Friday, December 9, 2011

Cowboy theology

I was running outside early one recent morning and I had a song stuck in my head.  Many runners wear headphones but I’m not one of them.  When I run I think one, or many, things over, or let my mind wander, or maybe I find some song passing repeatedly through my thoughts, its beat matching with the sound of my feet on the road.  And that is what was happening that morning.  I had a song stuck in my mind.  Sometimes that happens with a particularly silly and/or annoying song but not on this morning.  It was a song with a melody I enjoyed and as it “played,” over and over, I found myself pondering the lyrics and the meaning that might be found in them.

The song was Ghost Riders in the Sky.  I had known it in the past as a duet by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.  The other day I stumbled across a version by the Outlaws.  In preparing to write this blog I learned that the first recording was by Burl Ives, in 1949.  Since that time it has been covered numerous times by musicians of widely varying genres.  It has a catchy melody and understandable lyrics.  Below are the lyrics.  Listen to one of the versions and ponder the lyrics before reading on.  (Ives sings the lyrics in order, Cash and Nelson transpose verses three and four, and the Outlaws skip verse four.)

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi ohhhhh
Yippie yi yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
He's riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain't caught 'em yet
'Cause they've got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire
As they ride on hear their cry

As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
If you want to 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

The song, besides telling a story in a captivating way, is a call for repentance.  The Old Cowboy is being warned, from those on the other side of eternity, that he needs to change his ways, soon, or else when he dies he’ll being joining their crew, condemned to chase the Devil’s herd on a hard ride that will never end.  I won’t deny that there is a measure of truth in the message and its call to change, but from a Christian vantage point it is incomplete and slightly misdirected.

The Old Cowboy, or you, or me, can change our ways all we want but we won’t gain even a foothold on eternal life with God through our efforts.  Salvation in Christ Jesus comes by faith alone, and it is the only way in which a person is joined to God in eternity.    It is God who freely offers us this gift of eternal life, which is ours to accept by faith, and no other means.  Repentance and changed ways are of no eternal consequence without a heart that is first changed and calls on Christ in faith.

The Heidelberg Catechism, which has been basic to teaching a Reformed understanding of Christian belief since the 16th century, says this about faith in Question-and-Answer 20 and 21:

Q&A 20
Q. Are all people then saved through Christ just as they were lost through Adam?
A. No. Only those are saved who through true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.

Q&A 21
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ's merit.

The Old Cowboy, and you, and I, don’t simply need a change in behavior, we need a change of heart, and we experience that change when we come to God by faith in his gracious offer of forgiveness in Christ.  Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  In Christ, God gives us something that we could never gain through our own efforts, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

Having faith in God, through the death and resurrection to eternal life of Christ, gives us a new reference point for our lives.  Having faith, the Old Cowboy, and you, and I, can then change our ways, not to “save ourselves,” but in thankfulness to God for his good gift to us.  And hearts that are changed for God proclaim his presence, his love, and his glory to the world.

Note 1:
The Heidelberg Catechism was written early in the Reformation as an aid to pastors in teaching their congregations the basics of Christian belief.  It uses a question-and-answer format and is shaped along three movements; 1) Our place before God; 2) God’s grace towards us; and 3) our gratitude back to God.  The first Q & A is perhaps its most widely known part.  I find the entire catechism to be a wonderful expression of faith, one that stills speaks today with God’s truth.  All of the answers have scripture references to support them.  If you’ve never read it then please consider looking it over.

Note 2:
In the versions of Ghost Riders in the Sky I linked above I found Ives’ version to be haunting.  This had something to do with the chords in the background.  In that quality there is perhaps another cue to direct us away from sin and towards God.  Cash and Nelson have put together a version that is sparse and haunting in its own way.  And the Outlaws spin has its own power.  They omit the last verse and its direct call for repentance but they pick up the tempo and intensity of the instruments, suggesting, perhaps, the way our sin can spiral completely out of any sense of control, and drive us away from the rest and redemption offered in Christ. 

No comments:

Post a Comment