I grew up in the sixties, when the horizons of American pop music were expanding. Doo-wop? All but extinct. Rockabilly? Fading. Rock ‘n’ roll came to embrace everything from bubble gum to the British invasion. But one thing never changed: through it all, I and countless others dreamed of playing the guitar.
I still own a guitar, and can produce all the basic chords if asked. But to say that I “play the guitar” would be a gross exaggeration. “Play at playing” would be closer to the mark. And any mother could probably tell you why: I never wanted it badly enough to really knuckle down and practice.
My first guitar came with three lessons at the community center; I think the whole package, instrument and all, cost a whopping $35. In my naïve young mind, I half expected that all I needed was to get my hands on the thing and the rest would take care of itself. Heck, three whole lessons should have made me the next (right-handed) Jimi Hendrix.
Needless to say, I was in for quite a disappointment. My cheap nylon-string classical had a neck so wide I could barely get my chubby fingers around it. I could do a passable E, A, and D — but B and F? Forget about it. The strings made my fingers hurt, and the noise coming out of the guitar sounded like…well, noise.
I eventually saved up for a respectable steel-string with a narrower neck, half-hoping this would be the magic needed to cross the divide. But though I continued to plunk away here and there throughout my youth, I never took more lessons, never disciplined myself to rigorous practice. As I said: I played at playing, but never really learned to play.
A young man recently told me that in years past, he had resented being forced to take piano lessons. But now, he said, “I can’t thank my parents enough.” The lessons stimulated and developed his passion for music, a legacy he wants to pass on to his own children one day. His was the freedom to make and enjoy music, freedom that could only be bought at the price of years of discipline.
For many of us, “freedom” means being able to do what we want, when we want, without interference. In that sense, I was always free to plunk and strum at will. My parents never forced me to practice. But I was never “free” to actually make real music. I would have to have given up other freedoms first, to put in the time and energy needed to achieve the goal.
This is what comes to mind when I read the end of 1 Corinthians 9. It’s only the shallow version of freedom that the Corinthians had envisioned; Paul sought to modify that vision through his own example of rigorous self-discipline. More on that in the next post.