One autumn morning I was visiting our local music store to price a violin for my son when I noticed a cello next to one of the show cases. It was beautiful. I mentioned the sighting to a friend of mine one day at lunch and told him I was thinking about buying it in hopes that my children and I would be able to have our own string quartet. He was surprised to learn that I had played the cello as a young boy in grade school. On the Sunday morning before Christmas, immediately after my sermon, my congregation presented me with a brand new cello, bow, and padded case. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Soon I was gathering as much information as I could find: sheet music, internet print-outs, vintage cello lesson books, and anything else that sounded like "help." The first lesson I learned, though, was that all the “stuff” could not help me re-learn to play that beautifully lacquered noise box. Unlike riding a bike, it didn’t all come back to me. This instrument screeched, squawked, and screamed. At times I would be so frustrated that I would vow to put it away and never bring it out again.
One day an article divinely appeared in our local newspaper that caught my attention. It was about a woman in a nearby community who played the cello. My wife and I invited her over for an evening meal with hopes that she would offer me some encouraging words of wisdom. When I told her the story of how I had received the cello, she exclaimed, “What a wonderful present for a church to buy their pastor; I’m impressed!” I warmed up on a few scales and made a sappy attempt to play an old hymn before she graciously gave me her counsel: “Keep practicing.” My vain struggle to be a consummate cellist stretched out for over a year.
Learning to play an instrument was different when I was a child: I didn’t know what good music was supposed to sound like. I didn’t know if I was flat or sharp or if my vibrato was right or wrong and, as a child, I really didn’t care. But now (an adult), I was also a pianist, organist, and vocalist-- I knew what decent music was supposed to sound like. And no matter how I tried, I could not create an acceptable sound between that crop of horsehair and those four steel strings.
Finally, one day I prayed and asked God for wisdom. “Lord, I want you to be pleased. I want to glorify you with this music. My desire is not to be famous. Just let me play for you. Let me express my love to you as I worship you with my heart, mind, hands and voice. I can’t do it with out you. Lord, show yourself strong in my hideous weakness and increase my skill for the praise of your glory.”
I committed myself and my instrument to the honor of the Lord and set my hands to work. With renewed zeal, my attention was now on giving the Lord my best; henceforth, my best would require some discipline and labor. Soon, practice sessions became more frequent and my sensitivity to bowing habits and fingering techniques became a little more heightened. I practiced every time my wife and kids went to Wal-Mart, the grocery store, or the library. I played until my fingers hurt, my arms went numb, and my ears bled--well, almost. The cello was no longer housed in its case, but left out in the open, to glare at me and beckon me throughout the day and evening.
Certain Scripture passages motivated me to push myself harder, listen more intently, reevaluate my goals, and raise the quality of my skill.
- 2 Samuel 24:24b ...neither will I offer... unto the LORD my God of that which doth cost me nothing.
- 1 Chronicles 25:3 ...Jeduthun... prophesied with a harp, to give thanks and to praise the LORD.
- Psalm 33:2-4 Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy. For the word of the LORD is upright; and all His work is done in faithfulness.
- Psalm 150:4b “...Praise him with stringed instruments...”
My wife and I recently spent some time ministering to our friends at a local retirement center. She accompanied me on the piano as I played the old hymn “In the Garden” on my cello. God showed up and amazed me when two dozen senior citizens--all hard of hearing--recognized the tune and sang along! It was a delightful time of thoughtful, engaging worship.
As I took the step of faith to give Him my best, I accepted all the necessary pressure He would place on me. It was not an easy task. It didn’t happen overnight. The Lord used that cello to teach me a very important lesson: true worship has a price.
The cello my congregation gave me for Christmas was a perfect gift. It required much of me, but at the same time, it gave much to me. Now I have learned to say with king David, “Neither will I offer… unto the Lord of that which doth cost me nothing." I will always cherish my congregation and their discernment to give such a wonderful Christmas gift - a gift that would teach me the price and joy of true worship.
Timothy Palla is the pastor of Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in the Lucasville/Minford area of southern Ohio. He and his lovely wife, Jennifer, have five children—Drew, Dane, Aidan, Ethan, and Meghan—and have been involved in homeschooling since 1993. You may contact him at [email protected]