A good horse trainer will tell you that it’s not necessary to fully break a horse. You need only to break it enough to be able to train it. For me to be able to learn the ways of God, I had to become broken enough for Him to mold me and train me. I wasn’t wild like a mustang; I was stubborn like a mule.
I started off on the right track. Mom and I often went to church, where I learned the great stories of the Bible. I especially loved stories about David. Not only was he a great king, but he was also a fine musician—and music had always fascinated me.
My father was an alcoholic and didn’t possess the abilities to be a role-model dad. He was miserable and angry most of the time, and when he drank, he could be mean. I loved him, but I didn’t like him when he was drunk. At the same time, he worked hard to raise us six kids. And I know he loved us.
So I was pretty much a mama’s boy. Besides taking me to church, she tried to keep me away from Dad’s drinking as much as she could…which gave me lots of freedom to stay away from home.
By the time I was ten, I could play several songs on the guitar, and I loved to sing. Singing just came natural. It became my refuge of sorts. When I was lonely or upset, I’d pick up my guitar. It was my emotional outlet. I got lost in my music, and I got a lot of attention, especially in church. I loved the spotlight and thrived in it. Later, music would become my mode of survival and eventually, the gateway to my addictions.
I graduated from high school in 1966 and left home to attend college in California. I wanted to be an evangelist like the preachers who brought tent revivals to our town—traveling and singing, saving souls. Those were my intentions, and they were good.
I wasn’t ready for California. I was as naïve and green as you could be—a country hick to the max. But people warmed up to me for some reason. I suppose they liked my country-boy innocence.
I found a church with a strong music program, and I was in awe of the music and youth pastor. He took me under his wing and groomed me into a professional song leader and singer—had my hair styled and dressed me in fancy suits. I felt grown up.
I’d finally found the role model I’d been looking for!
But he had a secret. He was a master manipulator with a weakness for women. Unfortunately, because I idolized him, I was easily drawn into his lifestyle. One night in a fancy restaurant high above the streets of Los Angeles, he introduced me to alcohol and cigarettes.
All it took was one drink, and I was hooked. Like a slow-moving tsunami, a wave of relaxing warmth rolled through my body and out the tips of my toes. I was swept away into another world where deception and illusions ruled.
Now, I don’t blame my choices on anyone but myself, but because of this experience, I did more than a little stumble. I became a double-minded man; I was unstable in all my ways. My drinking career had begun. My goals were stifled; my good intentions interrupted.
It wasn’t long before he and his church sent me packing.
After a few months of wandering around, confused and disillusioned, I enrolled in a Christian college where I started a bluegrass band. I made it through a couple years at that college before my drinking was discovered. I left school to join a country band that worked in a bar. No one cared if I drank there. They all drank too!
Then, in 1972, I received a call from the head of a well-known bluegrass Christian band. He said, “Kenny, why don’t you come along with us, and we’ll see what happens.”
Well, what happened was the band, Brush Arbor. We signed with Capitol Records and took home two Academy of Country Music Awards in 1973, including Vocal Group of the Year. We opened shows for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and many other big-time country music stars. We played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and worked in the Las Vegas Golden Nugget
Casino. It all happened so fast, and it was wonderful. I was the lead singer and wrote most of the songs.
Being in Brush Arbor kept me straight for a short while, but soon I started drinking again, and then I added drugs. Mainly marijuana.
Suddenly in 1975, I was voted out. Brush Arbor went on to grow in fame and popularity until they finally retired the group in 1999. I tried to make it on my own for several frustrating years, but no record label would have me. Word gets around in the music industry.
I got married to a wonderful lady with three kids. In 1976 our son, Faron, was born. But like my own father, I lacked the skills and maturity to be a role-model dad. I selfishly abandoned him and my new family to pursue my illusive dreams. Once again, the drugs and booze were in control.
I came to a turning point many years later, in 1990. I had just been fired from yet another job. When I reached my car, severance check in hand, I was at an all-time low. A glance at the twelve-pack of beer on the front seat lifted my spirits. I popped open a can, lit a cigarette, and pulled out onto Interstate 10, heading toward Los Angeles. As I drove, I tried to snort some cocaine up my nose. But because the power windows in my old car were broken and wouldn’t roll up, the warm southern California wind blew most of it into my mustache and face.
I had no clue where I was going or what I would do next. As I veered north onto the Golden State Freeway, I glanced in the rearview mirror. My cocaine-powdered face was streaked with tears. Those tears soon turned into heaving sobs that forced me to take the next off-ramp and pull into a 7-Eleven parking lot. I sat there for several minutes, unable to hold back my emotions. From deep inside of me, a scream was fighting to come out. When it reached my mouth, I cried out: “God! Please help me!”
I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but I knew it had to be something good. As the sobs ceased and the tears began to dry, I felt refreshed, and for the first time in a long time, my mind was clear.
I knew exactly where I needed to go. I left that parking lot and headed straight to the home of a Christian friend who directed one of the largest rehabilitation centers in Los Angeles County.
Normally I would’ve had to wait months to get in, but three days later, I walked into a new life. Unlike so many who think that thirty days will cure their habit, I stayed in rehab for two and a half years. God used many loving new friends and a twelve-step program to heal me of my addictions.
Getting rid of the booze and drugs, however, was just the beginning. Once the symptoms were controlled, I had to identify what triggered them.
There were a number of things that could have set them off. Shame…a lack of self-worth…a huge need for people’s acceptance and approval…just to name a few.
But far deeper than the psychological reasons, there existed a great spiritual vacuum inside me—an emptiness that only God could fill. I needed to be filled with His Spirit. I was trying to stop my flesh with the flesh itself, and what I lacked was divine power. It wouldn’t be easy, but I needed to surrender every area of my life to God.
So there I was, a person clean and sober with scars left by my addictions and several failed marriages.
I had deliberately turned and run from God. How could He still love me? How could He ever use me?
Understanding that God’s love is unconditional and undeserved and that He could use me no matter what life experiences I’ve had has been a life-long journey. And it hasn’t been easy. I constantly strive to look at myself through the eyes of God, the One who loves me and who has not only forgiven my sins but removed them from me as well.
His greatest commands are that I love Him with all my heart and mind and that I love others as I love myself. (Luke 10:27). I’m learning that it’s impossible to fully love God and properly love people unless I love myself. And in order to love and forgive myself, I must accept God’s love and forgiveness. And that’s been hard for me.
I grasp it intellectually, but I’ve had a hard time transferring that head knowledge to my heart. Satan, the accuser, constantly reminds me of my past, and when he does, my natural reaction is to start beating myself up all over again. I am definitely a work in progress.
But while I continue to struggle with insecurities, doubts, and fears, I know I can rely on the promise in Philippians 1:6 that says, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it” (NKJV). And by the grace of God and through His strength, I am
And you know what? That’s all God is looking for—a heart that’s willing to keep loving Him and to keep trying to be more like Him. As I keep doing these two things, I know God will take this work in progress and change me into the very image of Himself, one step at a time.
And He’ll do the same for you. †