Life and Death and the Other Thing

It is mid-autumn at the end of March 2020 and next month I observe my 74th birthday anniversary and begin my 75th year, three quarters of a century, with a mix of disbelief, awe and increasingly simple thankfulness. I’ve got room to do this. Since we are currently blessed, cursed and set apart to live in the midst of interesting times provided by a worldwide virus, I approach this threshold with my partner in the context of what could appear to be a rather cushy monastic enclosure. It’s far from severe poverty if two men and two cats are restricted by a modern plague to home-based solitude with more than enough books and food and an abundance of appropriate technology. We abide as semi-hermits remaining intentionally connected with friends, family, neighbours, and the whole world through screen and web and prayer. 

Still there is a silence here which encourages another level of wondering and pondering. A seminary professor of mine defined Eschatology as both “The Last Things and The Things That Last.” And anyway you look at it, these are end-times. We may not know it all, but we understand it will be different for awhile yet. And that very difference can focus us — on who and where we are and have been, who we’re with, what we’ve done and haven’t done,  and finally on what lasts and why it matters. It is an opportune time to look at life and death and something else. Anyway I keep telling myself that. 

I’ve never been very clear about the likelihood I might someday die, but even as a kid I knew it was around. I have vague memories around polio, of handwashing and stories of the public pool closing in Sacramento, of somebody’s daughter with a limp or someone else’s distant cousin in an iron lung; or maybe I just saw pictures in Life Magazine or on the television my brother Tom won at the California State Fair in September of 1950. Other people’s grandparents died too, and on June 17, 1957, my mother’s father died two months to the day after he had exploratory surgery for liver cancer on my eleventh birthday. Two days after he died I went with my family to view his body at the grey Victorian mansion housing Clark, Booth and Yardley Funeral Directors. We entered through the side door and I remember how silent the building seemed and my grandfather lying still in the wooden casket and my grandmother leaning into my father and sobbing quietly. 

In 1962 I remember going to Sam’s Rancho Villa on Fair Oaks Boulevard with my parents and a couple of their friends in Sacramento during the Cuban missle crisis for prime rib, mashed potatoes, horseradish and assorted desserts and the surprisingly quiet conversations at all the round tables which I assumed were about the nuclear arms Nikita Kruschchev sent to Fidel Castro. I think we were driving home after when we heard the news that “somebody blinked” and America was safe until a year later when JFK was shot in Dallas and we drove into Sacramento to pick up my grandmother and all the flags on Capital Mall were at half-mast.

And I remember, though through a bit of a haze, the early evening of Thursday, June 6 1968 and walking from my dorm at the University of Oregon to a playground a block away from our dormitory to smoke too much Jungle Juice. Then I was suddenly convinced I was the same boy who had played at the playground at McKinley Park in Sacramento ten years before and would now have to walk down to Highway 101 and south to California. When my friend with the pipe asked me how I was I started to tell him this and he assured me I was having a bad trip and assured me, after he counted backwards from five to zero, I would vomit and immediately feel much better. He did so and I felt better and we walked back to the dorm. Later I was reading on his bunkbed as he sat at his desk studying for a final exam and the music on the local radio station was interrupted with what initially seemed to be a retelling of John Kennedy’s assassination but then I realised that his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy, who we’d seen the previous week sitting on the back of a convertible while campaigning for the Oregon vote, had just been shot in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California Primary. 

Death touched the family again when I was in my mid-twenties and my eighty year old grandmother was close to dying of leukaemia. She had a remission for several months and when it ended my uncle, her eldest child, flew out from the East Coast, and I stood watching from the front window of the house as he — followed by my mother and my aunt – carried his mother in his arms from her home to the car to take her to the hospital for the last time.

It hit closer a decade later when I was painting my parents house. and fell through the roof of a carport to the concrete below. I could hear my back crack. A noisy ambulance drive and an hour later I was getting an xray thinking, “If I can just walk after this I will be much more thankful than I have ever been.” Three months later I wrote this poem.

At 5 O’clock

Leaves fall 

as branches lighten

in late October afternoon:

the surprising structure of tree

emerges as freshly thought.

One man, walking 

With something else on mind,

is surprised by the fact of it

and breaks stride for a moment to see.

Man and tree stand

in late October afternoon;

A surprising structure emerges.

And then fifteen years later and almost twenty four years ago, six months after my fiftieth birthday, on a late afternoon in November, 1996 when I was ninety minutes outside San Francisco with my first cousin and her family in Fairfield for a long Thanksgiving visit. The weather was warm and I was wearing bermuda shorts. My cousin asked me about the black spot on the back of my leg. I looked in the mirror to see a sunken patch of skin slightly above the back of my knee. 

