I saw Lester Flatt, of Flatt & Scruggs/Foggy Mountain Breakdown/Beverly Hillbillies fame, in 1976 when I was 12 years old, on television in southern California. The banjo in his band thrilled me, and Dad bought me a banjo when I was 13. I didn’t come out of my room until I was 21.
When I picked up that Harmony banjo for the first time, when I attempted to play it and failed, I could have said, “I can’t do this.” My Dad could have said, “Don’t bother, kid. You don’t have any musical talent.”
They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.C. S. Lewis
The truth is I was already a musician; my “work” was to go on believing it and doing it. Throughout my life I’ve had plenty of doubts, fears, temptations, and sins, the kind that come from flesh, world, and devil. As a human being, I am expertly acquainted with all three.
But follow my reasoning here.
Everyone in the world operates by faith. It’s the means by which we do anything. I step out my door to greet the open sky, trusting a meteorite won’t hit me; I drive to the airport, “knowing” I won’t break down or get in an accident; I get in a seat-filled flying metal tube with 200 people and thousands of pounds of luggage (this thing goes up to 40,000 feet, racing at 600mph) and I trust it won’t break into pieces. Reason says, “The odds are against the meteorite, the accident, the crash.” So we bet on the odds, trusting we’ll be safe. Reason brings us to the outskirts of certainty and then we hop over the rest. Faith.
When someone lacks this ordinary faith, we call it a disorder. We name it. Agoraphobia. Claustrophobia. Acrophobia. Banjophobia (a few of my relatives had this).
One of my favorite dialogues in George MacDonald’s Lilith is this one, between Mr. Vane and Mr. Raven. Mr. Vane begins:
“You have been making a fool of me!” I said, turning from him.
“Excuse me: no one can do that but yourself!”
“And I decline to do it.”
“In declining to acknowledge yourself one already. You make yourself such by refusing what is true, and for that you will sorely punish yourself.”
“By believing what is not true.”
C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle echoes. The dwarfs are sitting inside the stable door, with sun, trees, grass—all of new Narnia around them. But they refuse to believe it. To their minds they are inside a stable, and nothing can divest them of their false perceptions.
“The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. We won’t be taken in.”
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”
If I had believed I’m just not a banjo player 30 years ago I have no idea where my life would be right now. My circumstances, no doubt, would be vastly different.
The Apostle Peter writes:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”
When I look at that it, and compare it to my life, it doesn’t seem real. Shouldn’t that read, “…His divine power will give to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” By his divine power God has already given me everything I need for life and godliness? Through the promises I am a partaker of the divine nature?
I don’t feel that way. There are many times I’ve read the Bible and passed over these ideas or rationalized them because they didn’t fit my concept of reality, my theological upbringing and presuppositions. Again and again I’ve found that growth comes by coming up against truth that rattles my theological, rational, and emotional cages, not by having a smooth Bible-reading experience.
Jesus rattled the prison bars of many of his disciples by saying, “He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.” “Many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” His description of actual reality went against their long-held beliefs, their experiences, and they chose their perceptions over the living Word.
I have been given, past tense, everything I need, in Christ, for my life—the ability to take care of my family, to be a good friend, to love enemies, to sing and make music. I’ve been given everything I need, by divine mandate, for godliness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. It may sound far-fetched to some ears. But the idea that I could learn to play bluegrass music in southern California, so far from the birthplace of the bluegrass sound, and make a living at it—well, that was not only far-fetched, but ludicrous. There I was at 13, 14, 15, 16 and beyond. Here I sit 38 years later.
The belief “I am a banjo player” was foundational to the doing of it. Truth in the inward parts leads to truth in the fingers. Few or none keep that truth in the inward parts perfectly, continually. But we all have to do it, and persevere, or we become spiritual neurotics. We shrink back.
The belief “I have every last cotton-pickin’ thing I need for both life, and godliness, in Christ” is foundational to growth in all areas. I imagine someone who lived completely according to God’s reality would experience growth as when Aslan called Narnia into being, and everything began sprouting out of the soil. It would look like the early Church—an explosion of Life.
Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.
If Narnia itself were sentient, and given a will, it could have resisted. It could have said, Oh, not me. I’m just a bunch of dirt and darkness. I’m worthless. He must be saying that to someone else.
“…the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations but now has been revealed to His saints…the glory of this mystery…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Don’t bother, kid. You don’t have any spiritual talent. It couldn’t mean you.
Believing what is not true makes a fool of us. It robs us of living from what we’ve been given.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.