I first became aware of a “Spiritual Autobiography” when I read, The Man Comes Around, the story of Johnny Cash’s faith. I picked up the book having been captivated by the words on the back cover. “Cash’s faith in God was no different: “I’m still a Christian, as I have been all my life,” he once said. “Beyond that I get complicated.” Cash’s faith wasn’t smooth, slick, or sweet-it was grizzled, challenged, broken, and messy. Worlds away from perfect. But it was transparent … and real. Always real. The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash explores with vivid, narrative detail the wild ups and downs, the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows, that took place within this man’s soul-from beginning to end. It’s his spiritual chronicle. His sacred story-yet one that no doubt describes, in one way or another, where we’ve all been…and perhaps where we’re all going.” I too fought tooth and nail against a smooth, slick faith that surrounded me.
I read every bit of that book. I raised my voice and dried my eyes. Then on September 12, 2003 I said my good byes. My spirit sought to rebel one more time. I got angry and wanted to kick like a mule and bite like a crocodile. The only thing being, I had nothing left to fight.
I was there alone in my thoughts asking all kinds of questions. It was not just about Johnny. My world was shaking at the hinges. I was on the verge. The verge of something. I did not yet know what was about to happen. God had something in mind.
Writing this now I can see the moments spent examining my place in the grand scheme of things. The grand conniving huckster I saw God as was messing with me again. I did not understand the rhyme or reason to which events happened in my life. I blamed, feared, and loathed the “punishment” I was victim too.
I was indeed asking myself, “Where do I fit?” and “How am I different?” I have often pontificated in lengthen these questions with varying degrees of success. As a child I only had to look as far as my twin brother to locate a source of homogeny. I wished I had different hair or something. I desire independence or an individuality that evaded me.
I focused on the surface differences as a child. Grant liked “this” therefore I liked “that”. Grant went to the east and I walked to the west. I fought the generalizing efforts of our family in naming us the twins or boys, never Ryan or Grant. We were the same.
Spiritually, I cannot remember there being serious thought given to the diversity that surrounded us. I did wonder why we did not speak Spanish and have black hair. Finding a place to fit in was not a major concern to me until the beautiful awkward stage of junior high school.
In high school I was a jock. I fully identified with the meathead madness of wrestling footballers that sought to assert their superiority over the other “weaker” classes. I bullied. I sought an identity outside of this madness.
I feared not fitting in with the beauty and pageantry of high school elitism. If I was not “in” then I was “out”. I could not sit with that. I knew how it felt to be out. I stayed there trying not to be different.
I was thrown “out” after I quit the football team. No more elite parties. No more beautiful people praising me on my exploits. No more gaudy attempts to impress the hotties of high school. I sat in the margins trying not to be different.
I wrestled with the meaning and purpose of life. It was all so clear prior to my exclusion. Now I saw the proverbial suffering outside of the gates of my once golden kingdom. The destitute nature of humanity burdened my heart. My ignorance now awakened in the undeniable image of my fall mirroring the fall of creation from the garden. I write this is dramatic fashion to highlight the deep and penetrating nature this awakening was to me.
I soon turned to “God”. I became hungry for answers. I can say now that my quest for knowledge of difference and my location in that difference light up like a Vegas Strip neon sign. Only it did not say “GOLDEN NUGGET”…it read more like “Eat at Joes”
Which leads me to Johnny Cash and 2003. I wept as if my father had passed. Not because I knew Johnny. I loved and love his music. As I read that book his story spoke to me. I said, “You don’t have to be perfect to have purpose. You don’t have to have your shite together to be useful. You do have to love yourself, like God loves you.” Like a ton of bricks landing on my shoulders, I was floored. There it was a real and honest story of a man that loved God. A man that messed up in spite of his conviction to love Christ. A man that came around.
I found hope in my difference. I knew I fit in. I was not too sure of all of the details. I knew God loved me just as I am. God kicked the lid off the box I used to tame the divine mystery. I was on my way to new depths in my spiritual journey.
I reflect now upon my journey. The moments spent in the shade of the tree of truth. The refreshing drinks from the river of joy. The nourishing fruits of beauty and grace. The awe present in the moments of utter suspense, as God shaped and molded my heart to become more capable of compassion and love.
I entered seminary with a deep spiritual sense. I considered myself a man of faith. I had decent spiritual discipline. I did show up to seminary absent of a single Bible. Some may say this in itself is an act of deep faith. I just forgot to pack a Bible from home.
Reflecting on patterns of spiritual development…I hate to pigeon hole myself back into boxes. I do find myself living a character rather than living the life God called me to live. I see an emerging theme in regard to my spiritual development. I become weary and lazy due to constant effort to be like others. I want to be the Dali Lama, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, or Henri Nouwen. I want to have a Solomonic wisdom bestowed upon me by the Lord. I am different, because I am me.
I see emerging from within the depths of uncertain and insecure living a spiritual posture of still quite wisdom. I fit in the call I am compelled to live with Godly precision. I do not always live up to the expectations of my call. I fail in spite of my hopes and intensions. I am no different in this than anyone else.
I am making peace with the human component of my humanity. It was during summer Greek camp. On July the fourth. A new album was released. American V: A Hundred Highways went on sale. It was the last music Johnny Cash ever worked on. He recorded the album after June (his wife) died. He is no longer the “Man in Black” on this album. There is a frailty to his voice. His words cry out for relief from an aching and broken heart.
Johnny sings in “Help Me”, “Oh, lord, help me walk another mile, just one more mile; I’m tired of walkin’ all alone. And lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile; Don’t think I can do things on my own. I never thought I needed help before; thought that I could get by – by myself. But now I know I just can’t take it any more. And with a humble heart, on bended knee, I’m beggin’ You please for help.” There in that moment I understood what it means to seek God. With tears streaming down my face I listened to that song perhaps twenty times in a row. With every successive play I meditated deeper into the mystery of God.
I do not like labels. I rebel still when labels are given to me. I am deeply inspired by the artistic expression of others. Johnny Cash wrote two songs released on that posthumous album. One of them was called “I Came to Believe”. I could not describe my spiritual journey better than this. The lyrics are as follows, “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. I cried out for help and I felt a warm comforter there. And I came to believe in a power much higher than I. I came to believe that I needed help to get by. In childlike faith I gave in and gave him a try. And I came to believe in a power much higher than I. Nothing worked out when I handled it all on my own. And each time I failed it made me feel twice as alone. Then I cried, “Lord there must be a sure and easier way. For it just cannot be that a man should lose hope every day.” Yes, I came to believe in a power much higher than I”