The Man in Black’s a Razorback

There’s not much to be proud of when you’re from Arkansas, but we do have Johnny Cash. He would have been 81 years old today.

A record on the wall at Sun Studios.
A record on the wall at Sun Studios.

Born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, a little hole-in-the-wall town about four hours away from Paragould, a similar hole-in-the-wall town I once called home. He grew up during the Depression, worked in the fields with his family, and was raised with a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other. All of these things were essential to making him into the man he was, and they were an integral part of his music over a nearly fifty-year career. He might have varied the delivery and style, but everything he sang was uniquely his.

I could wax philosophic about Johnny Cash for hours, but I think it’s best to keep it short for the purposes of this blog. If you are interested in his life story, I highly suggest The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner and Cash: The Autobiography by the man himself.

People who know me don’t understand why I dislike country music as a genre but adore one of its legends. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia and synonymity.

His music was the soundtrack for many of my happy childhood days. My grandfather owned a flooring store where both he and my father worked, and I spent untold hours running around and climbing over rolls of carpet and scaling piles of tile samples. Often, my grandmother worked a shift, and she always listened to a country and gospel station that played a hefty dose of Mr. Cash. Whenever I hear certain songs of his, it takes me back to a day when I had a permanent case of rug burn on my knees and the biggest problem I had was getting a B in math.

A photo taken of me during a tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. You should go. It's a piece of history!
A photo taken of me during a tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. You should go. It’s a piece of history!

I also admired him for more than just his music. It was the way he approached life, how his feelings permeated every word and chord of his music. He was a man of strong (if sometimes misguided) opinions and principles, and once he sunk his teeth into something, you would have a heck of a time wrestling it back from him. He lived passionately and loved fiercely—two traits that I admire. I think, like many people, I see a little of myself in Johnny Cash.

But I’d like to try to explain it using something more specific—five reasons and five songs.

1. “Get Rhythm”

This was the B-side on his first hit record, “I Walk the Line.” I think I love his optimism the most. The shoeshine boy he describes has been dealt a pretty tough hand, but he makes the best of it—a lot like Mr. Cash himself. I also enjoy this song because it demonstrates his ability to bend the rules. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums or horns to be played on stage, but Cash needed the percussive sound for his music to work. His trick? A dollar bill folded and wedged under his strings to mute the sound and create the “chicka, chicka, chicka” sound you hear in both recordings.

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A table I saw outside a bar last time I was in Memphis…and a hand that I think belongs to my father.

2. “Jackson”

This is one of those songs he and June sang together often, and it never fails to entertain me. It’s obvious they’re crazy about one another, and he was always willing to show how vulnerable he truly was when the love of his life was around. She brought out a side of him you didn’t see otherwise–something lighter and more whimsical. He could make fun of himself and drop some of the “outlaw image” when he shared a stage with her. (I also remember watching him perform this one with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.)

3. “Folsom Prison Blues”

Though he never spent any time in prison himself (beyond a few nights in jail for drug-related offenses and for trespassing to pick flowers…no kidding), Cash could write music that perfectly captured what it felt like to be incarcerated. There was something in him that identified and empathized with the downtrodden, the maligned, and the marginalized.  He knew what it meant to live without hope, like you were scratching at the walls of a very deep hole you might never crawl out of. He understood the darkness and desperation that could claim a man’s soul, and he used it. He wrote songs about that place in the human heart, and both prisoners and free people could identify with it. That’s a tough thing to do once, but he did it in several songs ranging from this one to tracks like “San Quentin” and “I Hung My Head.”

4. “I Shall Not Be Moved”

This recording is from My Mother’s Hymn Book, which Cash said was his favorite album of the dozens he recorded over his career. He was a man of faith, though he walked away from God more than once, and his love for Christ and of gospel music permeated everything he did. This song is so simple, which is what makes it great. He uses it to make a bold statement about himself and the strong faith he gained over a lifetime of struggles and long walks through spiritual darkness. His gospel songs are all wonderful, but there’s something plain and proud about this version I admire. Like all believers, I want to sing this song and mean it….just like he did.

