July 24, 2016
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #445: A Mess, a Duck, and a Bridge
When I was in Arizona, for nearly two years I led worship in the church services until given an ultimatum by the elders: stop associating with the Messianic group (which our elders claimed were not saved) or stop leading worship. Though I articulated why I knew our elders were wrong (I’d personally interviewed a dozen of the Messianics, who all claimed the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross for their salvation), they held fast, so I stepped down. Scripture teaches to not forsake gathering with Believers, not that I MUST lead worship.
Now at Golden State, I noticed they, too, have two separate churches that meet, one a nondenominational service, and one an Apostolic service. On the essentials, the churches agree, but you’d never know that if you heard some guys speak.
I attended both services my first week here. I loved the lively duo-guitar worship team in the nondenominational services on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, but the Apostolic service on Sunday mornings was shockingly bare, just one guy singing with no accompaniment. Not surprisingly, the service was sparsely attended by a group of nine. That first service was when God prompted me to pray for my neighbor, Sako, and at the same time gave me a vision that someday that service would fill the chow hall to capacity (of over 100).
Listening to the songs in the Apostolic service made me feel sorry for them. I imagined it being like coming across a duck with a broken leg, and you happen to be an expert wildlife veterinarian. I told the Lord, “Let’s fix that duck” and volunteered to accompany their services.
On the other hand, it seemed all my friends attended the other services, which were running closer to forty attendees every service. I lived with one of the elders in my first dorm and with two in the dorm I’m in now, Art being one of them. When I’d ask if anyone had an issue with me attending both of the churches’ services, no one seemed to voice an objection, though they’d sometimes “caution” me or say they “hadn’t had a good experience” with someone/something in the other church. The worship leaders in the nondenominational services also told me that I just wouldn’t be allowed to play keyboard in their services as long as I continued to play keyboard for the Apostolic services. I told them how I came to this prison to serve in whatever way God wanted me to, but that I didn’t feel His calling to play keyboard at this time, just to help out the Apostolic service.
Complicating all of this was the fact that one of the key elders from La Palma (who had pressured me out of leading worship years ago) arrived at Golden State and began attending services. Though I’d seen how God clearly used that time in my life to build my character, the wound was still a bit raw, and I felt some misgivings toward him. The Holy Spirit prompted me to address the issue with the man so that we would have nothing between us. I began attending a Bible study he started hosting at yard rec time, and afterwards, we got into a knockdown, drag-out fistfight. Well, that’s how I envisioned it going down.
What actually happened? I told him I appreciated his message and that though we hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye in the past, I didn’t want there to be anything that lingered between us. He confessed to not being too thrilled to see me here either but added that God had told him big things were going to happen because I’m here. We had a good laugh over the fact that Satan was probably feeling defeated right then.
I started attending the nondenominational church’s choir practice and now teach harmonies there. I petitioned the chaplain for permission to hold a similar practice for the Apostolics (me and the worship leader only!), and when it was granted, we invited all the other church’s guys to our practice, too, so they could have more practice time.
Another former piano teacher attending these choir practices tried accompanying during the practice times to see if he could assist with the services, but he struggled. I tried to help him with keeping in rhythm, but either he was lying about teaching piano in the past or all his former students must now be terrible at rhythm too. When it became increasingly obvious that the man just would not work out with the worship team, my dear friend (and now a young man I’m mentoring) Daniel, who leads worship, asked me to join them. God gave me the freedom to accept.
Ever notice how everyone assumes a tall guy plays basketball and wants to play? In prison, everyone assumes that because I can play piano that I must really want to. I do not, unless no one else is able to do so. I much prefer helping the leadership, preparing the choir, or getting guys prepared to be in business.
Eventually, after a few practices, Daniel said he’d been waiting on the elders to approve me and “pray me into service.” I asked Art about it in our dorm, but he said he hadn’t heard about it, but he’d take it up with the other elders.
The next church service, the elders confirmed my selection, and then my brother, Art, now one of my best friends I’ve met in prison, prefaced my “pray-in” with some nice words about me. Then, all of the elders placed their hands on me to commission me for service in this Local Body of Believers, and Art prayed for me. His kind words of affirmation, speaking of my godly character, servant’s heart, and generosity, moved me to tears.
I am grateful for the opportunity to be back playing the piano, for sure, but no one there fully grasped the significance of the moment as I did. For me, this moment was four years in the making, and though I was willing to be ostracized again for the sake of standing up for unity, both churches have embraced me and just let me serve where God wants me to serve.
Recently, both elder boards initiated a combined prayer time and asked me to join them. I said, “Oh, me, the rebel?” and the elder who had ousted me years ago replied, “No, we call you the Bridge-Builder now.”
God is good. My reputation is His! May I be faithful.