by Austin Bay
December 21, 2005
The hymn demanded verve, and with a Beethoven symphonic themeproviding the melody line, power and a touch of harmonic glory should havebeen a musical breeze.
But the pianist-in-rumpled-uniform lacked verve -- thesweat-soaked fellow on the piano stool seemed distracted. His knee bangedthe bottom of the electric piano, knocking the hymnal from its slot. Thecongregants in the front pew, dressed in desert camouflage and armed withassault rifles, chuckled. The pianist muttered something about a mad dashback to camp from a meeting downtown in Baghdad's Green Zone.
The chapel doors swung open. Two young MPs ambled in, theirboots shedding dust picked up on patrol in the city's tough westernoutskirts. A contractor, glancing at his watch, quietly placed hissubmachine gun on the pew as the priest nodded to the pianist.
So the pianist played. Correction: He plunked. He plunked theplunk of the unprepared, a guy out of sync and sight-reading on the fly. Hethumped halfway through the first verse, with an awkward, improvingaccuracy, then (energized by the music) he leaned into the last heavy chordsas the congregation (a surprisingly upbeat choir, the pianist thought --tired bodies, vibrant souls) asked the Giver of immortal gladness to "fillus with the light of day."
One verse down, three to go -- Lord help me.
A Baghdad summer day has plenty of light, especially when theheat cracks 125 degrees. No doubt the lyrics of Henry van Dyke's "Joyfuljoyful we adore thee," which ask God "to melt the clouds of sin," reflectthe poet's experience with winter in New Jersey. The lyrics, however, holdno more irony than the act of armed worship in a war zone. Sing them withBeethoven's tune, and -- especially when supported by a qualityaccompanist -- you'll glimpse the "joy divine."
As for armed worship, better the irony of evident weapons thanhidden anger, veiled hate or secret cynicism.
Life deals surprises. The last thing I thought I'd do in Iraqwas play piano in church. I didn't think about music at all during thedeployment prep for my tour in Iraq. I didn't think about church, either. I didpray that my family remained safe in my absence.
Our forward operating base had a chapel. The first time Ichecked 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 wasstacking prayer rugs in the corner. He pointed to a list of Christianservices and encouraged me to attend.
I made the next Sunday service. The congregation didn't have anaccompanist, so we sang a capella. Rather, we croaked a capella. After threeweeks of raspy "voice-only," a British colonel complained to our chaplain,Reese Hutcheson. "We must have a musician," the colonel said in a clippedEnglish accent. Hutcheson surveyed his flock and asked: "Can anyone play?You'll have to fill in until the new chaplain's assistant arrives in twomonths."
Though 1982 was the last time I'd practiced hymns for a churchservice, I slowly raised my hand.
Hutcheson said, "You've just volunteered."
My stint as a Baghdad church musician -- 10 weeks, untilrelieved by the chaplain's assistant -- was not distinguished. If I found 15minutes during the week to peruse the music, then I'd lucked out. Free timewas that scarce.
Yet playing on Sunday proved to be no burden -- quite theopposite. Plunking on Beethoven, picking through "Holy Holy Holy" became theweek's subtle, unexpected center, a moment of rough but sincere melody intrying, 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 loveand joy is true peace.