STUFF I LOVE ABOUT GOD: CHAPTER FOUR
LIFE AND DEATH
Life, like a military marksman, adjusts her sights, brings the intended target into view, places her finger gently on the trigger and says… “Not as chewy as roast beef, not as boring as chicken”. Bang! Target annihilated.
Two hours and forty-five minutes of cinematic genius, of flawless acting and of a story already told but begging to be again.
Anthony Hopkins and the disgustingly handsome Brad Pitt meet in “Meet Joe Black”. A cocktail of triumph from the word “go”. They combine to tell a tale of wonder and refreshment for the soul. The director of the movie (Martin Brest) had sat on the idea for 20 years, being originally inspired by its predecessor.
One fine, sunny day Death arrives on the scene, anxious after years of observation, to taste life. He takes the body of a young man (Pitt) and calls himself Joe. He needs a guide and selects Bill Parish (Hopkins), informing him that when the tour is over so also is Bill’s life. To make matters more intriguing Bill is to tell no one the true nature of their relationship.
Death is inquisitive to say the least, eager to sample this thing called life that he has thus far observed from a distance. He is a cold, callous and thoroughly removed individual; everything you might expect from Death.
Pondering his role in this adventure, Bill asks, “Why me?” Death numbly replies, “You’ve lived a first-rate life and I find it eminently usable.”
Death lives up to his name and reputation both. He meets a Caribbean lady in hospital and she accurately pegs him; “Oh, Mr. Bad News”, she calls him. But Life has a surprise in store, even for death. Doesn’t she always?
During the course of the movie Life opens her floodgates upon Death, illustrating through her human pawns, life’s wonderful adventure. She showers him with examples of nobility, courage, integrity, friendship, honour, and not least of all, love.
Quince (Bill’s son-in-law) is the first to fire. With no reason at all he welcomes Death into the Parish household – something Bill hadn’t even done, though hardly surprising. Quince is simply one of those genuinely open and honest individuals of whom Jesus would say in whom is no guile. The effect Quince has on Death is trifling in comparison to others, but quite genuine. “Do you like me, Joe?”, he asks toward the end of the movie. “Oh yes”, replies Death, “You are one of my favourites.”
Next up, the common courtesy of a butler, with a teaspoon of peanut butter, impregnates Death with a little taste of kindness. Insignificant? Well, only if you forget that this is Death’s final request before he exits the movie. This trickle of kindness begins to stream.
The movie continues to roll along this theme. Through many little incidents Life threatens to pierce the very soul of Death. Challenging him at every turn, throwing down gauntlets all over the place, convicting him with principle, provoking him with character, and confronting him with goodness, Life, with her many splendid things, searches for a weakness she might exploit. She is trying desperately to get him to betray who he is, to forsake his character and transform himself from the repulsive grub that he is into the resplendent butterfly she knows he can be.
Bill, always unhappy with Joe, teaches him some of the greatest lessons. And it is in conversation with Bill that Life takes her first serious foothold. Death is eating a cold lamb sandwich in Bill’s office and comments on how delicious it is. Upon hearing this Bill’s demeanour changes and he becomes somewhat melancholy. Not particularly focussing upon anything he stares into the space between himself and whatever is front of him. That place where memories dance, and the curtain never falls.
“Cold lamb sandwiches.” Bill finally says. “My wife turned me on to that. Not as chewy as roast beef – not as boring as chicken.”
Joe stops eating, leans his chin on his hand and listens, intently. His face also changes appearance, as though sharing the moment.
“She knew stuff like that.” Bill continues. “Everything reminds me of her. There isn’t a day goes by I don’t think of her. But I guess you’ve heard this a trillion times before.”
“More” replies Joe. But adds, “What was she like when you first met?”
“Thought you’d heard this a trillion times before?” asks Bill.
“This part I’m interested in.” And Bang! Life, like a python, now has Death in her embrace and all that is required is the slow, steady tightening of her power.
Life always finds a way, doesn’t she? Even through a cold lamb sandwich. The simple tale of an “ordinary” love shared between a man and his wife and Death is hooked. Life begins to coil, and Death, increasingly resembling trapped prey, comes closer to Life with every squeeze.
