What songs would Johnny Cash sing if he were to attend a traditional celebration of Holy Communion at an Episcopal Church?
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, in Enid, Okla., will explore that uncommon pairing during the church’s monthly Holy Ground service, 5 p.m. Sunday.
The Rev. John Toles, pastor at St. Matthew’s, said the service will include the traditional elements of Communion, accompanied by live music recounting the Gospel message in the tunes of Johnny Cash.
Toles said the service is a way to celebrate traditional liturgy in a new and different way, that may be appealing to different members of the community than would normally come to a Sunday evening service.
“There are several fans of his music here in the congregation,” Toles said, “and we thought it would be a way to approach his music and his spirituality, and to be able to introduce the Gospel from a different perspective.”
While Cash, who suffered from addiction early in his career and sang many songs of addiction and crime, may seem an odd accompaniment for a worship service, Toles said Cash’s life represents the full spectrum of challenges — of loss, pain, joy, victory and defeat — faced by Christians.
“I think Johnny Cash, the life we know he lived, reflects the life many of us live internally, within our souls,” Toles said. “He had a constant battle with drugs, and so many things, but each of us has a constant struggle with something. His struggle was just more public than most of us. The struggle with sin, the struggle with addiction, that’s something we all go through, whether the world knows about it or not.”
Cash sang Gospel hymns, both professionally and personally, throughout his life and career, and, Toles said, that spirit is reflected in many of his secular tunes.
“Much of what he wrote was poetry, and then he put the music to it,” Toles said of Cash, “and oftentimes it’s deeply, deeply spiritual what he’s writing about.”
Toles pointed to the last verse of Cash’s song “Riders in the Sky” — “‘If you wanna save your soul from hell a-riding on our range / Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride / Trying to catch the devil’s herd across these endless skies.'”
“That’s talking about chasing a fix, chasing a sin, chasing something that’s outside of God you will never actually catch,” Toles said, “but it will lead you to a place of eternal longing, searching and looking.”
John Reneau, who is coordinating the music for the special service, said a mix of Gospel and secular songs with Christian messages from Cash’s career will fill out Sunday’s set list, performed by four worship musicians and singers from a diverse, ecumenical background.
Reneau said he hopes the music reaches people who have struggled with their human imperfection.
“I think his life is one a lot of us can relate to,” Reneau said of Cash. “He was a flawed man, a complicated man, and he had his fair share of struggles and tragedy. He also had a profound love and relationship with Jesus, that certainly became more vibrant as he grew older.”
The music of Johnny Cash can be a call to broken spirits, Reneau said.
“We’ve all sinned and come short of the grace of God,” Reneau said, “but church is not a museum of the self-righteous — it’s a hospital for broken people who need a savior, and Johnny Cash’s life certainly reflects that.”
Reneau stressed the service isn’t about glorifying Johnny Cash. It is, he said, a celebration of God’s grace and love for broken people.
“Jesus was and is madly and deeply in love with Johnny and June Carter Cash, and he’s that same way to all of us,” Reneau said.
The use of his music in church is not meant to hold up Cash as “the ideal Christian man,” Toles said, but rather to reach out to that part of all of us that struggles, like Cash did, with sin and failure.
“When it all comes to light, we realize Johnny Cash was — we all are — just one more Christian struggling against the devil, winning sometimes and losing sometimes,” Toles said. “It’s a path even the greatest of saints followed.”
Sunday’s service is open to the public, of all denominations or no denomination, Toles said.
“If there’s one person who comes Sunday night who wouldn’t normally come to church,” Reneau said, “and they’re impacted by the grace of God — then we’ve done our job.”