The church’s local secondary school recently asked me to do an assembly. The topic: reflections on the school year. This is a bizarre topic for someone who doesn’t work at the school to be asked to speak on. It’s also a slightly bizarre topic to ask a Christian speaker to come and speak on.
I met with one of the teachers in advance of the assembly to discuss what they were after and to pool ideas. The school were clearly after something to do with achievements. Look back over the year and get people to think about what they’ve achieved and give them a bit of a pat on the back. I said that ideally I’d like the assembly to have a slightly more Christian slant to it and luckily the school were very accommodating. So I went for a slightly different approach.
I chatted a bit about the things we achieve and how they’re things to be celebrated but that ultimately they fade away and we move on to the next thing. But what happens when there isn’t anything left to move onto anymore? To make my point I showed the video for the Johnny Cash cover song “Hurt.” When Cash filmed the video, he was 71 years old, looking very frail and suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease. The song wasn’t written about him but the words of the song take on a new meaning when he sings them and they’re heard alongside the images of the video which cuts between images Cash as a young and old man. The footage with the old Cash was filmed in the House of Cash Museum which had been damaged by flood waters and become derelict, which really serves to reinforce the idea that all of Cash’s achievements had now faded away. You can watch it below
The video shows lots of the achievements in Cash’s life, particularly his music where he achieved huge success. But the words show his feelings about what he achieved – you can have it all, my empire of dirt. All that fame, all that success, all those achievements he calls an Empire of Dirt. Worthless. A mere memory. Cash looks back on his younger self and doesn’t recognise himself anymore. That was someone else. He comments on the mortality of man, saying everyone he knows goes away in the end, a sentiment made all the more poignant by his own frailty.
So he looks back at all he achieved, all that success, but what does he have now? What’s he left with at the end of his life? Was everything worthless?
Well no, not everything was worthless. Near the end of the video we see images of Jesus’ crucifixion as well as Cash pouring out a cup of wine, symbolic of Jesus’ pouring out his blood on the cross. The video is just filled with religious imagery and reflects Cash’s own Christian faith.
Watching the video reminded me of what Jesus said to his disciples:
“What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?”
Cash had gained the world. Success, money, possessions, fame. But as he approached death he looked back on all those things and knew that at the end of the day those things were worthless. They were great things, things to be celebrated and thankful for but he knew he couldn’t take them with him. Cash’s ultimate achievement lay in knowing Jesus, something that would endure longer than the things he achieved in his career and was not worthless but was the ultimately the most valuable thing he had. He died 7 months after shooting this video but he knew where he was going.
My aim wasn’t to belittle the achievements of the students. In fact I went out of my way to say they should be celebrated. But I don’t think we can be doing the gospel justice if we shy away from telling people the reality of what the Bible says. All the things those young people have and will achieve are good things, but without Jesus, they are ultimately worthless.
They might gain the whole world, but what about their souls?