As a veteran of many Billy Graham crusades, Johnny Cash must have known the parable of the drunken airline passenger by heart.
Here's how Graham told this old, old story during his1985 South Florida crusade.
One day, the evangelist boarded an airplane at the same time as a fat, boisterous drunk who cursed up a storm and even pinched a stewardess. The crew finally wrestled the man to his seat -- right in front of Graham. Another passenger leaned over and said he ought to behave. Didn't he know who was behind him?
"You don't say," the man said. Then he turned and loudly said, "Are you Billy Graham? ... Put her there! Your sermons have sure helped me!"
After the laughter, Graham warmly introduced Cash, who added another punch line.
"I wonder," said Cash, "why he thought about introducing me right after he talked about the rowdy drunk on the airplane."
Yes, Cash knew his role as a missionary to the backsliders.
The man in black was a country kid who embraced his mother's faith, then flung it away, the hell raiser who got saved, and saved and then saved some more. Cash sang about the hope of heaven and the siren songs of hell. Time magazine put it this way: "Here was a man who knew the Commandments because he had broken so many of them."
The gritty details filled 1,500 songs and a lifetime of work in television, movies, books and nights on the road. For years, Cash prowled the stage on amphetamines and wept as he sang "The Old Rugged Cross" -- often in the same show.
Things got better after he married June Carter in 1968, a meeting of souls made in heaven, but worked out in the flesh under the parental gaze of Ezra and Maybelle Carter. These country-music pioneers not only prayed at Cash's bedside while he kicked drugs, but hung on through years of front-porch Bible study as he walked the line toward redemption.
Cash was in a spiritual war and he knew it. Thus, he constantly quoted Romans 8:13 as his favorite verse: "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live...."
The superstar also knew that millions of people were watching and waiting for him to fall. He lived in that hot spotlight until the day he died.
"I have been a professional entertainer," said Cash, at a 1989 Graham crusade in his home state of Arkansas. "My personal life and problems have been widely publicized. There have been things said about me that made people ask, 'Is Johnny Cash really a Christian?'
"Well, I take great comfort in the words of the apostle Paul who said, 'What I will to do, that I do not practice. But what I hate, that I do.' And he said, 'It is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells within me. But who,' he asks, 'will deliver me from this body of death?' And he answers for himself and for me, 'Through Jesus Christ the Lord.' "
This language he used in his Graham crusade testimonies was loftier than his style on stage. But the words hit home because Cash knew that his listeners knew he was there flaws and all. So he talked about his struggles with drugs -- past, present and future. He talked about the flaws in his family life. Cash named his idols and his demons and urged others to do the same.
The man in black was on the same Gospel road throughout his life, even when he detoured into the gutter, said Steve Beard, author of the Cash profile in the book "Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced 12 Musical Icons."
"This was the real Johnny Cash.