The Gospel According to Nathaniel Ayers and Steve Lopez

Nathaniel Ayers lives on the streets of Los Angeles.  Steve Lopez writes a column for the LA Times. While walking through Los Angeles one day, Lopez hears the beautiful sounds of a 2-stringed violin. He follows the music, finds Nathaniel, and quickly learns two things: Nathaniel suffers from schizophrenia - and once attended Juilliard.

The 2009 film, The Soloist, tells the true story of their friendship that develops as the journalist writes a series of columns on the musician.

We live in a time where many question whether or not we can trust journalism. Movies like The Soloist and Spotlight (which I wrote about last year) remind us that good journalism not only still exists but also can open our eyes to view the world differently. To see each other with the compassion of Jesus Christ and not through the lens of our own opinions.

There are many moments in The Soloist that preach the gospel, but one in particular stands out to me. A reader asks Steve to give Nathaniel her cello, which she can no longer play. Steve does as she requests with one condition: he can only play the cello at LAMP, an organization whose goal is to end homelessness and help individuals find safe housing. Nathaniel is upset because he wants to keep the cello with him on the streets. Steve stands his ground, but he does allow Nathaniel to play the cello one time before he takes it to LAMP's headquarters.

So Nathaniel plays Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No.15 in an urban tunnel. Surrounded by the noise of traffic and the rush of people, Nathaniel keeps playing, and Steve keeps listening. By the ending, the music has moved both men to tears and transported the audience beyond the tunnel and around Los Angeles.

Still, Steve stands his ground on the rule: the cello will stay in the safe confines of LAMP. Agitated, Nathaniel clings to the instrument and says, "But this is the perfect music environment."

A confused Steve says, "Here? No. This is a sidewalk."

Many of us would agree with Steve. Why leave a valuable instrument in a noisy, dangerous area instead of a controlled, safe room? 

For Nathaniel, playing the cello out in the open unified  the voices that tormented him and the sounds of the city with the classical pieces he played. He experienced the healing power of music not in the confines of a building but in the wide reality of Los Angeles. Most importantly, he was a participant in the calming of his own soul. Though he still required medication and supervision, and he still heard voices, Nathaniel found a balm in putting his fingers to work on the strings. Anyone who was willing to stop and listen, like Steve, shared his peace--even in the midst of inner & outer chaos.

‘Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’

And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.
— 1 Samuel 16:14, 23

When David played for Saul, the troubled king was not the only one to whom God ministered. David was also able to develop his gifts as one who brought God's peace to life's battles. Later in 1 Samuel, when Saul has turned on David and desires to kill him, David takes comfort in song as he fights his own battles. Where did he learn to sing such songs of confidence? Likely when he sang deliverance over the one from whom he now needs deliverance.

In the body of Christ, we can help one another to experience God's healing grace, and we can receive healing, too. Nathaniel and Steve may not have been David and Saul, but they knew the same power of music. May we all have ears to hear the good news that echoes through life's tunnels and battles--a song of hope.

all good things to each of you,

Pastor Darian

To learn more about this remarkable story, listen to NPR's Fresh Air interview with Steve Lopez.