Life in Community

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Life in Community

Learn to Play Your Autoharp

August 15, 2016 by

For as long as I can remember, someone in my primary school music class always played the autoharp. We dreaded that thing: a loud, jangling, no-two-strings-in-tune monstrosity whose sheer cacophonic force announced your lack of talent like a clarion. It was the proverbial dunce cap of musical bankruptcy. Decades old and worn to a nondescript olive green, we considered our autoharp the only extant member of that family of Old Testament instruments – zithers, lyres, and psalteries. Most of us had never heard of one before we saw it.

a young boy holding a recorder and plugging his ears as  he listens to a classmate playing the autoharp

“What’s that?” we’d ask.

“It’s an autoharp.” the music teacher explained.

“You mean it plays itself?”

“Just about.”

The student who had the fewest recorder skills got handed it, and when it landed on your lap its weight rendered you immobile for the duration of class, serving a dual purpose for students with a compromised concentration span. I played the autoharp once. When I saw it coming I knew it heralded the end of my career as a junior musician.

We all get handed autoharps in life – moments which seem to say “you’re a failure.” It could be an unsuccessful job interview, a flunked public speech, or getting picked last for the football team – or something much worse. Like the unlucky student in music class, we can easily let these situations depress and immobilize us.

Or we can learn to make something beautiful from them. Back in third grade I never would have believed that, but today I know it: in the right hands an autoharp can sing exquisite melodies. When I heard Jo Ann Smith’s version of “Amazing Grace” I had to take back everything I’d ever said about the autoharp. (This version on YouTube does not do it justice.)

It was so inspirational I had to learn more about the instrument. We kids weren’t wrong about its origins – autoharps do descend directly from zithers, but the current version is a twentieth century adaptation by Karl August Gutter of Markneukirchen, Germany. (Something else about the autoharp: Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins played one, so it’s cool.)

When I think of autoharps, I think of my friend Mark because he has been handed more of life’s autoharps than anyone else I know. I first met Mark in a London hospital emergency department where I worked as a nurse. He came quite often, a repeat offender, so as we struck up an acquaintance he told me about his life. He was seventeen when he joined the army. He was at Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972, after which he hit rock bottom and drifted into heroin, cocaine, and alcohol abuse. He has nearly died four times. After his second wife committed suicide he was in and out of maximum security prisons for thirty years, and when he wasn’t in the clink he was in mental health units or rehab facilities.

Now wheelchair-bound with an irreversibly damaged spine, Mark’s life is a continuous recovery from a plethora of hospital admissions and surgeries. He’s been through most of life’s hells, and although he knows it’s a direct result of the decisions he has made, he occasionally glances up into the foggy London sky to ask “Why, God? What did I do to get landed with all this?”

Or he did until last year when he came to faith in Jesus. Only then did his life begin to make sense. Weeks after his conversion I met Mark again at a local Bible study group. His wheelchair scraped the plaster off the wall of the narrow terraced house where we met in east London. Mark still struggles with his addictions, but now he faces his needs and asks for help with the humility and honesty which come from a broken life. He doesn’t go to church, but you might find him sitting in a park eating sandwiches with a homeless guy who was “drunk out of his gourd,” as Mark puts it, or buying a Gideon’s New Testament for one of the patients at the assisted living place he calls home.

Mark’s life has turned into beautiful music; because of where he’s come from he has a depth of understanding and love for others who have had a rough go of it. Difficult times can come upon anyone, but Jesus redeems us all and can turn all the depravity and misery into the most heartfelt melodies. Like Jo Ann Smith’s “Amazing Grace.”

When are you going to learn to play your autoharp?

Curtis Meier lives at the Darvell Bruderhof in the UK.


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  • Dear Curtis Meier; I wish I could play a music Instrument . I believe that If each child could play a music instrument , there would be no war in the World. So I have let my son learn playing Guitar. But If we can have safety in the country , I will start to play an instrument.