Yesterday was Johnny Cash's Birthday. He would have been 77 years old. Johnny Cash was a man whom I never met, but shaped my life deeply. His autobiography Cash was definitely in the top three books I've ever read. I can't imagine any autobiography meaning more. I still remember the day he died, my freshman year of college. Yes, I wept that day. Even though I had never met John, I felt as I had lost a dear friend.
Cash's story has always touched me. He retells so much of his past in his book. He is not ashamed to say who he was and what he's been through, yet he would be the last to glorify his sin. Like Johnny, I came from a rural background with not much money, we may not have been cotton farmers, but I always felt connected to his stories. My father was a hard working blue collar man as well as Cash's father. And mine had no time for music, and always told me I would just grow out of wanting to play guitar. Much like Cash, I've always felt more at home with those who feel like outlaws and the downcast.
Mars Hill offers a video on the life of Johnny Cash
Cash's description of the Nickajack cave story is one that moves me to tears. Hear is a man the world saw as having everything, but he climbs into a whole to die because he feels so far from God. Yet God is not done with him, and loves him. He safefully brings Cash out of the cave, and begins to bring him back to him.
I hear so many stories of people who say they are saved and immediately change, giving up alcohol, drugs, sexual addictions, etc. These stories never do much for me. They seem so fake. My change has never been so easy, its been a long struggle of fighting against God, and Him bringing me back and showing me grace. Perhaps thats why I connect with Cash so much. He never says it was easy or instant. He fought God for a long time, and even when he surrendered it was a messy, bumpy road.
Russel Moore, Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a moving article about the life of Johnny Cash, and the infatuation of young people with cash's life and music. I encourage you to read the whole article, its quite short.
Johnny Cash is dead, and there will never be another. But all around us there are empires of dirt, and billions of self-styled emperors marching toward judgment.
Perhaps if Christian churches modeled themselves more after Johnny Cash, and less after perky Christian celebrities such as Kathy Lee Gifford, we might find ourselves resonating more with the MTV generation. Maybe if we stopped trying to be “cool,” and stopped hiring youth ministers who are little more than goateed game-show hosts, we might find a way to connect with a generation that understands pain and death more than we think.
Perhaps if we paid more attention to the dark side of life, a dark side addressed in divine revelation, we might find ourselves appealing to men and women in black. We might connect with men and women who know what it’s like to feel like fugitives from justice, even if they’ve never been to jail. We might offer them an authentic warning about what will happen when the Man comes around.
And, as we do this, we just might hear somewhere up in the cloud of witnesses a voice that once cried in the wilderness: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Special thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing me toward the Moore article and Mars Hill video.