5. “Hurt”

Bono said, “Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.” I couldn’t agree with him more. This song, and the video that went with it, was the one that introduced Cash to younger music lovers who might never have heard of him. This single song created a passion for his music in another generation. But instead of the quiet, raging whisper of Trent Reznor, Cash sings it with a melancholy and bittersweet longing that makes it impossible to turn away from. This is a man who knows the end of his life is near and that everything he fought and bled for was worthless in the end. He sits at a feast table alone, surrounded by the hollow wreckage of fame, and tells us point blank, “You can have it all, my empire of dirt.” In his late 70s and with a voice fading and cracked with age, he still sings with an intensity that is inescapable. That’s the beauty of Johnny Cash; he got better with age. What made people love him in the 1950s still had the power to captivate; he was the real deal.

In everything from “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” to “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash revealed a little piece of himself—whether it was the rebel, the lover, the champion of lost causes, the penitent, or the lost soul. He was a man who, though he wasn’t Native American himself, fought for the rights of that unique people group and who wore black, as he put it, “on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of ‘the prisoner who has long paid for his crime’, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.”

He once said, “With the Vietnam war as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’… Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

Like an Old Testament prophet, this modern-day Elijah still speaks of faith, of fumbling around in the dark searching for the truth, and of freedom. And he’s the reason why I’m proud to be an Arkansian.

Happy birthday, sir. Rest in peace.

26 Lives in 5 Hours

For anyone who already sponsors a child through Compassion International, I don’t have to tell you how rewarding it is. If you aren’t already doing so, I highly suggest you check out their organization and see if there’s a child you’d like to sponsor. For $38, about one dollar a day, you provide a child access to a church-based child sponsorship program that provides so many wonderful things.

When families find out they have a sponsor, you can only imagine how overjoyed they are. Someone they will likely never meet reached out to help them in Jesus’ name, and the money that might otherwise go toward one more meal out or a new pair of shoes for us can do so much more for them. Here’s a video Compassion recently released of a family finding out their child has a sponsor. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but I don’t think I need to.

I also highly recommend getting involved with serving as a Compassion International volunteer at one of their sponsorship events. It’s very simple to do and only takes about five hours of your time. Wayne and I volunteered to help match sponsors with children at an event located here in Marietta as part of a Fresh Grounded Faith women’s event.

It only took five hours of our Saturday, and we helped match 26 children with new sponsors!

Wayne and me behind the booth.
Wayne and me behind the booth.
All the packets arranged by continent.
All the packets arranged by continent.
Just take a look at all those cute faces!
Just take a look at all those cute faces!
These beads were a gift we gave to every person who chose and child and made a first payment. Gorgeous, yes?
These beads were a gift we gave to every person who chose a child and made a first payment. Gorgeous, yes?
If you're interested in the beads, visit this site. They're made by women in Uganda.
If you’re interested in the beads, visit this site. They’re made by women in Uganda.
I saw this sweet little girl in the stack and put her on top. I said that if no one adopted her, I would. But thankfully, she got her sponsor that day!!
I saw this sweet little girl in the stack and put her on top. I said that if no one chose her, I would. But thankfully, she got her sponsor that day!!
Wayne liked this little guy.
Wayne liked this little guy.

Now, I warn you, this can be addictive. It is so much fun to help people find the child God has in mind for them, to help them search the world over right at the table. Some folks had a country or gender in mind, but many were open to anything. We had one woman ask for a child with special needs, and we dug through the packets until we found the little guy she was meant to help care for. Others told us, “Give me one that’s been waiting the longest” or “Which one has the greatest need?” It was great to see so many people who wanted to help others.

Working the table as a volunteer made me realize how much I need to bone up on my knowledge of countries like Togo and Columbia. If I am more educated next time, I can point people towards the countries where children are at the greatest risk of sex trafficking or where AIDS is still running rampant. I knew enough to muddle through this time, but I want to be able to help people make the best choice when sponsoring a child.

