For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter’s ground. When the man comes around.
-Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around
February 26th would have been Johnny Cash’s 83rd birthday. In years past, when I was thin enough to fit into it (thanks food binges and booze!) I would wear my black suit on that day and find a bar to toast the man. This was especially effective at the Waterloo in Louisville, CO which is a giant memorial to The Man in Black.
To say the least, the man has had a rather large impact on my life. Of course, I heard him in childhood due to my dad’s love of all things music. That passion for his music grew and became something of my own during my high school punk/rock phase where I was seeking anyone that could exhibit the raw emotions and the spare lyrics that I found in The Sex Pistols and Dillinger Escape Plan. Of course, as someone who grew up Evangelical but always struggled with doubt, he was many times a reminder of the “beauty, ever ancient and ever new” that I was always seeking but not finding.
Thanks to a Cash marathon for his birthday, as well as a Twitter conversation with Dawn Eden, I have decided to call this A Johnny Cash Lent. Stay with me, this will make sense if a bit.
Since our last Easter, which marked my tenth anniversary as a confirmed Catholic, a lot has happened. I grew in my job as an editor, published two well-received articles on depression, and lost a friend and mentor. Despite that a lot was going well in my life, I had to face some challenges within my own soul and confront some uncomfortable demons. I entered the Church with confidence and exuberance, but by my tenth anniversary I found many of my prayers were a rant at God while also trying to remember to praise Him. In prior years, I drowned these thoughts and voices in booze, sensuality, and everything that goes with it. This year, I found writing, prayer, and contemplation was far healthier but also quite a bit more difficult. If I’ve learned anything in my 30’s it’s that the slow death of self-medication is far easier than trying to wrestle with your own demons in the hope that life is worth living.
While my life, compared to Johnny Cash and many others, has been incredibly easy, his music has meant a lot to me. In his lyrics I found an Old Testament man strumming the steel strings of a guitar, singing once about how “God’s Gonna Cut you Down” while also begging “Lead me Father,with the staff of life/Give me the strength for a song” and it was all from the same man who knew well both the disappointment of his own life as well as what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Cash grew up listening to and signing the songs from his mother’s hymnal. In fact, one of the reasons why he left Sun Records was because of Sam Phillips reluctance to let him record Gospel. He was publicly a Christian who wrote moving words about Jesus and his own struggle to grow closer to Him. When asked about his faith Cash would say, “The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.” However, he was also not shy about the complications of faith and life. In one interview he said:
“I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all. But my faith in God has always been a solid rock that I’ve stood on, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that. I guess maybe I took advantage of that.”
In Johnny Cash one can find faith, but it was complicated. Even in his infamous amphetamine habit, he saw that he was trying to escape something. “I used them to escape and they worked pretty well when I was younger,” he admitted in the same interview. “But they devastated me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That third one, spiritually, is the one that hurts so much—separation from God.” Even in his benders, he knew that he couldn’t escape and only in Christ was he to find that solid rock he’d been searching for. Though he was not even looking for God, he saw that God was still looking for him, “There was no line of communication. But that came back. He came back. And I came back.”
As I said, Cash’s faith was complicated. However, isn’t it always? Aren’t we all a lot like the young Augustine, praying daily make me chaste, Lord, but not yet! As Christians, especially confirmed Catholic with the Sacraments, we know that Grace is always there and available to us and that God hears our cries, but how often have taken advantage of that time we think we have?
If I could go back eleven years ago and talk to my younger self I’d give a lot of advice; “See a therapist, don’t stop taking your medication, and try to go for a walk once-in-a-while.” However, I think I’d more likely tell my young, idiot self, the wisdom of The Man in Black, “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil.”
Lent is a time where we join Christ in the desert and ultimately prepare ourselves to remember his death and resurrection. We also take this time to remember our own sins and where we have fallen short. It can be hard, dangerous and exhausting. Like Christ, we’ll be tempted and many of us will fall like we have oh so many times before. That is the real challenge of Lent: to come face-to-face with yourself and to be able to turn that face to light of Christ. To live for God is going to take real courage, but grace is sufficient to give us the strength to stand when life exhausts every ounce of energy we had.
This Lent, let’s be more like Johnny Cash! Let’s admit our faults and our shortcomings but do it with the confidence that they are not what defines us. Rather, let those challenges give us a tender heart to stand up for the weak and displaced and be a symbol of God’s mercy. Let this Lent be the time where you’re not shy about your faith but also willing to meet everyone where they are and offer the love and friendship this world so terribly needs.
As Good Friday approaches you may don black and I hope you can sing, along with Johnny, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Nota Bene: Of course nobody can write a post about Cash without mentioning “Hurt.” I appreciate an old artist who is aware of his mortality and especially enjoyed the “Hurt” music video because he strikes me as doing what I imagine every writer wants to do: write his own ending, and make it sound like the Book of Ecclesiastes