Thursday, June 25, 2020

A superstar who hit rock bottom and came up again

I want to tell you about someone whose life was changed - a man in the depths of despair who found new life and hope. He had been a great musician. As a child he had overtaken all his teachers. He had begun composing in childhood, and by his twenties he was fabulously wealthy - the highest paid composer in the world, packing in the crowds wherever he went.

At the same time, he was rude, arrogant, and self-opinionated. He drank too heavily, and he could swear like a trooper in three different languages!

For forty years he composed breathtaking music for the royal family. But musical tastes change, and his works fell out of fashion. He tried everything, but he couldn’t resurrect his career. He became bankrupt, poverty-stricken, depressed and physically ill. Things were so bad that he thought he might end up living out his days in a London debtors’ prison.

Who am I talking about? George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). As if things couldn’t get worse, in 1737 he had a cerebral haemorrhage which left him paralysed down his right side and unable to walk or write. Very slowly he managed to regain some of his strength.

One night in 1741 he shuffled listlessly down a dark, creepy London street, bent over - a man seriously old before his time. England was in the grip of an extremely cruel winter, and Handel was physically and emotionally worn out.

As he trudged on he came to a church. He paused, and suddenly from the depths of his being he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Eventually he went home to his very modest lodgings. On his desk was a package - a set of words that he had promised a friend he would try to do something with musically. In fact the words were all Bible verses arranged in such a way as to emphasise the salvation won for us by Jesus. Handel opened the package and his eyes fell on the verse, ‘He was despised and rejected of men.’

He reached for his pen and began to write. Then something mysterious - even ‘miraculous’ - happened to him. He just kept writing . . . page after page after page! He actually worked non-stop for twenty-four days, hardly eating, and having almost no rest. He refused to see friends. But on the day he finished, a friend managed to get in. Handel was sitting at his piano, sheets of music strewn all around him, and he had tears running down his face. ‘I do believe I have seen all of Heaven before me, and the great God Himself,’ he said to his friend. He then flopped onto his bed and slept for seventeen hours. He woke up renewed in body and in soul. Looking back on this experience, and borrowing a phrase from the Apostle Paul, he said, ‘Whether I was in my body or out of my body I know not. God knows it’!
Right from its first performance, Handel’s Messiah has been regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed. It has stunned multitudes. To this day it is performed at Christmas and Easter all over the world, and people who know nothing else about classical music always recognise the Hallelujah Chorus! More than that, Handel’s music has brought a vision of the glory of the Lord to countless unsuspecting souls.

Why have I recounted the story of George Frederick Handel? Simply because I know that so many of us find ourselves exactly where he was. We think that life is useless. We feel that there is no hope. Maybe it’s related to a business failure or the disintegration of our relationships. Or we might be successful financially, in our careers and in our family life. But for reasons we can’t understand we’re there, right at rock bottom in other ways.

Of course we can speak to friends. And professional counselling is a good idea, too. Medication can often make a big difference. These things are important.

How bizarre it is, though, that we so easily neglect the ‘spiritual’ aspect of our being, when ‘God . . . has put eternity into man’s mind’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). There are even in our universities today professional observers of human behaviour who agree that we seem to have an inbuilt instinct to reach out to ‘the transcendent’. So many people discover that ‘giving in’ to that instinct is the most important life choice we ever make, because in the context of the relationship with God that develops, deep spiritual and emotional healing begins to take place. 

On the other hand, if we refuse to come to terms with our deeply spiritual needs, all other measures are a bit like putting sticking plaster on symptoms rather than treating the real illness. (Sticking plaster is, of course, handy. But on its own it’s not going to heal us!)

Those facing big issues in our lives, or who are on the brink of despair - as many are right now at this stage in the ‘lockdown’ - ought to need very little encouragement to open up to the Lord’s love and healing. Maybe the story of George Frederick Handel will inspire us to do it!

An intriguing insight in the Bible is that we can drift spiritually without even realising what is happening to us.  One of the saddest bits of the Old Testament is when Samson, so full of promise and raised up by God to deliver his people, became captive to his lusts. Do you know what it says? Judges 16:20 tells us, ‘He knew not that the Spirit of God had left him.’ Isn’t that so sad. He drifted. 

We are warned about that happening to us in Hebrews 2:1: ‘... we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.’ In his commentary on this verse, William Barclay points out that in the original language the expression for ‘drift away’ is meant to conjure up the idea of a ship drifting to destruction because the pilot is asleep!

We matter to God. He loves us with an everlasting love. He doesn’t want us just to drift along. Whatever tangles or trauma we are in the middle of, he wants to help us, support us, strengthen and sustain us, so that we come through. We don’t have to drift. Nor do we have to be strong enough or wise enough in our own strength and wisdom. We can rely on him. We can let his love reach us through prayer, through the Scriptures, through receiving the Sacraments, through the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We really can open up our lives to his healing love.

Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah God says to us: ‘You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart.’ (Jeremiah 29:3)

S. James says, ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.’ (James 4:8)

And Jesus himself said: ‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you . . . for he who seeks finds.’ (Matthew 7:7)

George Frederick Handel had his life turned around and put on track because he encountered the Lord in a new way. Isn’t it time for each of us to seek the Lord with our whole heart, to draw near to him, and to experience his love and healing more deeply than ever before?

Handel's memorial in Westminster Abbey


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