One of my professors in grad school described his famous father’s life as having ended with an ellipsis. If it has been a while since you piddled around with punctuation, an ellipsis is a set of three periods indicating in running text that something is omitted. At the end of a segment of material an ellipsis indicates to a reader that something is incomplete; the whole story hasn’t been told or couldn’t be told or doesn’t need to be told in the particular context in which the writer writes. The person referred to by my prof had lived a full life. He had held many positions of great importance, was highly regarded in his professional field, published widely and popularly, and his life had lasted longer than most in his generation. Yet, his remarkable son said of his remarkable father, “Life ended for him with an ellipsis.”
Dr. Georgia Elma Harkness was the first woman in the United States to be appointed as a full-time professor of a theological discipline in any seminary or divinity school. She had a long distinguished and illustrious career, and she remained busy in retirement, from the Pacific School of Religion, as a preacher, lecturer, and writer. When she died, her friends found on Dr. Harkness’s desk the proof pages for the book she had most recently completed. Full life, amazing life; it ended in an ellipsis.
The twelfth anniversary of my Dad’s death is in a few days. Mom had just had double knee replacement surgery and finished her stay in a rehab facility following the hospital stay itself. Dad brought her home from the rehabilitation center, got her settled into the bed, sat down beside the bed for a little breather, and had an event that the autopsy described as part heart attack and part stroke. He was only 70 years old with no serious illnesses about which we knew. He never regained consciousness. The paramedics kept him breathing, and the hospital kept him on life support until most members of the family could get down there to say their goodbyes, after which life support was removed and hope against hope changed to requisite business decisions and funeral planning–all in the twinkling of an eye, as it were. I loved him deeply and still miss him daily. Dad enjoyed the new chapters in his life–the anticipated years of enjoying day to day life with Mom whose surgeons had freed her from much of the pain with which she’d been living for a good while, more time with his grandchildren whom he adored, more time to be on the lake fishing, more uninterrupted opportunities to listen to and watch the Atlanta Braves, and a retirement job for a man who refused to give up working altogether. He felt that life had given him more blessings than he could ever have hoped for as a dirt poor kid growing up on Lone Mountain in Claiborne County, Tennessee, and reared by a single Mom rearing six other kids too. Still, there was much more he would like to have done–and intended to. Ellipsis.
When my dear friend, much beloved and painfully missed, Klaude Krannebitter ended his own life in his early 40’s, the family–as many of you know–called me back to Baltimore to deliver his eulogy. Not an easy task but a high privilege nonetheless, I built my reflections on his life around an acrostic I created using his first name, which he spelled with a K, K-L-A-U-D-E. I had the letter “U” stand for the word “unfinished.” His life was both unfinished and incomplete. The ellipsis appeared for him at the end of the fifth or sixth chapter of life, no where near what should have been an ending for a complete novel except, perhaps, for a few closing words.
In 1823, the Graz (Austria) Music Society gave the great composer Franz Schubert an honorary diploma. He felt his expression of gratitude should be dedicate a symphony to the Music Society so that’s what he did. He sent the score of the dedicatory piece, which he’d written a year earlier, to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner. Everything may well have been in perfect order with the score when initially sent, or perhaps a part of it was missing from the beginning. Musicologists tell us that what exists today are the first two movements, complete in every way, and then a scherzo–well, part of a scherzo,
the first two complete pages of a scherzo–typically the third movement of a symphony so I’ve been told–but with the rest of that movement written only for a piano and with a segment of the piano part missing. There is no fourth movement at all, which Schubert’s contemporaries would have expected as finale. Either he never attempted to complete it, or, as some suspect who have studied the physical manuscript itself pages, were torn out after the third movement, such as it was.
If the symphony came into the hands of Hüttenbrenner in complete form, music historians and others are shocked that Schubert’s friend didn’t arrange for a performance of the piece right away, but he didn’t. Schubert only lived five years after Hüttenbrenner received the score. Was he waiting for the missing parts, which for unknown reasons the great composer never got around to finishing? How could he keep quiet about having an original Schubert composition in hand? No one knows.
Then Hüttenbrenner waited another 37 years until he began to think about his own departure from this world before a breathed a word about the score to anyone. When he was 76, three years before his death, he finally showed the score to someone, to a conductor to whom he was partial, Johann von Herbeck, and Herbeck conducted for the public the two complete movements, one and two, near Christmas of 1865 in Vienna. He chose a final movement from another of Schubert’s symphonies to complete the performance.
I’m sure you’ve heard the name of this musical composition by Schubert. Some call it his Symphony Number 8, others Number 7. Most call it “The Unfinished Symphony.”
