In sixth grade, I decided to learn how to play the guitar for the same reason middle school boys do anything: to woo girls. After one too many turnovers made it clear that my illustrious career as the point guard of my Christian school’s basketball team was coming to an end, I convinced my dad to buy me a black-and-white Fender Squier Strat—a cutting-edge ax that (I was certain) would be my key to metamorphosing into the hardest of hardcore 12-year-old heartthrobs.
Not long after, my youth pastor—channeling the eerie sixth sense that all youth pastors have of being able to intuit whether anyone in their vicinity plays an instrument—pulled me aside after church and asked if I wanted to join the praise band. “I only know how to play the G, D, and C chords,” I said. “Perfect,” he said. I made my debut as the band’s new lead guitarist two weeks later.
Soon my friends picked up instruments, too, and it wasn’t long until a musical coup d’état had taken place. The “Lord I Lift Your Name On High”-playing old guard was out, and we, with our distortion pedals, band T-shirts from Hot Topic, and dreams of becoming the next group signed by Tooth & Nail Records, were in.
We had what some might consider a “limited” catalog—about nine songs in total. Each week, the set list was the same: open with “Blessed Be Your Name,” transition into two Hillsong United hits, and close out the show with a dramatic rendition of “God of Wonders.” From the stage, I would scan the audience, searching for my crush du jour’s shining visage. Then, after confirming that she was indeed admiring me from her spot near the back of the gymnasium, I would close my eyes tightly, as if the Holy Spirit were holding them shut, hoping that she—and everyone else—would see how spiritually mature I was, how deeply I experienced God’s presence.
As it turns out, when you’re convinced you’re a youth group rock god, it’s easy to forget that the crowd is praising Jesus, not you—even when they throw their hands in the air with reckless abandon and fall down on their knees in tears.
As time went by, though, the realization that I was profaning something sacred by making worship about anything other than God began to haunt me every time I stood on stage. Recalling the story of Ananias and Sapphira, I couldn’t help but contemplate the very real possibility that I’d be dead before eighth grade, justly struck down by our jealous Savior in the middle of my transcendent 16-bar “How Great Is Our God” guitar solo. (It doesn’t get more punk rock than that.)
Then one afternoon, while we were squandering our much-needed rehearsal time and doing everything in our power to provoke heavenly ire by playing the opening riff to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” in the sanctuary, my love interest arrived at the church an hour early. Finally, I thought—the opportunity to reap the benefits of my pre-teen celebrity had arrived. Exchanging my electric guitar for the decidedly more romantic acoustic variety, I stepped off stage and sat with her on the plastic chairs, making small talk and fiddling with the tuning knobs to affirm how seriously I took my musicianship (and therefore my worship).
“So, do you like anyone?” I asked. “Like, do you like-like anyone?”
“I do, actually,” she responded. “I like Adam. We’re going to a movie this weekend.”
Adam—the president of the youth group prayer team.
Early in the year, I had briefly considered joining the prayer team—but, I’d thought, where’s the fun in talking to an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing celestial being if 100-watt amplifiers aren’t involved? I had no way to know then that while I was making a joyful noise unto the Lord (and working on my stage presence), Adam—the supplicatory little snake—was praying his way into my beloved’s heart.
In retrospect, this humbling rejection was the Holy Ghost’s first none-too-subtle reminder that “he must increase, I must decrease” is more of an inevitability than a friendly suggestion. It was all downhill from there: a shockingly talented guitarist showed up one week, and suddenly I was relegated to back-up just as fast as I had been anointed lead. Then I was on sound duty, only getting stage time every other Wednesday. I had sought my own glory, building my house on sinking sand, and now I was experiencing firsthand how far the fall from first to last really was.
A few months later, our praise band—citing irreconcilable creative differences (i.e., the youth pastor replaced us)—went on an indefinite hiatus. Giving up my childish ways, I matriculated to a new Christian high school, where any social cachet I had accumulated in middle school was quickly rendered null and void. The pastor at the school asked all incoming students if we had any special gifts or talents that might help us get plugged into the spiritual life of the school.
I thought for a moment.
“Prayer team sounds good.”