If you asked me how I came to be the piano player in the local prison, I would have to answer honestly “because the other guy got paroled.”
My stint as a prison musician was right about 25 years ago, when I was still a comparatively young age of about 24. It is good news, I suppose, that it was not actually a life of crime that led me to that place. I know, I know, everyone behind bars claims to be innocent, but in my case I actually was.
I was there as part of a team of prison ministers, and we went in early on Sunday mornings to hold worship services. If you have never been behind the foreboding bars of a prison, believe me, it is an ominous thing. There is always the “what if while I am here they suddenly find out I once (fill in the blank with random transgression) and decide to not let me out?” fear, along with the realization that anyone at any time could decide to stab you with a sharpened spoon.
But the men inside this particular facility were pretty nice fellows, really, and we quickly grew to love them.
One of them was a pianist, and he played the music for us each Sunday as we sang the old hymns of the faith with a hundred or so men. But our pianist, as it turns out, had only been a rather low-level criminal on the outside, and after several months, he got paroled.
And I, I had been taking piano lessons for about three whole months ...
For a week, all day every day I practiced three or so hymns that we sang regularly. By that fateful Sunday morning I could literally play them with my eyes closed. And so it was that, as I sat down at the piano bench, I did so brimming with confidence, knowing I was about to become a legend behind bars. In my mind I could see hardened sinners flooding to the altar under the powerful anointing of my spirit-filled piano hymnody.
I did not count on Brother Irvin.
Our song leader was one of the finest men who ever lived, a giant in my eyes. He loved the Lord fiercely and had a booming voice that could shake the rafters of a cathedral.
He also sang songs in his own special key, regardless of what key they were actually written in.
And thus it was that as I began to play “Amazing Grace” in the key of C, he began to sing and lead in some other key far, far removed from that.
And since he sang it beautifully with the power and confidence of years of experience while I played with the realization that I was only there since “Freddy the Fence” had gotten paroled, everyone quickly followed his lead instead of mine.
I played every note correctly; and yet it sounded like something from Luke chapter sixteen. I could almost hear the rich man crying out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to put his fingers in my ears, for I am tormented by this sound!”
My budding piano career came to an abrupt end that day. But I did leave with something very valuable, that being the realization that if everyone is not on the same key, the resulting sound is discordant and unpleasant. And while this is pretty important for a prison pianist to know, it is even more important for the church to understand.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul said, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” The strength of a church is the unity caused by everyone knowing and submitting to the written Word of God and getting along with each other on that basis. Paul later had to tell two warring women, Euodias and Syntyche, to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
Society is more divided and discordant than ever; the New Testament church must therefore be a haven of refuge founded upon universal allegiance to the truths of God’s Word.
Freddy the Fence ended up getting re-arrested, by the way, and was soon back at the piano bench for us, happily making beautiful music in whatever key brother Irvin chose to sing. It felt pretty odd to walk up to a man in prison and say, “It is great to have you back!” but I really meant it, from the bottom of my heart.