A Baptist pastor friend of mine tells the story of the day he met with the late John W. Carlton in his office at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The huge brown desk loomed between them. His steely blue eyes were piercing.
Leaning earnestly across the desk, Dr. Carlton said to him, “Son, we’re all going to die with half our music still in us.”
He was right, of course. We all feel this at funerals. There is “another half of the music” in all of us. None of us has ever completely lived out all our noblest hopes. Few of us ever completely incarnate all our best intentions.
When Robert Louis Stevenson died, one of his friends commented that “Robert died with a thousand stories still inside.” What was true of Stevenson is, of course, true of us. We will all die “with a thousand stories inside,” a thousand things left undone, a thousand kind words unspoken, a thousand feelings of compassion un-acted-upon, a thousand good secrets untold. We’ll still have a lot of good music within us.
The upside of all this is that the human spirit can never run out of creative ventures. No matter our age, there are still more good stories to tell, more beautiful songs to sing, and more friends to collect. And when our lives are over, someone will have to continue the story.
I love the story about Puccini, who wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922 he suddenly was stricken with cancer while he was working on “Turandot.” Many think it was his best work, but he was not able to finish it before the cancer took his life. As he was dying, he begged his students to finish the work for him.
After his death Puccini’s students studied his new work carefully and eventually were able to complete it. “Turandot” was performed for the first time at La Scala, in Milan. It was directed by Arturo Toscanini, who was one of Puccini’s brightest students.
Everything went beautifully until they reached the point where Puccini had been forced to lay down his pen. Tears ran down the director’s face as he stopped the music. Putting down his baton, Toscanini turned to the audience and said, “Thus far the Master wrote, ere he died.”
A vast silence filled the opera house. Then, Toscanini picked up his baton and smiling through his tears said, “But, the disciples finished the work.” When the performance at last reached its conclusion, the audience rose as one to applaud the Master — and the disciples who continued his work.
We will die with a lot of good songs that have yet to be sung, and a lot of good stories still in us. There’s more than a lifetime of things to do. But I take comfort in knowing that there will be others to pick up the baton.
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