The Beach Balls Of Doom

By

I had the best day I’ve had in a long time yesterday. But to understand why, you need to know that of all the commandments in the bible, the one I’m the most guilty of breaking is the one about taking a day of rest. Especially these days on account of the new record releasing. So much to do… a lot of plates to keep spinning… I could tell that I was feeling the burn from the schedule I’d been keeping because my crankiness had a hair trigger and it didn’t take much to send my attitude off the deep end. I’d like to think that I’m usually very pleasant under normal circumstances 🙂 (smiley face employed to depict my generally pleasant demeanor).  But by the end of this last weekend, my mood took a darker turn.

For starters, we did two outdoor festivals. Now, I’m often asked why I don’t play more outdoor festivals, and while I know they are a lot of fun for concert-goers, I try to avoid them since they tend to be challenging for a guy who does what I do. Festivals have kind of a social gathering/party kind of atmosphere, and it’s hard for a guy with an acoustic guitar and penchant for earnest storytelling to achieve the desired kind of intimacy that gives my work the best chance at connecting. I need four walls and a hushed low-lit room to coax people’s hearts out of their myriad hiding places. Maybe I take myself too seriously by expecting such a level of attention, but this is the kind of environment that I seem best suited for. Deep connections are always the goal.  Without that, I’m always suspicious that I’m wasting the time of everyone involved.

Both events were youth-centered outreaches, which is totally cool, and which Sanctus Real and even Phil Wickham are well suited for. But get a guy with an acoustic guitar up there trying to talk about the virtues of weakness, God making sad things come untrue, and serving the poor, etc. and watch me flounder. It’s especially hard when there’s a group of kids in the back hollering “you suck!” about 30 seconds into my first song (Taya took care of them). Or when someone throws beach balls into the crowd for people to bounce around in front of me when I’m singing lyrics like:

“In Rwanda’s killing fields
Forgiveness blooms and heals
As the power of love reveals
The Kingdom come today…”

Or:

“The Son of God woke in the ground
The angels laid the soldiers down
To bring the King His crown
I believe!”

POW! – a beach ball bounces off the end of my mic stand and all of a sudden I’m back in the eighth grade wearing ill-fitting gym shorts and playing dodge ball.

The truth is, I just can’t compete with a beach ball. I mean, I try to be funny and tell jokes and stuff, but in the end the beach ball will always win.

So… I got a little grumpy about it. On stage. It didn’t help that I’d had a video chat the day before with my boys that left me feeling homesick and wondering if this work I do is worth the price we pay for it. Most times the answer is yes, but I start to doubt when I’m being heckled by teenagers in the back row or the beach balls start flying…

Taya was back at the sound-board shaking her head at me, with a look that was pleading with me to not say something awkward and grumpy from the stage. I managed to restrain myself for the most part and just snuck in a snarky little comment before my last song that went something like this: “hey, how would you like it if I came to your workplace or classroom and bounced a beach ball around while you’re trying to work?”

Kind of funny, but kind of grumpy and miserly too, I know. The supplier of the beach balls didn’t mean any harm, I’m sure. Everyone’s just trying to have a good time, I should lighten up, I know. And I know it sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself when I play the “missing my kids at home” card. But all this to say that though these things are normally not that big of a deal – par for the course kinds of things, really – on this particular weekend they put me in a bit of a funk. The beach balls became larger than life – looming, symbolic rabid scapegoats for everything that is difficult and disappointing; giant beach balls of doom like the one that nearly mashed Indiana Jones in the opening sequence of Raiders Of The Lost Ark… Nipping at my heels, threatening to crush me at any moment…

I grumped about it afterwards on the bus for a bit, and seriously began considering a change in vocation. Again. But then I recognized that I might be a little burnt out and shouldn’t make any rash decisions.

Phil Wickham is a pretty positive guy and hanging out with him is good for me. He’s always helping me look on the bright side and count my blessings. I used to be very much like that, but lately feel more like that 70 year old guy who yells at people for walking on his lawn. Clearly I needed some rest.

