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Learning from James Gandolfini’s death

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A photo of James Gandolfini is displayed in the window of a restaurant in Little Italy, New York in tribute to the actor (Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer)

James Gandolfini was known to the world as Tony Soprano, the mythical mob boss who won three Emmy Awards.  The announcement of his death made global headlines yesterday.  He was only 51 years old.

If such a successful, wealthy star cannot guarantee himself another day, who can?

Gandolfini joined the ranks of Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Heath Ledger, all celebrities who were even younger when they died.  On the other hand, Betty White and Clint Eastwood are still stars at the ages of 91 and 83, respectfully.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was 39 when he was assassinated.  John F. Kennedy was 46 when he died; his son was 38.  Abraham Lincoln was 56 when he was killed by John Wilkes Booth.  None of them knew that morning that they would die that day.

This might be the last Cultural Commentary you read, or the last one I write.  Jesus could tarry another thousand years or he could return to earth today.  I turned 55 at my last birthday and am now the age of my father when he died.  His father, however, lived to be 99.

The key to life is not its length but its depth.  It’s not how many days we live, but how we live our days.  Then, when we come to the last, our words can reflect our victory.  Consider the last words of those who died in sadness with those who died in joy.

Winston Churchill said, “I’m bored with it all.”  Novelist James Joyce asked, “Does nobody understand?”  Writer Edgar Allen Poe prayed, “Lord help my poor soul.”  Leonardo da Vinci‘s last words were the saddest I’ve seen: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”

By contrast, George Washington said, “I die hard but am not afraid to go.”  John Quincy Adams testified, “This is the last of earth!  I am content.”  Emily Dickinson stated, “I must go in, the fog is rising.”  Minister Henry Ward Beecher observed, “Now comes the mystery.”

Louis XIV, King of France, asked onlookers, “Why do you weep?  Did you think I was immortal?”  Actually, we are.  We will each spend eternity in heaven or in hell—the choice is ours.  As C. S. Lewis noted, there are two kinds of people in the world.  Some say to God, “Your will be done.”  To the others, God says, “Your will be done.”

Which have you said to Jesus?  Queen Elizabeth I announced, “All my possessions for a moment of time.”  But Woodrow Wilson could say, “I am ready.”  Are you?