Monday, December 3, 2012


When Uni and I travel in the car, we often listen to old CDs:  country, blues, rock & roll or whatever.  A week or so ago, as we were driving back from our son's home in NM, where we had spent Thanksgiving, we were listening to one entitled Johnny Cash, 16 Biggest Hits.  We had recently gone through some conflict at church and though we had had a pleasant visit at our son's, we were still licking our wounds from that conflict.  As Johnny was progressing from tale to tale, we said almost in unison (as we often do), "The people at church should be listening to this!"

Johnny Cash told stories in his songs -- stories of real people.  Though he didn't write all of these stories himself, he had a unique empathy that enabled him to enter into the characters of whom he sang.  Some were stories about real people -- persons who actually lived out the drama depicted in the songs; many others were representative of people we all have known; others were fictional, though not "pure" fiction; some were undoubtedly autobiographical.  Each song evinced some emotion in us, sometimes many, even conflicting, emotions.  Laughter and tears often at the same time.

As we listened to him relate his tales in his deep, clear, but raw voice, we couldn't help but feel that we were actually hearing from the person himself -- or herself.  Besides those songs of love and passion we heard:

-- John Henry, the legendary 19th century black "steel drivin' man" swinging his hammer.  We feel the sweat and the pride of a man who could boast in his work, though he ultimately worked himself to death.

-- Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian World War II hero who returned to "a dry thirsty land" and died drunk and forgotten in a ditch.

-- The man who had enough of his relationship and finally walks out with the parting words "Understand Your Man."

-- The man who "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" and spends his life sitting in Folsom Prison longing for the freedom represented by the train he hears "a-comin'."

-- The boy named Sue who spends his whole life searching for revenge on his father the ______ that "gave him that awful name."

-- The mother who cries out her final words to her son who thinks that at last he's become a man, "Don't take your guns to town son!"

-- The down and out alcoholic wandering the streets on a Sunday morning and longing for something he "left somewhere along the way."

-- And, of course, the long list of people in his song, "Man in Black" --hurting, needy people for whom he dresses in black, especially "those who've never read -- or heard the words that Jesus said ..."
I suspect that Johnny Cash knew these people.  He had literally experienced pains and pleasures similar to those who would listen to more than just the music.

If I may say this without sounding blasphemous, I believe Johnny Cash was more like Jesus than many (most?) good respectable well-scrubbed Christians.  Because he had experienced not only the pathos of those he sang about, he had experienced grace.  He struggled with addiction and broken relationships his whole life.  He had at times turned his back on the ones and the One who loved him, and always found that grace waiting when he returned.

The gospel of grace was not given to nice people, moral people, respectable people.  It was given to sinners -- sinners like the ones Johnny Cash sang about.  And until we can see ourselves in people like these, I don't believe we can even begin to understand what grace really is.  As Jesus Himself said, "I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners" (Mark 2:17).


judy mccollum said...

I enjoy your blog so much, Bill. Maybe we don't relate like the man in black because we want to judge instead of have the compassion you mentioned in the previous blog.

Trent said...

When Christians begin to get judgmental, I think its interesting to point out the 7 sins that God finds abominable in proverbs. Usually the sin they are so upset about it not listed.. and just as usual, one is there that they.. and I battle against.. but that's to personal, so lets keep picking on things like homosexuality which is not a temptation for most, right?

Grace and Truth

PS Bill, I agree, Christ was exclusive and clear about it. The only way to not catch it, is if you are determined not to.