Posts in the Road Journal series
- Road Journal – Day One
- Road Journal – Day Two
- Road Journal – Day Three
- Road Journal – Day Four
- Road Journal – Day Five
- Road Journal – Day Six
- Road Journal – Day Seven
- Road Journal – Day Eight
Tuesday, June 26th, 2007
I’m sitting now in a Subway, within a Wal-Mart, jazzed out of my mind. We’re on our way to Flagstaff today, and we had to kill a few minutes as the kids and the bus catch up with us on I-17. Erica’s shopping for little trinkets for the kiddies, and I’m a-bloggin.
Here’s the story of Mike. Mike is a worker at the Teen Challenge Ranch, where we did our afternoon concert yesterday. He was in a red vest that read, “Staff on Duty.” He watched our every move, but not in a creepy way. Several times during the concert, he lifted his hands in blessing towards us. He has gentle and kind eyes.
We sing most of our songs to tracks. I have lamented for years the fact that we can’t take a live band out with us, preferably made up of students, but the fact of the matter is that we sing in such random and unpredictable environments, that a live band would just be too overwhelming to manage.
We do one song a-la unplugged, an old worship song called “Come Just As You Are.” Andy, our fearless leader, plays guitar, I play bass, and one of the students plays the Yamaha keyboard we shlep around. Last year, Andy and I were paranoid to take our real guitars on the road, so we each went out had bought cheapies that belong to the church. Andy got a little Epiphone acoustic, and I got the least expensive Squire Jazz Bass I could find.
This year, however, Erica and I decided that we wanted to have our real guitars with us. As poor as we are on our secondary instruments (we’re both keyboard players and vocalists first), it’s relaxing and soothing to sit and play together. It’s a free way to escape from the students if the day gets too long.
So, we’re out with the real deals. Last year, I found Erica a great acoustic guitar. It’s a Taylor 314ce Limited edition, with a gorgeous Koa wood back and sides. It’s got one of the more sparkly tones I’ve ever heard from a guitar, almost too bright. Andy, upon hearing that we were bringing the real deals, asked if he could just play it instead of bringing the cardboard laminate Epiphone. We, of course, said yes.
So, after the concert, Erica was just sitting, playing her guitar and talking with a few of the kids, when Mike came over. He was clearly a lover of Taylor guitars. Erica offered to let him play it, and he began rattling off information about how they were made, the history of the company, the craftsmanship, etc.
“Do you have one?” she asked.
“No… I don’t make enough money here (on staff at Teen Challenge) to afford one. Someday I’ll be able to get one,” he said, strumming a sweet song with his calloused, world worn fingers.
Now, you need to understand that my wife has a reckless streak when it comes to kindness and generosity. She is the best gift-giver I have ever known. She finds gifts that you didn’t even know you wanted, but in a good way. She observes, records information, then gives.
She came over to me and told me the story about Mike, and said that she felt almost compelled to give him her guitar.
My heart was immediately torn. I wanted desperately to tell her to do it, but her guitar is special for her. It fits her. I found it for her.
I was also immediately aware of our own wealth and borderline gluttony. We have moved, recently, and nothing reminds you that you are a lover of stuff like having to pack it all and move it. We have a lot of stuff, and in that moment, I believed in my heart of hearts that we didn’t deserve or appreciate it.
Here’s a guy who spends his life working at a ranch in the Arizona desert, loving and counseling addicts into recovery. That does not pay very well, apparently, and the injustice of it was almost too much to bear. As we drove away, I almost stopped the bus three times to go back, but every time my heart was not settled. That’s Erica’s guitar. It fits her. I found it for her.
“You sure do love your stuff…” I heard faintly in my ears.
We arrived at the home of the pastor and his wife, whose church has been hosting us for the past three nights. Erica grabbed my laptop from the backpack and took it inside. “We have wi-fi,” Bernice, the pastor’s wife, said. Erica flipped it open and started madly searching for the nearest Guitar Center. For some reason, their wi-fi was acting up, and Erica was clearly frustrated.
“Maybe it’s just not meant to be,” I said. “Maybe we can keep our eyes peeled for a used Taylor on Craigslist and send it to him.”
She agreed, and told me that she had been working on something else and wanted to finish it. I can only assume that, as I have a birthday coming up, and as she was acting slightly clandestine, that it was time for me to take my leave. I went down to the community pool and hung out with the kids.
She appeared about 45 minutes later, dressed in her bathing suit, but clearly not happy. “Did they figure out the internet?” I asked. No. Not yet.
We swam. We watched the desert put on another show in the dusk sky. We ate another astonishing meal provided by Rebecca and Nina, our resident sponsors / top chefs. Beef brisket, roasted vegetables, potatoes and corn. We have much, indeed.
It was nearly half past eight at night by this point, and Erica decided go upstairs to flip open ye olde laptop one more time close to the router, to see if the unholy pagan god of wireless interwebs had decided to bless us with access.
Boom. It was on.
