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The Shadow of Death




Sitting alone in my dark apartment.  We had our first summer storm today - temperatures in the high 80s, booming thunder all afternoon, big forks of lightning in the sky, short spurts of torrential rain.  I spent the day packing up for the summer.  I'm subletting my apartment so I have to clear out every shelf and drawer and closet.  I know I'm coming back in a few months, but it's a bit of a faux move-out.  It sure reminds me of my first few weeks here - hot and sticky weather, my first experience with violent summer storms, trying to deal with too many pairs of shoes and figure out storage solutions.

Just finished watching Meet Joe Black for the first time, which is why I'm up at 2:35 AM.  What a killer of an end scene.  I put it in so I'd have some company while I tidied up my room before bed and then couldn't turn it off.

I love the story about a great man.  These days I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a human life great.  I've been so wrapped up in theology this year that I've started to neglect my thoughts about this life - I focus all of my energies on thoughts of the eternal and sometimes (and this is bad theology on my part) forget that human life is meant to be made magnificent.

When my brother was in town last week, he and I toured the Morgan Library in Manhattan and saw the remarkable collection Morgan assembled during his life.  It's one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen - right there in the center of the city, a block or two from the New York City Public Library, he created a neo-Renaissance haven with remarkable books and manuscripts and works of art.  Not only was his life made more meaningful by devoting his time and resources to those things, but it celebrates the many lives before his own who had also been devoted to doing something extraordinary. It didn't strike me so much as a collection of things but a testament to the many lives that had been spent perfecting a craft.

Anthony Hopkins' character in Meet Joe Black is based on a man like Morgan.  He surrounds himself with beautiful things and also wants his business to mean something - he doesn't just want to make money, but has learned how to do it in a way that makes business more meaningful.  The focus on the movie is his love for his late wife and his daughters, but the real magic is the intersection between what he does for his living and how he crafted his family.  Both bear the marks of his greatness.  It stands to reason that remarkable men produce remarkable works.

But - and this is why I've posted the theme from the movie at the beginning of this post - the entire movie has an ache to it the whole way through because this man is going to die.  Death, personified in Brad Pitt's character, is literally following him like a shadow for the entire movie, and at times Death makes things more poignant and meaningful and at other times just ruins everything and makes all effort seem futile.  I guess that's the way of it with death - it hangs over all of us all the time, sometimes ruining everything and every once in a while providing meaning when it doesn't blindside us with pain.

Listen to this music - it's good music because it aches.  I'm sure I'm sensitive to this because I just watched that movie after spending the day packing, but, gosh, doesn't everything about being alive ache?  The sorrows ache, but infinitely more the joys ache.  The pain in this movie is amplified by the greatness of Hopkins' character, the love he pours into his work and his family.  It made me think so much of my own dad - my love and admiration for him is so deep that it hurts me.  And I am getting married next summer, and that one hurts too.  Why is that?  Is it because to some extent death is always hanging over us and we know all of this is temporary?  Or perhaps it's not quite so tied to time, and it's more that the better a thing is it only serves as a greater reminder that it's only a fragment of the whole goodness of God?

In an e-mail exchange with a friend the other day we were talking about the meaning of time, and about how time makes distinction possible.  Everything can be in simultaneous oneness for God, but we were created to receive things parceled out into distinctions.  Time makes persons possible because one person can be distinct from another person.  And because there can be persons, there can be love.  So time is really what makes love possible.  And time is also what allows love to grow.  Denys Turner loves to talk about the way time is what allows silence and sound to give meaning to one another.  Because silence structures sound and lets us know when music starts and stops, silence makes music possible.  And time makes the distinction between them possible.

It's the time that hurts.  Time makes love possible, but it also makes absence and incompleteness possible.  It doesn't make them final, but it allows them to hurt.  And yet in the midst of this it's indisputable that we have a charge to make our lives magnificent by whatever means we're given.  We're meant to seek virtue, make our character strong, put others before ourselves, devote ourselves to some area of expertise, seek things that are beautiful and share them with our friends.  Since our time is brief, we had better use it, and use it well.


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