Thursday, 14 November 2013

Django, Drag Your Coffin

Recently I've gone on a Spaghetti Western adventure. There's something about the five o'clock shadows, the surreal camera angles, non-verbal heroes, and the blaring trumpet and jew's harp soundtracks that are so entrancing. Recently I'd come across the movie Django. I owned a copy of A Few Dollars for Django and Cjamango (billed as Django: Kreuze im blutigen Sand in my copy) already, and not having yet seen Tarantino's Django Unchained, I knew I wanted to check out the original. Django was released in 1965 following on the international success of Sergio Leonie's A Fist full of Dollars. Like it's predecessor, it was filmed in Spain and featured a mysterious stranger that wanders into town. This newcomer arrives with a seemingly secret agenda that ends with all the power brokers dead, some innocents saved and his objectives achieved. Django is a demobbed union soldier who arrives dragging a coffin. When asked who is in the coffin, he merely answers 'Django'. A man who carries his own coffin. This is a powerful image that leaves a strong impression on the viewer.

The reason I find this to be such a profound trope is that the older I get the more I realize that life is richer and more precious when we accept our mortality. Those of us in the first world live our lives in denial of our mortality. Where as our cousins in developing countries see each day of life as another victory against the ever present grave, we see death as a rude intruder that will one day wrongfully bring our life to an end. When their children survive into adulthood it is a blessing, when our children die young it is a crime against nature.  For them death is a part of life. For us death is something alien, a force that needs to be ignored until we can't escape it anymore.

Sadly, when we deny our mortality we  can tend to lose sight of what's important. We begin to live under the illusion that we have all the time in the world. We can invest our time in things that are good and get caught up in the urgent, postponing the things that are important for another day. Sadly things die and we can find ourselves living in regret when we realize it's too late.

As a minister of religion there are many times when death has been part of my job. I've prayed with the dying, sat with the family as they've grieved and held the hand of a person as they've left this life. I've performed funerals and scattered ashes. I've come to realize that death is actually our daily companion and  I've had to work out the things that are truly important. People are more important than things, family is more important that work, what you can give is better than what you can gain. I imagine that when I'm on my death bed it will be the way I've loved the people in my life that will matter not the things I've amassed.

An important fact of life is that death is our constant companion. Although we like to pretend that we are immortal, the time of our demise can come at anytime. Jesus of Nazareth said 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8: 34).' Jesus was under no illusion that the life worth living was one that embraced death. He encouraged all that would follow him and his vision to see that death was an ever present companion. In fact the way to life was to die to those things that seem to be important and invest in those things that truly are. Hanging on his own cross, I don't imagine Jesus regretted standing up for the outcasts of society and wishing he'd made more money in carpentry. He'd chosen wisely and his death and resurrection would change the course of history .

 Like Django we need to drag our coffin behind us everyday. Not a literal coffin but the constant awareness that life is short and that we need to make the most of the time we have. This means prioritising our dreams, choosing the best over the good, cherishing family and friends and enjoying the journey. Like Django, dragging our coffin behind us may be the secret to our success in life.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Lifted up by Angels

One of the challenges of being a Salvation Army Officer is that you never know where you're going to end up. Just when you know where you are and what you are doing, the phone may ring and it may be time to pack your bags  and set your nose towards your next appointment.  It can be both unsettling and exciting as the possibilities of a new community and experiences begin to open up before you.  It can also be an immensely destabilizing experience, especially for those of us with less nomadic tendencies. It can leave you hesitant to get too close to people and content to merely skim along the surface of ministry, as the procession of appointments roll past. This is not only a dilemma of the Salvation Army Officer but of individuals in many other occupations. In fact if the gate is really swung open, it's just life. Often we're led into places we really don't want to go. From  unexpected illness to new dynamics in relationships, we sometimes find ourselves strangers in a strange land. Life reaches out, grabs us by the hair and drags us on.

One of my favourite passages from the Greek version of the Book of Daniel, found in the Apocrypha as Bel and the Dragon, is the place where the prophet Habakkuk is sent to to Babylon to help the prophet Daniel. In a repeat of the earlier incident under King Darius, Daniel has been sent once again to the lions den, this time for exposing the fraudulent practices and false god's of Babylonian religion.

They threw Daniel into the lions’ den, and he was there for six days. There were seven lions in the den, and every day they had been given two human bodies and two sheep; but now they were given nothing, so that they would devour Daniel.
 Now the prophet Habakkuk was in Judea; he had made a stew and had broken bread into a bowl, and was going into the field to take it to the reapers.  But the angel of the Lord said to Habakkuk, “Take the food that you have to Babylon, to Daniel, in the lions’ den.”  Habakkuk said, “Sir, I have never seen Babylon, and I know nothing about the den.”  Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown of his head and carried him by his hair; with the speed of the wind he set him down in Babylon, right over the den.
Then Habakkuk shouted, “Daniel, Daniel! Take the food that God has sent you.”   Daniel said, “You have remembered me, O God, and have not forsaken those who love you.”  So Daniel got up and ate. And the angel of God immediately returned Habakkuk to his own place (Bel and the Dragon: 31-39, NRSV). 

When I first read this, I really felt for Habakkuk. The poor old prophet is going about his business, caring for the labourers of his community, when he is ripped unceremoniously out of familiar surroundings and dropped off hundreds of miles away on the edge of a lions den. His good intentions had taken a left turn. The food meant for the labourers left in the Jewish homeland was now being used to feed a prophet living in the Babylonian captivity. To paraphrase John Lennon, life was happening while  Habakkuk was making other plans.

This is what life is like. All our best intentions can be turned on their heads with in minutes. Whether it be the call of God, an accident, a pay rise or redundancy, we need to make the most of where life drags us. The people I admire are those that make the most of where they find themselves. Like MacGyver or the A-Team, they take the rubbish of life and set it to work for the better. Whether it be a man with muscular dystrophy running the marathon, the quadriplegic movie star who uses his profile to raise awareness and fund research, or the parent who starts a support group for others after losing a child, they've all taken life's rubbish and turned it into something positive. No matter how bad your day or how rotten your circumstances, it's always within your power to make a difference to someone else. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word or action to make a world difference. We can't choose where life's angels take us but we can choose what we do when we get there.