The Piano

About two weeks ago at our church, we had our very old (as in 120 years) and very decrepit Chickering church piano tuned. Yes, the one we bought in a hardware store in Cartersville; the one that was delivered by a couple of good ol’ boys on a flatbed trailer, balanced on four bales of hay.

I’m not kidding.

Our piano technician was in a few weeks ago, and he told me that the piano, although playable (we use it almost every week) needs a good deal of work to bring it up to snuff, to the tune of about $8,000. I laughed; he handed me the receipt for the tuning, and I walked into the room where I was in a meeting and jokingly told the story to the group of folks within. The technician had suggested we take the piano out back and put it out of its misery; I thought this was funny, and I shared that bit of info. As I closed the tale and got ready to transition back into the original subject of our meeting, I said, “I’d love to have a nice piano around here, but we have a million other important needs…maybe someday someone will sell some stocks and bonds and buy us a piano.”

 Like that’s ever going to happen. Like I know anybody who’s got the wherewithal to drop a lot of money on a new piano for a rock and roll church.

 Well, it turns out that I do know someone like that (although I didn’t realize it at the time), and that person happened to be in that room. They walked up to me after we ended the meeting and said, “I’d like to buy the church a piano. Go pick one out.”

I picked my jaw up off the floor, made sure we were on the same page, as in Do you know how much pianos cost when you don’t buy them from the hardware store? We were, and they were fine, and they repeated: “Go. Pick one out.”

 The story on that end broadens, as this person found a tremendous amount of joy in doing something so outrageously gracious and generous. They feel very connected, very much like they were able to step up and be part of what God is doing in a specific, unique way. It’s been a joy to see that joy develop.

And for me? Well, I went through an unexpectedly agonizing and stressful two weeks of piano shopping. Spending someone else’s money is harder than you might imagine…when it’s a lot of money, and a long-term investment that should last longer than I do at the church. I visited the benefactor’s store of choice and test-drove several instruments; I spent, all told, about four hours playing and thinking and learning.

Pianos are like people – they respond in different ways and they have specific and unique character, as well as distinctive sounds. Some pianos fit my hands and feel beautifully responsive; some are cold and distant.

There was one that kept calling me back. It was gentle and easy, less bright than I usually prefer, but it seemed to be The One. It wasn’t what I thought I was looking for, but I kept coming back to it. It was a good fit. And it was over our planned budget; but our benefactor said, “Get it.”

And so, we did.

It entered the stage on its side…

And so, yesterday was delivered a brand new Kohler and Campbell, 6’1″ shiny black baby grand piano, with beautiful maple side walls and a sweet, sonorous temperament. There were complications with the delivery team – forgotten screws, late arrivals – but after six hours of waiting, I sat down in an empty room in front of a pristine instrument.

I played for ninety minutes, filling the room first with “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus”, and then moving through songs appropriate for the day, being Good Friday; be thou my vision, o sacred head now wounded, amazing love, thank you, you are, jesus, jesus, jesus, how deep the father’s love for us…he loves us…were you there… 

And something came undone within me, some huge grace gushing upon me and within me. It is no secret to some of you that I have been struggling in this season of late, that there are tight cords of darkness pulling around my ankles and darkening my vision. Some of this is the day-to-day rhythm of constant chaos and no margin; bad judgement and simple coincidental clashing of events on my calendar. Because of this physical exhaustion or maybe alongside it, there has been a brittle desperation within me. It harkens back to shame and the accusatory shouting match between all for which I strive (“Keep it together!” “Be good!” “Help people!” “Be a good pastor!” “Be a good teacher!” Help everybody!” “Don’t screw this up!”) and all that would derail and demean me.

Who do you think you are? 
Remember, you are a failure. 
Remember, you ruined your family. 
Remember, your actions have caused great harm to your children. 
Remember, you are just a girl. 
Remember, you’re not really a pastor. 
Remember, all those bad things you have done… 

I could go on. But I won’t. The thing is, I have been suffering inside, and it is not unfamiliar. I have been here before, and it has been irrational, and I have pulled myself out of the pit (with a little help from my friends) and risen above. I know this place. And I think that made it worse; I know this place, and it pisses me off that I am back here again. I want to be past this.

