“…Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black…”
(I Wear Black, Johnny Cash)
Several years ago, Willie Nelson came to town, and I was lucky enough to head down to the waterfront along the Ohio River and hear him sing the night away. Part way through the show, the whole crowd loose on music and beer and a Kentucky summer night, the guy next to me, an aging long-haired baby boomer dude sporting a Vietnam Vet cap and an army green jacket, elbowed me and hollered over the music, “Honey, you look entirely too young to know all these songs the way you do.”
I smiled and hollered back, “That’s ’cause I’ve known these songs since I was in grade school sir!” His approval of this fact was evident, and we both returned to singing about mamas not letting their babies become cowboys.
He may not even remember this, but when I was very young, my dad had a picture book about the “outlaw” country singers, and for whatever reason, I was fascinated with flipping through it, and reading what my grade school brain could comprehend about Willie and Waylon and Johnny and Kris. And there was often a country music station on in the car those years, ’cause, well…South Texas was where we lived. All this to say, I don’t ever remember not knowing who those men were. This is maybe why, when the crazy-good Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, came out, I snagged tickets its first week in the theater, and loved it so much, I paid to see it three more times before buying the DVD when it came out.
I know my fascination with these musicians is why yesterday, I took my dad along with me to see “Ring of Fire,” a musical of sorts about Johnny Cash that apparently was a total flop on Broadway a decade ago, but is currently touring nationally pretty well.
Lemme say this real quick–I feel about Johnny Cash the way I do about King David from the bible–’cause they both did some awful, awful things, and hurt something terrible the folks closest to them. Fame and addiction and sorrow and fear and lust can all–each individually and certainly collectively–lead a really good person to make some really horrible decisions. And there’s no romanticizing that. There is, however, learning from it. And having the courage to admit that our all-too-often Insta-ready lives are generally far more complicated, and often much uglier, than any of us want to admit. And having the humility to let God work through our brokenness, so that even the smallest sliver of light might be known through the cracks of our shattered lives.
Good and evil dwell side by side in all of us, and if we’re very lucky, we’ve got enough love around us, and enough of an understanding of grace, to know that even the sum total of our worst moments does not have to define us.
This is what I thought about as I watched five very talented actor-musicians bring to life the music of Johnny and June Carter Cash–because what unfolded before us was the ugliness of infidelity and drugs and unresolved grief and arrogance…and also what got told was the possibility of redemption: the beautiful mercy of a man who spent the latter part of his life using his music for good, maybe even searching for his own salvation through it–a man who recognized a world in deep pain, and who, having an intimate knowledge of pain in his own life, chose to stand in solidarity with the pain of others.
This, y’all, is what we call practicing presence, even if in doing so we’re making a desperate plea for our own redemption. And practicing presence–simply being with another person when everything else has fallen apart and when nothing feels as if it will ever be okay again, and when maybe, just maybe, you think this time you have finally fallen too far from God’s grace (heads up: you haven’t)–this is everything.
I was reminded, too, of the very complicated role that faith can play in our lives. I long some days for a simple assurance that Sunday morning is Sunday morning and that hymnbooks still matter and that there will be a potluck after church with Ms. Sandra’s lemon squares and I will be confident through music and food and the words of the Lord’s Prayer that I am loved, and held so very safe and secure.
The tricky thing about faith (speaking from my Protestant, Christian perspective) is that it is no guarantee against heartache. Or trauma. Or deep, gut-wrenching grief. And the faith I clung to as a little girl is not the same one I cling to now. Because all around me, across our nation, throughout the world, is often darkness…as far as we can see. And it is a terrifying time to be alive in many, many ways.
And yet…God is still God. And we are not.
And God is still love…over and against all else.
And God is always with us…and there is nothing we can do separate ourselves from God.
And so, no, faith is no guarantee against heartache…but it is a promise of presence…a promise that we are not, for one single second, alone in this life. No matter what.
I think Johnny Cash knew this by the time he died. Maybe he didn’t always, but in the end, yes. Because the truth is that his songs–they are not really about him–they are about all of us–with all that is beautiful and true, and all that is so very wrong, each held in tension every damn day of our lives.
And it seems to me, at this particular moment in history, that the very best thing we could do is set about seeing that the beautiful and true is brighter, louder, and bigger than the wrong. Whenever and wherever we can, in our lives and across our communities.
It seems to me, that gathering up the brokenness around us, offering it to God, and helping something new and whole be born out of what has shattered, is exactly what it means to be redeemed, as individuals, and as communities.
There are things that will never be right. And there is a whole lot that needs changing. But…if we could make a move to make a few things right….