So when the bus pulled in to Toledo, OH at 4:00am and we drove to our friend’s house 3 hours away in Clare, MI, our heads hit the pillow at 7:30am and we slept til 1:00pm on Sunday. With a mixture of panic and relief I discovered that I left my phone on the bus and, cut off from the rest of the world, I took a day off with my favorite person in the world: Taya. Our friends were away on a trip so we had the place all to ourselves.

Taya and I anonymously went shopping at the local grocery store to get the fixin’s for tacos. When we got back I played guitar for pleasure – wow, how long has it been since I’d done that? Years? – for a couple of hours on the couch while Taya made some fresh guacomole. Then, with our tacos, guac, and pineapple salsa we sat down and watched TV for like three hours. We watched three episodes of Flight Of The Conchords followed by one of my favorite movies of all time: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, an artful film that to me always feels like a good dose of marriage counseling – to know the worst that you could feel about a person and then choose to love them anyway… isn’t that the most challenging and beautiful part of marriage?

And then, off to bed early. I even got to read some. What a great day. I didn’t do a thing. I didn’t have to be anybody. I got to be a bump on a log, vegging in front of the TV.  I’m not sure this was entirely what was meant by the commandment to observe the Sabbath, but I think I was in the ballpark because it felt like exactly what the Doctor ordered.

This morning I got back to work, but my head was clearer. The weekend of shows became less about beach balls and a small group of disruptive kids in the back and more about the kindness with which I was received by those who attended, those who talked with me after the shows sharing their stories with me and generous words of encouragement. I found several kind remarks on my facebook page and in my inbox from new friends who attended the events. Maybe, by God’s grace (again!), my songs connected after all. I thought of the kids who were sponsored through World Vision who might not have been otherwise. I counted my blessings for the friendships I get to have with cool guys like Phil and Matt, Pete, Chris, Dan & Mark from Sanctus Real. I smiled thinking about Phil teaching me some new chords…

And I called my kids who were doing pretty good, too. I get to see them next week when we fly home for Gus’ birthday. I can’t wait. Maybe things aren’t as bad as I thought. And maybe those beach balls aren’t as big as I imagined, either. For all the ways they burdened me and felt like they carried the weight of the world in them, maybe they were only full of hot-air after all.

Dare I say it? I’m even looking forward to getting back out on the tour this week. And what’s more it looks like there aren’t any more festivals on this leg. See, I’m already counting my blessings again.

I’m also already looking forward to my next day of rest…


24 Comments

  1. Andy

    Thanks, Jason. What a great reminder that God’s commandments are for our good. I’ve been dealing with some personal “beach balls of doom,” so this is a great encouragement to seek refuge and rest in Christ.

  2. Shannie

    I was there for the beach ball incident… and oh yeah… that was a bummer. I felt so bad for you! But let me tell you that your message got through to me more than any of the others that night. You were honest. You came across like a friend with a great story to share… your few minutes on stage were exactly what God needed to put a few more puzzle pieces together for me.

  3. Tony Heringer

    “exactly what the Doctor ordered” — especially the fresh guacamole! I’ve gotten into making that in the past 6 months. MMM MMM good! Abby demands Tostitos Scoops with a hint of jalapeño and I must admit this is a nice touch.

    “The Sabbath was made for man” my brother and it sounds like you Sabbathed well. Side-bar 1: Aaron, Russ, Ron — does that work in the verbing of nouns category?

    As for outdoor shows, you have a point. Even at the AtlantaFest show we saw you at, there is just no good way to set that up. Andrew preformed on that stage this year, I wonder how he felt about it. It would seem he would have a similar experience – though he has Andy and “Chaos” with him. Side-bar 2: Aaron that is Andy’s name for Ben, so I’m not alone in this nick naming thing).

  4. Rob Dunbar

    When I was a young, impressionable teen (LONG ago), I wanted to be a Christian artiste as soon as I learned to play 3 chords on a guitar. Never happened; wasn’t my calling.

    When I saw Phil Keaggy and White Heart and Servant (told you it was long ago!) in concert, I wanted to live that life. Never happened; wasn’t my calling.

    But it’s YOUR calling. God give you grace for the road. Whichever road it may be.