The other warning I have is that once you’ve looked at these photos, you can’t stop thinking about the kids in them. As Wayne and I went through the unused packets after the event and saw how many children there were on the list who had been waiting more than six months for a sponsor, we decided to go through that priority pile and choose two more. Two of those 26 are now ours.

We are now the proud sponsors of four Compassion kids—Edmond in Burkina Faso, Paromika in India, Tania in Nicaragua, and Brayan in El Salvador!

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Sight To See

For the March issue of In Touch Magazine, I take a closer look at the elements of the crucifixion and what we miss when we don’t study them intentionally.

If you’re interested in receiving a free subscription to the magazine, visit this page. You can also read the entire magazine online each month by visiting intouch.org/magazine.

 

Default to Compassion

Fantasy author Bryan Davis wrote, “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into, and their broken bodies are evidence gathered too late.” But I prefer my grandfather’s take on the matter. He always told me, “Jamie, when you make an assumption you make an ass out of you and ‘mption.'”

My amazing MS Walk 2010 team---The French Foreign Lesions
My amazing MS Walk 2010 team—The French Foreign Lesions

For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nine years ago. If you don’t know what this disease is, I’ll tell you in a nutshell. It is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms may be mild or severe, depending on which course of the disease a person has. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another. If you want more information, you can visit the homepage of the National MS Society and read until your heart’s content.

I am among the 85% of MS patients who have relapsing-remitting MS, which means it comes and goes and never progresses. Basically, I have an exacerbation every so often. It doesn’t get worse each time, but each time I experience one, permanent damage is done. Depending on where it attacks my nervous system, I could lose the ability to see, walk, or remember. These periods of disability could last weeks or months. I might recover from them. I might not. As you can imagine,when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t take it well. In fact, I wrote about it last year in In Touch Magazine, which you can read here.

I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me. I’m telling you so you can better understand the rest of this post. I am handicapped. Not everyday. Not all the time. But because of my disease, things have changed. I sometimes become incredibly fatigued—so much so that it takes me several days of rest to recover after a stressful week. I am also more prone to headaches and body aches of various sizes and intensities. When I’m tired, my feet often go numb. My vision gets blurry at times, which makes it much more difficult to do my job, to read music, and even to drive.

That’s why I applied for a handicapped permit using a form signed by my neurologist who I see every three or four months. There are times when I need to save my energy. I live in the South, and it can get fairly warm. (If that’s not the best example of litotes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.) Heat isn’t great for MS and can actually bring on an attack, so when it’s 98 degrees with 100 percent humidity, I might whip that parking pass out to cut some time out of my walk across a parking lot. However, I try not to abuse it. If I’m feeling okay or there’s only one handicapped space left, I leave it and go in search of another one. Why? Because I know someone else who has a disability might need that space more than I do.

But if several are open, I feel I have the right to utilize one, which is what I did today when I went shopping for a few new outfits. When I came out, I found a note tucked under my windshield wiper.

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I’ve been harassed for using a handicapped space before, so this is nothing new. But what galled me was the fact that this person automatically assumed that, because I wasn’t using a walker, crutches, or some other device, I wasn’t “allowed” to park where I did. There are dozens of diseases including fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis where patients look perfectly “fine” on the outside but are struggling to get through the day thanks to extreme pain and fatigue.

Having one of these “invisible diseases” has taught me just how important it is to never judge someone or her situation before I know all the facts. I have no idea what burdens a person is carrying during the course of a given day. And even if someone does something that I don’t agree with or that hurts me personally, I try not to retaliate because I have no way of knowing what the source of that anger is. I always try to smile at people, to say hello, thank you, and excuse me. I always try to give a person a kind compliment. I open doors for people. I share. I do these things not because I’m a saint, but because I know how much those small gestures meant to me when I was at my lowest.

