This weekend I found the video that I had originally wanted to put with this post so I am bumping it. I hope no one minds. Thanks to the Anchoress.
A couple weeks ago the Anchoress took a little break from blogging and on the way out left us with a link to an essay about Johnny Cash which can be found here. I read the essay really hopeful, ended up somewhat disappointed, but came away with a few useful thoughts. Key among these thought was this: God can bring the worst of us to moments of pure gold for His glory and for our good.
I will try to help you understand what I mean by that. One of the first few comments following the article was this, ” A rather shallow article about an unrepetant[sic] sinner. Can’t Catholic writers do better than this?” I have seen this attitude from my fellow Catholics far too often and Christians in general more times than I could remember. A slightly “holier than thou” attitude, pleading to the good that is really nothing more than thinly veiled self righteousness that smacks of deep-grained ugliness. This is not the light and saving love of Christ, liquid and vibrant, blood and flesh, fertile and open. It is a brittle, dried up attitude that claims itself superior while becoming more and more detached from the obligations of need and weakness on the human heart. It is the Pharisee and the Priest crossing to the other side of the road — tisking at the sinner, crime and the state of world while offering no balm to sooth it. And the greatest irony is the sinner they are tisking in the above comment was the one offering the balm to so many.
McMullen spends a good deal of time quoting Cash’s lyrics and relating them to his feelings as a Catholic. It is all in all an enjoyable read. But I feel it really didn’t go deep enough. There are two thoughts I feel are important.
First Cash is a man of his time. His voice spoke to men, hard working country men, men struggling with modern life and men for whom the Church had taken a feminizing turn that really turned them off. His songs struggle with faith as I am sure the man did, as many men of his generation did and many still do.
Second that Cash’s personal character and the state of his soul had very little to do with ability to serve as a tool in God’s hands. This is a thing that slips the minds of many Christians I fear. God doesn’t need us to be perfect, good, or even trying. God doesn’t need us to be in a state of grace, saved, believing or even wanting Him. He can take us while we are running at a break neck speed straight to the gates of hell and wring out of us something good. Sometimes for our souls and sometimes to save someone else.
I have spoken here before of Johnny Cash. In the context of writing about the hymn “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling”. The first time I heard this hymn wasn’t in a church it was at my grandparent’s home in a small ranching and lumber town in Eastern Oregon. They had one of these wooden Hi-Fi systems that seemed to my small eyes absolutely massive. The records would spin around and the needle bounce and music would poor out the speakers. Often it was Western, not just country, but Western. “Sons of the Pioneers” and others sang about life as my grandparents knew it. Children of the depression, valiants of WWII, hard working Americans who also happened to be Catholic, but Catholic in a place where being Catholic was ok. Surrounded by Irish Catholic ranchers and mill workers and their family bustling to mass on Sunday morning. Vietnam had been something far and distant the 60s and 70s hardly touched them. For my grandfather Johnny Cash was a favorite.
My grandfather had enlisted in the US Army a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, he was among the first recruits to rolling into basic training the week after. He and his best friend had signed up together. They boarded the bus the fifth of December and drove four days. When they arraived they were greeted with excited men and women waving flags and cheering them and the news that America was at war. The young recruits were all given IQ test. My grandfather was assigned to the US Army Air Core where he was taught airplane maintenance then trigonometry. He spend most the war in a reasonably comfortable office calculating air lift ratios, optimizing fuel and cargo on large transport planes, while his friend went to France and died in battle.
I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave himself for “cheating” that way. His story came out in little bits and pieces while he sat and taught me math, first my multiplication and division then algbra after school and Johnny Cash sang in the background in a voice deep and sometimes raw with emotions that the men of WWII most times had to hide for the good of their country and their families.
There was a pain in my grandfather that he shared with very few people. I believe he felt himself a failure in many ways, he failed my mother when she was small. With me I think he attempted to make amends there and almost on accident let me into his emotional wall one math problem at a time. As I became an adult our visits were sources of great strength to me. Conversations of an afternoon where little was said but much was shared.
So the lyrics of Cash’s music, his voice and style while not my style were stored in the back of my head while my musical tastes caught hold of punk and alternative. Depesh Mode, They Might Be Giants and the Cure were more me. It is another of those moments of great irony that after my grandfather died Cash did a collection of covers of some of my own favorites. It was almost like I could hear my grandfather or Cash or both saying “I am here too. The circle is unbroken”. My daughter sports my husband’s now faded NIN concert T-shirt while I remember my grandfather, now with Christ for ten years, and Johnny Cash sings songs that span three generations.
All that pain, the hardship, the emotions that men of the “great Generation” couldn’t share Cash could. His songs of faith aren’t the flowery women’s brunch songs of too many Church services. His voice sang out in deep gravel tones for men with calluses on their hands and stoic faces. If those hymns of Christ’s love and regret at sin can help a man turn his eyes to Christ it is God’s good. If those old Irish tunes given a country rhythm and American feel reach deep in and whisper God’s name to the soul that forgets how weak and in need of salvation it is then it is God’s good. The man who produced the work is almost an afterthought.
There are none of us here who can or ought do other than pray for the repose of Johnny Cash’s soul. We should remember his life and his work and look for the good in every life. We are all sinners together here and are in no place to condemn one another. But even if we were to know for certain that Cash died an unrepentant sinner and he is forever separated from God there is no doubt that he was used by God for good.
It is certain that we can say more about Cash’s faith in action than many others. Cash acted on his beliefs. He worked for prison reform. He struggled with his own demons and paid very high prices for his own faults even in the midsts of fame and fortune. He also did work with Billy Graham and others to spread the message of Christ, wrote a book on the conversion of Saul and did a voice recording of the New Testament. In the end only God can judge any soul. But the comfort that his songs have brought to so many, the hope, the occasional conversion, the prisoner who found a bit of comfort in knowing that at least in those lyrics someone understood him… that is a good, a blessing from a loving creator and they are moments of pure gold.
the cafeteria is closed has a bit on “my Mother’s Hymn Book” Sort of cool isn’t it 🙂