Hearing

Kris Kristofferson’s song, “Why me Lord?” caught my attention in a recent PBS Country Music series. Kristofferson wrote it after another country singer, a Christian, Connie Smith took him to church in 1973 where he heard the gospel and responded to the altar call.

I don’t know if or how much Kristofferson’s faith marked the rest of his life—he’s never became a noted figure in Christian circles. In fact, I don’t know much about him other than hearing him sing with Cash, Jennings, and Nelson on a TV reprise of “The Highwaymen” in concert.

What struck me about “Why me Lord” is a raw honesty. Kristofferson wrote it right after the encounter—he knew he didn’t qualify for such love. And he was stunned by the felt forgiveness that Sunday morning. It echoes an older song sung by another honest soul, “Amazing Grace.”

The song awakened in me what I first felt in my own conversion. When on a Montana hillside I first heard Jesus’ call to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” My heart was moved, my soul freed, and a heavy weight lifted. I no longer had to pretend.

Later on I found a YouTube video with Kris sharing his memory of that Sunday. He was sitting on a stool with other musicians, including Willy Nelson next to him. It felt awkward—one or two others seemed sensitive to the story but most were impassive, waiting for the song to start. Even Kris professed that he didn’t remember what the preacher said. He simply felt overpowered. Jesus didn’t have much space apart being Lord in the lyrics—so it wasn’t an exposition of the gospel.

Yet what touched me was an instant recognition that Kristofferson heard the same voice I heard years earlier. His response matched my own. The weight of trying to be his own lord lifted—he was forgiven for his pride. For the hurts he had given and received. For the lies he had often whispered and broken ways that haunted his nights. He no longer had to pretend he was god.

It’s the Lord’s voice that sets us free. He quietly knocks. He pokes and prods us with reminders of our sins and his care. Whatever the particular words he happens to use, he invites and embraces. “Come to me, all you who are tired of carrying your load—I forgive you.” He’s the good shepherd. And some sheep—not all—instantly lift their heads when they hear his voice.

After the load lifts and love awakens us, the next responses are, “Why me?” And, “O Lord, please let me share this joy!” Light drives out darkness and truth starts to have traction. 

Let me shift gears, slightly. Many readers may prefer something weightier than country songs. So yesterday I read a dense academic exchange about salvation between two scholars—Evans and Fesko. Both men claimed one historic figure as their own: the 16th century French reformer, John Calvin. They share, in other words, in the Reformed movement—in so-called “Calvinism.”

I wasn’t raised Reformed so I don’t have a heartfelt iron in that fire. But I do recall first reading Calvin’s Institutes in my seminary days and recognizing that Calvin had heard Jesus’ voice. He knew the Shepherd and his ongoing response jumps off the pages. But it’s not a response I hear from everyone in Reformed circles. Calvin and Calvinists aren’t always aligned.

The point here isn’t meant to be divisive or controversial. I’m only acknowledging what Jesus said when he quoted the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” Many people can endorse Jesus and his teachings. But not everyone loves him.

Does “love” really make a difference? 

Yes!

A question behind every engagement, whether with God or with others is, how are we related? Are we contractual acquaintances—sharing in our work? Are we equals? Or is one superior to the other? Are we friendly or are we contentious? Am I a biographer engaging a subject? Or a lost lamb being cherished by a beloved Shepherd?

Here’s what I heard in Kristofferson, in Calvin, and in my own meeting in Montana. We knew we were sinners—spiritual outlaws—but somehow God’s voice, whether in, or aligned with Scriptures, came alive. And he said, Heart to heart, “I still love you. Come to me and be mine.”

To be honest, songwriters usually get it better than do theologians. The lyrics of a country song or an old hymn will often step past the thicket of our self-protective rationalizations more quickly and cleanly than a two-volume theology ever will. But the two aren’t opposed, not as long as the same voice stirred both compositions.

My own borrowed way of saying it may be simple, but it’s still profound: “O, taste and see, the LORD is good!”

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