But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry…

Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues”


It’s Lent and I’ll be giving up Barry Manilow… for Johnny Cash. Seriously. I’ve created a “Cash” station on “Pandora” and I’m playing him, religiously. There’s nothing like a stash of Cash when I’m feeling too big for my britches. I can count on him to deliver a lethal dose of “true” to sober my up. He turns me right way round (repentance) and back to Father. Try him. I  dare you.


I’ve never known how to peg Johnny Cash. He is “The Boy Named Sue” and “The Man in Black.” He is country, classic rock, blues, outlaw, folk and gospel. Cash was/is… Cash. For nearly six decades he rode the rail lines of his own deeply personal music – personal made painfully public. It carried him several times in and out of popular acclaim, and under and then through crippling
addictions. Start to finish Cash’s music changed little, though it always depicted a man who longed to change himself, but could not. Johnny Cash bellowed out one long blatantly public penance borne from the shame of blatantly public guilt.


Admitting our guilt, said Cash, is the purist form of sanity. He had a profound sense of God’s relentless holiness, and his own relentless ungodliness. God, he admitted, always gets the last word.

Go tell that long tongue liar

Go and tell that midnight rider

Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back-biter

Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.

Johnny Cash “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”


He’s coming, and is he ever ticked!

There’s a man going around taking names

And he decides who to free and who to blame.

Everybody won’t be treated all the same.

There will be a golden ladder reaching down when the man comes around.

Johnny Cash “When the Man Comes Round”


Cash levels bad news, first. He damns to hell any “I’m Okay, You’re Okay, It’s All Gonna Be Okay” Pollyanna optimism. Nothin’ and nobody is okay! By laying bare his confession, he demands, as we dare to listen, that we lay bare our own confession. There may be reasons; there are no excuses, and any hope of salvation from our plight of self-inflicted doom is going to prove costly…
to someone.

The beast in me has had to learn to live with pain

And how to shelter from the rain

And in the twinkling of an eye might

Have to be restrained

God help the beast in me.

Johnny Cash “The Beast in Me”


In the second half of his career, with the persistent mercy of his second wife, June Carter, Cash began to reach out for the grace he knew he needed.

I never thought I needed help before

I thought that I could get by – by myself.

Now I know I just can’t take it anymore.

With a humble heart, on bended knee,

I’m beggin’ You, please for help.

Johnny Cash “Help Me”


Finally, he seemed to both receive forgiveness from God and extent forgiveness to himself.

I couldn’t manage the problems I laid on myself

And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else

So I finally surrendered it all brought down in despair


As Martin Luther once put it, we have the Law and we have Gospel, in that order. Listening to Cash helps me remember this; remembering keeps me sane, and true. Guilt is my plan for Lent. Full on. Bare and bold. Then and only then can I rightly own my role in Friday’s crime. Then and only then can I right appreciate Sunday’s surprise ending, and the unfathomable sheer gift of eternal freedom issued in my name by His… “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

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