This past Lent, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time—I played guitar in church. No, I didn’t just walk in and start jamming to “Shout from the Highest Mountain”—I was invited. And I’m pretty sure that not jamming to “Shout from the Highest Mountain” was implied in the invitation.
The parish my wife Mary Ann works for had a weekly Lenten lectio divina and benediction service followed by a soup supper; they were wonderful evenings of prayer and fellowship. During planning, Mary Ann mentioned they were thinking it might be nice to have some acoustic guitar for the traditional benediction hymns; a cappella can be risky without a choir to help out.
I don’t know if she was already thinking of me or if it was my loud “ahem” followed by a pose with my acoustic air guitar, but I got the gig.
As I stood in the choir loft on the first night a ton of memories came flooding back. Like the night in the choir loft of my childhood parish when steampipe heat and a cloud of incense made me drowsy enough to drop the only guitar pick I had with me and watch it spiral into the pews below.
Fortunately, we lived really close to church; I ran home, grabbed another pick and made it back in time for the next song.
Playing guitar in church meant a lot to me. And it was the happy result of an idea my mother had years earlier (this story gets a little maudlin, so I’ll make it quick).
About two weeks after my fifth birthday, my father’s heart gave out on a New Jersey loading dock (I know, it sounds like the opening of a Bruce Springsteen song). The short version is: Dad died, I shut down, I eventually showed interest in the guitar, Mom signed me up for lessons and in so doing pretty much saved my life. Seriously. Playing guitar is one of the few really vivid memories I have after my father died.
Those guitar lessons eventually led to joining the parish folk group when I was 11 or 12, which led to several years of—you guessed it—jamming to “Shout from the Highest Mountain” and other hits from Hymnal for Young Christians.
Yes. I used the word, “folk.” The f-bomb of liturgical music.
Say what you want about those old guitar Masses; without them I may very well have spent my after-school hours doing things I’d be regretting more right now than I regret playing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” as the Communion meditation a few times.
Yes, THAT “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” And no, I didn’t sing it; Lorraine or Joanne sang it, depending on who was there that week. Listen, it’s a well-known fact that various portions of Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell were deemed liturgically licit in 1972. I’m pretty sure I even saw it penciled into the margin on the “Of My Hands” page in a copy of Hymnal for Young Christians.
All this has stayed on my mind these past weeks because, sometimes, grownup and more orthodox me feels that I should be embarrassed by those folk group days, but I just can’t bring myself to be (well, not entirely). There were definitely times when we went over the top and jumped the liturgical shark (e.g., “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” mea maxima culpa) but it all did me too much good to have been all wrong. I even kept on playing for parishes throughout high school and college; in a real way, those long-ago guitar lessons kept me in church when a lot of my contemporaries were bailing on it.
Besides, without my conservatory grounding in folk hymns of the sixties and seventies, I wouldn’t have been available to help out my wife with those guitar arrangements for Lent. Turns out a little bit of guitar suits the melodies of “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo” just fine.
And I got a free soup supper out of the deal; of course, I also hung around to help clean up afterward, in my non-musical role as my wife’s live-in volunteer (actually, I prefer “Ministerial Support Specialist”).
What can I say? I’m in love. And as anyone who has ever played in a parish folk group can tell you—they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Yes. I really typed that.