence of my message.
The scripture for the service included these words from the apostle Paul in Romans 14:7-8 (CEB), “We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.”
I told a story about the time in the late spring of 1992 when the great city of Sarajevo in central Bosnia was surrounded and held under siege by Serbian forces for months that would become years. Yugoslavia was splintering into different nations, including what would become the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Life was incredibly difficult, and large gatherings of people lined up every day at one of the remaining bakeries to buy bread to feed their malnourished families. One day, Serbian mortar shells suddenly exploded all around them, killing twenty-two persons and wounding over one hundred more.
News of the massacre quickly reached the ears of Vedran Smailović, the young principal cellist in the Sarajevo Opera. Smajlović was tired of the killing, tired of the hating, tired of the destruction, so he decided to do something audacious, counter-intuitive, and life-giving. The very next afternoon, at 4 pm, Smajlović changed into his formal black suit and white tie, went to the cobblestone street in front of the bakery, set up a cafe chair, got out his cello, and began to play the soaring yet sorrowful melodies of Venetian Baroque composer Tamaso Albinoni’s Adagio. (There is no agreement about whether the piece was entirely composed by Albinoni or with the help of 20th-century musicologist and Albinoni biographer Remo Giazatto.)
Smajlović would also play at graveyards and other sites of destruction from the shelling. This was a particularly courageous act because snipers were targeting funerals as a way to create even more painful carnage. “Though exploding mortars and sniper fire could be heard around him, Smajlović continued to play. As the magnificent Sarajevo crumbled into dust by a never-ending civil war, he came back the next day and the next and the next and did the same thing.”[i] For 22 days straight, varying the time because of security reasons, Smajlović risked his life to play the Adagio, not only to honor each person who had died but to give hope to those who still lived.
As a response to the sermon that Sunday in 2002, Maestro Lockington played Albinoni’s mournful, haunting, lilting Adagio with his cello. Through his music, Lockington reminded us that God has placed us on this earth to make a difference and that even when all seems lost when we cannot seem to find a way, God will make a way.
It also reminded me of yesterday’s Old Testament scripture from Exodus 17 when the Israelites were in the midst of their wilderness wanderings and were desperate to find water.
“Moses, give us something to drink!”
“Why are you testing the Lord?” Moses said.
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do? They’re gonna stone me!”
“Take … the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.”
“Moses called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, ‘Is the Lord really with us or not?’”
Is the Lord really with us or not? Lord knows we’re in a fix all as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread worldwide. The NCAA basketball tournament has been canceled, the Boston Marathon has been rescheduled, companies are asking their employees to work from home, children are home from school, and colleges are sending students home to participate in classes online. Trips are canceled, airlines are drastically cutting back on flights, the stock market is plunging, and churches are holding virtual worship. In the Iowa Annual Conference, we have suspended, canceled, or postponed all large upcoming events for the months of March and April and have recommended that congregations pause in-person worship at least until the end of March.
In the midst of it all, the Holy Spirit is moving across the face of our planet, bringing hope and encouraging acts of kindness and generosity. Even the important decisions that will be made at our 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis seem insignificant right now.
Is the Lord really with us or not? What I am learning is that we humans cannot live disconnected from each other, despite the isolation in which coronavirus patients find themselves; and despite the isolation that some parts of our United Methodist Church may wish on each other. We are not self-contained units. Despite differences that threaten to divide, we are ultimately links in a chain. We humans need each other; for, in fact, we do not live to ourselves. The life that we have received we hand on to others by how we live and what we pass on to those who follow. “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.”
Vedran Smajlović refused to stop playing, even when sniper fire continued around him and mortars still rained down in the neighborhood. Even when those who were targeted wondered whether the Lord was really with them, Smajlović’s music was a gift to all who were hiding in their basements with rubble above their heads, a voice of hope for those daily dodging the bullets of the snipers. Is the Lord really with us or not?
“As the reports of Smajlović’s performances on the shattered streets spread, he became a symbol of peace. A reporter questioned whether he was crazy to play his cello outside in the midst of a war zone. He countered, ‘You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?’”[i] In late 1993, the Cellist of Sarajevo left the city and moved to Northern Ireland, where he continues to perform, compose, and conduct music that promotes peace and justice for all.
I wonder all these years later. Was Smajlović mad to be exposed on the streets of Sarajevo as he played the Adagio? Did he really believe that the Lord was with him and would protect him? Was Smajlović crazy to believe that through playing his cello, he could bring us one step closer to peace, not hate?
What might happen if Vedran Smajlović appeared at our General Conference and played Albinoni’s Adagio during our opening worship service? What might happen if we really believed that God is with the people who are infected or rejected, the people who are dying, the people who are grieving, the people who are caregiving, and the people who are living in uncertainty? How might things change if, through God’s grace, we responded to all those wandering in the desert by making sure they had access to enough clean, potable water? How might we become more grace-filled and compassionate by finding ways to care for all those who are struggling just to survive?
What could a cellist do? The only thing he knew how. Let the light shine through a wooden box and a hair-strung bow. And commemorate the hope that must never die – that the best of humanity will overcome the worst, not through extraordinary miracles, but through daring acts of ordinary people. After all, Is the Lord really with us or not?
[i]Vedran Smajlović: Cellist of Sarajevo still moves the world, ” (https://readthespirit.com/explore/vedran-smajlovic-cellist-of-sarajevo-still-moves-the-world/)
[i] “The Cellist of Sarajevo and the Prince of Peace,” Hope Douglas J. Harle-Mould, Church Worship, October 1998, p. 12.