Let's be honest with each other - as a general rule, when you hear that someone in the realm of Christian ministry (be in music or otherwise) has written a book about their walk, you don't expect a whole lot. After all, for some reason, we Christians here in America like our leaders to be "spotless" and to hear that they not only had a few specks of dirt of them at one time, but were covered in it, well, it just doesn't usually sit too well. As someone in ministry who has also been a Christian music journalist for over a decade, I can't tell you how many times I've heard awful, yet amazing stories of tragedy and the triumph that came with them "off the record" because someone higher up (label, management company, accountability partners, etc.) said they should never be made public because they were too "gritty."
In my humble opinion, "whitewashed" sin paints a picture of a weak Savior and Jesus is anything BUT that. So when a CCM "star" once shared how he had been a raging alcoholic "off the record" and then went on the record to share how he had "liked a glass of red wine every now and then, but only when eating Italian food" and Jesus "cured him" of his desire, I wanted to barf as I cried, "And how is that 'every now and then' story going to convince someone in the bottom of a bottle that Jesus is strong enough to bring him out of it?"
The point to all of this is that I didn't have much in the way of expectations when I got my copy of Ashley Cleveland's Little Black Sheep, A Memoir. I was expecting a semi-interesting but ho-hum read that would hold me through the first chapter and then give me skim points through the rest. Let me say this now ... I was dead wrong! The fact that Cleveland is a three-time GRAMMY Award-winning singer / songwriter who has recorded eight critically acclaimed albums and is constantly in the public eye big time didn't cause this lady to hold back one ounce. Her story is shared in great detail - the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent. Her sins are there in full blown color and her Savior - well, He's there too, seeing it all exactly as it is and loving her despite her mistakes and missteps, showing her mercy as only He can.
As you read her story of growing up in a world of alcoholism, homosexuality and divorce, all held together by a glossy coat of "appearance," where as long as you look good for the cocktail hour and church on Sunday, you're considered "OK," you find yourself wanting to weep for the little girl who didn't fit in. As you get to her teenage years, where rebellion from everything she knew and everything the world said was acceptable led to addiction and self-destruction in every imaginable form, you waffle between wanting to sob with her and wanting to shake some sense into her. When she turns up pregnant and out of options, you're not at all surprised. And when she meets that God who has just been a "figurehead" father, a cross between a fairy tale and a grumpy old man, and He turns out to be merciful, loving and forgiving, you cheer. As she slowly puts her life back together and figures out that Jesus never once left her side, you get another lump in your throat (but this one if from tears of joy).
Ashley Cleveland's early life was no picnic and her behavior was anything but saintly, yet she shares it all as she bares her soul and tells her story as is - no whitewashing, no diminishing the Jesus who saved us all and turning Him into a stick figure instead of a Savior. Before reading Little Black Sheep, A Memoir I admired her as an artist. After reading it, I both respect and admire her as a person. Her story of tragedy turned triumph is one that will earn your respect too.
Now that little black sheep, she ain’t nothin' but trouble
She’s not worth much and she’ll cost you double
Shepherd says he knows but he won’t sleep
He’s gonna go out and find
That little black sheep
(From the song “Little Black Sheep” by Ashley Cleveland)