“Many people die with their music still in them.” 

I first heard that phrase more than forty years ago from one of my teachers. It registered with me as profoundly true. 

I haven’t always played my music.

I’ve had stretches of time in which I played other people’s music rather than my own. Early in ministry, I could lapse into being a Jesus Jukebox, playing tunes others selected from a playlist of favorites and presenting them just the way the selectors remembered them–no new interpretations or rearrangements.

With the familiar standard  “When Nicodemus Came to Jesus by Night” (a kind of ballad), it took a while—longer than it should have—for me to start hearing clearly and saying directly that “God so loved the world” means that nothing and no one in the cosmos is left out of divine self-giving love.

In my early preaching, I asked for a once-for-all moment of new birth instead of underscoring that being “born again” is an opportunity and responsibility: we’re born again and again and again as we keep dying to mere existence and rising to life as God means it to be.  

I’d frequently play the familiar “Prodigal Son Comes Home” (a country song) before it became plain to see that my garden-variety adolescent doubts and a few beers with my high schoolfootball team didn’t add up to bona fide prodigality. I had far more in common with the resentful, judgmental, and joy-refusing big brother than I did with the younger son. God was coaxing me, pleading with me, to get over myself and come to the party. Still is.

I’ve also had seasons of trying to play music I thought I should and knew I could play. I played violin when I’m really a fiddler or a pipe organ when I’m drawn to the Hammond B-3 (I don’t actually play any instruments by the way). More straightforwardly: I spent time, energy, and whatever candle-power I had trying to write and speak in the language of formal theology. It’s just not my music; I’m a story-teller, metaphor-explorer, and wannabe poet.

Because I trust that God is love, that God delights in us and all creation, and that divine joy is the source and center of reality, I believe that our truest and deepest music is a repertoire of love songs. For me—not for everyone, of course—the music of love within is blues-jazz: the weeping and wailing that become laughing and celebrating, the midnight struggle that gives way to a sunrise of grace, and the slow, trudging cadences of lament that become rhythms of glad, energetic dance. 

After I learned that my teacher had been quoting Holmes, I also learned that Holmes had offered an explanation for why people die with their music still in them: “Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it time runs out.”

There are many dimensions of “getting ready to live,” among them: finding the courage to stop being a performing monkey for whatever organ-grinders have us dancing to their tunes; figuring-out what music suits our voice, our range, and, most importantly, comes from our hearts; and doing the work of staying open, learning, and practicing so that the music can flow through us into the world.

“Getting ready to live” isn’t fully living, though.  There comes a time to sing and to play.

The time is now.

As John Lee Hooker said about the boogie-woogie: the music’s in him, and it’s got to come out.

Got to.