Johnny Cash and Thoughts on Vocation

Over the last few days, I completed reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography cash (ibid.) and I respect him and his music even more now than I did before. It has to do with his determination to follow his vocation with simple (not simplistic) truthfulness.

Vocation—(n.) a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action

I remember sitting down with a professor when my family and I moved for me to attend seminary several years back. We met with a scholar from the church history department. My wife and I went into the professor’s office and exchanged pleasantries for a bit. He asked me which writers and thinkers most influenced me. Then he asked me to describe my vocation. It was then I discovered his aim. It was for me to understand what I really valued. By whom and to what was I called?

I relearned through that conversation years ago something I again appreciated in Cash’s autobiography. It is this idea of vocation.

This idea of vocation/calling shapes Cash’s music. He is not glamorous. He is not flashy. He is not adorned. He is simply (not simplistically) “the man in black” with his black Martin guitar, his black boots, his deep Arkansas-Tennessee voice, his simple lyrics about love, loss, self-destruction, rescue, redemption, Jesus’ work on behalf of sinners, marriage, forgiveness, restoration—all with ever-present focus.

His country music attests to his worldview. It bears witness to his efforts to answer and follow his vocation.

There were dark times, of course. He battled amphetamine and opioid addiction. He battled the bottle. He battled lust. He was not a perfect husband or father. But he pressed on; he followed his vocation. He did not sell out to style over substance.

When he saw that much of so-called country music had degenerated to donning a cowboy hat, wearing tight jeans, boots, and speaking with a southern accent … well, he stayed true to what he knew—the old gospel tunes, Hank Williams Sr.’s tunes, the Carter Family mountain music, Bill Monroe, and the other pioneers.

He kept to the timeless truths he had learned the hard way … from growing up poor in the South, picking cotton, listening to the panthers screaming at night in Arkansas and to the whistle of the trains as they cut through the farmlands.

He stayed close to his heart for telling the truth musically. He fought to maintain his allegiance to his vocation. Towards the end of his autobiography, Cash writes about his awareness of his own mortality:

Not that I believe you have to “grow old gracefully.” I go along with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s idea that it’s okay to go out screaming and scratching and fighting. When death starts beating the door down, you need to be reaching for your shotgun.

And when you know he might be in your part of town, which is true for anyone my age, you should be taking care of business. Quit gazing out the window at the lake and start telling your stories” (p. 273).

 Cash died in 2003, but I think his contributions will endure due in large measure to his faithfulness in following his vocation, and not losing his soul to this world. I am grateful.


Johnny Cash, October Sands, and Family

There’s a line in Moby Dick that sticks with me. No, it’s not “Call me Ishmael.” It’s this one: “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” Why? Short answer: I have found it to be true. Something there is about the sounds of waves meeting shore; something about the way moonshine bathes the sea’s surface in white, and you can see the dark below and the light above, and you seek to discover some truth therein.

Perhaps it’s something about the strands of white and the impressions they hold for a moment: footprints of walkers, runners, kite fliers and tan seekers, young and old, working and retired—all there until the next wave or footprint or toddler with an orange shovel and matching pail.

I had my family, Johnny Cash’s autobiography, and a week of sun-drenched days and moonlit nights. Tonight is the full moon but it was nearly impossible to tell it was not full already, it was that bright.

Sitting on the balcony looking down towards the pool, I watched a gray squirrel climb a palm tree. Until he spotted me watching him, he seemed on a mission. I watched children play in the Gulf of Mexico while Zac Brown’s “Free” poured from a Bose Wave Music System, and many of us sang along, even if to ourselves.

I swam with my son and rode the waves in from the sandbar. I heard his boyish voice say, “Hey Dad, watch this!” wave after wave, afraid I’d miss seeing him.

I watched my wife’s skin absorb the sun and turn brown almost immediately. I read my Johnny Cash autobiography and listened to his last album filled with gospel songs about hurt and redemption and heard his voice say, “The Man Comes Around,” in a voice like no one else’s.

I watched my immediate and extended family work to provide and continue to make memories. And it’s all so simple: sunlight, water, sand, each other, music, ice cream, walking at night with headlamps on our foreheads, chasing the crabs on shore, their black eyes glowing in our beams of light. And still, the moon above. The sand like a white ribbon. The sounds of the water lapping at your ankles and retreating. Children’s voices. An occasional firecracker. The silhouette of lovers walking beside one another.

Melville was right; meditation and water are forever wed in a dance. And it is a good thing to be able to participate, to wade in and belong.