But that’s not what this person did. He or she assumed I didn’t have a care in the world, that I felt perfectly fine. (For the record, I didn’t. Long Friday = Tired Saturday) Instead of thinking about the situation and giving me the benefit of the doubt, he or she felt the need to wag a disapproving finger in my direction. And rather than confront me directly, which a few people actually have done, this person chose to tut-tut-tut me from a safe distance where I couldn’t explain my situation. To me, it was cowardly. Haughty. Pharisaic.

Dear Sir or Madam, I really am handicapped.

I may not have looked like it to you. I may not have lived up to your preconceived notion of what a handicapped person is, which is yours and yours alone. And that doesn’t make me wrong. It makes you wrong for addressing a problem only you thought existed.

If I could give this disease (and the handicapped parking permit that comes with it) back, believe me, I would. I would love to live without yearly MRIs that show me what new parts of my head are damaged by lesions. I would truly prefer to live without the small splinter of fear that’s permanently stuck in my heart–the one that pricks me when I think about waking up one morning and not being able to see, to think, to walk, or to care for myself. But, as there is no cure for multiple sclerosis yet, I can’t. I’ve learned to live with it, to embrace it, and to recognize it is one of the many things that has shaped me into the woman I am today.

You began your question with “What if…,” and I would like to respond in kind. What if another person’s life is much more complicated than you thought? What if you considered things from my perspective and reacted with kindness rather than judgment? How much better would your life and mine have been today if we had crossed paths and exchanged a kind word instead of a critical one? I don’t know how you felt after leaving the note—justified, righteous, maybe proud. But I know how I felt the moment I saw it. I was deflated and even a little ashamed for something that isn’t my fault. Today, you reminded once again that compassion isn’t everyone’s default setting, and I am more determined than ever that it will always be mine.

Walking Intentionally

I don’t usually go in for resolutions, but this year, I felt prompted to have a goal for 2013. The word that sums it up is Intentional, which means  “done with  purpose.” All too often, life gets busy and in the way of the things I mean to do or to say. I end up missing so much because I’m fighting to keep up. My goal for this year is to slow down, to observe rather than glance over the people, events, and moments in my life. I’m going to follow the advice of Henry David Thoreau and “Simplify.”

I know God has something to show me, and I don’t want to miss it.  I want to serve where He wills it and to be fully present in the moments He has handcrafted for my sanctification and, more importantly, His glory. That’s why I chose Micah 6:8 as my Bible verse. It reminds me that God isn’t complicated, and serving Him shouldn’t be either. It says:

“He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The last five years have been rough financially, spiritually, physically, and professionally. Pretty much anything negative that could happen (short of death) did. But I’m on the other side of it now, and I am not the same person I was then. I know what it is to feel lost and helpless, like a boat without a rudder that drifts from one place to another with only the fickle wind for company. But I had something that many people don’t–a family to love and encourage me. And now that I’m on the other side of that long, dark valley, I understand why God had me walk through it.

I now know what it feels like and, more than anything, I want to be for others what my family was to me. That’s why I pledged my birthday to charity:water this year and began supporting my first child through Compassion International. His name is Edmond, and he lives in Burkina Faso–a country I couldn’t have pointed out on a map before this year. I received my first letter from him last week, complete with an artistic scribbling that could either be a seashell or a diagram from Dante’s Inferno, I can’t quite tell.

He also asked me a question—“Do you love children?”

I held that letter, written in both English and French, in my hand, and realized that he had asked me a very intentional question. Do I? Do I love children? Do I love them the way Christ loves them?

The answer five years ago would have been a very non-committal “yes.” I did in the general sense, but now, something is changed within me. I want to provide justice and kindness for children. I look at Edmond and Paromika (the little girl my husband sponsors) and I think about what life must be like for them. I think about how much I have been blessed with. I don’t want to give because I feel guilty or pushed into it for legalistic reasons. I want to share for the simple joy of it, to know that in some small way I am intentionally giving to someone who’s life will be improved by a few dollars…or a few words I write on a blog. It is one way I can do justice, love kindness and, above all, walk humbly with my God.

