© 2010 David's Harp and Pen
DISCLAIMERS: This blog is based, in part, upon actual events and people. Certain actions and characters have been dramatized and fictionalized, but are inspired by true events and real people. Certain other characters, events, and names used herein are entirely fictitious. Any similarity of those fictional characters or events to the name, attributes, or background of any real person, living or dead, or to any actual events is coincidental and unintentional, so I better not hear any complaints from any country musicians. I’m not making fun of you. I’m just trying to help my readers have good taste in music.
I despise country music. It’s not so much a style thing as it is a matter of principle. The way I see it, country music encourages inbreeding and illiteracy, and when I hear it, I can’t help but envision people marrying their siblings and drinking whiskey with cupped hands out of big wooden barrels. Just kidding, of course. Well, maybe not totally kidding.
My first encounter with country music was at the age of 18. I had moved from New Jersey to Indiana to go to college. A co-worker at my part-time job, a very sullen and melancholy girl, invited me to her house after work. I had wondered why she was depressed all the time, and after 20 minutes in her living room, I knew why. The music she played on her stereo the twangiest, most joy-zapping music I had ever had the displeasure of hearing. I finally looked at her and said, “This is why you’re bummed out all the time! Stop listening to this stuff! I’ve only been here 20 minutes and I want to jump in front of a semi! Put on some pop or Gospel! Heck, I’d even be happy if you turned on some gangster rap so you could get a little fight in you!”
My experiences with country music have only gotten worse since then. I might even go so far as to say that it is not God’s will for me to like country. I have many friends who tell me I just heard some bad stuff, that most of it is quite moral and upbeat, etc., but every time I say I will give it a chance and then turn on the radio, the country song I hear is either woefully depressing and downbeat or it’s describing some sort of activity punishable by stoning under ancient Jewish law. For example, after a recent lecture from a close friend about the virtues of country music, I decided once again to give it a chance. So, while at the gym, I turned on the country music video channel, and the name of the first song I saw was “White Trash with Money.” Like I said, I don’t think it’s God’s will for me to like country. So, when my friend Charlotte came to visit and asked if we could check out The Ryman Auditorium, nicknamed “The Mother Church of Country Music,” being the good hostess I am, I obliged and braced myself to have my ears assailed. I was cut to the heart instead.
Charlotte wanted pictures inside and outside the building. As I took a few pictures of the side facing Fifth Avenue North, I noticed a white inscription towards the top: Union Gospel Tabernacle 1892. I was intrigued, because I’d not before heard the building referred to as such. I was anxious to get inside and investigate the matter further.
After we paid our admission for the tour, we sat down to a short informational video about the history of the Ryman. Sure enough, the building had started out with the name “Union Gospel Tabernacle.” Thomas Ryman, a riverboat captain and saloon owner in Nashville, was upset because evangelist Samuel Porter Jones was in town, preaching repentance and the evils of strong drink. On May 10, 1885, Ryman went to one of Jones’s revival meetings in order to heckle the preacher. Instead, he came to faith in Jesus Christ and decided to build a revival hall for Jones, which would, according to the video, “make the sinners quake.” Indeed, the architectural design of the tabernacle is just as impressive as its spiritual and musical history. Ryman wanted the tabernacle to have the best acoustics possible so that Jones could preach to the greatest number of people without worrying about not being heard. The acoustics at the tabernacle are better than those of Carnegie Hall and are second only to those in the Mormon Tabernacle.
The tabernacle opened its doors officially in 1892, hosting some of the greatest evangelists of the day and seeing multitudes get saved. Following Ryman’s death in 1904, the building was renamed the Ryman Auditorium, and soon became the showcase of bluegrass, the forerunner to modern country music. Over the years, the building has hosted all sorts of musical talent and programs, including the famous Grand Ole Opry. The Ryman still serves as a musical and performance venue, but during the day, it serves as a museum that chronicles the history of country, bluegrass, and musical comedy. Even though I’m not a fan of country, I found all the history fascinating.
One little display on the bottom floor in the back of the pews caught my eye. In it were souvenirs and tokens from the various evangelists who had preached at the Ryman, as well as a chronology of the spiritual beginnings of the building. My mind began to race, and I wondered how the building went from being an evangelistic hall to a musical venue. I wondered if this was what Thomas Ryman and Samuel Porter Jones envisioned when the doors first opened. Captain Ryman wanted a place for people to come to feel the overwhelming presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the quake, if you will. What started as a vision for a gateway to Heaven is now just a museum that tells the story of great things that used to happen in the past but are now since forgotten.
My thoughts drifted to my arrival in Nashville ten years earlier. God had told me to move, that He wanted to use me to reach the lost through music, writing, film, etc., and I was all gung-ho. I was ripe for the challenge, empowered for the journey, and anxious to be an instrument through which He would work. Fast forward a decade, and in my place I saw a woman who was cynical, critical, bereft of all imagination about how God works, and too tired to try any more.