In 1505 Michelangelo, great painter and sculptor, was invited to Rome for an audience with by the newly elected pope, Pope Julius II. The reason for the conversation was to discuss the need for a tomb for Julius even though he wasn’t ill or of an advanced age. He did, however, want grandeur to characterize his final resting place so he realized that this could take a considerable amount of time. I think we can safely call this “being prepared.” Both men liked what they heard, and the great Michelangelo was officially commissioned to build the Pope’s tomb. He wasn’t asked to do the job for charity, as a freebie, I mean. The Pope intended to pay. It’s odd that, with such an honorable challenge and steady pay to boot, Michelangelo constantly interrupted his work on the tomb to take on less important tasks; maybe he needed the extra income. Who knows? Anyway, because of these incessant interruptions, Michelangelo tinkered on the tomb for some 40 years, slowly kinda sorta finishing one sculpture and then another to please Pope Julius. The most celebrated of Michelangelo’s sculptures beautifying the tomb was the one of Moses. Pope Julius was buried in an unfinished tomb, even though he’d waited a long time for it to be finished. The tomb, grand as intended, was never finished to Michelangelo’s satisfaction. Those who don’t know the background of the work may not recognize it as unfinished, but in its creator’s eyes it was just that, unfinished. I don’t know what finishing touches he thought he needed, but that’s what he thought.
Watercolorist Elizabeth Shoumatoff was selected to paint the official portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt near the end of his third term of service to the nation. Her painting was in progress when FDR suddenly collapsed and subsequently died. Taking a break from sitting for the portrait so that he could have lunch, he mentioned to his aides that he had a terrible headache. That headache was a sign of the oncoming cerebral hemorrhage that took his life, later that very day–April 12, 1945. Ms. Shoumatoff never finished that particular portrait; I’m sure there were numerous reasons why, but it’s hanging today in what came to be called “the Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt’s favorite place for R and R. It’s a fascinating part of her artistic impulse and maybe her sense of history that prompted her to paint another portrait of President Roosevelt in honor of him. Artists who know about her project say that she painted the second painting from memory–no photographs or sketches of the President or the initial painting. They say that the gifted Shoumatoff managed to paint the second one in such a way that it was almost identical to the first one. There was one intentional difference. Roosevelt wore a red tie when he sat for his portrait, and that is what you see in the unfinished portrait. In the second one, the artist intentionally changed the color of his tie to blue. It too is hanging in the Little White House in Georgia, right beside the unfinished one.
No one can deny, surely no one would try, that Samuel Clemons, aka Mark Twain, was a prolific writer. The last novel he attempted, however, was never finished. It had a title, The Mysterious Friend, and he worked on it the last twenty years of his life, but again it was never finished. The same kind of thing had happened to Charles Dickens whose unfinished novel had the same first two words as did Twain’s effort: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There was enough of Twain’s novel for interested parties to know that he was trying to deal thematically with morality as seen or not in, his words, the “damned human race.”
A British mathematician and inventor by the name of Charles Babbage designed in the 1820’s the first fully automated calculator. Not for the desk of a bookkeeper or an accountant, this device, which Babbage called “the Difference Engine,” was supposed to be as large as a train’s engine and operate by steam. He almost finished his design, but he was never able to see it built for hosts of reasons, the major one being the lack of funding. Sad for Babbage; however, to honor his brilliance and his inventiveness, British engineers and mathematicians built a Difference Engine in 1991, the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth. They used only materials and methods that would have been available to Babbage, and it worked. You can see it the next time you’re in London; it’s kept in the city’s Science Museum.
President Lyndon Johnson, almost fifty years ago in his State of the Union address, declared a war on poverty. It is disappointing that such a noble cause was hampered by political jealousies. Evidently, there was fierce competition between President Johnson and Robert Kennedy, his late brother’s attorney general who stayed on board for a few months after Johnson moved into the Oval Office. The tension between them didn’t, however, stop after Kennedy resigned to run for office. Johnson seemed to be trying to take the credit for thinking of the need for a war on poverty, but Attorney General Kennedy had done that. One historian described what was going on in this way:
“Johnson and Kennedy cared more about black poverty than did any other major politicians of the twentieth century, but they disliked and mistrusted each other so much that they were incapable of cooperating on the cause that was closest to both their hearts. Because the two men could not reconcile their ideas, the War on Poverty became an untenable combination of Kennedy’s love for the rebellious moral crusade and Johnson’s for the grandiose political gesture.”
So, the War on Poverty remained unfinished under the influence of these two powerful political figures, and it remains unfinished yet today.
I enjoy noticing wordless expressions of love between two people who are deeply in love–the young lovers and those who have been in love so long with another person that the loving is as much a part of their lives as breathing. I’ve seen it in the eyes of those taking vows to formalize their life commitment to each other–at a wedding or a civil union. I’ve seen it when a face lights up one’s true love returns, after only a day away. I’ve seen it in a lingering embrace as one sends her or his beloved off to war with all the uncertainty that boggles the mind at such moments. I’ve seen it in the kiss of one sending her or his soulmate just down a hallway to a surgical suite. And though he couldn’t tell me, using the language of love, how much he loved Betty at the receiving of friends that evening, he said it all this way: “David, fifty-five years just weren’t enough.”
