Piano Tuning the Human Heart & the Good Infection

John C. Rankin

During my college years my father had a baby grand piano from his aunt in Nebraska shipped to our home in Connecticut. It was in need of being tuned, and I happened to be home on vacation when the piano tuner arrived.

As I watched him, I also peppered him with a few questions. He explained that the piano strings over time would relax their tautness, and thus be out of tune. This piano had been through an extended period of disuse, so the piano tuner said he could not tune it in one visit. It would take him several visits.

The reason was due to the nature of the natural gut piano strings. He would turn a screw on each string a small amount to tighten it. But if he turned it too far, it would snap. Since he could not turn the screws far enough on the first visit to return the strings to their proper tautness, he let them remain for a period of days at their new tautness. During that time, the piano strings would adjust accordingly, and be ready to be tightened again on the next visit. Time provided for its repair from the strain of being tightened by a screwdriver, until it was ready for another tightening. The end result – a tuned piano ready for the trained musician to play its beauty.

The human heart, affected by the broken trust of sin is not dissimilar. If we try to return it too quickly, too jarringly, to its tune of the order of creation, it too will snap. Hope will be forfeit and redemption thwarted. We need to know how the Holy Spirit works as the master piano tuner, patiently and relentlessly tuning us in the right direction, and at a speed no faster than our brokenness can withstand. If we pound neglect this wisdom, we can snap the strings of the human heart. If we touch the hope of the image of God, we serve the work of the Holy Spirit.

C.S. Lewis speaks of “the good infection” in Mere Christianity. I like this metaphor, because it reverses our usual expectations of language. We normally think of infection only in the negative sense of infectious and toxic diseases. Jesus also played with a similar reversal of language in Matthew 13:33 (and Luke 13:20-21), the shortest of his parables:  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Elsewhere in Scripture where it uses the metaphor of yeast, or leaven, it represents the polluting influence of sin in our lives. Here Jesus reverses that motif, to show how powerful the Good News is when preached on its own terms. Do we believe it and live it? Are we injecting hope into a hopeless world? I imagine it this way — God has given each of us a large hypodermic needle full of the hope of the Gospel, and our mission to is to find any cooperative fatty tissue and give injection.


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House of Lords 17 October 2017

Text of John Rankin’s address on the occasion of the 500th annive5rsary of the Reformation.