Me and My Guitar and My Faith

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I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years without really knowing how. I’ve written songs—lots of them. I’ve played in bands. I’ve just started a new one, actually. But I’ve mostly just hammered away on an acoustic six-string with bad thin picks for 20 years.

It all started with a very cheap acoustic guitar and a Bob Dylan songbook. I learned to read the big chord diagrams over the music, and I just started strumming songs I already knew. Then I wrote about 30 teenage-angst songs strumming those same simple chords, a bad recording of which has mercifully been lost. Then I wrote some decent songs in my early 20s, but the band I played them with doesn’t exist anymore. (Though I can still dig up copies of our 4-song record, I wouldn’t want to do that on purpose.) I was the unofficial “leader” of that band, calling most of the musical shots and being the key “presence” on the stage.

Twenty years after picking up a guitar, I’m finally learning how to play for real. I decided to take lessons, unlearn bad habits, and do it right. It’s an incredibly frustrating process. Up until now, I could pick up a guitar and play hundreds of songs, make it sound pretty good, and my kids could dance around the living room. I could lead music at church or play along with other musicians. Now my instructor is assigning me a bunch of songs to learn and critiquing what I do, and I’m sitting and embarrassingly plunking through the notes like it’s my first time touching the instrument.

There’s a spiritual metaphor in there somewhere. I’m convinced that, some day, when I’ve got maybe a week or a month left to live, I’ll finally realize that I’ve been doing something wrong for decades, and I’ll be right back to square one. I remember a time in my life when I ran Bible studies, led youth group, was a pastor, was looked to for spiritual advice, gave gospel messages on college campuses, and was an overall spiritual superhero in my own mind. Just like I was the leader of a Christian band, but had no idea how to play the guitar correctly.

I think life is full of these kinds of epiphanies that we’ve been doing it wrong and need to start over. And it’s a good thing we rest in grace, or we’d go crazy with frustration at ourselves. My kids aren’t judging me because I’m suddenly plunking away at notes. They don’t even notice how often I miss. The 15-month old thinks my slow picking through “Wildwood Flower,” “Soldier’s Joy,” and other old tunes is just fantastic, and it makes his eyes light up and his feet start moving.

And I’m writing new songs and still playing the old ones. It’s difficult to pick up the guitar and suddenly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s difficult to do the same so often with how I approach God in prayer or how I approach the reading and understanding of Scripture. Or church life or interaction with neighbors or any other vital part of life that I’ve been practicing for decades without really knowing what I’m doing.

On our way out of church Sunday morning, our pastor let us know there’d be confirmation classes coming up, that the bishop is visiting in September, and would we like to become voting members. A million conflicting thoughts raced through my mind when he asked. We’ve been overcommitted and burned out before and have trouble finding a balance. We’ve not been extremely involved in a church family since the burnout. We’ve been going to church for as long as I’ve been playing guitar and longer, but the time has come for some relearning. Despite conflicting thoughts in my heard, I heard my own voice saying, “Yes, we’d like to do that.”

It’s scary. But the kids still dance when I play guitar. And I think the angels still rejoice when we repent and restart.


12 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Travis, I read this piece while it was still in the queue. I loved it so much I couldn’t wait for it to be posted so I could thank you for it. Repenting and restarting. This is great stuff. It really is. Thanks for your humility.

  2. Tony from Pandora

    That story sounds like mine… except it was the songbook for ‘Cracked Rear View’ by Hootie & the Blowfish…

    Just a month ago, I admitted defeat to my worship team by saying, “You know, after 15 years of playing guitar… I realize that I will never be a better guitar player than I am now.”

    Subconsiously, I feel that way often in my Christian life, “i will never be a better Christian than I am right now…”

    Thanks for this ‘epiphany’ as you called it…. I need to chew on this a while…

  3. Lori

    Wow. Love this. It sounds much like our lives right now. We just resigned as missionary appointees because we suddenly felt like God was telling us this wasn’t as good a fit for us as we once thought, and I feel like I’m having to start over in so many ways. My husband is trying to decide what kind of career to even look for now that we’re leaving the professional ministry world. And we’re trying to figure out where we fit in our local church’s ministry since we now plan to stick around. It’s p

  4. April Pickle

    Thank you for sharing this. I can relate all too well. The people-pleasing, the fearing of man and not-fearing of God, and hence, the burnout. I have been Martha beating up on Mary and kicking her when she’s down!

