The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. – Exodus 15:2 NIV
Luther Jack Riley, L.J. for short, was not a musical man. His wife, Mammie, grew up singing, and when they visited her family, the whole clan gathered around the piano to sing for hours. But not L.J. – he sat to the side and listened, never singing a note.
At the age of nine, Lavawan, the youngest of L.J. and Mammie’s four children, found out his dad had a plan. Even though no one in the family had ever expressed a desire to play a musical instrument, for some inexplicable reason, his father decided to buy a piano.
Lavawan waited on pins and needles for the piano to be delivered. Somehow he knew, as if by instinct, he’d be able to play it. He’d already begun calling it "my piano.”
Finally the day arrived. It rained hard that day, and the movers covered the wood with plastic sheeting. They rolled the old upright into the living room, and Lavawan’s anticipation grew as they peeled back the plastic. He had such an unusual feeling about it all. He knew before he sat down he could play that piano.
All four children took turns trying to play. One by one, they quit – except Lavawan. Every single day, he spent hours picking out notes. He had no teachers, no lessons, just a tenacious determination to learn.
L.J. worked shift work at the paper mill and often had to sleep during the day. It would be difficult for most people to sleep with a kid banging on the ivories for hours on end, but not L.J.
Lavawan’s mom pulled him aside to tell him she'd noticed something odd. "When you play the piano, your dad sleeps. When you quit, he wakes up."
One day Lavawan knelt down beside his bed and prayed a fervent prayer. “Please, God, if you’ll give me the ability to play, I’ll use it for Your glory the rest of my life.” Within a few months’ time, he could play almost every song the congregation sung at church. He became the church pianist at the age of ten.
Over the next few years, he learned to read and write music fluently. He became a concert pianist, and played for thousands of people. Thousands more sang as he played in worship services. Lillenus Publishing Company has released several books of arrangements for piano by Lavawan Riley.
He testifies, “The call on my life depended on a decision and act of my father totally independent of me. He did not know I would become a pianist and serve in the ministry all these years. I know God guided the steps of my father.”
L.J. Riley passed away a few months ago at the age of 84. Lavawan played for his father’s funeral. While he played, all he could think of was that rainy day many years ago when his daddy felt led by the Holy Spirit to buy a piano.
As he filed past the casket, Lavawan laid his left hand on his father’s lifeless right hand and prayed another fervent prayer. “God, these hands have finished their work. They toiled for years, and now they toil no more. But in my hands, there is still life, and I will use my hands to serve You the rest of my days. Thank you, God, for giving me such a father.”
Lavawan and his wife, Sheila, are dear friends. I’ve been blessed to see him in concert many times. When he plays, the Spirit of God fills the room.
I never knew L.J. Riley. When I asked Lavawan about his dad, he sent along a picture taken two years ago. He looked exactly like I imagined he would – a short, pudgy man in a ball cap with a friendly smile.
Even though we never met, I am grateful to L.J. Riley for his openness to guidance from the Lord. My desire is to be led of the Spirit the same way in every area of my life.
Prayer: Lord, I love You and give thanks for the gift of music. I praise You for my own musical ability, and pray I will be faithful to minister for Your glory. Like Lavawan, I am grateful for my earthly father, but most of all, I thank You for being my heavenly Father. In Jesus’ Name I pray, Amen.
*Originally posted Father's Day, 2004
NEWS! Look for this story in The Best Dad in the World - in bookstores now! (and another one in The Best Grandma in the World!)