Monday, January 11, 2010

rosanne cash, "the list" and baptism

I went to visit my mother after Christmas. She lives in Georgia, below Atlanta. It was good to be there, to see relatives, to watch football, to eat barbecue, to open presents. It’s a six hour drive, and while I was there I tried to find some music to listen to on the way back. I listen to Christmas music for the six weeks leading to Christmas Eve and after, so I was searching for something different.

I chose a compact disc by Rosanne Cash entitled “The List”. Rosanne Cash is the daughter of Johnny Cash, she has been a well-known artist in her own right for a number of years. I once saw her in concert in Charlotte. I had heard about “The List”, and it intrigued me. In the summer of 1973, Rosanne Cash had graduated from high school, and the next day she was on a tour bus with her father. She and her father started talking about music, and it became clear that there was a generation gap. Johnny Cash would mention a song, and Rosanne would say, “I don’t know that one”. He would mention another song, and another, and she would respond with the same words. He became alarmed, she said; she was so steeped in rock and pop music that she didn’t grasp the importance of her “musical genealogy”, the songs that had shaped his life, the songs would shape her life.

And so Johnny Cash spent that afternoon with a pencil and a legal pad, making a list of the essential songs, the essential country songs, but really the essential American songs, because they are also out of the heritage of the delta and gospel, history and protest, Texas swing and folk.

When he had finished he gave her the sheet of paper. Roseanne Cash held onto the list for thirty-five years.

I thought about all of this when I began to reflect on today’s scriptures, and our purpose for gathering this morning, because we also are about tracing our own genealogy, our spiritual genealogy. Whenever we celebrate a baptism, we go way back in time, to chaos and creation, slavery and freedom, promise and fulfillment, the baptism of Jesus and his command to lead future generations into these same life-giving waters, and finally to his death and resurrection and the gift of the spirit. The water is a sign for all of this---the water of a womb through which we enter this life, the water that washes away the stain of our imperfections, the water that refreshes us for the journey, the water upon which we sail or over which we cross from a place of bondage to one of opportunity. Water and baptism have always symbolized the journey from the old life to the new, from despair to hope, from salvation to sin. Each generation has to experience the waters of baptism for themselves. It is literally our re-generation.

And of course it’s true that this is not necessarily a linear journey. We go back and forth with all of this, to use an old word, we “back-slide!”. Israel was tempted to return to slavery, even when they were living in the Promised Land. The followers of Jesus had walked into the light, but at times they preferred the darkness.

It helped to be reminded of what all this meant. And so they told the story whenever they baptized someone: “This is important, this is worth remembering, this is what saves us.” And we tell the same story as we give thanks over the waters of baptism:

crossing the Jordan river…the promised land
Mary’s womb…Jesus’ birth
his baptism by John…his anointing in the spirit…his great commission.

As the old hymn summarizes it, “This is my story, this is my song”.

Every time we baptize a child, or an adult, it’s as if we are saying “this is our genealogy, our family story, our spiritual path”. This is the river of life that carries us along, and this river contains the parables and prayers, the people, the songs, the experiences, and now, it all belongs to you, and you belong to it. It is your fundamental identity. Claim it!

I listened to the music of Rosanne Cash on the drive back from Georgia--my home for the first twenty of so years of my life…to North Carolina--my home for the next thirty years of my life. Most of the songs were familiar to me: “I’m Moving On”, “Motherless Children”, “Heartaches By The Number”, “Take These Chains From My Heart and Set Me Free”; they were songs I grew up hearing when my parents controlled the radio dial (and I know that sounds ancient, to talk about a radio dial). They were songs I abandoned as quickly as I could when I was a teenager and young adult, but they are a part of my musical genealogy.

I heard Rosanne Cash reflect on the making of “The List” recently. She said, “I held onto “The List” for thirty five years. [I had a need to] choose and reinterpret these songs carefully….This record is about history, respect, family, love and legacy. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, I have arrived where I started, and I have known it for the first time.

To be a Christian is to receive a legacy---the scriptures, the worship, the community, the saints and the prophets, those who taught us and inspired us and guided us and encouraged us and prayed for us…very literally, in the words of one of the later New Testament letters, it is the experience Paul sees in Timothy, when he writes to him: “I am aware of the strong faith that lived in your grandmother Lois, and in your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you. “

We receive the faith, but we have to make it our own. The church is not a museum, it is a work in progress, a work of art, it is a child in development, a young boy learning to trust, a young woman discovering a calling in life, it is the middle of adulthood and challenges of transition, it is the limitations of older age but also the blessings of passing something, maybe wisdom, to those who follow.

The Lord had created Israel, just a potter shapes clay, just as a parent forms a child. The river of life is not always tranquil; sometimes the waters are turbulent. And so we cling to the word of grace in Isaiah’s prophecy as if our hands were gripping the side of a raft: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you”. God’s people, Isaiah says, have seen fire and rain, they have the promise:

Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,
He who formed you, O Israel, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are mine.

As I listen to the songs on “The List”, there is an enormous amount of pain there, and confession, and loss, and that is life, whether you lived in sixth century Jerusalem or twenty-first century Charlotte. It can be, in the words of one of the songs, a “sea of heartbreak”. The music endures---and really the style is less important than the truthfulness and honesty of it--but we have to make it our own, integrate it with our experience, hear the Lord saying “I have called you by name” and know that it is you and me, hear the voice as we stand near the waters of baptism saying “you are my son, you are my daughter” and know that it is for you and me, that this is our story, this is our song.

And so Rosanne Cash takes these songs of her father and makes them her own. She is singing with a new generation, to be sure---Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Wilco--- but all of a sudden, it’s as if these are her songs. And they are.

When Johnny Cash took out a pencil and a legal pad and came up with “The List”, he must have known that his daughter was not ready to receive the gift, at that time. This is the experience for many of us: we experience grace and only later do we know the full extent of what it has meant. An infant does not know what she is receiving in baptism. A confirmand does not fully grasp the fullness of faith at 13 years old. A couple standing at the altar have a glimpse, maybe of what the words they are speaking will come to mean across a lifetime. An adult makes a profession of faith, and yet we grow in the grace. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus understood what he had been saying as they reflected back on it years later.

And so Rosanne Cash kept the list for thirty five years, and at the right time, I suppose, she had come to the place where she could claim it, know it, live it, make it her own.

We often baptize children and sometimes adults throughout the year, but on this Sunday we set aside some time to remember the baptism of Jesus. This comes after we’ve celebrated his birth, and prior to the challenges and temptations he will face during Lent, on the way to a garden and a cross. We remember his baptism as a historical event, knowing that he has passed through these waters, God with us and for us, and we connect it with our own baptisms.

As the artist noted, it is about “history, respect, family, love and legacy”, and it is, perhaps for some of us also expressed in the words of the poet, “to arrive at the place where we began, and to know it for the first time”. As we make our way through fear and failure, loss and loneliness, chaos and change, testing and turbulence, we know that the rivers will not overwhelm us. The voice is clear across the generations:

I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.

This is our story, this is our song.


Sources: Rosanne Cash, The List (


Blogger Amy said...

On a completely different note, I just saw the photo of your wife on TV. I read your blog too. Know that your wife, your family, and the people of Haiti are in my prayers.
The Rev. Amy Huacani+
Assistant to the Rector
St. John's Episcopal Church, Charlotte.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Ken Carter said...

thank you, amy and blessing on your ministry

4:01 PM  

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