pianist-in-rumpled-uniform lacked verve -- the sweat-soaked fellow
on the piano stool seemed distracted. His knee banged the bottom
of the electric piano, knocking the hymnal from its slot. The
congregants in the front pew, dressed in desert camouflage and
armed with assault rifles, chuckled. The pianist muttered something
about a mad dash back to camp from a meeting downtown in Baghdad's
doors swung open. Two young MPs ambled in, their boots shedding
dust picked up on patrol in the city's tough western outskirts.
A contractor, glancing at his watch, quietly placed his submachine
gun on the pew as the priest nodded to the pianist.
So the pianist
played. Correction: He plunked. He plunked the plunk of the unprepared,
a guy out of sync and sight-reading on the fly. He thumped halfway
through the first verse, with an awkward, improving accuracy,
then (energized by the music) he leaned into the last heavy chords
as the congregation (a surprisingly upbeat choir, the pianist
thought -- tired bodies, vibrant souls) asked the Giver of immortal
gladness to "fill us with the light of day."
down, three to go -- Lord help me.
summer day has plenty of light, especially when the heat cracks
125 degrees. No doubt the lyrics of Henry van Dyke's "Joyful
joyful we adore thee," which ask God "to melt the clouds
of sin," reflect the poet's experience with winter in New
Jersey. The lyrics, however, hold no more irony than the act of
armed worship in a war zone. Sing them with Beethoven's tune,
and -- especially when supported by a quality accompanist -- you'll
glimpse the "joy divine."
As for armed
worship, better the irony of evident weapons than hidden anger,
veiled hate or secret cynicism.
surprises. The last thing I thought I'd do in Iraq was play piano
in church. I didn't think about music at all during the deployment
prep for my tour in Iraq. I didn't think about church, either.
I did pray that my family remained safe in my absence.
operating base had a chapel. The first time I checked it out --
on a Friday, about one o'clock, my second week in Iraq -- I caught
the end of a Muslim prayer service. A non-com from Philadelphia
was stacking prayer rugs in the corner. He pointed to a list of
Christian services and encouraged me to attend.
I made the
next Sunday service. The congregation didn't have an accompanist,
so we sang a capella. Rather, we croaked a capella. After three
weeks of raspy "voice-only," a British colonel complained
to our chaplain, Reese Hutcheson. "We must have a musician,"
the colonel said in a clipped English accent. Hutcheson surveyed
his flock and asked: "Can anyone play? You'll have to fill
in until the new chaplain's assistant arrives in two months."
was the last time I'd practiced hymns for a church service, I
slowly raised my hand.
said, "You've just volunteered."
as a Baghdad church musician -- 10 weeks, until relieved by the
chaplain's assistant -- was not distinguished. If I found 15 minutes
during the week to peruse the music, then I'd lucked out. Free
time was that scarce.
on Sunday proved to be no burden -- quite the opposite. Plunking
on Beethoven, picking through "Holy Holy Holy" became
the week's subtle, unexpected center, a moment of rough but sincere
melody in trying, troubling circumstances.
It was an
hymn asks God to "Teach us how to love each other, Lift us
to the joy divine."
coming year receive this greatest gift -- for such love and joy
is true peace.