To Live a Ghost Story

Last weekend, our neighborhood was the site of the sixth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival. Thanks to a sponsoring church member, I had access to a VIP pass, which enabled me to attend quite a few films over the weekend.

I geek out over film festivals; my favorites are the shorts and documentaries. But this year, I also got to see the big closing feature film, “A Ghost Story,” written and directed by local David Lowery.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw our very own church members, Margot and Sylvie Tomerlin, in a scene! (Spoiler alert: they played pioneer kids in a covered wagon.) I have no doubt that one or the other will end up being a famous performer; remember that Margot is our star liturgical dancer!

The film itself was an eye-opener. Don’t let the title or the marketing materials fool you; this is not a horror film, nor even a suspenseful thriller. And the one best-known actor in the film, Casey Affleck, spends most of the film under a white sheet. To be honest, “A Ghost Story” fits more comfortably in the “arthouse” genre. But don’t let that designation fool you either — the film is accessible to anyone who has just a little more patience than the average “Fast and Furious” filmgoer.

It’s certainly a different kind of movie from most Hollywood fare. For example, a few of the scenes are single takes that last four or five minutes. In one instance, Rooney Mara, playing a bereaved young widow, walks into her apartment and eats an entire pie. The whole thing is captured in only two shots, each of which seem to last forever. But the scene portrays grief in the most authentic manner I have ever seen on-screen.

The film is also very quiet. There is little dialogue, not much background music. Only natural sounds of night and quiet meadows. And so it gives the viewer the chance to really engage, not only intellectually, but emotionally with the striking images.

Yes, the story is about a ghost. The ghost walks around with a white sheet over his head. It sounds gimmicky, but it works in a very interesting way. He doesn’t come across as spooky or ethereal. Rather, the ghost is a clear symbol of loss, of a void.

The ghost functions as a screen upon which the viewer projects his or her own fears about belonging and identity. As I watched the ghost, I found myself wondering about the weighty matters of faith, love, and spirit. It wasn’t so much about the question of the afterlife, but upon what remains when one dies.

This particular ghost found himself rooted to one specific space; his identity was tied up in one location in a very particular period of time. As the people and things which inhabit his space disappear over time, the ghost becomes more and more disoriented; he becomes rootless and restless.

The point is clear: we humans inhabit time and space. Everything we do is bound by our place on the earth, limited by the seventy or eighty years we are given. We can’t transcend those dimensions as human beings, no matter how much we may strive to make ourselves “immortal.”

Only God transcends the dimensions of space and time. And God’s revelation in Jesus Christ makes plain to us what ultimately lasts, what goes on into the distant future, beyond our limited lifespan. Three things remain in the end — faith, hope, and agape/love — says the apostle Paul (I Cor. 13:13).

What matters is faith — the unconditional trust that we place in God’s love.

What matters is hope — the undying flicker of possibility in the future, however distant.

What matters is agape — the love that gives unconditionally and completely to the other.

These are the things that go on, that remain.

I know that I will die someday. But I sure hope that I don’t find myself in a white sheet, loitering around the house long after my death. Instead, I hope to find myself in God’s presence, enjoying the shalom I have sought all my life.

And I pray that my acts of faith, hope, and agape will last for a little while, at least, if only to encourage those who come after me to do the same.