This month, we remember the day of Blessed Martin Luther’s passing–February 8. Last month, we commemorated the birthday of another great Martin–Dr. Martin Luther King. These two Martins have each had a great influence in my life. From Blessed Martin Luther I learn the Scriptural truth that we are saved by grace through faith. Our salvation is a wonderful and free gift of God, purchased for us by Christ on the cross. Blessed Martin also teaches me the wondrous truth of the “happy exchange”–that on the cross Christ swaps out His righteousness for my sin. He takes the wretchedness of my life, and gives me the beauty and joy of His!
From Dr. King I learn that all people are equal in God’s sight. I also learn the precious truth that if you want to change someone, you have to love them first. (That’s how God operates with us sinners–and that’s how we are called to treat one another). “I choose love–hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
There is one other noteworthy Martin in my life. And that’s the Martin guitar.
The Martin factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, produces the Mercedes-Benz of guitars. (When The Band sings “pulled into Nazareth feeling bout half past dead”, they are talking about the guitar factory, not the Holy Land). Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, usually played Martins (including at the 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, where he was “discovered”). The Martin has been a staple of hillbilly music ever since.
An unfortunate incident happened recently in the filming of Quentin Tarrantino’s “The Hateful Eight”. The Martin company had loaned the filmmaker an 1850 guitar from their museum. There’s a scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh is playing the guitar...and Jeff Bridges snatches it from her and smashes it. Several replicas were made–and Bridges was supposed to grab one of the replicas and smash it. But through a mis-communication, he pulverized the 1850 original instead of a replica. Heart-breaking!
I visited a retired boat captain at home a number of years ago. He had a Martin guitar, which he let me play. I performed “The Prisoner’s Song” in his living room (“oh if I had the wings of an angel over these prison walls I would fly...”). When he died, his Martin was prominently displayed by his casket.
The Martin has always been beyond my financial reach. But one finally came into my possession awhile back. I ministered to and befriended a beloved school teacher during the last few months of his life. He had several Martins, and after his passing I purchased one from his estate at a very favorable price. I appreciate its rich, full sound–it’s a joy to play when I lead the Young at Heart Choir. I am a very limited guitarist (country music has been defined as “three chords and the truth”, and that’s kinda how it is with my playing). My playing the Martin is rather like using a rare vintage wine to make Sangria. But I love playing it.
In the first century or so of Christianity, instruments were not used in worship. Singing was a cappella (in fact the very phrase a cappella means “from the chapel”). But one instrument was used for Christian worship–the cithara. St. Efrem of Syria, one of the church’s great hymn-writers, used this instrument in leading a female choir in chanting his hymns. The cithara was a stringed instrument similar to a guitar–in fact, the word “guitar” is derived from “cithara”. We often think of the guitar in worship as an interloper from the hippie era–but on the contrary, a guitar-like instrument was used to lead worship long before the organ was invented! Luther played the lute, a guitar-like instrument–he wrote many of his beloved hymns on it. I can find no record of his having played it in church, however. But several hundred years later came a great song of worship that was played in church on guitar. It was Christmas Eve, mice had gnawed through the bellows of the church organ in a small Austrian village. The priest and the organist whipped up a simple song for guitar–a little ditty called “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night).
There is a wonderful symbolism to the guitar that reminds us of Christ’s suffering on the cross. George Herbert, a great English clergyman and poet, wrote an Easter poem about his lute that applies also to the guitar:
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings,
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
The guitar is a reminder of the passion of Christ. It's wood reminds us of the tree of the Cross; it's stretched strings remind us of how Christ’s limbs were stretched with agony as He suffered and died. The very physical constitution of the instrument proclaims the crucified Christ!
It also can remind us that challenges and pain in our lives can be productive. An old Mennonite pastor I once knew said that people were like guitar strings: we can only reach our full potential when we are under tension! So our problems actually help our lives become beautiful music for God.
The Lutheran tradition treasures music. Luther, the lute player, once said that music is second only to the word of God in value. I thank God for the gift of music, and for the Martin that helps me (with my primitive and limited talent) to sing to the glory of God!
God loves you and so do I!