"[M]y dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
(1 Corinthians 15:58) (NIV).
Following Jesus Christ is not for the faint of heart! It is the highest calling, to be sure. But it also is the most challenging, largely because when we make the decision to dedicate our lives to advancing God's Kingdom and serving our fellow man, we choose to live by spiritual laws and principles that are completely antithetical to the mores of man. What is normative in God's economy often is foreign to this world. Hence, the Apostle Peter's description of believers as foreigners in this world. Or, as St. Augustine might have said, "We are citizens of the transcendent City of God, who strive to walk in faith according to its patterns and principles. But we also live and reside in the immanent City of Man, and are subject to its laws and realities." It is a veritable struggle, which is why Paul encourages us to "persevere" (1 Tim. 4:16), to finish the "race" (1 Cor. 9:24; Gal. 5:7), and to "stand firm" (1 Cor. 15:58).
One of the most intractable and distressful recurring challenges with which I struggle is doubting that my life of faith is yielding any fruit. I know the laws that govern God's economy are different from those that govern the world's. I know, for example, that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that starts out so small it is easily missed and practically invisible. If, however, we sow that seed in our lives -- if we choose to live as citizens of that glorious Kingdom -- it will, in time, grow until it not only becomes visible to the natural eye but also begins to receive multitudes of immigrants who seek the shelter, security, and salvation that lie within its gates alone. (Cf. Luke 13:17-19).
I understand all of that. And I believe it! But the realities of the "City" in which I reside often reflect a different picture. Once I have "sown" a Kingdom seed, I have no idea what is happening beneath the surface. Have I watered it enough? Is it growing? Is it still alive, or am I just spinning my proverbial wheels? My labors for God's Kingdom, my efforts and sacrifices for Him and for the flock I serve, often do not appear as though they will yield a mustard tree, much less a harvest of any kind. Recently, I crossed my five-year mark as a church planting pastor. And those questions began to assail me with a feral force that drove me once again to wonder if my labor was in vain. In the midst of that struggle, I happened to watch a movie I had not seen in about 15 years but is one of my favorites, Mr. Holland's Opus.
If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it.* It is the story of a talented musician, Glenn Holland, whose great dream is to compose a musical masterpiece, an opus that will touch and inspire his generation, and that will make him famous! Shortly after getting married, however, he realizes that he will not be able to support a family by working full-time on his opus, while doing an occasional gig at a bar. So, he decides to become a high-school music teacher, thinking that it will provide him with a stable salary and with plenty of time after school and during the summer to work on his opus.
It does not take more than a few days for Mr. Holland to realize, however, that teaching will consume most of his life. At first, he is resentful of this unforeseen reality, particularly because the school's music band is absolutely terrible. But in time, Mr. Holland develops a passion for teaching. He not only finds great joy in helping his students improve as musicians, but also in using the medium of music to develop their character and to help them on their individual journeys of self discovery. On the side, he continues to work on his opus whenever he can (although it becomes even more difficult to do so after he and his wife give birth to a deaf child).
The movie follows Mr. Holland's life over the course of 30 years. Toward the end of the movie, after pouring into the lives of thousands of students, most of whom he never heard from again, Mr. Holland is informed that budget cuts have compelled the principal to close down the school's music program. Mr. Holland appeals the decision to the school board, on which one of his former students sits. But his passionate philippic proves unsuccessful, and his appeal is denied.
On the last day of the school year, Mr. Holland quietly collects his belongings in his now empty classroom, the solitude and significance of the moment clearly weighing heavy on his shoulders. In his mind, his whole life has been a waste. He has completed an opus that no one has ever heard. And after decades of pouring his life and love into so many young minds and hearts, he is being dumped (rather unceremoniously) by the school district. He thought he would reap a harvest one day, that there would come a time when he would see and enjoy the fruit of his many years of labor. But it appears that he has sown in vain, and that the fields of his dreams and greatest efforts remain fallow.
As he prepares to leave his classroom, Mr. Holland is joined by his wife and son. While they walk down the deserted school halls, you can almost hear Mr. Holland's thoughts: "This is how little my life's work has meant? This is how little it has produced?" . . . And that is when Mr. Holland hears a lot of noise coming from the school auditorium. Curious, he decides to poke his head into the auditorium to determine the reason for the raucous. As he walks in, he is greeted by a room packed with current and former students, as well as faculty and family, all of whom are there to thank him and to celebrate his life as a teacher, mentor, and musician.
Mr. Holland is led to the front row, and one of his former students -- now a state governor -- steps to the podium. What she shares is one of the most moving and compelling living eulogies I have ever heard. And as she speaks, Mr. Holland begins to weep:
"Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life, on a lot of lives I know. . . . And yet I get the feeling he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich -- probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous -- at least not outside our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. And he would be wrong! Because I think he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you, [Mr. Holland]! There is not a life in this room that you have not touched. And each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. And we are the music of your life!" (emphasis added).
As the audience cheers, Mr. Holland is invited to join her on stage where she, and a large group of his former students, prepare for him to direct them one last time as they present to the public, for the first time ever, Mr. Holland's opus!
What a profound insight that former student offered Mr. Holland! His dreams had not been wasted, and his labor had not been in vain. He simply had failed to realize that he had achieved something far greater than a musical masterpiece -- Mr. Holland's life was his opus! And all the students he had taught, mentored, and (dare I say) discipled over the years were the "melodies and the notes" that together formed a mellifluous symphony far more beautiful than the one he had composed on paper.
And that is what the Apostle Paul is trying to communicate to each of us. The message is as simple as it is true: Your life is your opus! Every day, the things we do in the name of Jesus Christ are musical notes that are being strung together to form an opus, a magnum opus that God Himself is composing through each of us. Every once in a while, we may have the opportunity to hear a small portion of the grand symphony He is composing. But we will not experience it in its fullness until, like Mr. Holland, our work is completed . . . until we have finished our race.
To my fellow pastors and laborers in the faith: Our God is true to His Word! We do not labor in vain. Today, we sow with faith; tomorrow we will reap with joy! One day, I look forward to hearing the magnificent opus our Heavenly Father is composing through each of you. I know that mine will be one of the many lives you have touched, one of the many notes in your sublime symphony!
One day, all of us who follow Jesus Christ will experience a reward that will far surpass Mr. Holland's. We will see and reap the harvest our faith has sown; we will hear and dance to the magnificent opus our hope has composed.
Your life is your opus!
. . . . . . Shhh!!!
. . . . . . Can you hear it?
* Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen the movie and intend to do so, you may want to stop reading this post until you have.