  5. Aaron Roughton

    Jason, I had a phone conversation with a good friend yesterday who will be taking a long…maybe permanent…rest from your line of work. He is starting over in a different career, and seems to have come alive again as he’s made the transition. I’m very glad for him in that aspect of it, but it broke my heart to hear him say “I don’t care if I ever pick up my guitar again.” I know how talented he is and how passionate he was. Your post was encouraging. I was glad to get to the end and see your renewed hope and passion for your vocation. May God bless you in that, and may you take your rest time seriously.

  6. Aaron Roughton

    By the way, Tony, I defer to Russ and his more learned (that’s learned with two syllables) guitar shredding sensibilities as to whether you verbed that noun correctly. But I like the way you went for it.

    Speaking of verbing nouns, I see you tried to Gullahorn your nicknaming problem. That still doesn’t make it ok.

  7. Aaron Roughton

    Jason, sorry, last comment I promise. I just happened to notice that your tour is bringing you through Austin on Saturday. On a serious note, we will try to come. On a less serious note, it’s going to be difficult for me NOT to bring a beach ball.

  8. Tony Heringer

    Finally, a Rabbit Room tour at a theater near you my brother. The beach ball, at this point is a must. In fact, this will probably lead to a rash of beach ball sightings at Sir Gray’s tours from here on out. All affixed with the Rabbit Room logo of course 😉

  9. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Aaron! Let me know if you’re going to come and I’ll set aside a couple tix for you.

    And if anyone brings beach balls, that’s cool. Just wait to deploy them until Phil Wickham’s set 😉

  10. Peter B

    I was going to say something serious — if not particularly meaningful — but that train has been completely derailed by the Dyspeptic Duo.

    Nevertheless, “beach balls of doom” feels like a phrase with some staying power. I can see that sticking around.

    Jason, way to continue following the call. You make me glad I didn’t pursue that line of work, but also glad that you did.

  11. Tony Heringer

    Just remember Peter, he’s Batman, I’m Robin. By the way, did you swallow a thesaurus? You are good with the philology—that A&M education coming through yet again. 🙂

  12. Eric (not EP)

    Fess up…

    How many of the RR faithful never heard of the movie and went out and rented it or bought it based on Jason’s recommendation?

    I rented it and watched it with my wife.

    My rating – 5 shovels (a very deep movie)

    Thanks Jason!

    Eric

  13. Becky

    Eric (not E.P): I’ve seen the movie and found it very odd. Don’t really know if I liked it or not. Might love-or hate-it if I saw it again. Probably won’t risk it.

  14. Eric (not EP)

    Becky:

    Full disclosure…

    My wife fell asleep throughout the first viewing. I stayed awake and took in the movie.

    It was tough to watch the first time. We watched most of it again the next morning after taking the kids to school.

    Until you have been through the dark parts of a relationship…I do not think you can truly appreciate the message contained in the movie…towards the end.

    How many people go through a relationship and feel like erasing their significant other at the darkest times. (BE HONEST READERS)

    What this movie told us was that (to borrow from Ricky Skaggs)
    “The darkest hours are just before the dawn”

    Great relationships…marriages…friendships go through dark times. If we work through the darkness…good times are just around the bend.

    There is a song by an artist named Steve Moakler. The title is Run.

    “How many times do you set love free
    before you know it’s supposed to be.”

    Great song…great lyrics…please check it out

    In closing…there was a part in the Special Features where one of the producers said (pp) You never really finish learning the lesson…we are always learning. I think what he was saying is that there is never the final stressful moment with your spouse…kids…dog…in-laws…etc. We always learn ways to deal with stress. Some ways bring on more stress…some ways bring less but we are always learning.

    Some cynics claim the best way to ruin something is to step back from a beautiful situation and then add people. I choose to think that people have the potential to add beauty.

    Many people will dismiss this movie because of the strong language and the difficult way the story is presented…but the story and the acting and the writing are worth it in my opinion.

    Peace to all,

    Eric (not EP)

  15. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Update: Last night I played another tour date, and the local radio station was doing a drawing for prizes at the top of the night. I was grateful when the name I heard drawn was actually someone I knew! I would later find how grateful I really was when he came to me at the break and showed me the prize he’d been given (by the local Christian radio station mind you) – a beach ball! Thankfully my friend had read my blog and I think it was God’s mercy to me that it ended up in his hands instead of an audience member with… er… less discretion.

