Once upon a time,
a little imagination turned emptiness into life abundant.
A vacant corner lot in a grimy urban neighborhood
was transformed into a community center.
The owner of the lot, the builder of the establishment,
wanted to redeem that little plot of land, converting it from an empty lot
--an eyesore--into something, someplace, useful, even enjoyable,
a place where people could gather to eat and drink, to dance and laugh,
to share one another's good news,
and to support one another when the news wasn't so good.
It was a risk; a great risk.
This "club" (as she called it) would be either a sign of uncommon hope
to a neighborhood struggling for each breath,
or it would be a terrible disappointment for its "moving force",
a woman known to the locals as "Ted".
"My name's Theodora, but for heaven's sake, call me Ted."
And she'd offer a hug instead of a handshake.
No one could remember a time when Ted wasn't around;
no one could remember exactly where she'd come from originally.
She appeared to be a woman of some means,
as out of place in that neighborhood as a Subaru Outback,
yet she was so rooted to that section of the city,
its run-down row houses and unpaved alleys,
its crooked porches and over-grown yards...
she was a fixture there, yet somehow beyond it all.
If she had been a curiosity at one time long ago, now she was just a neighbor.
No one was surprised when she invested all she had in that corner lot,
hired a contractor and crew, and built a club.
(I called it a community center, but it was really more of a...
well, frankly, it was like a bar and grill.)
Nothing fancy, but considering how barren the lot had been all that time,
a roof over four sturdy, freshly-painted walls, some tables and chairs, a small kitchen, even some space for dancing, and, for Ted, the piece de resistance,
a bright neon sign in the massive front window...
well, it was special, "a breath of fresh air," Mamie Warfield called it.
"It's about time we had something new around here,"
she said to no one in particular as the doors opened for the first time.
husband Dan said he'd forgotten what fresh paint smelled like.
As Dan entered, he sniffed at the walls.
As he seated himself at the table,
he sniffed at the new red and white checked table cloth.
He picked up the mimeographed menu and sniffed at that,
prompting Mamie to whisper gruffly,
"Oh stop it! You're acting like an old hunting dog! People'll think I married a beagle!"
That first day, half the neighborhood came to Ted's club.
She knew the other half knew the place was open,
because of that bright red neon sign that flashed,
"Your Place, Your Place, Your Place" in fancy script letters.
That sign was about the only thing that glowed in that section of the city,
except for an occasional porch light that kept the streets from total darkness at night.
Ted was glad to see so many come in and look around, even if they didn't order anything or stay more than a minute or two. "They'll be back," she told herself, "and others will come. This will work! I know it will. I've done a good thing here."
Word about "Your Place" spread into other neighborhoods, and business picked up.
The third night it was open, three men got into a fight, someone stole some silverware, and a towel rack was torn off a rest room wall.
Undaunted, Ted told herself these things were bound to happen now and then.
The next night, another fight broke out and more damage was done,
and the next day, Mamie Warfield told Ted that she and her husband
were afraid to come back.
"This must work," Ted insisted.
She posted some rules.
"Some folks just need to be reminded how to behave," she told Mamie.
Just before closing the next night, somebody threw something
and broke Ted's neon sign.
And there was one less light on the block that night.
Clearly this is not how Ted had envisioned her club.
She had imagined people gathering to sit at tables and tell stories.
(She made sure there was no TV in the place.)
She had hoped for laughter, not anger.
She was saddened by the violence she witnessed...
and she was disappointed and frustrated.
She swept up the broken pieces glass tubing that had been her sign,
and she wondered if she'd bother to replace it.
"They can break my sign, but they won't break my spirit,"
she said with jaw set and heart determined.
The next day, after ordering enough food
for two or three days worth of lunches and dinners
(she was afraid to commit beyond that),
she walked down the street to the Warfield's.
She went up the walk to their front steps, climbed the first step, the second,
and skipped the third which had been broken
since Mamie Warfield had taught Ted piano lessons twelve years before.
Ted knocked on the door.
When she had told Mamie her idea, Mamie beamed.
"It'll be some trouble, I guess. But it's worth a try.
Dan can get some help and we'll get it taken care of."
Ted hugged her and said, "I know this is a real sacrifice for you.
I hate to ask it, but I have to try this.
Ted didn't open for lunch that day.
The club's first music arrived early that afternoon.
A borrowed, tired truck delivered the Warfield's borrowed, tired piano.