She searched for a Guitar Center in Phoenix. On that website, there was Taylor 510e, used, and beautiful. The price was all wrong…far too low. She hollered down at me, asking for my phone. She got on the horn with GC and asked about the guitar.
“What?” The sales rep asked. “That price is not right… it’s $600 more expensive on the ticket in the store.”
“Will you honor your advertised price?” she asked.
“Well… we kind of have to… company policy. Someone’s gonna get their ass kicked in IT tomorrow.”
She called me up and showed it to me. It looked beautiful. The price was, indeed, far below what a 5 series Taylor should have been, but still enough that we were going to feel it. It was not so expensive as to feel like we were being irresponsible, like we’d buy a guitar for Mike and then fail to feed our kids. It was perfect.
“Can we get it?” duh duh duh duh dah – they say it’s your birthday!
“Let’s go.” we gon’ partay like it’d your berfday
It was 8:45 by then, and Guitar Center closed at 9. He said they were always in the store for an hour after closing, doing cleanup and inventory, and he’d let us in if we were late. There was a hard cutoff at 9:30, as the computers shut down or something of the sort. We mapquested the directions as fast as we could, grabbed the keys and took off.
All along the way, I told her that she shouldn’t stress, or try and force it. If this was God’s guitar for this guy, it would work out. If it wasn’t right, we’d keep our eyes peeled back in L.A. I was just scared to death that I was gonna make a wrong turn and make us too late, and she was going to be pissed off at me, so I was hedging my bets.
We arrived, he let us in, and he showed us the guitar.
It was beautiful. It was older, a ’96, with the pre-Fishman electronics, but it rang deep and true. It actually sounded somehow richer for it’s age, like it had already told many stories, but still had more to tell. This 5 series had cedar back and sides, a beautiful mother of pearl inlay around the sound hole, and inlays on the fretboard.
We plugged it in, and the electronics sounded great; no crackles, or fuzz. There was no case for it, so we had to buy one, which we did and got out the door.
I called Willie, who had been our contact at Teen Challenge, and an extraordinary guy himself, and left him a voicemail. He called me back 20 minutes later, sounding confused.
“This guy Mike… he’s not like an axe murderer or anything is he?” I asked.
“No,” Willie laughed, “He’s a great guy. He’s been going through some serious trials lately. Now… what have you done?” I told him. “Oh he’ll be tickled pink.” Good.
This morning, after a run, we set out. We were nervous. You never know how someone’s going to react to something. What if it made him angry? What if his pride was such that he couldn’t accept a gift like this from two strangers. I had written him a note explaining why we had done this, and that it was not his to refuse. I wrote him a note explaining that recently we had been on the receiving end of blessings that we did not deserve. I told him that his only obligation with the guitar was to use it to bless other people.
We arrived, nearly giddy with anticipation, and called Willie. We pulled the van around a corner and Willie brought Mike over to us.
Several of the other guys saw us and recognized us.
“You guys here to sing some more?” Not exactly.
We saw Willie and Mike coming towards us. Mike greeted us with… not suspicion, but a look that said that he knew something was out of the ordinary. “Hi guys,” he said. “What’s up?”
I told him that God had talked to my wife yesterday, and that it was her birthday. I popped the back hatch of the van and he saw the guitar case. “No…” he said. I opened the case, and he saw what was inside and began to weep and shake. Willie began to cry. Erica cried. I was trying to maintain my composure and tell him the story. His tears ran freely, and he just said, “No way… no. No way…” over and over. I pulled out the guitar and he whispered through near sobs… “It’s a Taylor.”
“Of course it’s a Taylor.” I said. “This wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t a Taylor.”
He took it in his hands and sat down with his guitar. His hands were trembling and his voice shook, but he starting singing and playing. I didn’t know the song he chose, but it was a country-tinged testimony number about finding Jesus at a little country church. His voice, cracked and dry, rang out across the desert morning and the wire and wood vibrated to life. He only made it through a verse and a chorus before he was overwhelmed again, his vision blurry and brow furrowed.
He cried and we embraced. He said he’d never been given a gift like this. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t really from us, but that we were just passing it along. I don’t know if he heard me.
He asked for our address. He said that when he got his composure back he wanted to write us a letter and tell us his story. “I just want you to know the man you’ve blessed today.” We said our goodbyes, and watched Mike and Willie walk away into the chapel, where worship practice was set to begin.
I look forward to this letter, but it doesn’t matter if we ever receive it or not. God told us what to do, and we decided to be a little reckless and do it. It was Erica’s birthday yesterday, and in two days it will be mine.
Mike’s guitar may have been the best present we have ever received.
I-17, Somewhere south of Prescott, Arizona
I just received a phone call that my Nana is about to enter a surgery for bowel obstruction, and there’s a 50% chance that she will not survive. Many of you who know the story of Nana in our lives over the past four years know that it has not been an easy journey.