So the following week I went to San Francisco General Hospital to get a small biopsy and returned to receive the results the following week. When I got to the second appointment I was met by the doctor, another nurse and a woman from the office of pastoral care, who all assured me they would be there for support: that I had a melanoma. The doctor explained they would arrange for a CT scan of my lymphatic system, take a deep excision as soon as possible, and arrange for a an interview with an oncologist who I saw a few days later. The specialist said that if the deep excisions showed malignancy and the scan indicated the cancer had spread into my lymph gands they would begin a series of chemotherapy  treatments extending over a number of months.

Of the week following I particularly remember keeping still in several positions and laying on a sheet on the surface of a large flat  machine while a larger machine positioned above me was adjusted to take pictures of my lymphatic glands. While this was happening I listened to the occasional clicking sounds from the machine above me and two technicians several feet way softly talking to one another in a language I did not know. I was aware of the thin hospital gown I was wearing and the nubby texture of the sheet on top of the metal machine. Then I somehow felt the air in the room somehow charged with a presence of radical caring which was breathing us all – somehow centered there yet still equally linked to some larger dimension of reality. Language falters here, but then I knew I was, we were, not alone, and this realisation was an instant relief for me.

A few days later I awoke with a dream where my mother and a cousin of ours were visiting a small valley where our family had lived many years before. We drove through narrow roads between full orchards flanked by lightly wooded hills on each horizon and came to a country crossroads with one of those one-stop stores that sells gasoline, sunglasses, soft drinks, beer, candy and a limited menu of food with small tables and metal chairs.  When I told the man at the cash register our family had lived there long ago he asked for the name and I said it was Storey. He then said he knew Grace Storey, my great-great aunt who had died in the 1950s, that she still lived nearby.

We went back to the car and, while my mother and second cousin thought that the man at the counter was slightly off focus, but I believed he knew her: that in this particular valley as people aged they moved moved farther into the mountains, somehow becoming one with the rocks and the ground and the air: silent and slow, yet deliberate and deeply aware and still somehow alive. When I woke up I realized that Grace Storey could both be a proper name and the title for that dream. 

I recall the third image came to mind again when I was talking to a student at USF, sharing that one image of heaven I carried was that of a really great party. A place offering the best drinks and hors d’oeuvres, flowers everywhere, great lighting, windows with great views on all sides, with the music of wonderful conversation, effusive and effervescence and something else too: with everyone taking turns serving refreshments, sharing conversations, seeing what’s happening, somehow all full of sense and witness and promise and presence.

And on at least one wall there’s a large flatscreen television where various of events play themselves out. Every genre: history, comedy, triumph and tragedy, art and science, noise and soft music, light and darkness all appear and go through their paces. And it seemed as though every once in a while someone would leave the party and appear on the long narrow screen going through all the events of their life and, when they returned to the larger room, others would asked how it had gone. And then I remembered I had written a poem twenty five years before on the same theme: 


A red leather walnut panelled heaven

like a clubroom.

God strolling by, drinking aperitifs

before dinner – damask, sterling and Spode.

That’s one side of the vision.

Another would be an agape orgy.

continual coming in celestial light

beings merging, mingling,

with melody of sweat and endless orgasm.

And, of course, the tennis court afterlife:

elegant reprocity: whites, reds and green,

a courtly dance that rallies around eternity, 

and, at every point, serving God.

Or maybe awe:

the spirit seeing

what it could never comprehend

and reverberating in total wonder.

Or all of the above,

a place beyond place,

An air beyond description,

a ringing light… An is. 

That old poem, the more recent dream, and the image I shared with the student all combined with a certain amount of role distance, simple denial and tentative faith to carry me through the worried days before the results of an early morning deep excision in the outpatient clinic showed the cancer had not spread, the lymphatic system appeared clear and, with scheduling annual skin checks, I was pronounced well and safe. But this series of ideas and images still remained to this day. And even after all the years these are not easy stories to share, still harder to explain. 

It is helpful for me to note they follow a pattern pointed to by Mircea Eliade and Victor Turner, two academics at the University of Chicago writing about liminal rites of passage, thresholds where (quoting Wikipedia):

“Participants stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes… During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” 

And for awhile after the cancer scare my life got pretty malleable. The threshold between living and dying opened on to a different kind of journey where encountering these supposed contradictions was somehow softer. I was easier about knowing what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t easily expose or explore concerning these places between. A few years following, I also started reading about the phenomenon of synesthesia and that began to open up another way to reflect about, clarifying my experience a bit more. My online dictionary begins to defines synesthesia as “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”— but it’s more than that. 

For one thing, it’s not uncommon. Cribbing from Wikipedia’s font of information, I find that Vladimir Nabokov, Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman, Nikola Tesla,  Duke Ellington, Rimsky-Korsakov and drummer Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead all had it. Each of them offering unique symptoms or gifts differing depending on your point of view. While Beverly Hills – Englishman painter David Hockney perceived music as color, shape, and configuration, the Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthesia combined color, hearing, touch, and smell. It may not be a common occurrence, but seems quite lush and seductive to me. Quoting the scene in that movie with Meg Ryan, “I’ll have what she’s having.” 

