EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from Danny Gospel by David Athey (Bethany House Publishers).

Chapter One

We played our first concert by torchlight near the river. Free of charge, our old-fashioned act attracted a crowd to the hymns and spirituals that most people know by heart. "Amazing Grace," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Kum Ba Yah," "I'll Fly Away" ...

My father, an ex-marine, was a Johnny Cash look-alike. He stood tall yet slumped in a black suit and wailed baritone. I stood next to him and added my ten-year-old voice to the cause. Grandmother, in a white Sunday dress, sat on a stool and strummed a sweet guitar. Jonathan wore jeans and a T-shirt and strutted with his banjo, grinning at the girls. Holly, our little tomboy princess, joyfully fiddled an old violin. And Mother, so mythological with her long black hair wisping to the ground, plucked the crowd skyward with her Celtic harp.

That summer of 1986, we performed free concerts all over Iowa—at fairs, festivals, and churches. And we became so famous that people began forgetting our family name. Everyone started calling us the Gospel Family.

On nights when there were no concerts, we gathered on our porch and sang to the fireflies under the stars. And I believed the songs about the Promised Land were really about our farm.

* * *

Fifteen years later, the farm was just a memory and everyone in my family was dead, except for my brother, who rarely spoke to me. I was living in a trailer many bills. Every morning I met college girls traipsing off to class, the intelligence of God apparent in their walking, as if their graces could keep the world forever spinning in ecstasy. I was miserable, and went home after work and read books about hermits in the woods, monks in the cliffs, and warriors of prayer in the desert. One story that struck me was about a young man who wanted to shine. He sought out an elder who lifted his hands like tree branches to the sky, fingers glowing like candles. The elder challenged the young man, "Why not become all fire?"

I scribbled in the margin of the book: God is light.

Carrying the mail was relatively easy, and almost every day I was offered fresh baked goods—cookies, bars, brownies, and cupcakes—from apron-wearing ladies who greeted me at their doors. Because of so many sugars, I soon gained a grunting weight and had to put myself in serious training. Every night in my living room, I did hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups, followed by a strenuous reading of the lives of skinny, fiery lovers of God.

After showering, I'd collapse into bed and stare up at a mural of the Garden of Eden that I'd painted on the ceiling, the colors softly glowing in the dim light from a nearby streetlamp. I'd stare for hours and hours, wondering: why would anyone give up Paradise?

In the mornings, bleary-eyed, I'd crawl out of bed and deliver the mail. The junk and the bills. More junk and more bills. Even the greeting cards in their festive envelopes made me depressed. I forced smiles for the apron-wearing ladies and their gifts of baked goods, and they looked at me with pity, because it was obvious that I wasn't living a real life.

One clear windy day with red-orange autumn leaves swirling into the sky, Mrs. Henderson gave me a sprinkle cookie, and asked, "Danny, why don't you start another gospel band? Why not play with your brother?"

I answered, "I don't sing anymore. Thanks for the cookie. Here's your mail."

At the age of twenty-five, I felt lost and worthless, walking in circles, day after day, enduring the sweet old ladies, the traipsing college girls, and the whims of every sort of weather. I moped home after work, opened books about
holiness, and then sweated through my exercises, making my body suffer. And I always prayed, deep into every night. Flat on my back in bed, with a luminous Adam and Eve looking down from the ceiling, I repeatedly asked for the same old thing: a normal happy life.