So many people come to Nashville with aspirations of becoming the next big thing in Christian (or country) music. We get all pumped up, excited to do music ministry and ready to endure persecution for the sake of the Gospel. In my tenure here, however, I have met too many who have abandoned all music ministry aspirations, and even more who have abandoned their relationship with God altogether. The circumstances that cause us to veer off course vary, but the heart issues are usually the same: disappointment with God and/or disappointment with people.
Over the years, I’ve swapped stories with others who find themselves not doing what they originally thought they were supposed to in Music City, and discussed the reasons why we gave up on our dreams, callings, or whatever name we assign them. For some, it was simply impatience with waiting for doors to open up. For others, it was the inability to support themselves on musical ventures. One co-worker told me the story of a song she wrote, and of the musical collaborator who took that song, sold it, and didn’t give her any credit for it, and my co-worker hasn’t done anything of a musical nature since. Another friend spoke of the hurt she felt while doing background vocals for a Christian artist, only to have the checks for her work bounce, and the artist never made good on them. Still, for others, it was the criticism received not from unbelievers, but fellow Christians who tell them their music or writing lacks any redemptive quality, or that they need to just “get a real job.” For me, it was seeing those who were talented but completely lacking in spiritual maturity placed in the spotlight, even though the way they lived their lives was a stumbling block to those they were meant to reach. It was the discouragement that I wanted to play anywhere, including jails and homeless shelters, but often couldn’t get any of my fellow Christian musicians to go to those places with me because they too often seemed only concerned to play somewhere they would be “noticed.”
Most people, myself included, had no idea the Ryman had any kind of spiritual beginnings or was anything other than a music hall. I’ve been here ten years now, and most everyone I know has no idea that I sing or write songs. How do we get so off course, not just from our musical dreams, but from what we once believed so strongly was our calling from God? My visit to the Ryman brought up an even more important question, however. For some people, it’s not just that they have abandoned what they once thought their ministry calling was, but they have abandoned their relationship with God altogether and now live a life devoid of joy and meaning. It is bad enough to forsake one’s vision, but even worse to forsake the One who gave us that vision, and called us first and foremost not to be His minister, but to be His Bride and His worshipper. For too many people, we have not only left our first calling, we have, as the Church at Ephesus, left our first love. It is a scary thing to find myself years down the road telling myself, “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.” It is far scarier when I hear myself say “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
I thought about my own journey, what I believed God said to me when I first moved here, and what He was saying to me now. How I was willing to endure persecution for the sake of the Gospel, but got blindsided because I didn’t expect the persecution to come in such clandestine fashion, from places I did not expect, people and places that should have been friendly to the Gospel. How I confused fickle, unstable man for changeless, immutable God. How Jesus said that no servant is greater than his master, and if I was to follow Him, I would at some point encounter the same trials and hardships He did. How God never called me to make a name for myself in Christian music, but called me to endeavor to make His Name a praise on Earth. These visions and ministries may start with what God places inside of us, but they’re never supposed to end there. Oh, how far had I strayed. Oh, how unrecognizable as a truly devoted disciple I had become.
Everyone who buys a tour of the Ryman is allowed to sing on the stage. Of course, Charlotte wanted to do it and make a recording to show her family. I thought, “Well, I may not get this opportunity again either, so I’ll make a recording of my own.”
With my phone’s video camera running, I took the stage and, because it seemed appropriate, sang “Revive Us, Again.” As I sang the song, all of a sudden, there it was. The quake. There were lots of sinners at the Ryman that day, and I couldn’t say with any certainty whether they felt it, but I certainly did. It wasn’t because I was impressed with delusions of my musical and vocal prowess. It was because of the Audience of One to Whom I sang, and the enormity and solemnity of the request I made to Him. “God, please revive me again! Bring me back to the purpose for which You brought me to Nashville, and which You saved me from my sin. It’s not about me. It’s about You. I have to decrease and You must be the One to increase. You are most glorified when my will and my flesh are crucified. I have lost my joy, my passion to serve, and my burning to see souls saved. Please revive me. Remind who I am and from whence I came.”
God gives us visions and calls us to different things, but it’s up to Him how and when those visions and callings are fulfilled. Just because He gives us a vision, doesn’t mean we can hold on to it and manipulate it to make it work out the way we want. Taking the reigns in such fashion is where we begin to lose the vision, our fellowship with God, and certainty of whom we really are. Most people in the Bible didn’t see the results of their labor in the LORD in their lifetime, but their legacies of devotion and faithfulness still inspire and transform people today. We often even pray, “God, such and such will be worth it if only one person gets saved.” However, not even that should be our motivation. Obedience and devotion to God are worth it simply because the One Who asks the obedience and devotion from us is worthy to receive them, and our willingness to give those things immediately and fully bring Him joy. In the end, it is God doing most of the work, doing the writing of the story of our lives, and speaking through us. At the most, we can say we let ourselves be His mouthpiece, and that is the way it should be.