Granted, it’s a truism to say that it takes a dream, but something has to propel natural aptitude towards accomplished talent. And what else would that be but a deep desire, a search for a later self that seeks expression?
Take J.R. for example. He was an airman deployed to West Germany, back in the fifties. He wrote almost daily to Vivian, his Texas sweetheart. He was convinced
that Vivian was the girl of his dreams, and that made it natural for him to share one of his dreams with her—the one about being a singer on the radio. In a letter that first fall, he told Vivian that he had just bought a harmonica to keep himself occupied in the barracks, and he spoke about having his own band once he got back to the States. He also wrote about getting together regularly with some guys in the barracks to play guitar and sing…They called themselves the Landsberg Barbarians.
The dream impelled J.R. to purchase his first guitar, a German model that costs five dollars. Playing the instrument didn’t come as naturally as singing. Still,
over the next three years, he would update Vivian on the records he had heard or repeat that he was going to have his own band one day. He was especially proud of the time he bought a set of albums containing several Jimmie Rodgers songs he hadn’t heard before—and the purchase late in his stay of a tape recorder so he could gauge the progress in his singing by making recordings of his voice (43-44).
When J.R. was discharged from the Air Force and returned to the states, his dream hadn’t dimmed. It would still need to pass through several years of door-to-door and appliance sales, but eventually it would produce a record deal and a name tweak. Unlike his family and sweetheart, the world wouldn’t call him J.R. Cash. He would be Johnny Cash. (Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn)
Jesus told his disciples:
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father (Mt 5: 14-16).
That injunction would seem to rule out a purely internal discipleship, one that has no expression, that doesn’t, in any way, seek to alter the world around it. Hopefully that’s not what so many of our contemporaries mean when they speak of being spiritual rather than religious, that something good is going on inside of them, but that we shouldn’t count on it having any effect in the world. In other words, there’s a search, but don’t expect a shine.
Isaiah is more blunt than Jesus about the need for faith to express itself.
Thus says the Lord:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! (58: 7-8)
Christian discipleship is more than a question of internal search. A faith that didn’t manifest itself in service would be akin to Johnny Cash simply telling us that he was a great master of American folk music. Nice sentiment, but dreams have to dig deeper into our lives than mere desire. The search has to shine.
Could Jesus, as he pondered his call to ministry, have responded by saying that he really wasn’t into religion, just spirituality? The word religion comes from a Latin root, meaning to bind. Clearly, Christ bound himself in love of others. He was the light shining in darkness.
Like love, faith must go out of self to be real. Like art, it must express itself to be anything more than a fantasy. The search must shine. And of course, besides Jesus and Isaiah, there’s Johnny, who wrote:
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.
You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.
Isaiah 58: 7-10 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5 Matthew 5: 13-16