by Austin Bay
December 21, 2005
The hymn demanded verve, and with a Beethoven symphonic theme
providing the melody line, power and a touch of harmonic glory should have
been a musical breeze.
But the 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 Green Zone.
The chapel 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."
One verse down, three to go -- Lord help me.
A Baghdad 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.
Life deals 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.
Our forward 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
Though 1982 was the last time I'd practiced hymns for a church
service, I slowly raised my hand.
Hutcheson said, "You've just volunteered."
My stint 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.
Yet playing 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 unexpected gift.
Van Dyke's hymn asks God to "Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine."
May the coming year receive this greatest gift -- for such love
and joy is true peace.