By the way, if you liked this or you want to know more about other Compassion bloggers, join the blog hop using the links below!


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Of Generosity and Snooty Norwegian Water

Imagine my surprise Thursday morning when I looked in my inbox and saw that I had not one, but two donations to my charity:water project, Aqua Jade! I saw the two were for the same amount and from the same person, so I figured there must be a glitch in the notification system. However, when I logged on later, I saw that the person had, in fact, donated twice. Now, this may still prove to be a clerical error, and that’s just fine with me. I’m still stunned by her generosity.

Why? Because I have no idea who “Shawnee M” is. Literally no clue at all. And she gave me $100—my biggest donation yet.

She and I could pass one another on the street, offer to hold the door for each other, or even have a moment of polite conversation while waiting in line and never know that we are connected in one of the most intimate and wonderful ways possible—love and kindness.

This is the second donation I’ve gotten from someone I have no way to thank. Like Blanche DuBois, I’m “depending on the kindness of strangers” for this little attempt at helping others because there’s no way I can come up with that kind of scratch on my own. (I work for a non-profit for goodness sake.) And two people have already stepped up, one of them doing more than double what I did for the cause. She helped not one but four people gain access to clean drinking water by giving to someone who can never repay her for her kindness.

Shawnee M—whoever you are—know that you blessed me in a way you can never imagine. I can only give so much. But if my campaign and my story can get just a few wonderful people like you to help out, we can change the lives of an entire village full of people in Ethiopia. These are people who will never know the prosperity we enjoy every single day. It’s a privilege to serve them alongside you.

A project like this compels a person to see the world in new ways. What could easily be taken for granted are cause for introspection, a reason to question the “why” of things. Honestly, I don’t buy bottled water. Not because I’m against it for ecological reasons (though that thought has crossed my mind) but because, at home and at work, I have access to clean, cold, filtered water any time I want. I put it in cups or my wicked cool Marvel aluminum bottle that I got on sale for $2.50 at the Disney Store. (Yeah, I’m grown. What about it?)

So it’s only natural that I can glide on by the wall of water bottles at the local grocery store every time I run in there. (I don’t know about you, but if I don’t need something, I’m not wasting the time it takes to walk down the aisle.) Today though, still thinking about that $100, I took a look at the endless supply of bottles and thought about just how blessed I am.

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I counted fifteen brands. Spring, drinking, purified, and even fluoridated. Flavored, flat, and sparkling. It comes in plastic bottles, ones made of glass, and even aluminum cans. It’s topped with everything from sport lids to screw-on tops. Man, we are truly spoiled for choice.

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And this is something about which I must rant.

Of all the bottles on the shelf, which were arranged in order of price, Voss took the grand prize for cost. Two glass bottles of water for $5.00 (at a savings of $.50 mind you!) Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it tastes great…you know, like water. And the bottle is quite well designed. It’s clean and simple, like something out of Tron. And, to Voss’ credit, they do have a foundation that supplies clean water to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But there’s something in me, call it common sense, that just can’t fathom paying $2.50 for a bottle of water. Even if it is, in their words, “taken from a virgin aquifer that… has been shielded for centuries under ice and rock in the untouched wilderness of Central Norway.” It sounds like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, not a bottle full of hydrogen and oxygen.

Image from comicvine.com.

The money someone spends on eight bottles of this stuff could buy a lifetime of clean water for a person in need. Eight bottles is…counting on fingers….168.8 fluid ounces. A gallon is only 128. So for $20 you get less than a gallon and a half of water. Foundation or not, that’s ridiculous, Norway. You have some lovely fjords and were the birthplace of both Edward Munch and Henrik Ibsen. The Vikings were pretty awesome, too, as is the Nobel Prize.

A-ha wasn’t bad either. In fact,  if I were an evil overlord bent on destruction, I would spare your frigid nation only because of “Take On Me.” But you can keep your snooty water.