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Ash and Johnny Cash

By Clint Wilson

I don’t always turn to music stars for spiritual nourishment, but when I do, I turn toward Johnny Cash. A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, which I highly recommend. Besides learning so much about his varied career as a musician and as an actor, at the very end of the tour I was exposed to a music video that is the crown jewel of it all.

This music video is for “Hurt,” originally by Nine Inch Nails. The video for Johnny’s cover was filmed in 2003 and it quickly gained accolades and praise, with some even calling it the best music video of all time. I’m inclined to agree — it is incredibly powerful as it flashes through images of his life and career. We see images of Johnny in his prime, but we also see the “closed to public” sign on the derelict House of Cash Museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with cracked platinum records inside.

In the Carters’ home, we see June Carter Cash looking on, and a caviar and lobster feast … but with no guests or friends. A closed piano lid … the young Cash juxtaposed with the old, arthritic Cash. And we see nails hammered into Christ. The effect of this montage of images is palpable. There is a haunting, visceral sadness to the video. Cash didn’t know as the film was shot that June would die three months later, and he would die four months after that. And Cash’s home of nearly 30 years burned down in 2007. Truly, the empire of Cash was reduced to ash.

In light of all of this, think of the profound truthfulness of the words he sings:

What have I become? My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down, I will make you hurt.

This is a powerful song — in part, because it names so well the nature of loss and the universal human experience, the reality that is awaiting all of us. Our empires will be dirt, our possessions ash. We will hurt, and we will hurt others.

This is a buzzkill, isn’t it? Yet as we were just reminded at Lent’s outset, it is profoundly true. St. Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Humans are glorious, but as Francis Schaeffer has said, we are “glorious ruins.” The ashes imposed on our heads on Wednesday signified a truth that we need to speak unambiguously: we are sinners in need of a Savior, full stop.

Our Lenten journey does not praise the human condition. No, we acknowledge that our sin separates us from God, and that our desires are so often turned toward the very things that are passing away. We are called to life, yes, but we enter this life through repentance. Thus, Isaiah says: “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

We might ask: What was their rebellion? On the surface of Isaiah, they sound pretty great: “Day after day they seek God and delight to know his ways.” Yet the satire of God here is potent, especially when the prophet cries out, “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” God means business, and is not calling for mere external signs, appearances of having our lives together. He is concerned that the interior soul matches the external actions.

Listen to the call of God: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Powerful and challenging words.

Fasting patterned after the gospel is not about the mere practice of abstaining from something or the memorization of moral platitudes. It is about being animated by God’s grace and a consistency between one’s interior life and one’s external on-the-ground life; it is about shining the healing light of the truth into the shadowed corners of our lives and driving out the things that feed on darkness. It is about naming and confronting abuse and addiction and vice and the comfortable complacency that would rather turn its head to look upon more pleasant diversions than to confront the darkness in our midst. It is about resisting those patterns, and powers and principalities that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

If we understand this, we understand the way to true freedom, true life, true love, and true grace — the grace that saves sinners who cannot save themselves. We fast in Lent to learn to feast on God alone.

The most powerful image of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” music video — the climax, really — comes as Johnny sings: “You could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” And as he does this, he takes a chalice of red wine, and looking directly into the camera with the piercing and pained eyes of an old man who has loved much and lost much, he pours the chalice of wine out on the table. What a waste, we might be tempted to think — until we realize this is the Christ image — the Eucharist—the reminder that everything is dirt and might as well be poured out like wine, unless the God who can save us is himself poured out to save this dirt, this ash, and to turn it all into a new creation, to transform our empty feasts into a wedding banquet.

I walk away from the video not feeling less human, or subhuman because of the sadness and sin it names, but more hopeful, as I am reminded of another feast — one illustrated so powerfully by the words of George Herbert in the poem Love III.

And if you listen closely, I suspect you too will hear, like Johnny Cash, and like George Herbert, an invitation to sit and dine with Divine Love this Lent, with God, even amid the ashes.

Love (III)

George Herbert, 1593–1633

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

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