LIFE STORY AND CHRISTIAN TESTIMONY
BY CHRISTOPHER PARKENING
For over 40 years I have been known in the classical music world as a concert guitarist. I have recorded over 20 albums with EMI/Capitol Records and Sony, been nominated twice for a Grammy® Award, and have played with every major orchestra in the United States. However, there was a time in my life when I stopped concertizing and recording, and even gave up playing the guitar completely. This is the story of my journey of walking away from a successful music career to returning to perform once again with a new purpose.
GROWING UP IN LOS ANGELES
I grew up in Los Angeles and started playing the guitar at the age of 11, inspired by my cousin, Jack Marshall, who was staff guitarist at MGM Studios. I loved the way he played the guitar, and I asked him about studying the instrument. He recommended that I learn the classical style first to establish a good foundation in guitar technique. He also suggested I purchase the recordings of Andrés Segovia, the greatest guitarist in the world. I was so impressed with Segovia’s playing that I started classical, loved it, and stayed with it.
Even before I began playing the guitar, I had a great love of the outdoors, in particular, fly-fishing for trout. My dad taught me the art of dry fly-fishing when I was only six years old. The most enjoyable times of my early life were spent on a trout stream in the High Sierras of Northern California, so my goal in life was to some day own my own ranch with my own private trout stream.
As I grew up, I became convinced that my aim should be to make a lot of money, retire early and enjoy the “good life.” Since my father had retired at 47, I decided that 30 would be a better age to retire! As I became more proficient with the guitar, I wondered if my musical ability might somehow help me achieve that goal.
WORKING TOWARD EARLY RETIREMENT
I grew up in a home that taught me the value of hard work and discipline. With my father’s encouragement, I would get up at 5:00 a.m. and practice for an hour and a half before school and again in the afternoon. You can imagine what a conflict that created for a young man with a keen interest in sports. After school I would have preferred to be outside playing with friends, rather than practicing my guitar!
With the support of my parents, however, the hard work began to pay off. Four years later, at age 15, I received a scholarship to perform at Andrés Segovia’s first United States master class held at the University of California at Berkeley. It was a great honor to play for the man who had inspired me for so many years. He told me I had the potential for a wonderful career with the classical guitar and encouraged me to “work very hard.” It was my good fortune to continue private study with Segovia and later, when I attended the University of Southern California, to study musical interpretation with the world renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
At age 19, I signed with Capitol Records for a series of albums, and was asked to start the guitar department at the University of Southern California. The following year I signed with Columbia Artists Management and began a rigorous concert schedule touring the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia, eventually performing over 90 concerts a year!
Needless to say, as I added a grueling concert schedule to my teaching and recording obligations, my life became ever more stressful. Frankly, I was miserable on tour. I hated the hotel rooms, the airplanes, the monotony of one concert after the next. But, I thought, there will come a day when I will be happy. I’ll have my own ranch with my own trout stream and I can retire. I can do what I want to do, go where I want to go, and be content. And that was the goal I pursued.
At 30, I achieved my goal. I stopped playing the guitar, found a ranch with a beautiful trout stream in Montana, and moved there from Southern California. I called Capitol Records, USC, and Columbia Artists Management to thank them, and to let them know that I wouldn’t be playing the guitar anymore. I had achieved my life’s dream!
For the next four years I was doing everything I wanted to do. I was fishing to my heart’s content, learning every trout stream in the area, and going back to Southern California in the winter to escape the snow and cold weather. I was living the good life—or so I thought.
SEARCHING FOR TRUTH
There’s an old proverb: “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” Well, that was the case with me. Soon after retirement, I became bored with my life and felt empty inside but I didn’t know why. My “ideal” life was turning out to be not so ideal after all. I needed something more, something to provide the fulfillment my success had not given me.
During one of my winter visits to Southern California a neighbor leaned over the backyard fence and invited me to a Bible teaching church where I heard John MacArthur preach a sermon entitled “Examine Yourself Whether You Be in the Faith.” He read this passage from the Bible:
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day [when they die], Lord, Lord, have we not . . . in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7:21-23).
