June 1, 2003



Chopsticks (6/1/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Ignacy Paderewski was born in Poland in 1860. He is sometimes remembered as the first Prime Minister of newly independent Poland, a position he accepted in 1919. But he is much better remembered as a pianist and composer. In fact, after only ten months as Prime Minister, Paderewski resigned his position as a statesman to return to his real love of life—music.

As you can imagine, Paderewski’s piano concerts were huge events. His virtuosity was universally proclaimed, and people would stand in long lines to get tickets to a Paderewski concert. Like most great musicians, the time immediately preceding a concert was very important to Paderewski. It was a time for silence and meditation, a time for getting all the stray thoughts out of his head and focusing at the challenging task ahead.

We can only imagine what thoughts were going through the minds of a young boy’s terrified parents as their child quietly slipped away and climbed onto the stage. In the moments immediately before Paderewski was scheduled to being his concert, the boy made his way to the great concert grand piano, and began a rough rendition of the only song he knew—chopsticks.

Most of the crowd considered this a sacrilege. This was the piano Paderewski was about to play! This was the venue for one of the world’s greatest piano virtuosos to display his remarkable skill! And this young whippersnapper makes a joke of the whole thing by playing chopsticks! Surely the concentration of the great Paderewski would be destroyed!

While a few in the audience politely laughed as the young lad began his song, the event is more remembered for those in the crowd who began yelling at the stage: Who is that boy? Where are his parents? Somebody stop him! Get him away from there!
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But that fateful evening is best remembered for what happened next. Paderewski suddenly appeared from the side of the stage where the aspiring young pianist-wanna-be could not see him. Dressed in full concert attire, Paderewski quietly walked over behind the boy, and whispered to him, “Keep on playing. Don’t stop.” And then, reaching his arms around either side of the boy, the famous pianist started improvising a countermelody around the child’s simple version of chopsticks.

I love that story. I read about that incident years ago, and when I rediscovered the story a few weeks ago, I found I could not get it out of my head. It haunted me, in a nice way. I would be reading, and the story would come to mind. I would be watching television, and realize I’d missed half the plot because I was daydreaming about Paderewski and the child. I even lay awake at night, not agitated, but daydreaming about the story.

Well, clearly, I needed therapy. And I had two choices. I could either lay out the big bucks and go see a professional; or I could put my thoughts in writing, and inflict them on my unsuspecting congregation in the form of a sermon. Guess which route I decided to take…

And so, Dr. Freud, here are my not-so-random thoughts on that wonderful little story. I think it resonated with me so profoundly because there are layers and layers of truth hidden inside the story. As I see it, there are four main characters we should take a look at: Paderewski, the child, the parents and the crowd. Since I envision myself as the child in this story, I’ll save him until later. Let’s begin with the parents.

If you are a parent, I imagine you can identify with those horrified parents in the story. Whose child is this? Where are the parents of that young fellow who just hit a baseball through my living room window? Who ran through my prize flower garden looking for her lost cat? Where are her parents?

It’s funny. If some young person does something heroic—say pulling some young child out of the path of a car—people don’t say, “Where are his parents? I sure wish they could have seen that!” But if that same child does something less noble, people will indeed say, “Where are his parents? They should see this!”

So I think we can identify with those parents in the story. Who hasn’t lost track of their child for a few anxious moments? You look around, and they’re gone. You frantically turn you head in all directions, fearing the worst, praying for the best, and then…and then you see junior making a fool of himself and of you in front of a large and angry crowd.

Let’s leave the parents for the time being, in their state of wild-eyed panic, and take a look at the crowd. The crowd can only be described as angry and self-righteous. The crowd takes on the role the crowd usually takes in good stories. They are a sort of plot foil. They serve as the mindless gang that acts in the expected way—which is all wrong. In the Bible, the crowd is almost always viewed negatively, whether they are pressing in on Jesus to be healed—for all the wrong reasons; or whether they are crying out for his crucifixion. You know—it’s not really a theological thing—everybody’s doing it.

