Johnny Cash's first big hit was "Cry, Cry, Cry." Cash concludes the song with the lyrics:
When your fickle little love gets old, no one will care for you.
You'll come back to me for a little love that's true.
I'll tell you no and you gonna ask me why, why, why?
When I remind you of all of this, you'll cry, cry, cry.
You're gonna cry, cry, cry and you'll want me there,
It'll hurt when you think of the fool you've been.
You're gonna cry, cry, cry.
The song illustrates the cycle of pain and disappointment of idolatry of someone swinging from man to man in search of something that Eros cannot deliver. Of course the pastor knows why. The sinner is at heart an idolater in love with the self always searching for something transcendent that only God can deliver. How many pastors have seen the devastation left behind of someone who likes to "try, try, try" but in the end can only "cry, cry, cry?" Instead of such a "fickle heart", perhaps we should turn to Christ and there discover "A Satisfied Mind."
Or how about expressions of pain? In his song, "Big River" Cash iconically sang, "Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry/ And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky." Though the song is more about heartbreak than suffering in general, the lyrics articulate perfectly the human dilemma of those suffering whether from the lost of a love one or from the pain of broken relationships. Compare this song with a similar message in "A Legend in My Time" composed just before he died. There, Cash sang,
If heartaches brought fame, in love's crazy game
I'd be a legend in my time
If they gave gold statuettes for tears and regrets
I'd be a legend in my time
But they don't give awards and there's no praise or fame
For hearts that are broken for love that's in vain
If loneliness meant world acclaim Everyone would know my name
I'd be a legend in my time
Then there is the reality of human depravity and frailty. Later in his life, Cash sang the song "The Beast in Me" which includes the lyrics "The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars / Restless by day / And by night rants and rages at the stars / God help the beast in me." There is another way of expressing this. "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." (Folsom Prison Blues) In a similar message, the song "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now" sang at various points of his career, is both a song about a literal chain gang and a literal prisoner being set free but could easily be interpreted from the perspective of death and eternal life with the Savior. I believe this is why he recorded the song again on one of his last albums "A Hundred Highways." Cash sang, "All the years I was known by a number / How I kept my mind is a wonder / But like a bird in a tree I got my liberty / And I'm free from the chain gang now." Is this not what we preach at each funeral? We are shackled to a chain gang of sin. Liberation is the cry of every man. Liberation is available only in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
My favorite song is probably Cash's rendition of "Long Black Veil." It tells the tragic narrative of an innocent man hung for a murder he did not commit. The judge in the story tells the convicted man he did not have to die if he could prove his was "somewhere else" during the murder. He refused to speak because he was "in the arms of his best friends wife." The long black veil is his unnamed mistress who visits him and "cries over my bones." The tragedy is over how an innocent man was executed for a crime he did not commit because neither he nor his mistress was willing to confess their sin. This public sin remained private at great cost. Someone had to die in order to keep the secret hidden. It is amazing how far we fallen creatures will go to pretend to be what we are not. That, actually, is the real tragedy of the story.
Countless other songs are rich with meaning. "That Old Wheel," a duet with Hank Williams, Jr., is a reminder of sin and its consequences. "What goes around comes around," is its message. He also sings gloriously anticipating the Man who will come around in the eschaton. "Get Rythm" is a message about joy in spite of circumstances. And on and on we could go.
This is all to say that Cash, even in his worse of moments, was preaching a gospel. Rarely, outside of his gospel songs he recorded frequently, did he preach the full counsel of God, but there is no doubt his relevance and power was not in trying to be what the culture wanted him to be. He just was. He understood humanity in ways most poets, musicians, and preachers rarely grasp. He did not preached a message we wanted to hear, but preached a message that revealed who we really were. Perhaps this is why he had a heart for prisoners. His songs convinced many of them he was one of them even though he had never spent any real time in prison.* Cash's history of drug abuse and heartache made him, at times, feel as if he were really one of them. And from the perspective of the gospel, he was. We all are.
Pastors and theologians should learn from Cash. Humans hide who they are, but we all know the truth about ourselves and those in our pews. Most pastors are busy trying to keep their job instead of fulfilling their calling. The message of the gospel, hinted at throughout Cash's career, is our job. If we would learn to pierce the hearts with a confrontation of the human dilemma and present a gospel that actually saves, instead of one that capitulates, we could change the world. Instead of a "Personal Jesus," perhaps we should preach how "God's Gonna Cut You Down" into a burning "Ring of Fire." However, the hope of such a lost soul is found in the "Mercy Seat" by which the "Amazing Grace" of God brought "Redemption" through the precious blood of "The Man in White."
"Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?" Yes you were. We all were. Preach it Mr. Reverend Black.
* Listen to the Folson Prison live album. Cash knew his audience. Virtually every song regards crime, prison, and punishment.
"Redemption" by Johnny Cash
"A Satisfied Mind" by Johnny Cash