    And Becky – you should give it another chance. My wife didn’t like it the first time that she watched it. But she loved it this time. It’s not a linear, hollywood kind of movie, so it doesn’t play out the way that most of us are accustomed to mainstream movies playing out. And unfortunately people have a difficult time looking past some of the language and miss the heart of the film. It’s unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, it was unpredictable and fresh, and that alone would make me a fan, but then to find that it had such heart. The moment at the end (SPOILER) when they play the cassettes in each other’s presence… and then choose to have relationship anyway… It always moves me so deeply… and reminds me to love my wife, and why I loved her in the first place.

    Also, the idea of how wrong-headed it is to try and erase our painful memories instead of letting them contribute to who we are… the film very poignantly and artfully explores that.

    Glad some of you are watching it! Whoa!! Makes me feel like I need to be very careful about recommendations I make here…

  16. Tony Heringer

    First there came the Jason Gray flip-flops, then the Rabbit Room mugs, now a new cross-promotional idea is born: The Jason Gray/Rabbit Room Beach Ball.

    God does have a sense of humor, eh? This story just keeps getting better.

    As for the film, I had heard of it a few years back in terms of originality, but not much else was said at the time. I’ll put on the list.

    Barnacle Boy out!

  17. David H

    Having been a music reviewer for years, I’ve heard first hand stories from many artists who had to perform under less than ideal conditions. Your story made me think of the the first verse from Shawn Mullins’ song: “Lonsome, I Know You Too Well.”

    “It’s 3am and the snakes have moved in,
    I’m playing to 4 drunks and me…”

    Sometimes even the greatest message by the greatest messenger doesn’t exactly connect with the audience. Can’t help but also think of what happened in John chapter 8. The crowd there wasn’t interested in tossing beach balls.

    Jesus, though, did seem to most often connect with his audience. But not always on his terms. The message remained the same, but the method connecting sometimes seemed to hinge on the intended recipient(s). Loaves and fishes, writing in the sand, a midnight meeting with someone about being born again, a random encounter at the village well, or a thoughtful question to a rich young ruler. It wasn’t always a sermon on a mount.

    What would Jesus have done if the crowd, jazzed by the weather and a day off from work, started tossing beachballs? Would he take the air out of them or multiply 5 into 500?

    One musician I talked to said sometimes he picks one person in the crowd who seems to be paying attention and performs for them. Another, like Mr. Mullins, said more than once he had to treat a gig like a rehearsal. That connection just wasn’t going to happen.

    A few told me that sometimes they just tore up the set list and went with the mood of the audience. Judging by the some of the comments here, you might want to learn some beach ball songs.

  18. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jason,

    I can empathize with your beach ball experience. Having played in various bands since 1981 I’ve had some wonderful moments. I remember playing for a bunch of drunk people at a bar in Burns Lake, BC; also at a wedding in BC where the drunken groom at the reception started fighting, I think with the bride’s father. Also, countless times where I was thinking, “Can’t you all just turn on the radio or play a cd rather than have me try to play through all this noise?” Such times turn into “Rehearsing for the time I get a real gig.” And then there were the many times in bands where we drove for hours and ended up with eleven bucks apiece at the end of the night.

    At Bonnaroo as I played with AK and Union Station another drunken/druggie drama unfolded before my eyes. The stage had a sort of moat – a fence that kept people six feet from the stage. A stoned-out man was falling all over people standing at that fence. He finally fell down into several of them. They picked him up, turned him sideways, and rolled him over the top of that four foot chain link fence, where he plopped on the ground and was re-picked up by two security guards, who presumably escorted him to a rubber room somewhere. It did make it a little hard to concentrate.

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that it does come down to playing for (to use a cliche) an audience of One. Regardless of how many people are not paying attention, there is one Person who is; His is the only approval we need, the only fuel that keeps us going from show to show. Whatever you do, in word or deed (or song, or solo!), do as unto the Lord. And of course simply enjoy that we get to do what we love for a living.

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