Johnny Cash and the Priesthood of All Believers
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | May 31, 2018Johnny Cash and the Priesthood of All Believers
Hi friends, as many of you know, Lucy and I live in the seminary apartment building at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. Our little apartment is cheap, easy to clean, and small, measuring a positively palatial floor plan of 400 square feet. If I’m honest, I like it quite a lot.
There are two doors: the main door from the breezeway, and then a sliding glass door that leads out onto a balcony. If there were no refrigerator or furniture, you could open both doors and throw a Frisbee from the breezeway in through the front door and then right out the balcony door into the courtyard behind. When the weather is nice, we prop the front door open and let the wind move in and out as it pleases. Lucy and I go about our business reading or washing the dishes, while Zooby schemes against the squirrels travelling their powerline highways.
Now that it’s already in the nineties most of the day, early in the morning is about the only time we open the doors. One of my favorite ways to pray is just to sit silently on our couch with the doors open, not doing anything but delighting in the presence of the breeze. Sometimes I try to imagine that I’m a mountain with deep roots and that all my cares and preoccupations are just clouds drifting by, light and free. I sit with coffee, silence, the occasional sound of a garbage truck as the city wakes up. That is, of course, unless the Varsity Pizza Bar across the street has forgotten to turn off its outdoor radio.
Our apartment, small and well kempt as it is, is two blocks north of UT’s football stadium. In addition to the live oaks and skyline, our neighborhood is home to a few bars, and, closest to us, the Varsity. The Varsity has a good-sized patio area, and they play music out there for patrons. They don’t always turn it off at closing, however, so every now and then, I have a morning like I did today: my coffee is poured, Zooby is dozing, the doors are open for the breeze, and just as I’m settling into the peaceful presence of God, I hear Johnny Cash lamenting that his daddy left when he was three and didn’t leave anything to ma and me, just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
I like Johnny Cash. I like “Boy Named Sue.” But when my mind is soft with sleep and I’m trying to center myself for the day, I’d rather not hear how Some gal would giggle and I’d get red, and some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head.
When I sit down for quiet like that, I try to let thoughts and distractions just drift by. But this morning, when I tried to imagine that I was a mountain, the voice of Jonny Cash came stomping across the top of my head like a giant in big black boots. I started to fight the song, to push it out of my mind. I’ve fought tougher men, but I really can’t remember when. He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
Even after the song ended and something else was playing, I could still hear the deep voice of the man in black in my head. For whatever reason, Johnny Cash had all my attention. I was no longer a mountain; I was a Texas dance hall. My subconscious mind started mixing in lyrics and guitar licks from “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Man in Black.” Before long I was imagining Joaquin Phoenix’s face from that movie about Johnny and June Carter, Walk the Line. I remembered how Johnny Cash struggled with addiction, was in and out of rehab, divorced, constantly on the road working, and careful to keep up his outlaw musician image.
Addiction, divorce, over work, the constant anxiety of keeping up appearances. Sounds an awful lot like the struggles of real people leading real lives.
When I sat down to pray this morning, I had something I wanted from God: peace, rest, comfort. What I got instead was the Holy Spirit: a country music song from the cigarette-strewn bar patio across the street, a reminder that the world is filled with people who hurt and who are hurting. Folks for whom struggle is guaranteed while affection is not, those are the people we’re called to serve, neighbor and dark-eyed stranger alike.
And there was I, just wanting to be still. Prayer is funny like that. Maybe the bar patio radio across the street wasn’t a distraction after all; maybe it was God’s way of changing what I was praying about today.
Like Johnny Cash, Episcopal priests usually wear black. We’re up front during worship, and we usually have a microphone. Ordained priests wear black as a symbol of the work we do and of the particular community we represent, but make no mistake: the whole community is called to the work of Jesus. All baptized people serve as the priesthood of all believers. So, you wear the black, too, only it doesn’t stand out as much in grocery stores.
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 has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
I don’t know what Johnny Cash believed about God, but these verses from “Man in Black” have their own rough holiness. It’s worth asking: for whom do you wear the black?