The Cellist

Dear Friends:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
For now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle dove
is heard in our land.

Song 1:11-12

Mike Kirby spoke to me after the Good Friday worship service. To be exact, that would be Michael A. Kirby, Ph.D, Professor of Pathology and Anatomy in the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He’s a soft-spoken, productive scientist who is researching brain development.

Ironically, Mike himself suffered a fast-growing cancer that metastasized into his brain and came very close to killing him. He was the subject of many prayers around the University. I remember the tone of the prayers getting quieter even they grew more desperate and hope was seemingly ebbing away with very little time left for Mike.

But the Lord spared Mike and restored his health. He is a gift to us. He is a much-respected and loved man. Another one of my friends and colleagues says, “Some people you can summarize in one word and for Mike Kirby that word is ‘kind.’ He is a kind man.”

What a wonderful thing to be known for your kindness. The world, indeed, our University, needs more kind men and women. Mike is a blessing of grace.

I work with Mike from time to time on legal and policy matters involving research affairs. I invited him to our “Remembering What Jesus Did for Us” service and he came.

He waited for me afterwards and said, “Thank you for inviting me. This was great. You know there is nothing that can speak to the soul like music.”

“That’s true,” I said. “That’s how God reaches our hearts. Do you do anything with music, Mike?”

“I played the cello when I was younger,” he said. “When I was sick, I missed the music and I told my wife, “I’d like to play the cello again. We found one and bought it. It takes about 20 years to break a cello in. But I played it and found it to be healing.”

“Do you ever play in public?”

“Well, I played for the Office of Research Affairs’ Christmas Party. I was a little nervous at first, but it went OK.”

“The Office of General Counsel sponsors an annual Christmas breakfast with a carol sing and worship,” I said. “Maybe we could play something together.”

“Maybe so,” he replied.

We went our ways, but I’ve kept Mike and his cello in mind ever since as I begin the early preparations for the Christmas breakfast.”

On Wednesday of this past week, I was sitting by Mike in the Research Oversight Committee. When the meeting was over, I said, “I’ve been thinking about us playing the cello and piano together at the Christmas party. I’ve been working on some songs. Can you improvise?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said.

“If we work off music, piano music, for simple Christmas carols, will that work alright for you?”

“Yes, I can play the bass line,” he replied.

“That will work,” I said. “How about other parts?”

“Yeah, I can play the alto or tenor part. The cello has a wide range.”

“OK, I said. “How about the key? What is a good key to play in for a cellist?”

“Bass clef,” he said.

“I understand that’s the preferred range, but what keys are you most comfortable playing in. I know string players often like playing in C or in the sharps,” I said, dreading his response. I have a psychological block in playing in the sharps on the piano for some reason.

“Any key is fine,” he said with a non-committal tone.

“How do you feel about playing in public? I mean, you told me that you were a little nervous when you played for the Research Affairs Christmas party.”

“Oh that’s no problem,” Mike said. “That just goes with the territory.”

He stood up and said,”I think I have some music in my office. I’ll get it and you can see what I am talking about.”

He left and I waited at the conference room table. I was feeling pretty good about encouraging a friend in developing his musical talent. At least that’s what I was thinking.

Mike walked back in and opened a well-worn folio of music on the table in front of me. To my utter, jaw-dropping amazement it contained the complete cello scores for all nine Beethoven symphonies, plus a Leonard Rose sonata.

I play a passable recreational piano, but the music I was looking at requires a technical competence at the professional level if it is to be played as it was meant to be.

“Do you play this music, Mike?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied quietly. “I used to play in the Phoenix Symphony. When I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, I played in the orchestra there because they gave me some scholarships so I kept playing. Playing is how I ate in graduate school. I was in a string quartet and we would go from restaurant to restaurant and play so we could eat. I played in the Indianapolis Symphony under Izler Solomon. He was fabulous. I learned a lot from him.”

There are moments when the interjection “wow,” an expression of great amazement, wonder, or pleasure is the only word available and appropriate. As in, “Wow, Mike. You are not in my league, or better put, I am not in your league. ‘Wow’ is all I can say. I’ll be in touch about the Christmas program.”

A great sense of delighted peace filled me as I walked out of the Research Affairs Office into the unusually mild July day. Something that my friend Joyce once told me came to mind.

One spring day on a hike through a nature preserve, Joyce asked me, “Kent, do you realize that most wild flowers are never seen by any one but God? People see the blossoms along the roads and paths, but most of them are out there in the fields and meadows beyond human view. They are just as beautiful as the ones we see but they are there for the delight of God alone. Our opinions and approval don’t add or take away anything from his enjoyment of what he has made.”

Joyce’s observation is indisputably true and it says a lot about the unconditional grace of God. Mike’s musical gift has been unknown to most of us at the University, but no matter. God gifted Mike in the joy of his creative power and I suspect that if no one ever heard Mike play but God it would be enough for the two of them.

It is said that of all the musical instruments that the cello’s sound most closely approximates the human voice. It takes no leap of faith or logic to think that the Lord could speak healing into Mike’s brain and heart through the bow and strings of his cello. “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:3).

I thought of Mike, sick unto death with cancer, remembering that wondrous voice, heeding its call, taking up the cello and reconnecting his damaged body and pain-ravaged soul to his Creator.

There is a prayer of “sighs too deep for words,” Paul said, “and God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26b-27). I know my own seasons of distress and grief, I have played the piano alone in the darkness at midnight as a prayer and the Lord has used the chords and the familiar paths of melody to restore my soul and comfort my troubled spirit.

Only God and Mike shared the prayer in the bass clef, but when I left my path to chase a stray song I stumbled across the sacred echoes of their communion. I was humbled to a quiet, thankful reverence by glimpsing “the hope [that] does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

That hope has an unbreakable tensile strength that we can cling to without fear of failure because, through all the struggles, tears, fears, disappointments, afflictions and frictions of life in a jaded and broken world, the very thought and sound of God’s love ringing in the long forgotten places of our hearts announce his true intentions for us. Listen . . .

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
For now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle dove
is heard in our land.

Song 1:11-12

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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