When he spoke those words from the Bible my whole life flashed in front of me and I realized I would stand before Christ and He would say to me, “Depart from Me, I never knew you! You never cared about the things of Christ, you never cared about being obedient to My commandments, you never cared about glorifying Me with your life or with your music—all you cared about were your ranches and your trout streams. Depart from Me!”
Suddenly I realized I wasn’t a Christian after all. Oh, I had believed some facts about Christ, that He was the Son of God, that He died on the cross for the sins of the world, and that He rose again the third day. I believed all the right facts about Christ. And you know, I even wanted a Savior to save me from hell, but what I did not want was a Lord of my life—that I should follow and trust and be obedient to (and frankly, you can’t separate the Saviorhood from the Lordship of Christ. Jesus is both Savior and Lord)!
That night I lay awake, broken over my sins. I realized that my life was a total washout. I had lived a very selfish life and it had not made me happy. Knowing I was a sinner before God, I gave my life to Christ that night for real and I asked Him to forgive me of my sins and to be my Lord and Savior. And by His grace alone He did save me.
PERFORMING FOR GOD’S GLORY
My new commitment to Christ gave me a great desire to read the Bible and learn more about the Word of God. One day I read a passage from 1 Corinthians which said, “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Well, there were only two things I knew how to do: one was fly-fish for trout, and the other was playing the guitar and the latter seemed the better option to pursue. Somehow a career in fly-fishing for the Lord just didn’t seem the way to go.
The great composer J.S. Bach said, “The aim and final reason of all music is none else but the glory of God.” Bach signed many of his compositions with the initials S.D.G., which stands for Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone the glory). I thought, If Bach could use his great ability for that purpose, that would be the least I could do with whatever ability or talent the Lord had given me. It became evident that the Lord wanted me to return to playing the guitar again, but this time for a different purpose—to honor and glorify my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Shortly after making my decision to return to playing, I sold my ranch in Montana and returned to California. Initially, I had a rude awakening when I contacted my former manager in New York. He told me flatly that I had thrown away a very valuable career and that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to return to the concert stage after a four year absence. I knew that all things work according to God’s will and that it would be only by His grace that I would be able to return to a professional concert career. The Lord was gracious! I played with every major orchestra in the nation, traveled the world on countless concert tours and even played for the President of the United States at the White House. The fulfillment which eluded me for so many years had at last been found and the emptiness I once felt was gone forever.
On my music stand at home I have taped a note that reads, “Chris, what are you here for?” Just as my touring guitar bears the scars of having been used to create music, so I pray that my imperfect life will be an instrument in God’s hands for His purposes and to His glory.
SHARING THE GOOD NEWS
One day I had the opportunity to share with my 11-year-old niece, Christi, what it means to be a Christian. I said, “Christi, if you were to die tonight and stand before God and He were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’ what would you say?”
“Well,” she replied, “I would say ‘Because I’ve been a good girl.’”
“How good have you been?,” I asked, “Have you been perfect?”
“No,” she admitted, “I haven’t been perfect.”
“That’s true,” I said, “No one is perfect. In fact, the Bible says, ‘For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23), and ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’ (Romans 3:19). But God requires us to be perfect (James 2:10), and who can be perfect? Nobody, right? Nobody can be perfect.”
I told her that salvation is a free gift received by faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” I said, “You’re not saved by your good deeds; you are saved by grace, and grace means God is freely giving you something you don’t deserve.”
I also told her the Bible says that God is a holy God and a just God, and Exodus 34:7 says that God “will by no means clear the guilty.” Also, Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Since God is just, He will judge those who sin. I was thinking about what a strong word “terrified” is. I was on a flight from Madrid, Spain to New York and half way over the Atlantic ocean the far right engine caught on fire. It was 2-1/2 hours to our destination, New York, but only 1-3/4 hours to the nearest airport, Lisbon, Portugal. So the pilot turned the airplane around, dropped fuel, and when we landed, the passengers were so terrified that there were screams during our extremely rough landing! That is what the Bible says it will be like to stand before a Holy God in your sins!
I went on to say that God is also a loving God. “He that loveth not, knoweth not God for God is Love” (1 John 4:8). The famous Bible verse (and my favorite), John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God judges those who sin, but in love He gave His Son Jesus Christ to die on a cross to bear our sin and judgment.
