Remember the Monkees? Davy Jones and ‘Daydream Believer’? So do I – that’s when I first experienced ‘the pull’ of music. I was about twelve when I first picked up a guitar and learned to strum an A minor chord. It was seventh grade, and in addition to the usual high school fare, we were allowed to choose an elective class. I chose music, as did a couple of my close friends, Ronnie and Russ. Although the music teacher (Uncle Dan) tried his best to teach us how to read music and play properly, we were busy learning how to copy the bands we liked – Creedence, the Stones and Santana. It was a friendly competition – Russ would come in one day and play a Santana lick he had learned. Not to be outdone, Ronnie and I would go off and learn to play something even trickier to keep one step ahead of Russ. In spite of our lack of interest (and effort) in the official curriculum, Uncle Dan was a great source of help and encouragement. I still remember him and appreciate his investment in me every time I pick up my guitar. Before long, the three of us decided to start a band. We recruited a drummer and played at high school dances, church functions, and our favorite showcase – the annual high school variety show. To this day I can still see the parents in the crowd covering their ears when the curtain rose and we blasted out our best rendition of ‘Smoke On the Water’. My little combo amp was no match for the high school gym, so I’d made use of a device popular at the time – an Electro-Harmonix LPB-1. Basically a cheesy battery powered preamp, the device made my ratty little combo amp sound like a LOUD ratty little combo amp. I figured if one was good, three would be better, and I plugged them all together in series and let fly. I’m surprised my amp (and my ears) survived. We formed other bands with other people during high school but eventually graduated and went our separate ways.
I spent the next several years playing mostly covers in duos, trios, full bands and as a solo performer. Toward the end of the 70’s Ronnie and I were in the Jacksonville Florida area, pretty much living in the clubs and partying with some of the members of the southern rock elite – Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, 38 Special, and others not as well known. I had long before sworn off drinking to excess – it had been a practical rather than a moral decision for me. I had been drunk just once in my life and gotten commode-hugging sick. Just like everybody else, I prayed ‘God get me out of this and I swear I’ll never do it again.’ I kept my promise – there’s very little in life I hate more than being sick to my stomach. However, I still smoked a lot of pot and thought I was pretty smart – I could get the same buzz as drinking without being sick and having a hangover the next day. Then one night at a party I got a little extra something in my joint. I don’t know what it was or how it got there, but I suffered through one very long and miserable night. I woke up the next morning where I’d finally passed out and every muscle in my body ached from the death grip I’d held all night on the arms of my chair. I was stunned – I thought these people were my friends. How could they have done this to me? That was the last time I intentionally got high, although the experience revisited me several more times over the next few years.
I moved back to New England and continued playing in cover bands, making a pretty decent second income from my weekend gigs but enjoying it less and less. I tried to make up for the boredom of playing the same drab songs night after night by taking a few creative liberties. I tried a little U2 Edge style Echoplex playing in the old standard ‘Stand By Me’. I discovered the guitar solo from Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ In the Years’ fit very nicely in Eddie Money’s ‘Two Tickets to Paradise’ (in an odd, polyrhythmic kind of way). One day the leader of the band invited me to lunch and read me the riot act. He tried to be diplomatic – “Look, I know you’re a good player and you’re bored playing this material, but people want to hear these songs played just like the record. We need you to stick to the original arrangements.” Though I appreciated his attempt at diplomacy, I was seething inside. Eventually I decided I’d had enough of the bar scene. I was tired of waking up at noon with a noise hangover and a pile of sweaty stage clothes in the corner reeking of cigarette smoke and stale beer. I was tired of tearing down and loading out the piles of amps and PA gear at 3am in the dead of a New England winter, all the while keeping an eye open for the frequent and sometimes bloody fights that often erupted with flying glass after the band stopped playing. Most of all, I was tired of rehearsing and working at my craft and putting everything I had into it only to play for people who were more interested in getting drunk or picking up a warm body to go home with for the night than they were in listening to my music. I started searching for a decent day job. Once I managed to land one I quit the band.
