A poet of a bygone era once asked,
Do you believe in Rock-n-Roll, And can music save your mortal soul?
For years I just thought that was a meaningless lyric, (much like the other lines in that iconic song),[*] but I do believe I caught a little bit of religion as I played rhythm guitar with The Ruling Elders two Sunday’s ago.
I’ve made music in a variety of settings—I’ve sung war protest songs in an American Legion Hall, in Gonzales, California, and I’ve sung sacred choral music in Soviet workers’ union halls in Moscow, Yalta and in the city then known as Leningrad. I’ve performed on the French horn, the Trumpet, the penny whistle, the guitar, the bass, and my God-given baritone voice. But it wasn’t until I was on the Montclair Presbyterian Church chancel, strumming a borrowed Telecaster, that music saved my soul.
For one thing, the music gave me a sense of euphoria that bordered on transcendent, but more than that I felt healed by the music on that Sunday.
I was the student chaplain during my senior year at Westmont College, and in that capacity one of my responsibilities was to organize quarterly student-lead chapel services. At the first such service, played my guitar, leading 1200 of my fellow Westmont Students in song, after which the Chaplain, who was a mentor of mine, told me I was never to play my guitar in chapel again. I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but for whatever reason, he didn’t feel as if my strumming met the standard of excellence necessary for a Westmont chapel service, and besides I don’t think he liked they way I danced as I played my guitar.
After that, I came close to putting my guitar in a closet and never picking it up again.
My mentor’s criticism came at a time when I had been playing guitar for nearly ten years. I’d led singing in all sorts of settings, and no one ever had complained—quite the opposite, in fact. It’s funny though, how after years of praise for my guitar playing ability, one negative comment nearly drew my strumming and fretting days to a close. I only persisted on the guitar because my then girlfriend,[†] my parents, and my older brother all convinced me I was good enough to keep playing. Also, at the time I was helping out with my church’s youth group during the school year and I was engaged in camping ministry during the summer, and the guitar was an important tool in both lines of work.
So I’ve kept at the guitar and in almost three decades since my final year in college exactly two people have complained about my skills when playing in public, yet I have been haunted by the Chaplain’s words.[‡] Part of me still doubts my skill and the propriety my playing.
Except that’s now how I felt two Sundays ago. Two Sundays ago, I felt entirely happy. I wasn’t playing any better or any worse than I usually do, but I felt accepted and loved by the congregation, by my fellow band members, by the Music, and by the God who composes the symphony of existence.
I have no idea how I’ll feel the next time I pick up a guitar in the sanctuary during celebration, but I will forever be grateful for the joy of playing with the Ruling Elders in worship, for the healing grace of music, for the MPC family’s warm embrace, and for the loving grace of God, who heals us with music and loving community.
Thank you, dear Montclair Presbyterian Church.
[*] I mean think about it: “I was a lonely teenage broncing buck/with a pink carnation and a pickup truck/ but I knew I was out of luck the day the music died”—sweet imagery and wordsmithery, but what does it mean?
[†] Who I had the good sense and better fortune to marry (we’ll be celebrating 27 years of marriage in a few months).
[‡] The fact that my memories of both complaints are both vivid and raw attests to the fact that I still carry the chaplain’s criticisms with me.