Bill is to be the teacher through which Death would learn many such lessons. However, it is Alison, his daughter, who completes the miracle of redemption within Death. In the early development of their relationship Joe remarks that he doesn’t have any friends. Alison responds by saying, “I can see why.” But all this was to change.
There’s the shyness of her smile and innocence of her language. There’s the charm of her spirit and the beauty of her form. There’s the strength of her character and the devotion of her heart. All of these, like water finding the weakness in a breached hull, begin to swamp Death like a flood.
As the story unfolds Life is beginning to take the upper hand over her archenemy. Death’s heart begins to crumble. Where there was only frost there is now the first signs of thaw. From a seemingly unchanging and bitter winter there breathes the first breath of spring. Where there was only intention of taking and experiencing there are now acts of benevolence and sharing.
Like a relentless tide persistently corroding a coastal rock Life is wearing him down. Death blesses an elderly lady with a dying wish, he honours a promise he earlier broke, he restores a business to the man he’s come to admire and from what was once a stone-faced callous appearance, finally, rolls a single solitary tear. LIFE HAS WON! What began as a trickle of kindness ended in a torrent of love, and death is exposed.
One fine sunny day Death arrived on the scene, anxious after years of observation, to taste life. Life took him and brought him to his knees, transformed and hardly recognisable. His character completely betrayed.
There are many paths down which one could travel with these thoughts. I’m sure you already have your own. Good. The movie deserves them. Bear with me now as I travel down mine.
One fine sunny day LIFE arrived on the scene, anxious after years of observation to taste death. He was called Jesus. Now, this was one fine, warm, compassionate, caring and benevolent individual; everything you might expect of Life. From the moment of His birth there was joy in the world, for the Lord had come and earth received her King.
The sun was smiling, finally realising the purpose of its creation, to warm the face of Heaven’s finest Son. The grass, begging the wind to blow it into position in order to be trampled under His feet. Trees desperately forcing themselves into leaf that He might shade Himself under them. Streams and rivers draining the nearby hillsides of every drop of moisture in order to make themselves more appealing to Him, in the hope he may stoop to drink. Well-trodden paths now thankful for the thousands of feet that shaped them, because HE now walks along them. Birds no longer singing through instinct but in the hope their songs may impress the ears of their Creator – all competing for a place on the branches that stretch to embrace Him. The stones snarling a glance at the birds, jealously longing for a mouth that they may accompany dawn’s daily symphony. Heaven was suffering post-natal depression while the earth was basking in His glory. LIFE!
This is all the story needed to be. This was how Life should have been received, and by all, and always. His entrance into Jerusalem should have been par for the course, an everyday occurrence. That would have been altogether fitting. However, this young man, had more serious matters in mind, and so did His archenemy, Death.
On the day of His birth hell and her captain were aroused into action and opened their floodgates against Him. They unleashed all the powers at their disposal; desperate to crush the wings of this young Admiral; desperate to find a chink in His armour, desperate to reduce Him, break Him, crush Him and ultimately destroy Him. Doing everything and anything, to tempt Him to betray His character.
They offered Him bread. He wasn’t hungry. They came with offers of kingdoms. He refused. He was met by an overly anxious mother. He responded with obliging obedience. They arrived with a storm and He left them with peaceful waters. They came with accusations of demon-possession and clever questions (taxes to Caesar, caught in adultery, work on the Sabbath). He answered with truth spoken in love. They came with every temptation, every lust, every human desire, every human weakness, every human emotion, every single day. Not for a second did He flinch. With His face set toward Jerusalem, Life, uncompromising and true, finished the work His Father had entrusted Him with.
In the movie, Life beat Death to a pulp and loved him into betraying his own character. 2000 years ago Death only proved Life to be the character we always knew was true. Eager to have Him betray His mission and His character, Death served Him a volley of abuse and scorn. Life stood up against it, braved its winter chills, walked patiently through its spring and delivered our eternal summer. With a triumphant cry that would pierce history, Life, seemingly broken proclaimed, “It is finished!”.
Thank God for “Mr. Good News”; The same yesterday, today and forever.
God is as unchanging and unchangeable now as He has always been, calling us from the winters of our discontent, toward our eternal summer.
I love that about God!