Or maybe, if I’m really honest, I won’t. It’s not easy. Writing in “After The Ecstacy, The Laundry,” Jack Kornfield recounts that one “famous study of American spiritual life found that the majority of those interviewed had had a mystical experience at some time in their life. However, the researchers also discovered that most of those people would not want it to happen again.” Kornfield asks why this is then offers a convincing answer. “What we have no words for, we cannot understand; it does not fit into our view of what is real. And if we stumble upon it… we may be taken by surprise, and frightened.” But It might be worth the fright, to take the risk. what if reality is that large, can contain larger contradictions, offer more options of experience and perception? If we only see what we look for, maybe we’ll miss a surprise that is more than frightening. And maybe we’ll miss a miracle that might be nearer than we had known.

Personal experiences require a public vocabulary. For most of my years in chaplaincy I began to use a half-dozen Greek words to dress my understanding with a little more authority, sort of like putting good slipcovers on an old couch, to illustrate these different ways of experiencing time and space, of coming to horizons. Two of these are Chronos and Kairos. I first used them in a sermon two weeks before Easter  1993, some 27 years ago and I’ve been riffing on them ever since. Here’s a sightly revised version of what I said then:

I have this fear that the 90s is the decade when nobody is going to get enough sleep, where waking up is very hard to do. In addition to the chaplaincy at San Francisco State University I work part-time as a resident minister, on the campus at the University of San Francisco. Sometimes I wake up at USF in the morning and after coffee I go to the gym for a workout, or do the daily office at home, maybe meet a student for breakfast in the Union, finally walk over to Haight Street to catch the 43 bus to Forest Hill to transfer the M streetcar to our headquarters in Ecumenical House at SFSU.

 And there mornings when I’m standing on Haight Street and I am still not awake after a lot of coffee and various activities, not awake, just percolating lightly. So I stand there waiting and start making some plans for the day, ruminate a little bit about what I need to do, who to see, plans, all this mixing with memories too, maybe taking out the datebook and checking the schedule while I wait for the bus to get there. But not really awake

And then when I get on the 43 bus and we start moving, turn on Cole Street, turning again at the Tassajara bakery, and then right up the hill to the medical center at UCSF and when we get to the top of the hill by the dental clinic I look to the right and sometimes what I see is amazing, shocking, beautiful! With the Golden Gate and the Pacific ocean, the park and the Presidio, Richmond and Sunset districts, trees and houses and sky all together with the clouds and sun and morning fog. With blue and white and grey and green and I swear there are mornings when there are shades of purple and rose that even seem to colour, to transfigure, all the people on the bus. All of us touched with glory! It feels like such a shock of privilege that I want to open my eyes wider and see it all and look in every direction, and take the biggest breath I can take and to say out loud, “Oh God, thank you for all this amazing life!” Being a good Episcopalian, I restrain myself on this, but I think the idea is appropriate even if the action doesn’t seem quite right. To wake up to all this life!

Now the Greeks had two words for these two modes of consciousness and time. Chronos means linear time, like chronometer, chronology and even chronicle. At eight I do this in a nine you do that in the next 20 years the committee plans to do whatever; all that is linear. Chronological time is something to fill up, to plan, to use. But Kairos is the right time. Time to wake up, to plant seeds, to harvest, to make love: to look at that particular flower, or face, or surprising fact of life looking back at you. It is immediate, surprising, recreative, maybe a surprising gift.

If they were new cars Chronos would be a station wagon, built for the long run, to take you where you want to go: “you can put all your history in the trunk and still have room for the future.” But Kairos would be a convertible! “Take away the removable top and see the sky, the wind in your hair, the new view!” I remember when I was a kid in Sacramento, sometimes on Saturday we would go to Lake Tahoe for the day. We had a green Buick convertible and when we got past Placerville on Highway 50, we would take the top down and the road was entirely different! Kairos! The mountains, the water, the air and light, the mystery of it all right there.

So there’s a point in the gospel for today which has to do with Kairos and Chronos and how they meet. Remember the back ground story is that Jesus and his disciples are slowly approaching Jerusalem and dealing both with organisational tension with the troops and the increasing likelihood of his assassination. They stop on the way and hear that Jesus’s friend Lazarus is sick. Then a few days pass, Jesus and his disciples hear Lazarus has died and make the slightly delayed but appropriate visit to the bereaved family.  

