When I was sixteen, I took piano lessons for about a year from a dear older lady named Doris who gave lessons for free to anyone who would help clean the church building. Then she wanted me to start doing scales, and I quit.
I’ve never been one for follow-through.
When God called us to Teensy Town Baptist Church, I was so thankful that He had led us to a church with a pianist. I’m not saying it would have been a deal breaker, but without a pianist I would have had such a hard time submitting to this call. People think the pastor’s wife is supposed to play piano, you know? So many do. My skill, however, was limited to plinking out the alto line when I took my choir music home, a moving rendition of “Heart and Soul” (in which I could play either part! Because skill!), and a version of “My Jesus I Love Thee” that I had been playing exactly the same since I graduated from high school in 1997. Sometimes I could get really fancy and play both the alto and the soprano lines of a piece of music, if the music didn’t have more than one flat or sharp.
So I was really glad that Teensy Town Baptist had a pianist, a lovely older lady named Donna who could play straight out of the hymnbook like magic.
Hymnbooks are hard. I should know. I’m the church pianist.
Less than a year after we moved to Teensy Town, Donna passed away very unexpectedly. This was not in my plans. My plans involved her playing forever, or until she surrendered the reins to my son the Angry Ranger, who is a very talented pianist but who, in fourth grade, wasn’t quite ready to take over the Sunday morning playing yet.
God ruined my plans when He took Donna home so unexpectedly. And suddenly I had two options– I could sing really really loud and lead the singing with my voice (because that’s what happens in our church if we don’t have a piano player), or I could get up there every Sunday morning and “play.”
I started by just playing the melody line, and I could only play songs in the keys of C, F, and G. In other words, about six songs in our hymnbook. Then I started trying to play out of Angry Ranger’s easy piano books. I would practice all week on our broken, out-of-tune piano, and on Sunday mornings in front of our little crowd my hands would shake, I would mess up over and over again, and by the end I would feel like throwing up.
I hated it so much. I can’t even describe it. But somehow I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God wanted me up there, hitting the wrong notes with my shaking fingers, losing my place, fumbling and failing. Because I had told Him that I was willing to do anything except that. I would teach and I would sing and I would clean toilets and bake meatloaf and lead Bible study but I WOULD NOT PLAY PIANO, thankyouverymuch.
Partial surrender isn’t really surrender at all. And as God met me in my weakness and taught me that the world wouldn’t end if I humiliated myself in front of our church family (who were never anything but supportive and generous in their praise), He was starting to teach me what surrender really was. In fact, He was starting me on a spiritual journey to His heart. Of course, I had no way of knowing that.
Several months after I took over piano duties at our church, I stumbled across a way of playing that is totally cheating, but totally worked for me. I discovered that I could play the guitar chords on my left hand and the melody on my right hand, and it sounded almost like a real pianist. At least, it sounded a lot better than whatever I had been doing before. And my brain could handle processing that a lot better than it could process two staffs and all those notes and everything. And through it all our church people cheered me on, prayed for me, and never once complained about the sour notes or the limited songs I could play.
I learned something about myself as I crashed and stumbled on those keys each Sunday– I am just so full of pride. I hated it so much because I knew I wasn’t good, and I didn’t like doing something I wasn’t good at in front of an audience. If I was going to play, I wanted to be awesome, and if I couldn’t be awesome, I didn’t want to play at all.
Can I just say that face to face with your own ugly pride is not a fun place to be standing? But I am so thankful God brought me to that place, because He didn’t leave me there. He taught me that He doesn’t want or require a highly skilled musician at that piano each Sunday– He wants me, because in my weakness His strength can be shown forth. He taught me– is still teaching me, if I’m honest– that I need to be playing for an audience of ONE. He taught me that I could go on with life even if (when) I totally botched three out of the four hymns AND the offertory. And that He could be glorified. And that others could be blessed and challenged.
And then, as God worked in my heart to bring me to a place of submission and humility before Him, He unveiled my eyes to see the gift I have been given. I began to love playing the piano. I began to play as an act of worship, to play for fun. I began to compose songs. I began to push myself to learn harder music, to force my fingers onto those black keys. One day I realized that I could play many of the songs in our hymnbook, even without the chord notations.
He never gives bad gifts, you know. Or maybe you don’t. I certainly looked at the gift of our church piano with fear and anger and bitterness. But it was a gift, and it was a good gift, a beautiful one, one that opened up my heart to my loving Father more, that made me learn to trust Him and His plan. It started me on a spiritual journey– into humility, into daily prayer, into obedience– that promises deeper relationship, deeper faith. It has made me more aware of the walls I put up, and more willing to be open and vulnerable with those around me.
I don’t know what heaven is like, not really, but in my imagination, Doris and Donna have become fast friends who spend a lot of time laughing at my foolish, bad-tempered, unwilling obedience, and who are looking on with joy as they see what God has done in spite of it.
Because becoming the church pianist changed my life. Well, God changed my life. You know what I mean.