So, it seems that Buttrick was right–not that I ever doubted my mentor. Few of us tie up all the loose ends of life, even if our years on this earth are long. Countless tasks remain unfinished. Who knows how many messages are never delivered? Even those people with the foresight and courage to make bucket lists and who live to check off every item on the list still have more they would’ve done had they had the time, the knowhow, the grit, the patience. Living a complete life doesn’t mean that we are able to cram in every thing we might have dreamed of or expected of ourselves.
Paul with the help of his protege Timothy is writing to the whole congregation of the Church at Philippi, the congregation–among several–closest to Paul’s heart. There was a genuine love, each for the other; and not just everyone was able to love Paul, curmudgeon and self-proclaimed apostle.
“Paul and Timothy, servants of the Anointed One, Jesus, To all the saints of the Anointed One who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesuss. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Nearing the end of his ministry, Paul still had a sense that Jesus, having died a physical death but very much alive in God’s realm, would one day reappear on the earth to close this chapter of human history. At the beginning of his ministry, several years before he wrote the letter to the Church at Philippi, Paul was one of those who thought Jesus was about to reappear at any second, every second. He had had to modify his attitudes and his teaching to mesh with the reality that in all the years since he began spreading the good news about Jesus’ ministry and message this pivotal event hadn’t happened. Even so, Paul believed it would still come to pass at some point, and he just couldn’t make himself believe it could be much longer. Well, it was! Nonetheless, he used that event as the marker by which time you’d hoped to have done all you wanted to do, while there was still time. This is what he meant when he said to the members of the Philippian Church: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s conviction was that God Godself had brought them together as a church and given them their unique work to do. Not every church was or is supposed to have absolutely identical ministries–just as not everyone in the church should have the same abilities or responsibilities. The Philippians who initially received this letter from Paul and Timothy were living in tense times. It was several years before Rome would destroy the Jews’ most sacred possession, the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, creating thereby the sense that the whole Jesus movement could be wiped out. The destruction of the Temple took place in the year 70; eight to ten years ahead of that the tension between Rome and the Jews wasn’t at a boiling point, but foundations for such explosive tension were in place. Though Rome’s frustration lay mostly with followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Antioch, a great distance from Philippi, the Philippians didn’t hold out much hope that if the key leaders were immobilized that they, a struggling baby congregation, could last.
Even so, they held fast to their ministry and mission. They were a congregation who displayed persistence, commitment enough to die for the causes in which they believed, and joy in the face of adversity. That is the context in which he encouraged them: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
In other words, if Rome closes you down or if Jesus reappears and brings history as we have known it to a close, the good work, which was begun in you by God Godself, will be completed.
Now, “completed” has to have meant something more than getting every single thing done just the way you’d idealized things. A life or a mission can still be considered complete even if all the loose ends don’t get tied up before your efforts must cease for whatever reason. If I have done my best to live out my calling using the talents I have found in me, if you have done your best to live out your calling using the talents you have found in you, if a church, our church, has done its best to live out its calling using the talents we have found in our community, then unfinished business or an ellipsis at the end will not mean we have failed and will not mean we have neglected our responsibilities. Failure or incompletion signify that we gave up when we didn’t have to. Failure or a job poorly done signify that we let adversity become our master. Failure or a wasted life signify that we forgot or ignored the love, and God is love, that sent us out to make love real in easy places and unlikely places and impossible places. “I am confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”
We should expect in a life fully lived, even by those most gifted at the art of living, that there will be more to do than can be crammed into one lifetime; thus ellipses at the end for all who are fully invested and fully engaged in accomplishing what their abilities empower them to accomplish is probably to be expected. Unfinished business isn’t a bad thing, and only a Pharisee, which Paul had been before his conversion, could imagine that he had accomplished all God would expect (if God had expectations the way we humans do) in the first few years of adulthood. The Pharisee croaked at the notion of unfinished business at the end of earthly life; his life was a life of keeping rules, which he did daily, so if he should not awaken the next morning there would have been nothing left undone.
Those of us who exist in a messier world where elaborate rules can’t establish or anticipate what we might have to do today or this month or this year in order to live out love and where a Pharisee would convulse at the absence of hard or workable parameters, we know we can’t get it all done. We can’t assure justice for all, but we have to try. Can we win the War on Poverty? Evidence suggests that many of us don’t want to try, but those of us who would be happy just to win a few battles in that war can’t throw up our hands and ignore the poor.
Paul was at peace when he looked back over his checkered past and his life of serving others that followed. There were mistakes he’d made that he couldn’t correct. There were good people he had alienated whom he could never win back. There were flaws in almost all the churches he’d had a part in founding and advising, but he rightly, I think, believed that the commendation he gave the Philippians applied to himself as well. The work that God had begun in him, as unworthy as he felt to serve in God’s name, would still be completed–messes and tasks undone notwithstanding.
If Love has begun a good work in us, then Love will see us through. Unfinished business, an ellipsis, might just be the only indication that we have done our best.