If today is her day, I rejoice that Jesus will finally be able to rest her troubled soul, and mourn the fact that His rest seemed to elude her in life. I love you, Nana. Be at peace. (Author’s update: Nana is recovering, and doing better under the attention of her three adult children. The Saga continues. Someday there will be a blog about The Full Nana Experience)
No word yet on Nana, as she’s just now into pre-op. We just spent perhaps the longest 90 minutes of our lives at the Flagstaff Mall. This is the saddest mall I have ever seen, and I am not really a mall nazi. One bookstore and I’m normally good to go. We’re on our way to a rescue mission here in town, where we’ll do two back-to-back 30 minute concerts, with a complete breakdown, cross the street, and reset in between. Drive days with a concert at the end are always rough. I don’t know if it’s the altitude, or the drive, or what, but I’m really sleepy.
With the elevation comes a rest from the heat. It feels like it’s in the mid 80s here, in the dead of the afternoon. Oh look! Green stuff!
Hwy 89, North of Flagstaff
What a strange and wonderful day. First, there was the gift for Mike, and then the weird mall, and finally, two of the strangest concerts in my six years in Agape.
The rescue missions in Flagstaff are… interesting. The women’s shelter is a building shaped in a long U-shape, with a grassy area in the middle. Their chapel room was extremely small, so we setup in the central courtyard.
Oh, by the way, they had forgotten we were coming, which is always a good sign. The director informed us that many of the women present were extremely leery of strangers, so we shouldn’t be off put by their standoffishness. They sat as far from us as possible.
Oh, I forgot to mention, there were wasps. Lots of them.
We started our set, and the first two songs were a disaster. Kids were distracted, disengaged, and of course, avoiding wasps. I immediately bagged the planned set and started improvising, trying to get the kids to focus. It worked, and the end of our shortened concert was actually pretty fun.
Oh, aside from the wasps, and the women who didn’t want us to be there, there was a well endowed braless woman who appeared to be functioning schizophrenic, wearing what looked like a doily on her head alternating between singing along with us and listening to her CD player.
The thing about these really strange gigs is that it actually forces me to ask the question of what our motivation really is.
Sometimes the least of these wears a doily on her head.
We quickly packed it up and moved up the street to the men’s shelter, which had a slightly larger chapel room, but was still REALLY small. So small, in fact, that we set up only one of our three choir risers and didn’t bother with the main loudspeakers. We just turned one of the floor monitors around and it was sufficient.
There were a very small number of very tired, distant men at the shelter this night. One of the things that some shelters do is make the folks sit through a chapel service before dinner. This was the case, and their attentiveness reflected this.
I actually like these kinds of concerts, because it forces me to really dig deep. I want to engage them. I want to encourage them. I want to bless them, even in a small way. It forces me to strip away the spiel, and just lead from my gut.
I, again, scrapped the setlist that I had made earlier in the day, and just called audibles on the fly. I’d be conducting with one hand, while flipping through a resident King James pew Bible with the other, as I had accidentally left my NIV in the bus. I’d pick the next song, grab a Scripture, and then ask one of the kids to read it for us as an intro.
The kids were great. They stepped it up, and sang their hearts out for these men, who were not even remotely interested. Through the course of our time, a few of them took their eyes from the floor and actually started looking at us, tapping their feet or nodding along. The trick to this, in my opinion, is to realize that you’re not curing cancer. You’re singing songs. It’s a small, simple blessing. Let it be what it is, and don’t pretend it’s something else, and the sweetness of the blessing can crack the toughest nut.
Then… more strangeness. Since it was a chapel service, there was a speaker who followed us, and made a heartfelt plea for us to stay and hear him. It was 7:15 in the evening, and I had heard the director say that chapel had a hard cutoff at 7:45, so I figured that no matter what he had to say, we could endure anything for a half hour. Of course, no one else in the group knew this. Hehe.
So, he was a former college professor, and smart as a whip. He also gave perhaps the most heady, cerebral, messages I have ever heard. One minute he was in Acts, the next he was dealing with Israel’s exile in Babylon. At some point he managed to get to the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, and the next minute was discussing the relationship between Daniel, Ezra, and Jeremiah. He knew his stuff, and he was quoting long passages from memory, and his theology was spot on, but it was like being trapped inside the head of a mad church history genius.
Remember the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the comedy troupe that would do the complete works of the bard in 90 minutes? It was like a complete history of the Old and New Covenants in a half hour… for homeless people.
Watching the kid’s expressions during this was simply one of the most entertaining experiences in my recent memory. Many of them had to simply sit down on the risers, as there were not enough seats in the room for all of us. They’re all good church kids, and they’re used to sitting through messages, but they had no idea that this had a finite end. Watching them attempt to track this guy will be perhaps my favorite memory of the trip. Once they found out that I knew there was an ending point that was pre-destined, they almost forgave me for saying we’d stay.
Grey Rock, Arizona
Things have taken a decidedly left turn. For tonight and tomorrow, we’re staying at a church just off of the Res. After three nights of air-conditioned luxury, we’re all sharing a gym floor. The doors don’t lock, at least from the inside. Erica and two other female sponsors are literally bleaching the kitchen.
It’s all good. I hope.
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