How can God judge sinners and yet love them? To illustrate the answer, I told her a story about a king who was a wise and just ruler of his people:
Someone was embezzling from the king’s treasury, so the king issued an edict throughout all the land, saying, “Whoever is guilty, come forward and receive a just punishment of 10 public lashings.” But no one came forward.
The second week someone was continuing to steal from the king’s treasury, so the king set the punishment at 20 public lashings. But still no one came forward.
The third and fourth weeks went by and the thievery continued. On the fifth week the king set the punishment at 50 public lashings.
Finally, the guilty person was discovered. The one embezzling from the king’s treasury turned out to be a member of his family—the king’s own mother! The whole kingdom turned out to see what the king was going to do because they knew he was in a real dilemma: On one hand he loved his mother, yet he knew 50 lashes would very likely kill her. On the other hand he had a reputation for being a just king who would certainly punish the crime.
On the day for sentencing to be carried out, his mother was tied to a stake and a big man was ready to flog her with a whip. Then the king gave his order: “Render the punishment!” And just as he spoke, he took off his own robe, baring his own back, and putting his arms around his mother, he then took the lashes that she deserved, thereby satisfying the demand for justice. And that is exactly what Jesus Christ did for all those who would believe in Him!
The Bible says:
He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6).
Jesus Christ, by His death and physical resurrection, paid for our sins and purchased a place in heaven for us, which He offers as a gift that may be received by faith. I told her, “You have a choice in this life: You can stand before God when you die and say, ‘I’ve been a good girl,’ but if you say that, you will fall short. I’ve had people say to me, ‘The good I’ve done outweighs the bad,’ but if you say that, you will still fall short. Some people have also said that they believe if you’re a good person, if you provide for your family, if you’re kind to animals, you’ll be just fine; you’re going to heaven. Well, you cannot invent your own standard for heaven.
A few years ago my wife, Theresa, and I were given tickets to the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California. I noticed that the tickets were very expensive. Now, can you imagine if someone walked up to the ticket agent at that game and said, “I’ve seen these two teams play before and they aren’t that good. I’ll give you $5 to get in.” What do you think the ticket agent would say? He would say, “Hey, you either pay the full price or you don’t come in. You certainly don’t set your own standard to get in!” God’s standard for heaven is perfection—which no one can meet!
As I told little Christi, there is only one correct answer to that question I asked you. If you were to die tonight and stand before God and He were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you in my heaven?’ the only right response is, “Jesus died for my sins. He paid my penalty on Calvary’s Cross and He is my Lord and my Savior.”
The Bible says,
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
Apart from the death of Christ on the cross for your sins, no one has access to the Father, no one has access to heaven. That’s what the Bible says. True saving faith, then, is trusting in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation—and the response to true faith will be an overwhelming desire to be obedient to the Lord. “And hereby we do know that we know Him [Jesus Christ], if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3).
In conclusion, I’m very thankful I had the opportunity that day to share with Christi what the Bible says about true salvation. But what about you? Are you willing to humble yourself before God and confess to Him that you are a sinner? Are you willing to turn from your sins and receive Christ as your Savior and Lord? If so, you might wish to pray the following prayer from your heart:
Lord Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner. I’ve been trusting in my own good deeds to save me, but now I put my trust in You. I accept You as my personal Savior. I believe You died for me. I receive You as Lord and Master over my life. Help me to turn from my sins and follow You. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
I hope that you will make this prayer your own so that you can join with me in living life for God’s glory. If you have any questions, I hope you will contact a Bible teaching church in your area or write to me at the address below.
PO Box 2067
Malibu, CA 90265-7067
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16
The preceding Christian testimony was presented by guitarist Christopher Parkening at the conclusion of his summer Master Class held at Montana State University and is available here in Portable Document Format (PDF).
Christopher Parkening, his wife Theresa, and their son, Luke, reside in Southern California. At the heart of his dedication to performance, recording, and teaching is a deep commitment to the Christian faith. He is also a world class fly-fishing and casting champion who has won the International Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament (the Wimbledon of fly-fishing) held in Islamorada, Florida.
(left) Life story and live performance of “Koyunbaba” (The Shepherd) by Carlo Domeniconi at the Harvest Crusade, Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim, California, 1997.