The story comes into focus when Jesus arrives and greets Martha. She says, “Lord, if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” If only! Anne Wilson Schaef writes in the book, When Society Becomes an Addict, we live in a world filled with three “ifs”: “as if, what if, if only.” And here note each of them is in the chronological mode, the way we generally live. And Jesus says, “your brother will rise again. Do you believe this?”  — and I think he is saying, “how awake are you, Martha?” and her response is, “I believe that he will rise again, in the resurrection of the dead, at the last day.” And I’ll translate that roughly as, “I am hopeful, what if, things might change.” – A slightly chronological mode here. But Jesus raises the ante and says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And maybe he’s saying,  “Just how awake are you willing to be, Martha?”  Martha response, “you are the Christ, the son of God, he who is coming into the world.” 

But Jesus keeps pushing, the story goes on, the crowd gets involved, the drama builds and Jesus finally says, “take away the stone!” And when Martha says, “Lord, there will be an odor,” (because Chronos has taken a toll and it is going to smell bad.) Jesus comes back and says, “Did I not say if you would believe, you would see the glory of God.” So they take away the stone, Lazarus comes forth, the glory of God shows up at the right time and Kairos wins that day!

But it doesn’t always. Sometimes Kairos and Chronos can get mixed up together and it gets complex. 20 years ago my 80-year-old grandmother got chronic leukaemia, later acute, which was the beginning of the end. We almost lost her several times, but then she had a remission. For a little over 90 days she left the hospital to stay at home, feeling pretty good, it was a surprising time to visit, to remember a lot of times, to say much of the stuff that needed to be said, I had never been so courtly, so solicitous and courteous as I was with my grandmother. We all were. The moment was pure gift

Then the remission ended, the numbers went wrong with white count up and red count down, and on the 93rd day I stood at the window of the house and watched as my uncle, her eldest child, carried her to the car, followed by my aunt and my mother, for her last stay at the hospital. Two things happened as I stood there, I felt the tragedy of it, a terrible sadness like the scene in the last act of Lear when the king comes on stage with his dead daughter in his arms, railing against fate; why should a tree, a flower have life, and not her his daughter. This feeling of tragedy. But the second feeling was like the Sanctos; “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of his glory.” Two impressions, but I knew only knew one thing: “Thank God we matter this much!” It only lasted a minute, I remember it still. I think it relates to Chronos and Kairos and how they fit together for us in this world.

It is not an easy place to stay in the middle between these two modes of reality, two types of time, between everyday tragedy and those special moments of transcendence. Because for most of us, most of the time, the stone is not taken away, the body does not come back. Jesus may be the resurrection and the life, but daily reality and memory tell us that miracles don’t always happen and that means a real temptation to stay in the safer space of denial and death.

But it’s tough when we come up to these big summary statements that are all over John’s Gospel: “I am real food, the bread of life, living water, the resurrection of the dead!” It is tough to reconcile all this in a world where many are hungry for daily bread, fresh water, just life; living poor and dying out, and the good news doesn’t seem to be here just yet. For while John keeps telling the stories of victory over defeat, of a radical renewal of life, “and when I am lifted up I will draw all humankind unto myself,” we seem to be just holding on or even going downhill fast. So what do we do?

Jesus says, “Take away the stone!”  but it is not easy. The stone may be keeping in the pain and the tears, the stone may be what we need to keep ourselves upright, from another disappointment, sometimes we don’t need too much hope, it can hurt! We have made an adjustment, the stone may be part of our foundation. And Jesus says, “Take away the stone!”

In the next few weeks, through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, we are going to hear stories that stretch our understanding of reality, the good and bad of it, the tragedy and transcendence, Chronos and Kairos coming together in the middle of a deep journey. We need to prepare ourselves to be surprised by the road before us. This might disturb our sense of what is right and wrong and what can happen, it might not jive with what we had known before, and we really need to be ready to take the chance.

There is a great line in one of CS Lewis’s Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy. Some travellers are coming to the end of a long journey, they get to a safe place to rest from their travels, a walled garden, when suddenly a great lion comes over the fence. it is Aslan, the son of Emperor-over-sea. He calls them to come to him and it is more than a little scary. Then he says, “Do not dare not to dare.”

The Gospel that comes in the next two weeks is for people ready to hear good news, to awaken to Kairos, ready to dare to dare to be fully awake, to be a hungry people on a long journey, in sight of a safe place, reaching with empty hands for strong food and drink, hearing a new story and coming to a new understanding of who and whose we are, and how tragedy and transcendence move together and meet in a final miracle.

Do not dare not to dare! Listen with hope, look with all the possibilities, be prepared as you can to see the rock taken away and see Lazarus emerge, see Jesus come forth, see you and me, all lost grandmothers and the whole bus come through the opening into a new and exciting life as the top comes off to reveal a whole new world, with a brighter sky, deeper air and brighter colours than we can ever name. Into the life of resurrection we share with Christ.

(John 11:1 – 44.- St. Francis Episcopal Church, San Francisco, March 28, 1993) 

2 thoughts on “Life and Death and the Other Thing

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