    But God in His mercy not only humbled me, but also gave me rest and greatly blessed my family with regards to worship and fellowship. And a week ago yesterday, my children and I became members. All four of them were baptized and my sweet hubby who doesn’t attend church was there. It was an awe-filled, overwhelming and glorious day! I am still processing it! (By God’s grace, I will never be finished processing it!)

    But those “conflicting thoughts” you mentioned troubled me for weeks leading up to that day, and I did feel a bit like I was preparing to jump off a cliff!

  5. KJ

    If I was living life perfectly, where would Christ’s perfection come in? If I had strength to do it all, where would Christ’s strength show up in me? Something that keeps resounding in the Rabbit Room is that we’re all broken and weak, but Jesus uses those weaknesses for His glory. I’m thankful for those reminders in the posts, the music, and the writings.

  6. eugenia

    Aah, I don’t comment much but I felt like I just had to for this one.

    Having first touched a guitar 3-4 years ago, I cannot play passable guitar. I know how to place my fingers for chords but I have trouble strumming. But everyone knows I have a guitar, and therefore, kind of can play guitar. At the beginning of this year, I humbled myself and took a beginner’s – from scratch – course.

    And now, I find myself having to lead a group of mostly older than me people, including conducting bible study, for my campus ministry. It’s not new. I’ve done it before – for the past year in fact – and precisely that, that I feel a bit burned out. Trudging along. Trying to pull myself up, if not for anything, for the responsibility of leading the group – because I cannot run on empty.

    I relate to both metaphors … I’m still figuring it out, and will continue to do so.

  7. EK Bransom

    Thank you Travis for sharing your journey with us. I have played piano my entire life, and recently began playing for our church – which is totally different than playing for myself and family. Last summer I took a theory class from my kids’ piano teacher and experienced that same beginner mindset of not knowing what I was doing. During the past year I have seen God improve my playing exponentially – and I am amazed. I would have thought that I had topped out after 35 years of playing around, but He is gracious and is willing to complete the good work that He started. Much of my improvement has been in the way (and time) that I practice. I can definitely see the spiritual application (I needed your nudge to draw the lines) that I can put more and different time into my spiritual disciplines and see God work in ways I couldn’t imagine. Now … on to figuring out exactly what that means.

  8. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Well said, Travis. Thanks for sharing. I feel this as well, with a sincere desire not to “over-correct,” which feels easy to do. It seems like you are acting in maturity and not in an impetuous, all-too-easy (and understandable) reaction that just wants to get far, far away and leave everything behind. You humbly want to change the way you play, to do it better, but you don’t want to abandon the Music. I call that good. Thanks.

  9. James Witmer

    I’m convinced that, some day, when I’ve got maybe a week or a month left to live, I’ll finally realize that I’ve been doing something wrong for decades, and I’ll be right back to square one.

    Yes! And yet…. all this time… you are deeply, unshakably loved by your Creator.

    Believing this is hard if we’re used to thinking in the back of our minds that we’re lovable because we’re good. So the question (for all of us) becomes, “Can I take joy in the music (both literal and metaphorical), knowing that I’m doing something wrong? Joy that comes purely from being invited to participate?”

    Well, your kids still dance when you play. If we became like them, I think we could.

    Thank you for sharing this, Travis. It resonates deeply.

  10. Scott Richardson

    Travis, my daughter saw this on the Rabbit Room and posted it for me on FB … sounds a bit like part of the story of MY life … she has recently bought a guitar and is learning to play (much more quickly than I did 15 years ago!), and it’s causing me to think, “Perhaps its FINALLY time to humble myself, take lessons, and learn to play like I WANT to play”. I know God has been blessed by my humble efforts over the years (having grown up in an a capella tradition, guitar for me has been merely accompaniment to my my primary instrument, my voice!), but I’d like to go deeper, learn more, climb higher. In order to do so, I have to admit my gaps, expose myself, make mistakes, feel incompetent.

    It was this way when we lived in Romania in the 90s — went from being a relatively competent communicator to not being able to order a meal in a restaurant or buy food for my family in the market without tears and frustration. But now, I can speak Romanian fluently (although I don’t have much opportunity now), and it’s completely blessed my life. Didn’t know I COULD learn a language — what would the world be missing had I not taken the chance?

    The metaphor works for so many areas of our life. That marriage that seems far too hard to fix? That relationship that seems too complicated to unravel? Will I humble myself to learn, posture myself as a disciple, take on the role of apprentice, somehow believing that the future can be different than the past or the present? Will I settle for the city I see, or will I rise up and advocate for the city that is yet to come? It’s all about faith — seeing what cannot be seen yet, and being willing to humble ourselves to be in a position to receive it.

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