One summer during college, a friend of mine hitchhiked his way to visit Wendell Berry at his homestead in Henry County, Kentucky. Inspired by Berry’s writing, my friend had decided it was finally time to meet the poet-farmer who had penned the line that catalyzed so much reflection: Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts. For years, we had wondered together about how to be fully attentive to our neighbors’ suffering and yet retain a genuine sense of the world’s goodness. When my friend finally sat down for tea with Berry and his wife, he observed in Berry a kind of rare wisdom, one that looks squarely at evil and responds with repentance rather than despair. “At my age, I pray for mercy more than justice,” Berry noted at one point, before commenting on his love for the natural world and all of its intricacies. For Berry, as for the authors of the Psalms, repentance and rejoicing are disciplines that we must constantly practice together.
Following in Berry’s footsteps is John Lucas, a twenty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter from the hills of Appalachia. If you ask Lucas about the future, he’ll tell you that his dreams are to be a good husband and father and to continue writing honest songs. But beneath Lucas’ unsophisticated humility and whispery vocals lies a fierce commitment to celebrate goodness, and to repent of the ways we have marred it.
A guitarist and songwriter since the age of thirteen, John Lucas Kovasckitz (who goes by the professional name John Lucas) lives with his wife Danielle in the small mountain town of Boone, North Carolina. For Lucas, who studied sustainable development in college, the landscape and the Appalachian folk tradition are sources of inspiration. “My heart came alive when I moved to Boone,” he recalls. “Your surroundings are always going to bleed into what you write, so the mountains constantly find their way into my music.”
Besides the landscape, the most potent shaping force in Lucas’ music are the four years that he and Danielle spent after college as house parents in foster care centers and residential schools for abuse victims. The work was physically and emotionally exhausting. Day after day, they witnessed the human collateral of an unjust legal system, income inequality, and generational neglect. Faced with their students’ trauma, Lucas’ surroundings bled into his music once more. He began writing songs that call for recognition of the ways we have harmed and neglected our neighbors, grounded in a faith that change is possible.
He calls the tracks on his August 2020 EP, The Bible Belt Sessions, Vol. 1. “songs of affection and conviction, sung from the land I love and call home.” Responding in part to the recent murders of Black men and women at the hands of the police, the title track is a shattering psalm of lament that confronts Christian complicity—and leadership—in lynching practices, and the ways the Bible has often been weaponized to justify racial violence. “With enough hands you can twist most things / You can kill two thieves with the King of Kings / But it ain’t murder, babe, if there’s a crowd,” Lucas whispers, the bare orchestration and soft tolling of the piano chords belying the horror.
Where “The Bible Belt” calls for repentance for racial violence, “Come Judgment Day” examines the economic systems that enable oppression of all kinds, challenging the ubiquitous quest for prosperity that so easily blinds us to the needs of our neighbor. “Everybody’s slaving just to get ahead / But you’ll never be free if you’re chaining those behind,” Lucas opens, nodding to both the practice of trading human bodies for service and our contemporary captivity to commerce. Invoking Jesus’ discussion of wealth in the Sermon on the Mount and his teaching on the cost of discipleship, Lucas reminds us of the fleeting nature of financial security and our command to seek that which is more lasting:
You can gain the whole world
But it’ll cost your soul.
Oh, everybody dies
Clinging to fools’ gold.
Give me what’s real,
What doesn’t rust or fade,
Come hell or high water,
Come judgment day.
And yet for Lucas, who recently became a father, the world is superabundant with blessing, an irrefutable testament to what’s real: God’s goodness and love for his creation despite our tarnishing it. The fiddling square-dance anthem “Sparrow of Freedom” revels in the gifts of marriage, fatherhood, shared meals, and dancing together: “Oh joy, come and dance with us tonight / Oh sorrow, move the table / And break out the candles for light.” Similarly, the tender “It’s a Wonderful Life” and whistly “Four Chords and the Gospel” quietly insist on the lavish excess of existence itself, even in the face of sorrow, unfulfilled dreams, and seasons of want.
The root of this insistence is a faith that teaches us to hope in what appears impossible. In “Where All New Life Begins,” Lucas ascribes the ability to lament and rejoice all at once to belief in a God who cares for each individual life. This faith, the seed of new life, is unceasingly radical; it “builds boats on the desert,” “walks on angry seas,” and believes “that love is stronger / Than kings and princes who divide and conquer.” For Lucas, this faith of the strange patriarchs and the wilderness prophets teaches us to “dance in the dark” when we cannot see the way forward. “I’ve seen fathers running for their prodigal sons / I’ve seen the nooses empty and the chains undone,” he proclaims in “Hope,” from his 2017 album A Thousand Cathedrals. “I’ve seen beggars leaving their crumbs of bread. / I’ve seen orphans dancing with crowns on their heads.” Through metaphor and narrative, Lucas’ music calls us to orient our lives around this hope.
Ultimately, Lucas hopes that his music will move his listeners toward love for the God who is close to the brokenhearted, and who saves those who are crushed in spirit. “I have to believe that the lynched rise again, and cry out to the living to repent,” Lucas says. “I have to believe that love is stronger than death and our broken political and judicial systems. I have to believe that despite COVID, despite the injustices in our land and beyond, despite a world that seems so full of falsity and sleight of hand—despite, despite, despite—the dance of joy continues.”