With great huffing and puffing and grunting and groaning,
Dan and his helpers managed to push the instrument into its new home,
and Ted rewarded them with iced tea,
no little disappointment for Dan's friends who had hoped for something a little stronger. More huffing and puffing on the way out, and the men were gone.
At the door was Mamie.
"Come on, Mamie. You play the club's first song."
"Teddy, I'll play s'long's nobody's here to listen but you.
You know my recital days are long over."
Mamie then realized that for all their huffing and puffing,
the men had forgotten to bring over her piano bench.
She smiled at Ted, rolled her eyes, sighed, and pulled over a chair.
Ted knew Mamie would play "Amazing Grace".
It was the first piece she had heard coming through the Warfield house years before.
She remembered standing on the sidewalk in front of their house,
awed by the devotion and faith she heard through the sound of a piano way out of tune. When Mamie had finished playing that day, Ted had bolted up the steps
and called through the battered screen door, "Will you teach me to play like that?"
"Who's listening to my time with the Lord?" Mamie had called back.
"It's me. Ted."
"Well, I'm gonna pray one more hymn,
then you come in and we'll see about a lesson or two."
Ted stood at the door, patiently, reverently.
Years had passed.
Ted had moved beyond Mamie's lessons, had studied the classics, and played for fun. She had mastered Debussy and Ellington, Joplin and Chopin.
But now, here she was,
listening to Mamie's inspired interpretation of an old American folk tune,
with lyrics one could not help but hear through the untuned instrument
played by crippled fingers.
How sweet the sound!
As the hymn ended,
Mamie remarked about how different the piano sounded outside of her living room. Then she smiled and said, "It's a good thing the Lord's grace taught my heart to sing, 'cause even his grace would have a tough time makin' this old piano
sound worthy of His praise!"
Ted replied, "Tonight we'll find out how amazing grace can be..."
+ + + + + + + + +
Ted began playing as soon as the cook arrived.
She didn't want the first customer to enter without music that night.
She hadn't time to plan any particular repertoire. She just played whatever she felt.
She played hope.
She played thanksgiving.
She played disappointment.
She played fear, and she played freedom.
She played for Mamie
and for Dan, and the guys who moved the piano.
She played for the neighborhood.
She played for the whole city.
She played Gershwin and she played gospel. Brubeck and blues.
And when Dan showed up with the beat-up, scarred piano bench under his arm,
she played "Star Dust" for him.
There was no trouble at the club that night.
No one got angry. Nothing was broken; nothing stolen.
And Ted played her heart out. The neighborhood knew that.
As people arrived at "Your Place" that night, alone or with others,
young or old, friend or stranger, they seemed to hear the music they needed to hear. Some listened quietly, pensively.
Some chatted with the others around their table.
Some laughter interrupted now and then, but Ted didn't mind.
She could perceive a sense of community growing
where once there had been a vacant lot.
"This is working," she announced to herself. "Thank God, this is working."
"Your Place" was made safe and secure that night.
In their coming and going, people felt free to be good neighbors.
At "Your Place" people became one, because one had played from the heart;
because one had been a teacher; because one had sacrificed something dear;
because one had hope.
Around the tables, people broke bread, told stories, shared joy.
Some folks even danced.
And one boy approached Ted as she played and asked,
"Will you teach me to play like that?"
When Ted confessed to Mamie Warfield that she was feeling a little guilty
about keeping her piano much longer than she’d planned,
Mamie said she had her own confession to make.
“Ages ago, when you started your first lessons, I told the Lord I’d make this your piano
if you lived up to the promise I heard in your music.
I suppose the time has come to turn it over to you.
And I’ll bet you wouldn’t mind my hobbling over to play it when the spirit moves?”
Ted's music had poured over this roomful of people,
somehow putting to death the barriers that separated them
and reminding them of all they had in common.
Neighborhood, community, family--all signs that grace continues to amaze,
and that, as Hans Kung puts it, "The Spirit is at work where the Spirit wills"
--not just in the holy city, but any city.
Not just in church, but in the whole world.
Eugene Peterson has paraphrased the first verse of today’s Psalm this way:
Your love, God, is my song, and I’ll sing it!
I take that mean, for me, God’s love is our music and we must play it!
This was a story about the power of music, yes, and about community.
But it is also a story about discipleship,
about how one musician passes the gift of music on to the next.
A child might just as well have asked, “Will you teach me to pray like that?”
Once upon a time, a little imagination turned emptiness into life abundant.
So we follow Jesus, singing his new songs of steadfast love and faithfulness,
and with imagination and feeling, we too shall build community
and glorify God with our music, our words, our very lives.