When I was just a baby / My momma told me, ‘Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t you ever play with guns’
But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die
When I hear that lonesome whistle / I hang my head and cry
-Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
These, to me, are some of the most chilling lyrics ever written–and saddest. He’s a cold-blooded killer, so why do I feel sorry for him… dare I say, even relate to him? Because I think he realizes what he did was wrong. I think something came over him and caused him to do something he normally wouldn’t think of doing, but now he’s stuck with his punishments: imprisonment, guilt, and remorse. Haven’t we all been there in one way or another? I’ve never told anyone this, but when I was around 6 years old, I dropped a big, heavy cement block on a frog, on purpose. Now, obviously killing a frog is quite a bit different than killing a man, but nonetheless, hurting a living creature was out of character for me (though flies, mosquitoes and centipedes were, and are, fair game). But something came over me that day, and I did it before I could think it through. Poor frog, just sitting there minding its own business, and… SMUNCH! I immediately felt terrible about it. “When I was just a baby, my momma told me, ‘Son, always be a good boy / Don’t you ever play with cement blocks’ / But I dropped one on that froggie / Just to watch him die / When I hear that lonesome croaking / I hang my head and cry.” Well, maybe not, but the event did stick with me.
So, I think the guy in Johnny’s song hangs his head and cries not just because he’s stuck in Folsom Prison, but because he feels terrible about what he did. He misses his momma. He knows he messed up, and he wants forgiveness. But all he has is that lonesome whistle to remind him that he’s in here while world goes on out there.
Hang my head / Down to cry / A lawless, Godless man am I
And as the tears / Crawl down my cheeks / That still, small voice behind me speaks
-Tom Hipps & Kevin Schuyler, “Afraid to Let Go” from the album The Road So Far
The apostle Paul, who did as much as anyone to help spread the Gospel and wrote much of the New Testament, did horrible things before he met Jesus. He would drag Christians out of their homes and beat them, have them thrown in prison, even killed. Basically, “just to watch them die“. He simply hated Christians… he thought their beliefs and lifestyle were “ruining” their Jewish traditions and way of life. In his later years, Paul spent much time in prison himself, and while he certainly didn’t hear a train’s lonesome whistle (maybe a camel’s lonesome tinkling bells?) I’ll bet he hung his head and cried plenty. I would bet that as he sat in some cold, dark cell, he thought about the many people he had put there himself. Ironically, he was imprisoned not for committing any evil act, but for simply telling people about his relationship with Jesus… the very thing for which he had had others arrested and incarcerated.
But luckily for Paul, and for those of us who treasure his writings, Jesus had confronted him early on and impressed upon him him how wrong it was to persecute those who held beliefs different than his. Paul believed Jesus, accepted his teaching as truth, and learned to love other people like he never had before. He was a Jew, and at that time, Jews thought of Gentiles (non-Jews) as ’unclean’, ignorant, second-class citizens. Paul was unprecedented in his decision to embrace the Gentiles… to love them as equals and live among them, sharing Jesus’ teachings with them. And he paid a high price for it–imprisonment, and eventually martyrdom (tradition holds that he was beheaded). Even so, Jesus challenges every person to feel and act the way Paul eventually did about those of differing races, cultures, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. But truth is, most of us don’t like to be told we’re the ones in the wrong.
And telling us usually doesn’t help anyway.
We have to learn from our mistakes, whether it’s shooting a man or killing a frog. Our own God-given conscience has to gurgle up inside us and envelope us in sadness and/or shame and/or remorse to the point where we can no longer pretend that we don’t know right from wrong, or even try to blur the lines. It’s a painful, and beautiful, place to be. And then, we instinctively want forgiveness; and though the man in Reno and the frog in Winona may be dead and gone and unable to offer it, Jesus is alive and ready to forgive, to help us forgive ourselves, to teach us to love unconditionally, and help us live life to the fullest.
“The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy.
My purpose is to give a rich and satisfying life.”
-Jesus, as quoted in John 10:10 (New Living Translation)