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The man who played Tony’s piano

Posted: July 31, 2014 12:16 p.m.
Updated: August 1, 2014 5:00 a.m.

On the Maine island where Wife Nancy and I spend time, Church of Our Father sits nestled among the hills near a small harbor called Hulls Cove.

It’s an Episcopal church, but it doesn’t fit the image many people might have of that denomination. Episcopalian congregations are often known for their formality, for their liturgies and prayer books and services that follow a prescribed ritual. Some people even hint that Episcopalians are formal to the point of being stuffy -- “God’s frozen chosen,” they jokingly refer to themselves at times.

Church of Our Father is anything but formal. Parishioners seldom dress up, with shorts and golf shirts far outnumbering coats and ties. The bulletin implores visitors not to be overwhelmed by the “sit-stand-kneel” parts of the service.

And if God decided to shine a spotlight down from heaven on one single part of this little Victorian church, it might be the music.

Lord, what music there is. Church members love to sing, and they use not only the standard Episcopalian hymnbook but also a supplemental songbook that contains contemporary tunes of worship -- “praise music,” as it has come to be known.

The man who’s in charge of this music is named Tony, and unless you’ve attended a few services at Church of Our Father, you can’t realize what an integral part of the worship experience he is.

The songs he chooses each week strike the perfect chord, and everyone is mesmerized by his piano artistry during the Holy Eucharist, or communion. The sweet sounds of worshipful music flow down Tony’s fingers and into that piano, and when they sweep out of that baby grand, they’re just … well, they’re just holy.

If you watch Tony play, you know just how much he enjoys the experience, how much he relishes his enrichment of the worship services. He’s almost possessive of the music in a most unselfish and generous way.

All this introduction leads me to a simple story I want to tell you, one I remember from a while back.

Don’t expect some earth-shattering revelation here. This would never make headlines or cause people to gasp. TV news anchors would have no interest in it. It’s just a simple observation I made recently while sitting in a pew at Church of Our Father.

As communion was being served that day, and Tony was playing the quiet music that’s such a part of the Eucharist experience, a man ambled down the aisle, approached Tony and motioned to him. It was obvious he wanted to play the piano.

I was sitting near the front of the church, and I watched this with interest. It was clear that Tony knew the man but had no idea what was happening -- it wasn’t part of the worship plan -- and he was at a loss as to what to do. He paused, and you could see the concern in his eyes.

And then he stood up and relinquished his bench, and the other man sat down and began playing. Tony sat just behind him, in a chair.

This other man -- I don’t know his name, and I don’t intend to ask -- placed his hands gently on the keyboard and began playing, adequately if not perfectly. He started with “Let Us Break Bread Together,” a sort of universal communion song.

He had looked apprehensive as he approached Tony moments earlier. But now, caught up in his music, he appeared to relax. His eyes closed at times, and he moved from song to song almost effortlessly. Nobody would have compared him to Van Cliburn or other great pianists -- and he didn’t play with the feeling of Tony -- but his music was fine.

Really fine.

As the last people drifted down to receive the sacraments of communion, Tony tapped the man on the shoulder. He stood, and he walked back to his pew, and he had a look of satisfaction and relief on his face.  Tony sat down to finish the music, and the service ended with one of those rousing hymns that the parishioners of Church of Our Father have come to love.

As a newspaper reporter for decades, perhaps I notice and obsess over things some people might overlook. Or maybe I’m just making too much of a simple occurrence. I don’t know what really happened that day with the unusual change of pianists. I could ask Tony, and he would tell me.

But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to believe it happened like this:

I’m going to believe that when the man approached the piano -- Tony’s piano, the parishioners might consider it, though it was a gift to the church from a summer resident -- Tony knew there was a need to be filled. I like to think this man had a need to play worshipful music that day, and Tony, a spiritual man by anyone’s standards,  knew it.

I like to think that this incident is what the church -- the universal church, not just Church of Our Father -- is about, that there was a person who needed something and  received it. I like to think that Tony, in allowing this man his time at the keyboard,  was as much a minister as a pianist that day. I like to think that the man went home and felt very, very good about his playing that day, about “Let Us Break Bread Together” and the other songs.

That’s what I like to think.

I could, of course, ask Tony if I am reading too much into this.

Certainly I could ask him that.

But I don’t intend to.


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