I’ve always been a dreamer, something that my father instilled in me from a very young age because he would say things like, “son if you work hard, you can be anything you want to be. Follow your dreams.” I saw my old man write books, toil as a carpenter, and then go to law school. He practiced what he preached, rising from abject poverty to success through discipline and years of burning the candle at both ends. When I left the University of Florida to pursue a songwriting career, my dreams were vast and my ability limited. I had no idea how hard my road would be.
It occurs to me that I’ve had a lifelong problem managing my expectations, and this character trait has tarnished my relationships, my career, and my soul. When you shoot for the stars, mostly you don’t wind up where you thought you were going. The heart of the matter is pride. Leaning much upon my own understanding rather than upon God. So here’s my story, and perhaps some other folks can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, and perhaps with the telling of it, maybe I’ll finally wrap my head around the truth.
I moved to Nashville way back in 1992 with a heart full of dreams and a cheap guitar. Those first years were heady, back when I knew I would “make it,” and I figured that within a few years, I’d be living the dream. I played the Bluebird, penned hundreds of songs with fellow songwriters, and wrote every single day. I saw, quickly, that I had much to learn. I’d been in town for about a month when I saw a writers round with Bob DePiro and Mike Reid… they slayed me with their talent. Every song was perfection, their vocals were mind-blowing, and their musical ability was so far beyond me that I saw there was an entire mountain yet to climb. I embraced it, and I learned, worked on my craft, mentored by some great writers. I had songs on hold for major artists, went to number one parties, and rubbed elbows with the movers and shakers of Music Row. Then I started doing a dangerous thing.
I began spending too much time gazing at where I wanted to be rather than what I needed to do to get there, and worse, whether that was where I should go. Enter the bitterness, the, sense of betrayal and the resentment. The great Harlan Howard, whom I had the great pleasure of spending time with, once said to a disgruntled songwriter, “well, nobody called and asked you to move to Nashville.” Right.He didn’t say that to me, but it would have bee spot on. Nobody told me to decide to become a writer..that was my choice. But the desire to succeed was eating my soul, clouding my vision and ultimately hurting my music. Some of my fellow writers nicknamed me “Doctor Doom.”
I moved back to Florida following a divorce and the feeling of being let down in my songwriting career (or lack thereof,) thinking that I could leave writing in my rear-view mirror. I was wrong, and I started writing fiction, which didn’t require the same sort of schmoozing and glad-handing that songwriting seems to. When I got my first publishing deal, I was ecstatic. I’d signed a contract for a trilogy, and I hadn’t even written two of the books yet. I decided I would be a wildly successful author within perhaps a year or two. I’m hard headed, obviously, though my wife uses more colorful words to describe my frequent and woeful lack of understanding.
It takes years of hard work, multiple books, and networking, and talent to make it as an author. Like any other artistic endeavor, it’s a subjective thing, and people will buy what people buy. I find the writing in Fifty Shades of Grey to be awful, but tens of millions of people strongly disagree; E.L. James reached the stars by connecting with her readers, and more power to her. I could undoubtedly learn a thing or two from her. So, I’m writing, working, knowing it takes time, and trying not to chafe against that knowledge. Trying to enjoy the journey, and not focus on the destination.
During these decades of writing, I burned down one marriage and almost destroyed another. One of the central reasons this happened is because I expect things to go my way, and when they don’t, I get rankled. My essential impatience, my propensity to reach beyond my means to grasp. Marriage is hard work, and when things go south, which they will in any marriage at some point, I’ve had the feeling that things should be right again quickly. Wounds should heal, others should change, I should change…if not overnight, then within a time frame that I deem acceptable. Utter nonsense. It’s destructive. Because, once again, that resentment sets in and things only get worse. You end up feeling like you’re wasting your time, and when a sense of futility becomes pervasive, it’s already almost too late. It takes discipline and hard work to make it back from that.
Against this backdrop, I’ve experienced the same sort of impatience with God. It sounds as dumb as it is, yet when I’m in the midst of it, I can’t see it, missing the forest for the trees. I cry out to God, asking for help with more selfishness than humility: Help me make it as a writer, help my marriage, please send a briefcase full of money from the sky! When I don’t get the quick results I desire, I feel betrayed. Like no one is really listening. Like the songs on the radio are full of false promises, and that the Word itself has misled me. But I have misled myself by choosing to focus on the wrong things, by hearing what I want to hear instead of the truth.
The truth is, life can be terrible, hard, and mean. And there is no assurance of a good outcome for any of us on this earth simply because we choose to follow God. The whole idea of abundance theory preached in many mega-churches is dangerous drivel. It’s connected to Calvinism and the idea that success is predestined, a concept which helped to form the Protestant Work Ethic and build a nation, but which in many ways undermines the deeper message of the gospel. This Calvinistic attitude spawns the belief that poor are poor because God has decided it, and conversely that the wealthy are wealthy because they have earned favor in the eyes of the Lord. This belief system is insidious. Ask the Paul, Peter and Timothy about that.
Because the assurance and peace Jesus and the Apostles talk about is the eternal kind, not the earthly kind, and the our peace on this rock is found in knowing this and feeling fulfilled and joyous despite our circumstances. Salvation, peace, and joy are not things we have earned, but which come, ultimately, through the grace of God. Apart from God, I can do nothing. I am worth nothing. And this, perhaps, is the central truth I’ve missed over and over again.
The story isn’t mine. It never was. Paul extolls us in Hebrews 12:2 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our fate…” I’m an author, yet I’m not THE author. I focus on the things which I want, the tangible trappings of success, and I fix my gaze upon that which I cannot obtain alone. I cling to my pride like a talisman and wonder why I become disillusioned. I truly want to reach people, to touch lives and be a force of light, but I’ve been going about it all wrong, putting my own story ahead of the most important story.
It will take hard work and discipline, and faith, but when I look back twenty years from now, I pray I will be able to say that I was living and writing for the right reasons, not the wrong ones, and that I released my foolish pride, my selfish expectations, and human arrogance. By emptying myself, I pray that God will fill me with His spirit and that the kind of peace which matters is the peace I will have found.
I still have a mountain to climb, and my way is unclear. I have much to learn, and am certain I will falter. I am not alone, and in this knowledge I will rest assured, striving to fix my eyes on Jesus, my sole destination.