And the crowd in our story has a right to be angry. They paid good money to be at this special event, and here is this kid raining all over their parade. And you can bet they’re all thinking the same thing: That’s the way it is with kids today. They don’t’ respect anybody of anything. Why, when I was young I’d have gotten a good beating for behaving like that, and you can be sure it would have been well deserved. Why, somebody ought to knock that little brat into the middle of next week.

Let’s leave the crowd for now. At this point, I picture about a thousand angry patrons of the arts, and in their midst two mortified parents who wish they could crawl under the seats, grab junior, and quickly move to a far away town where they would never be seen again.

And now, the child. I said that I envision myself as the child in this story. I suppose that is because I have a history of climbing out on a limb and realizing the only way down is to fall or be rescued. And I have my share of both results. And I also envision each of you as the child in this story. I mean, the parents are powerless characters, and none of you are powerless. The crowd is rude and self-righteous, so you certainly can’t play that role. And Paderewski—well, I hope we all turn out to be Paderewskis at one time or another in our lives, but stories are more fun when the main character is getting into trouble, so like it or not, you and I have to play the child in this little drama.

The first thing that strikes me about the child is his innocence. This is not a bad kid. He hasn’t just knocked off some drug store on the way to the concert. He is just a happy-go-lucky little fellow who sees that big piano sitting in the spotlight on that glorious stage and thinks to himself, “Ah! A piano. I think I remember that little song aunt Dorothy taught me when we visited Detroit last summer. I think she called it chopsticks. How did that go…”

The closest I can come to this episode in my real life would be when I was about six years old and lived on the edge of my Indiana hometown on a major highway. This was in the days when the interstates were just being built, and the highway in front of our house carried all the truck traffic that traveled north and south through Indiana.

Now, I knew I wasn’t supposed to cross the highway, but there was this gigantic billboard across the road. And this was your typical billboard from that era. It was thirty or forty feet high, and had a sign on each side. The signs almost met at the end nearest the highway, and they spread apart, forming a sort of narrow “V” shape as they stretched away from the highway and into a cornfield.

There were these criss-crossing boards between the signs, intended to support the monstrosity in the brisk Indiana wind. It seemed to me that those supports would be ideal for climbing. In fact, my brother and I both agreed that nothing would make our mother happier than for her to look out the kitchen window and seeing the two of us sitting on top of that billboard, legs dangling over the side.

Well, she was just tickled pink. Not only had we dodged trucks going 65 miles per hour to get to the billboard, we had somehow managed to climb to the top, and sat there waiting for her to discover us. I imagine the boy in the story felt the same way we did. He probably suspected that he shouldn’t venture onto the stage, but my guess is he thought mom and dad would sure be proud once they heard him cranking out a little chopsticks for such a large audience.

By the way—my brother and I learned some valuable lessons that day, not the least of which is the fact that it is easier to climb up than it is to climb down. It wasn’t until our mother, along with some panic-stricken neighbors, were about to call the fire department, that we gathered the courage to struggle our way back down to earth.

Anyway, my point is that we go through life not realizing that we are getting ourselves in trouble, but often find ourselves in need of rescue. And I imagine that’s the way it was with the child in the story. He’s banging out chopsticks the best he can, but the reaction of the crowd surprises him. When I was sitting on top of that billboard, I expected my mother to come running across the highway with some sort of gold medal, calling all the neighbors to see the wonderful thing her child had done. There would probably be some John Phillips Souza gloriously playing in the background. That’s not quite the way it happened.

I think I know how that child felt when he sat at that piano. He remembered learning that chopsticks song, back at Aunt Dorothy’s house, and he distinctly recalled that everybody was amazed at his talent. Oh Billy, that’s good! Look at Billy play the piano! Billy, you’re so wonderful!