But this is me, the good and bad, all of the history. Moving past and recreating some sort of perfect, high-achieving, middle-aged Beth who doesn’t make mistakes is not really an option.

All that to say this: That in the past few weeks, much has been churning in me. My joy has been gone. I’d rather stay in bed. I write bland, morose poetry littered with curse words.

Getting a piano didn’t make me happy, and that made me mad. I thought getting a piano would fill my heart with joy and gladness, that I would feel blessed and thrilled. Getting the piano didn’t make me feel any of those things. But today, in a darkened room, all by myself, playing that piano filled me to the brim, and overflowed in tears that would not stop. Sorrow and joy leaked out of me; songs flowed out of my fingers, and the incredible privilege of playing an absolutely new instrument unfolded with every note I played. I had the honor of filling the room with sound, perfectly rounded notes vibrating out of brand new strings, keys struck in combinations that were new and fresh, the wood absorbing and reflecting the resonance and echoing off the walls, soaking into the fat brown cushions of 600 chairs. It was not joy-filled; it was not fun. It was sacred and holy and deeply spiritual.

I played songs of worship to the One whose suffering we mark on this day, songs of loss and darkness – but songs whose deeper power are undergirded by the truth of the end of The Story, the resurrection power, the hope of the light that shines, the new mercy of Sunday morning. In those melodies, those unvarnished harmonies, those new sounds, I was healed.

I. was. healed.

I believe I was in the presence of God in a powerful way that afternoon, a “with-ness” that I have never before encountered. It was sanctified, tender and timeless; the One who loves me took me back to the sidewalk in front of an Ohio church and the words of a pastor who assured me that God was not finished with me yet (for the third time in two days I have said or typed these words, unable to hold back the tears…)

In spite of all the wonderful things that have happened in ministry and in our faith community in the past eight years, today was definitive. I felt ordained, felt the heavy hand of God upon my shoulders, felt Him connect the long line of the past ten years to this point, today. It was as if He said, “Hear, woman, the words of the pastor from a decade ago, fulfilled today in this room. I am not finished with you yet.” Breath of God, breathed on me.

I have heard this from human mouths; been refreshed and encouraged by those around me. But I have never before felt and heard it so powerfully as I did today. Which makes sense, because GOD.

Since we moved our church into that building several years ago, leaving the high school behind, I have never felt settled. For the first six months, I struggled with working there. I felt like I didn’t belong. Something was off; somehow I didn’t fit. I was unbalanced.

Friday, I felt the last piece of the puzzle click silently into place, a seamless fit in the kingdom of glory and grace that is this messy, beautiful bride. My hands, which He blessed, filled the room with beautiful music. The purest, deepest place in my heart poured out and rang into the room, driven by the strength of my hands and four decades of the familiar language of harmony and melody; and that pure, deep place is not darkness, not shame and sin, not the exposed imposter.

What is deepest and purest within me is Christ; Christ in me, the hope of glory, the One whose sin covers me, the one who has made all things new, the One who called me, the One who protected me, the One who redeems me, who said neither will I condemn you, now go and sin no more, the One who calls me His. I cried out to Him today and I cried real tears and anointed that piano with them, and I found my place. I needed no one to tell me, “Oh, that was so beautiful!” because my story and my song found its way to my Creator and He was pleased, and He gave me back my joy and the assurance that I am, indeed, called.

I am, indeed, His.

I am, indeed, so thankful. Called and confirmed in a way that I never anticipated, could not have planned or orchestrated. Something changed in me today.

God is like that, is He not? Full of surprises. He finds us in the most unexpected places, at the end of ourselves.

He loves His children.

I will not boast in anything 
No gifts, no power, no wisdom 
But I will boast in Jesus Christ 
His death and resurrection.

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