Woody Allen, love him or hate him, he is the one of few who asks the hard, burteily honest questions about life in films. Our movie club viewed and discussed Midnight in Paris last week. In that movie Woody expressed his own thoughts (I know because I've heard him say so in interviews) like a ventriloquist through his dummy . . . but in this case through the mouth of Ernest Hemingway (played brilliantly by Corey Stall) in the movie.
Ernest Hemingway: I believe that love that is true and real, creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing. And then the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino-hunters I know or Belmonte, who is truly brave... It is because they make love with sufficient passion, to push death out of their minds... until it returns, as it does, to all men... and then you must make really good love again.My point here is not the love-making part but the thought of death, as Ernest . . . er, I mean Woody, implies haunts all men, and women for that matter. This is another one of those unspoken things.
When I became a Christian, the man that led me to the Lord was 100% sure I would never taste death. For a 18 year old, that wasn't hard to believe. As a 56 year old, it is much harder to ignore. But the reason that he told me that I would never taste death is that, a) if I loved the Lord, He promised to protect me from all harm and b) because Israel had become a nation in 1948, we would all be raptured into bliss by 1980 . . . okay 1998 at the very latests. You may noticed that it didn't happen.
I don't when the concept of death ever came to me. It may have been when I was 10. That year my grandfather died. He was the first family member and prior to that point, it didn't seem conceivable that it could happen to our family. I felt vulnerable for the first time. But then came Tom and the Christians I met who told me that I could avoid death.
It is that celestial paradox. As Don Richardson points out in his book, Eternity in their Hearts, that we all have that intrinsic notion that we were made for infinity . . . yet living in the finite. Taken at that alone, we should all be depressed if not stand and scream in terror. I do believe that we are the square pegs in the round hole due to the fall.
Most people escape the depression by distractions. TV, hobbies, money, sex (as Woody was alluding to), substances or religion. Religion doesn't solve like it claims, but just distracts like everything else. Just like with the other junkets, it creates a mirage . . . "don't worry, grandpa is dancing with the angels in Heaven now."
I love history and my favorite thing is to read about history in the place it took place. About three years ago I became obsessed with Dicken's Tale of Two Cities. I had the privilege of finishing the book while in Paris. I walked past the Bastille and down the narrow streets to the city square where thousands of heads literally rolled during the Reign of Terror. I looked down at the cobblestones and thought how CSI could pull up those granite squared-cut stones and find traces of hemoglobin and DNA of the thousands who died under Rousseau's failed experiment with anarchy. Dickens told the story well. I felt myself in line for the executioner.
When I read Dickens and thought about it, I concluded that standing in that death line, watching those in front of you, one by one, have their heads chopped off by the machine, then their heads stuck with a spear and held up for all to see and jeer at . . . there must never have been a more terrifying moment in human history. Okay, maybe when the thousands of human sacrifices climbed the steps of Templo Mayor as the Aztec priests cut out their hearts one by one. The sense of mortality and finiteness has never been more acute, not the mention the fear of the pain.
I know this sounds depressing and morbid, but I will try to quickly make my point.
But my point here is that we are all in that line. One by one my family and a few friends have stepped up to arms the great executioner, be it cancer, car wrecks or suicide. I've had my own close calls with death, most while behind a wheel of an automobile, a few hanging from ropes on cliffs. Once a doctor told me I had just a few weeks to live. I had to live with that news for a week before the specialist proved his diagnosis wrong. But it was contemplative week that, though 12 years ago, change my perspective forever.
So what do we do? How do we not succumb to despair and perpetual depression? We should.
I don't think the Christian answers of us being spared (as I was told) or that we are transported by a flash of the eye, through a painless tunnel into eternal bliss is much better than Hemingway's distraction through better and better love making.
After all these years of being a Christian, I still don't know how it plays out. The Bible isn't clear. Beyond that, each scenario that I can think of isn't very appealing. My favorite is being held in suspended animation until God recreates this world and allows us to repopulate it (this is the C. S. Lewis view).
But at this juncture is where the faith of Hebrews 11 must find its fulfillment. I actually think us thinkers and doubters have a much honorable and robust faith, trusting God in the great unknown, than the "men or women of faith" who have it all figured out and smile and claiming that death doesn't scare them. If death doesn't scare you then it only means one thing . . . you are totally out of touch with reality. Death scares the hell out of me, but at the same time, in total confidence I say that I know that God has it solved. I just don't understand it.
So then, what do we do? I have grown to love Solomon. The real Solomon, not the one recreated by Evangelicals. The Evangelicals say that Solomon's discontentment, searching, struggles and partying was all before his "conversion experience." I say that it was his conversion experience.
So what I mean is that all that we do to distract us from the inevitable, all the distractions, the striving for meaning, in the end is hopelessness. So, we put on a smile, not a fake one like the Evangelicals, but a sincere one, and say to ourselves, "It makes no sense. I'm built for eternity living in the temporal. But God has it figured out and in the end . . . it really will be swell. In the meantime, I deeply enjoy the sound of my wife's voice. the smile of a friend, the taste of chocolate, the smell of lavender, the view and thunder of a cascading waterfall and live each day and each minute as if were my last . . . and my first.