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.