Stop Trying… January 12, 2012

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Many years ago our music group, Soul Purpose, was just getting started and therefore found it difficult to gain any opportunity to perform in front of an audience. You see, the problem with waiting around for the perfect gig is that you have to gig perfectly. No one can do that if they haven’t had a chance to try their act out on the road in other venues. So we decided to go anywhere that anybody would invite us.  That included nursing homes, small churches, gospel sings, birthday parties, clubs, shopping malls and even on several occasions–prisons.

Yes, we were invited to perform at a maximum security prison. We showed up, passed inspection, went into the auditorium, set up all of our equipment and changed into our best duds to prepare for the excursion. About five minutes before the show was supposed to begin, the warden walked in with a horrified face. (Well, his FACE wasn’t horrific. He was just surprised to discover that we had two girls in the group.) He quickly explained that the ladies could not be allowed to perform in front of these particular inmates because safety would not be guaranteed. I just as quickly explained that we were a GROUP and did not perform separately. He apologized but said there was no way he would allow the two young women to step out onto the stage.

I asked him for a private moment for our group to deliberate. We chatted, and the girls felt I should go ahead and do the performance without them, since we were already set up. I was terrified. Let me be candid–most people who perform in a group do so because they have selected NOT to be a soloist. And on top of that, if I WERE to become a solo act, an audience at a maximum security prison would not be my choice for “breaking out.” (Pardon the pun.)

But my comrades were insistent and they said they would be backstage listening and praying for me. So we told the warden, who was very grateful, because he didn’t want to go out and cancel a concert in front of the less-than-agreeable conclave. So dressed in my Sunday best, I was introduced and strolled onto the stage and sat behind my piano and began to play and sing.

I finished my first song to complete and utter silence. There was a long pause and then one of the inmates just released a quiet, “Boo.”  The rest of them thought this was very funny, so they chorused in. In no time at all, I was surrounded with “boo” jailbirds. The warden looked nervous. I think he was trying to figure out some way to step in and bail me out. So he stood to his feet, and as soon as he did the chant of disapproval died down a bit.

I sat there for what seemed like a good ten minutes (even though it was probably ten seconds). I had no idea what to do next. I had been given an agenda–friends of mine wanted me to “preach the gospel.” My singers backstage were praying I would be able to communicate some deep truth to these lost men. But now that I was in front of them, I was just a scared little boy from Sunbury, Ohio, who was more insecure than talented, needing approval and finding none.

In the midst of this moment of silence, someone from the back of the room yelled, “You’re fat!” This particular proclamation evoked the fist applause.

When it calmed down, I leaned into my microphone and quietly replied, “That’s probably because I eat more take-out Chinese than prison food.” I wasn’t trying to be funny–just to escape the ridicule. But these gathered folk found it inexplicably hilarious. They laughed and laughed. It was weird. Suddenly I was no longer in a prison–just in a room full of people who were nervous to be around one another and had moved away from some of that trepidation through a good laugh.

Feeling a little bolder, I spoke into the microphone again. “I guess the closest I’ve ever been to a prison is …well, today.” Once again, they thought this was absolutely the funniest thing they’d ever heard. There’s something pure about a roll of laughter that cannot be duplicated in any other human expression, and dare I say, perhaps none from the angels. So I just started to talk. I didn’t talk about my work; I didn’t talk about the gospel. I didn’t talk about music. I talked about how close I came to being in the same situation they were. I told them that I hit a bad spell in my late teens where I got a girl pregnant, her parents hated me, they threatened to call the police on me, but I persevered and we got married, but then drove to New York State to abort the baby, only to change our minds as we stood before the awesome wonder of Niagara Falls.

I forgot about the audience. I was suddenly immersed in both the magnitude of the danger I had been in during my earlier life and the grace of God which brought me through. Then I realized that the audience was completely silent–matter of fact, I had never seen so many tattooed people with tears in their eyes. I risked singing another song. This time the response was different. They stood to their feet and applauded. I didn’t push my luck; I left in the midst of the standing ovation and came back out for another bow.

I then did something that made the warden very nervous. I leaped from the stage and ran out into the midst of the inmates as they surrounded me, patting me on the back, and I gave them all hugs. It was a beautiful moment. It was made beautiful because I stopped trying. Had I continued to persist in my religious training, my musical background or my stage etiquette, I would have failed miserably, blaming my surroundings for my misfortune.

I learned that day something I treasure to this moment: we have two powerful weapons in our arsenal–the true story of our lives and our sense of humor. It saved me from prison. (Well, I mean a visit at a prison.) And it can save you, too, if you’re just willing to cease following conventional wisdom and let your experience in the spirit lead you.

If at first you don’t succeed …  stop trying. Take a deep breath, regain your sense of cheer and self, wait for some inspiration and then proceed. 

With humility.

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Jonathan wrote the gospel/blues anthem, Spent This Time, in 1985, in Guaymas, Mexico. Take a listen:

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To see books written by Jonathan, click the link below! You can peruse and order if you like!

http://www.janethan.com/tour_store.htm

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I just had a “Jonathot” marathon, reading January 7 thru today. I found them all unique, inspiring and interesting! Good for the two ladies who finally found you!! What an inspiration you must have been to them to have gone to such effort to see you again!Take care and God bless you!

    Like


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