They say that the legendary Delta Blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his extraordinary ability. They say it. But his contemporaries insist that Johnson himself never told that story. Bluesman Johnny Sines, for instance, said that he would have called him a liar if he had.
Promoters and recording companies used the story to attract audiences and to sell records. But those early twentieth-century black musicians—many of whom had escaped the misery of sharecropping by laboriously developing their craft—knew an insult when they heard it.
The crossroads story suggested that, unlike their white counterparts, black musicians skipped the hard work and discipline of learning to play an instrument. Instead, they sold their souls in exchange for instantaneous, unearned talent. There is more than a hint of racism underlying such a tale.
When Robert Johnson first hit the juke joint scene, he was a lousy guitarist. After making the rounds in the Mississippi Delta for a while, he left for Arkansas and dropped out of sight. After six months he returned, displaying the musical genius that would make him an enduring influence not only in blues but also in rock and roll.
When Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards first heard one of Johnson’s recordings, he asked, “Who’s that other guy he’s playing with?” It was nobody. He was playing solo. Johnson’s style was so complex and advanced that it sounded as if two people were playing simultaneously. And so, Richards wanted to learn to play like this guy.
No demonic bargain secured this ability for Johnson. Some music historians speculate that he learned by listening to the radio and to records. To musicians that awed him with their technique and moved him with their tone. He wanted to play like those artists.
And so, he listened, he internalized what he heard, and he brought those influences to new life in his own fingers in way that exceeds mere mimicry. His style was a new creation. He was a new creation. Because he had heard his teachers. Really heard them and honored them by making their lessons his own.
And that is what Jesus wants us to do with his teaching. To hear it. Really hear it. So that we will make it our own. That’s one of the lessons of the peculiar story that we call the Transfiguration.
Jesus went to the top of a mountain, bringing with him Peter, James, and John. While they were there, Jesus was transfigured. To paraphrase Matthew, his face blazed like the sun and his clothes shimmered like snow on a cloudless day. Weird, right?
In other words, they saw him for who he really is. Love in the flesh. Secure in being God’s beloved and unhesitatingly loving. Love poured down into him from God and poured out to others from within him. The Beloved and the Lover.
And in that moment, they saw precisely who they had always yearned to be without quite realizing it. Their true selves. The image of God. They wanted to know themselves as loved like this guy. To love like this guy. And in answer to their deepest yearnings, they heard a voice:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Know yourself as loved. And, paradoxically, you’ll discover yourself as loved by the love you give away. Yes, you love because you are loved. And you know that you are loved when you love.
Learning to love is sort of like learning to play guitar. You may not be very good at it initially. You might even really stink it up. But with practice, you’ll be banging out a recognizable tune. In time, you might even become a virtuoso.
But in the final analysis, you only learn to play the guitar by playing the guitar. And you only learn to love by loving.