The Man in Black: Making Your Mess Your Message
Rooted in Gospel, Rooted in Poverty
Johnny Cash grew up on Gospel music and began as a singer and songwriter at the age of 12. Later he fell back on his Gospel roots with an album titled, My Mother’s Hymn Book. He had a tragic episode early in life when his older brother died at work in a sawmill accident. Unable to get perspective as a child, he felt a sense of unearned guilt. Working as a child was expected as his parents were poor farmers who grew up during the Great Depression era. They worked on a cotton farm and as a kid, Cash sang while he picked cotton. His humble and tragic beginnings were just as formative of his spirituality as his immersion in Gospel music. His childhood experiences chiseled into his personality a humble, compassionate and grateful disposition.
Drugs and Arrests
With fame came the temptation to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Drinking heavily, he eventually became addicted to amphetamines. Arrested a few times for drug possession and other minor offenses, he did a couple of stints overnight in jail. His drug addiction and infidelity eventually led to the dissolution of his first marriage. He battled drug addiction and poor health off and on into the 1990’s.
Cash became known for his fierce independent streak and being a nonconformist. His personality type as a quiet leader, and truth-teller led to him being an advocate for those who are on the margins of society. It didn’t matter to Cash whether his advocacy for Native Americans, prisoners or young soldiers drafted in Vietnam was unpopular with the prevailing current of the culture.
For this reason he had 'street cred'. Being one of them, those who rebel against the status quo, he walked the talk. He identified with the outcasts and the lowly with conviction. He was part native American, a divorced drug user, an alcoholic, a veteran, and a minor outlaw himself. He was willing to swim against the current and be their lone voice. While he understood that criminal justice was necessary, as a Christian, he identified with the idea of redemption and rehabilitation. He believed in people when no one else did. This why he offered free prison concerts and gave generously to those in need.
For the first time in his life, someone echoed back to him his own spirituality of mercy and second chances. He became the recipient of this kind of redemptive love when he met June Carter. About June he said, “...It's real with me and her. She loves me in spite of everything, in spite of myself. She has saved my life more than once. She's always been there with her love, and it has certainly made me forget the pain for a long time, many times.”
Divorce, Remarriage and True Love
Both Johnny and June were examples of how, through our mistakes, God can use even bad choices to redirect our life and he shows that he stays invested in the person, never giving up. We should make our wife the 'beauty to fight for' in our life. For Cash, he failed to do that with his first wife Vivian. Somehow, even though divorce and remarriage are usually a rejection of God’s will and God’s plan, it seemed providential that he got a second chance. It was June who helped him get off drugs prompting his initial period of sobriety.In June he found a reason to get sober and return to his Gospel formation.
He proposed to her over 30 times. She insisted that he get clean before she would consider entering into a romantic relationship. When interviewed as a couple on the Johnny Carson Show, June tells the story of how they ended up together and she said he was still married when they met and that “it was a mess”. Before that happened she became his true friend who cared about his wellbring. With a deep Chrisyian love, she sought what was best for him.
Man in Black Spiritual Legacy
Though he was married in the Catholic Church to his first wife Vivian, who was Italian Catholic, being from the South, Cash naturally became a Southern Baptist baptized in the Tyronza River, Arkansaw. Cash eventually became a non-denominational Christian minister. His spirituality centered around his persona or his brand. He was called The Man in Black which at first calls to mind his wrap sheet as a minor outlaw and drug user. Later, that moniker became set as a symbol for his identity which he incorporated into his lyrics in the song, The Man in Black:
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colors on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on
… I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times
Cash became an icon and a beacon of hope for men who were down on their luck and looking to be redeemed or at least thought of as worthy of a second chance. He reminded us that the cards we are dealt in the lottery of life are not controlled by us, but by the bigger forces that surround us.
Unlike many celebrities today he did not display his sinful lifestyle or past as a badge of honor. The message that Johnny Cash gave was not just his mess, but how through humble penitemce that mess became redeemed. The messes he made in his own life were somehow used by God to shine a spotlight on the power of mercy in the life of one man.
He had come full circle. His start in music came from his immersion in Gospel music. Gospel gave him his start and gave him a name in the country-western music scene. In the end he gave the Gospel message a stage and a spotlight. The stage, the fame, the limelight, the lyrics were ultimately redirected to message of Jesus and the mercy available to those who need a second chance. Life is messy. For the Man in Black, he played the cards he was dealt and he decided to make his mess his message.
Sometimes that's the best we can do.