timecover.jpgRecently, I had the opportunity to listen to, arguably, one of the best pianists of the last century, if not of all time.  Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., is now 72 years old.  Since winning the very first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, Van Cliburn, as he is known, has performed around the world and for all U.S. presidents since Harry Truman.  In 2003, President George W. Bush presented Van Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the U.S.

The concert I attended was very special to me for a few reasons.  First, it was Van Cliburn.  His life is a story of dedication to hard work and passionate performance.  He is acclaimed around the world.  As a classical pianist myself, I had a great interest in listening to this legend of music in person.  By the way, did you know he travels with his own Steinway 9-foot concert grand piano?

Van Cliburn also has a great legacy as an American hero.  The Tchaikovsky Competition was begun under Nikita Khrushchev’s rule as an opportunity to display Soviet prominence in the arts to the world.  Just a few weeks before this first competition, the Soviets had successfully launched Sputnik into orbit, becoming the first nation to put a satellite into space.  When Cliburn received an eight-minute long standing ovation at the end of his performance, he became, in that moment, an American hero.  Upon his return to the United States, Van Cliburn received a ticker-tape parade in New York City.  Did I mention that he was the only classical musician to ever get one?  So as an American, I enjoyed the opportunity to see this hero in action.

vanmedal.jpgFinally, the pieces he performed that night in Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall were profoundly personal to me, most notably Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.  You see, when I was a teen on the mission field in Scotland, my parents bought some classical music packages for me which included a cassette tape of a famous piece along with a magazine with more detail about the piece.  The one cassette I committed to memory was the cassette on Edvard Grieg.  For many, many hours in my bedroom in Portobello, Scotland, I listened to Grieg’s concerto.  It was one of the things that helped me, I think, make the transition from childhood to adolescence.  That may sound a little strange, but the depth of feeling in that piece really complemented the hormonal “expansion” I was experiencing as a young teen.  So to hear Van play the Grieg was an incredibly moving experience for me as I reflected on that part of my life.

However, the point of this article really has nothing to do with Van Cliburn or Grieg’s music.  Here’s what I thought as Van came back out for his fifth encore at the Denver concert: we’re missing something in Christianity with regard to honor.

I have been taught both directly and indirectly all my life that we shouldn’t draw attention to people, only to God, especially in a worship service.  I’m not so sure this is a biblical concept.

First, is drawing attention to any one person other than God wrong in a corporate worship setting?  Is it necessarily idolatry?  Is it wrong, for example, to applaud the work of a musician, or welcome a returning missionary with celebration, or (gasp) pay the teaching pastor double a standard salary?  As I listened to Van Cliburn and stood to applaud his efforts, I couldn’t help but compare his work to that of my own parents, missionaries for over 20 years.  Do they work as hard as Van?  Undoubtedly.  Is their work as significant as his?  More so.  Will they receive honor for their labor?  No doubt when they stand before God.  But what about now?

Why not honor those who labor in the Lord’s work, be they a pastor or devoted layman.  Why not give a veteran missionary an eight-minute standing ovation upon their return?  Why not bestow medals and awards on them for their eternally significant work?

Is there biblical precedent for such honor.  I think there is.  Consider Philippians 2:25-30: 

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me. (NIV)

In this passage, Paul implores the Philippian believers to admit Epaphroditus into their fellowship with joy and to treat him and all like him as valuable because of his ministry to Paul.

That’s just one example.  I’m sure I can find many others.  Our pastor recently began having “attaboys” at our monthly staff meetings.  At those times, we have the opportunity to encourage and build and honor those in our ministry who are doing well for the cause of Christ.

I think honor is something to encourage within the church.  In fact, as we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ for their contributions to the Lord’s cause, I believe we are honoring God as well.  Obviously, we must repudiate people-worship, but I think this is one of those areas where we have shied away from the proper practice of honoring because of abuse in our celebrity-crazed culture.  Let’s make the time to encourage and build up those who are doing well for Christ!


7 responses to this post.

  1. Van Cliburn was always one of my favorites, although I was more partial to Artur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz. I first cut my classical music “teeth” in 3rd grade on Van Cliburn’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto (with Kondrashin conducting — the Russian conductor who conducted his award winning performance of the same concerto in Russia in 1958) and his recording of Brahm’s 2nd Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. I also heard Van Cliburn twice live with the Minnesota Orchestra — once playing Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto (Emperor) and once playing the Tchaikovsky. He was very ornate and showy in his style, but the crowd loved him and he usually did at least 4 or 5 encores.

    All this to say, I can empathize with your emotional connection to his recordings. I too have been transported back many a time to my childhood and teenage years by listening to Cliburn and Rubenstein recordings that lifted me to heights of emotional and intellectual rapture (like rock music did for my peers). Great article. Thanks.


  2. Great point. I have a friend who holds to the RWP (and I do as well) but any kind of “honor” is horible to him. I would just caution those who do to make sure we place this honor (given to missionaries, pastors, etc.) in proper relationship to Christ. It’s Him ultimately we are honoring through these people’s work. You can’t separate the two or you do get people-worship. Give God glory by honoring those who are worthy.

    Soli Deo Gloria


  3. A nicely written tribute and some very interesting thoughts. Thanks for articulating them so well.

    I heard Van Cliburn in the 1970s and went backstage, afterward, in the role of sheepish autograph hound. He and a professional interviewer were sitting on folding chairs, alone, on the stage, behind the closed curtain. I weighed wether or not I should just go away or wait for something like a break but he (Van Cliburn) waved in my direction and invited me over. He not only gave me an autograph but asked me several questions about my interests in music and ribbed me about my preference for Wagner (BTW, in Bayreuth, they often applaud 40-50 minutes before a single door is opened).

    I will never forget shaking his hand. It seemed to wrap around mine completely but was very soft. Not a great time to do the family crush-the-other-guy’s-hand-contest routine I guess. Anyway, the impression that he made was very, very positive. Indeed, it was in sharp contrast to my back-stage experience with Rampal, whose gold flute was sitting on a cheap table with several cans of open beer … yikes!


  4. Posted by Dad on October 24, 2006 at 7:26 am

    Hi Brian,

    I like the new look of your blog site. Also, I appreciate your well written articles. I wish I was a good writer to jump in with some of the postings, but I guess I’ll just sit back and read the thoughts of all you folks. Keep up the good work and don’t forget to keep us posted on your decision to write a book.



  5. Dr. Ruckman,

    Great to hear from you. I have to admit that I could not take my eyes off of Van’s hands. They were HUGE!!! Thanks for sharing your personal experience as well.


  6. Dad,

    You jump in whenever you want! This is my blog, not an academic journal!! I’ve been putting together the outline for the book and am really looking forward to writing over break!


  7. Very interesting post! I am also a classical pianist, so I relate to your experiences. I also find your other point interesting, too. I’ve preferred to be “safe” by not really honoring people with ceremonies and such, but I think there is a case for it. We honor the works of great men of God from the past, so why not while they’re still living? But of course we must be careful, because we are all tempted with pride.

    Perhaps the focus can be on what was done, and include the people involved. That way it’s easier to keep the glory going to God, yet the people are recognized as being part of it.

    Also, the people can be recognized and thanked by individuals, which would be more personal, and it would prevent having a ceremony where the focus appears to be on a man or woman. And of course we can testify to those around us of the great works that other people have done.


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