During all this time I considered myself a Christian. I had been raised in a Christian home and forced to go to church as a kid. I believed in God, believed the Bible was true, and believed I had accepted Christ. However, I also knew the way I was living wasn’t consistent with what the Bible taught or with what I said I believed. It was easy to deal with as long as there were friends and activity, but in the wee hours when I was alone with my conscience the guilt gnawed at me. To quote some of my own lyrics:
There’s an emptiness that fills the night
from last call to morning’s light
and a still small voice in an aching head
just me and my demons in this empty bed
One night I was just too tired to go on fighting it. I was scared of the consequences, but I prayed ‘God, I know I’m not living the way I should be. I don’t want to go on like this anymore, but I don’t have what it takes to change, and I’m scared. If I’m going to change, then you have to help me – I can’t do this.’ That was it. No flashing lights, no angelic choirs, no sudden warm flood of peace. But I knew I’d turned a corner. It was a small change, but over time small changes can make a huge difference. I’m not going to tell you that it was easy. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t. Anybody who says that building a relationship with God, following the Lord and being obedient to the commands of Scripture is easy is either lying or living in a fairy-tale world. But He has always been there to carry me when I’ve come to the end of my abilities. I have to laugh when people tell me Jesus is just a crutch for the weak. Don’t kid yourself – Jesus isn’t a crutch, He’s a stretcher.
I’ve come to realize the truth of what Scripture has said all along – there’s absolutely nothing of any eternal value in me. I have nothing to offer God. Worse than that, I’ve built up a mountain of spiritual debt that I can never pay off. God is sovereign. What that means is this: He makes the rules and, like it or not, I either obey them or pay the consequences. Breaking His rules is called ‘sin’ and the Bible says the payment for sin is death. We’re talking a double dose here, physical death and spiritual death. Nobody gets to Heaven on their own merit – again, the Bible says everybody has sinned and fallen short of God’s standards. Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, you, me – nobody is good enough. But that’s where the stretcher part comes in – yes, we’re all short of the standard, and the penalty for falling short is death. But the Bible also says the free gift of God is eternal life – forgiveness through Jesus and what He did on our behalf. God understands I’m incapable of living up to His standards. Truthfully, sometimes I don’t even want to. I like doing things my way. Jesus lived that perfect standard to which none of us can measure up. He submitted to an unjust and undeserved death by Roman crucifixion – He paid that death penalty so I wouldn’t have to. What do I have to do? Nothing – the Bible says it’s ‘the gift of God’. What do you do with a gift? You accept it. That’s all. That’s what makes it a gift – if you have to do something to get it, it isn’t a gift, it’s a paycheck. That’s where Biblical Christianity differs from all other religions, and it’s also the central point of the whole Heaven/Hell question.
The end of the story (so far) is a little harder to explain. I guess it’s kind of like petting a dog that’s been beaten and mistreated all his life – when you first reach to pet him, he thinks he’s going to be hit again, and cowers in fear. But if you keep at it, keep petting him, showing him love, and don’t hit him, eventually he learns he can trust you and stops cowering. He learns to love you and you’ve got a loyal friend forever. It’s a flawed analogy because God doesn’t look at us like dogs, but stay with me here. I guess in a way I used to cower before God. I grew up in a fire and brimstone kind of church, and I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting God to rain judgment down upon my head. When I started actually reading what the Bible says about Him instead of just listening to everybody’s opinion, I started to understand the rest of the story. I’ve learned I can trust Him. Yes, He’s righteous, and holy, and will not tolerate my sin. There is a real Hell, and a lot of people are going there. But God is also loving and merciful beyond my words to express, and actually paid my penalty Himself. I deserve Hell, no if’s, and’s or but’s. No, I’ve never murdered anybody and by human standards I’m probably a pretty nice guy. Certainly I am in my own eyes 🙂 But nice guys don’t go to Heaven. Forgiven guys do. This isn’t cheap grace by any stretch – it’s free to me, but it cost Him dearly. Knowing this, and knowing that I’m forever free of the bondage I used to be in, I can’t help but want to do something in return. Not to pay for His gift – that’s not only absurd, it’s impossible. I want to obey Him, I want to please Him, and I can’t help but praise Him as well.
That brings us to the present day – I’m still writing music, singing and playing guitar. I still love to do it, more than I ever have. I’m singing love songs to Someone who I’ve discovered to be both the source and object of my songs, and enjoying it more than I ever have before.
I suppose by now some of you are having a good laugh at my expense – check it out – another brain-dead Jesus freak posting his ignorance on the ‘Net for all to see. I can live with that – Jesus isn’t for everybody. But on the other hand, if you’ve read this far, maybe you’ve got a nagging conscience like I had and would like to get that monkey off your back. I know what it feels like to be there. I’m no theologian or pastor, but I’ll do what I can to help you find the peace that I’ve found.
Thanks for listening.