I imagine the child in the story was as surprised by the sound of the crowd as I was by the look on my mother’s face. But what can you do? You’re already on top of the billboard, playing the piano in front of everybody, and there is no way down, no way off the little stage you’ve created for yourself. So you just sit there like you know what you’re doing. You keep going, hoping that somehow this hopeless situation will turn out okay.

Enter Paderewski. To be honest, my little story about the billboard doesn’t have a Paderewski, which makes me all the more aware of how nice to would be to have a Paderewski come along at the right time. I just sort of walked off the stage with the crowd still booing. I suppose my mother could be considered the Paderewski in my little drama, since she did manage to forgive me once she got her color back.

But the lad in the story had something wonderful happen. He had hung himself out to dry for all to see, and just when he realized he was in over his head, a soft voice tells him to keep playing, and a pair of hands start working with him, making his simple little effort come alive.

I guess it won’t come as a surprise that I view Paderewski as a sort of godlike character in this story. The first thing I think about Paderewski is that he is surely disappointed when, as he is mentally preparing himself for his concert, he looks out and sees a child banging away at his piano. And I imagine God is frequently disappointed when you and I are playing chopsticks, or climbing billboards, or doing many of the other countless other activities that fill our lives.

At this point it is all up to Paderewski. He can onstage and say, “Be gone you little spawn of Satan. As for you people in the audience, go home. The mood has been broken!” Or he could simply slip out the back way, his mood destroyed, and leave the crowd to figure out on its own that the concert has been cancelled. Or he could do what he did. He redeems the situation. He takes a bad situation and makes it okay. In fact, he makes it something good.

Consider the parents. They are sitting there thinking to themselves that there’s never a cyanide tablet handy when you need one. And a moment later, they are the parents of a child who has performed on stage with the great Paderewski.

Consider the crowd. They are probably a bit embarrassed at the way they behaved, but they have to be feeling pretty good about things too. The concert will go on, and they learn a valuable lesson about life, namely, that kindness and good manners are essential elements of everybody’s life, whether you are a concert pianist or the guy who picks the gum off the bottom of the chairs after the concert.

And most importantly, consider the child. After all, he represents you and me in the story. He is innocent—but perhaps not as innocent as he would like to think—and just when the walls close in and all seems hopeless, he hears a quiet voice assuring him everything will be okay. And then, it is no longer his hands alone that are working in this world, but another pair of greater and more talented hands, working in unison with his, and giving value to his work that he couldn’t have dreamed of before.

That really is an almost perfect metaphor for life in this world. We go forth doing the best we can, but almost inevitably, we feel at some point as if we are playing chopsticks to an unappreciative crowd. And we start to doubt ourselves. We start to doubt the value of what we are doing. And just when we think we could not possibly be more alone, we hear that voice. And we sense those hands. And the voice says, “Keep playing, don’t stop.” And sure enough, we keep playing, and somehow, someway, things work out.

I should perhaps leave the story alone at this point, because it has said all it needs to say. But there is one other thing I think we should consider. When I said that Paderewski serves as a godlike character in this story, that does not necessarily mean he must represent the one and only Eternal God of the universe. That is the way we’ve looked at it up until now, but let’s take Paderewski down a notch or two, to where he is just a simple human being like you and me.

One of the most important images in theology is the notion that human beings are created in the image of God. Imago-Dei is the theological term. Most theologians dismiss the idea that this has anything to do with how we look. If we think that being created in the image of God means that God looks like us, we have it all wrong. That is just the opposite. That is creating God in the image of humankind.

Theologians tell us that we are made in the image of God because like God, we can love, and create. And Paderewski is a godlike figure in this story because he sees a difficult situation, and with his love he creatively addresses the situation. This scene had disaster written all over it. And one person made it all okay.

I think we have that same sort of power—each one of us. We shape the world around us with our thoughts, words and deeds. We are frighteningly powerful creatures, you and I. We are human beings, created in the image of God, and with our gentle whispers and our powerful hands we can do wonderful things in this world.