top of page

The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

I was tired this morning when the bus rolled in.

The last night of the tour left me somehow wired and sleepy at the same time, so when I crawled into my bunk I read a few pages in a book until my eyes drooped, then clicked off the light and looked at my phone to see the time: 2 am. I prayed a little, quieted that familiar discontent that always murmurs after a show, then fell asleep with the happy thought that in the morning I would be home.

A little less than five hours later the bus stopped, the diesel engine rattled to silence, and I heard the footsteps of the rest of the band packing their things and bidding one another farewell. I squinted at my phone again: 7 am. I was deliriously sleepy, and the thought of seeing the family was the only thing strong enough to get me out of my bunk.

For four weekends the eight of us told the Resurrection story, hoping our songs would lead people to a deeper appreciation of it. Now the day had finally come and I was too tired to feel a thing. Jamie and the kids arrived in my old truck, we hugged, I loaded the guitars, the bouzouki, the tubs full of CDs and books into the pickup.

I looked at the sky and made myself consider its color, reminded myself to imagine that first Resurrection morning. Still, I felt nothing. It’s okay to feel nothing, I told myself. The stories are true, whatever I may feel about them. The kids always treat me like a new toy when I first come home. They laugh and tell what happened to the doll’s hat, or about how Moondog’s collar slipped off at the park, or about the next chapter in The Goblet of Fire. I nodded and tried to sound excited, but I was struggling to keep my eyes open so I told the kids Papa was really tired and could they tell him about it later.

An awkward silence ensued for most of the ride home.

I imagined putting on Fernando Ortega’s In the Shadow of Your Wings, reading from the Gospels after breakfast, having a Special Moment with the family before we drove to church. But I fell asleep on the couch, and Jamie couldn’t find her purse at first, and things got busy, and “if we don’t leave NOW, kids, we’ll be late.” The whole drive to church I fought to keep my eyes open and wondered why I didn’t fix some coffee for the road.

We found our seats, bowed our heads, then stood to sing. I raised my voice and sang the words to one of my favorite songs, “In Christ Alone”:

There in the ground His body lay, Light of the world by darkness slain; Then bursting forth in glorious day, Up from the grave He rose again! And as He stands in victory, Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me; For I am His and He is mine— Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

The sermon was stirring. It was good to see my church family, to see good friends and to sit in our usual spot. It was good to end the service with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”. Alleluia.

And yet, though my heart was moved, and the truth was sweet, I couldn’t wrap my heart around the Resurrection. I wanted to celebrate it with more than my intellect, to sense in a profound way the significance of this astonishing event. I wanted an experience, and I expected it to happen at the assembling of the saints, with the spiritual equivalent of pyrotechnics. But in the end, glad as I was to be there, it was just church. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. “Just church” is about as holy a thing as you’re ever likely to experience–like the slow growing of a daffodil at the base of the hackberry tree; it happens quietly and faithfully, and its gift is precious.

I acknowledged all this in my mind and settled in for an Easter Sunday without much pomp. Maybe, I figured, that’s to be expected after weeks of concerts. After church we gathered with some friends at a house for a big dinner. I found an out-of-tune upright in an empty room and sang a new song called “Risen Indeed” to myself. The kids played kickball, we drank sweet tea while the lamb and asparagus cooked, and finally we sat around the table and shared a meal together.

As I said, I resolved to expect no great emotion, but to savor the peaceful and quiet way my Easter Sunday unfolded.

Then one of the women at the table suggested we gather the children and read Walt Wangerin Jr.’s story “The Ragman”. Now, I’m a fan of Wangerin’s work, due in large part to the musical quality of his writing. His sentences bounce like the stanzas of a 6/8 hymn, and I find myself reading his books aloud just to feel the words on my lips. I so hoped our friend might suggest I be the one to read it, but I didn’t want to presume. She asked me if I’d read, and I accepted a little too quickly between bites of cheesecake.

We cleared the table, herded the twelve kids and as many adults into the living room where people sat in laps, on couches, cross-legged on the floor, and waited. For the first time that morning, I felt the Resurrection. I looked around at the women, men, and children. I thought of Wangerin’s particular gifting, his love for Christ, the wonder of a world in which a piece of writing can travel from the author’s imagination, to the book that carries it across the years, to my mind, out of my lips, and into the imaginations (and hearts) of those listening.

The Ragman encounters a woman of great sorrow. He dries her tears and takes them upon himself. As I read I thought of one of the women in the room who has borne much sorrow and wept many tears, but whose heart is hid in Jesus’ hands. He is risen.

The Ragman in the story heals a man’s drunkenness, takes it upon himself, and staggers on. I thought of the men in the room who are sick with self-loathing, who have been intoxicated with it, but who at least once have felt their chins lifted by a strong hand, looked into the eyes of the Son of Man, and believed they were loved. He is risen, do you hear?

I read of the Ragman curling up on a trash heap, crippled, sick, weeping, and alone, and I prayed the children in our company saw that picture in their minds. I prayed it would trouble them. But he is risen, young ones. Listen.

Then the dead Ragman, on Sunday morning, comes to life again. He shines with a violent light, and when the narrator of the story pleads to the risen Lord, “Dress me,” I believed the Gospel and the Resurrection and the Return of Christ, and it was as if I were just waking up and the sun had just cracked the horizon. He is risen indeed.

I looked around the room and marveled that all these years later the Resurrection story is still told. It is told by Russ Ramsey as he preaches in Kansas. It is told by Walt Wangerin Jr. through the words of his story, it is told by Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn on our tour as they sing again and again, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and when Ben Shive sings, “The chains of death will fall around your feet, and you will rise up in the end.”  It is told by the new leaves of the hackberry tree on the front lawn, by the repeated alleluias of that grand old Easter hymn, by Aslan’s roar and the breaking of the stone table–and it is told most sweetly in the pages of Scripture, where we encounter this ancient, astounding, mysterious story.

How could it be that this outlandish tale could reach so far if it were not true? How is it that rational men and women the world over gathered today to celebrate this happening? How is it that I find myself in the company of others who have put all their hope in the fact of the Resurrection–a story thousands of years old, and yet, we break bread and raise our glasses in victory and declare to each other and to all who will listen, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Join the ranks of the fools of the world who believe the stories are true. Let the people rejoice. Let the heavens resound. Let the name of Jesus, who sought us and freed us, forever ring out. I may not feel so sure tomorrow, so let me remember that today–today–I believed. Oh, I truly believed, and I could not have believed it more if the heavens peeled back and the High King galloped through.

May I remember tomorrow, when I doubt again, that today I believed.

“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31


bottom of page