07 June 2012

A time to die

I'm struggling with the flood tide of deaths that seems to be washing over us. Some of these deaths are dear friends, some relatives, some celebrities, some are simply people we never got a chance to know--in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even our own congregation in Portland, Oregon.

The first in chronological order I just learned about this evening: Francis G. Brown of Downingtown Friends Meeting in Pennsylvania, who died on May 27. During the times I attended Downingtown Friends, Fran Brown was head of the staff of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. At the time I was attending Carleton University in Canada and attended Downingtown Meeting during my summer vacations. I can totally affirm this article in what it says about the warmth that Fran and Enid Brown helped build in Downingtown Meeting.

I especially remember his role in helping oversee the Bicentennial Conference on Religious Liberty, a national conference that was hosted by Arch Street Friends Meeting. I came down from Ottawa to be part of the Friendly Presence, the nonviolent security team that helped shield the conference from potential disruptions (speakers included Jesse Jackson and Elie Wiesel; demonstrators outside the perimeter included the Jewish Defense League and Carl McIntire). Thanks to Fran Brown's good offices, I was able to attend the session at which Jesse Jackson delivered a line that I've never forgotten: "Racism won't kill us, because cynicism got us first."

By the way, Downingtown Meeting, through its youth program and its members at the time, Fred and Janet Chapin, were the first Friends to establish a relationship with Elektrostal, Russia, and therefore they're at least partly responsible for us being here!

Sue Axtell and grandchildren

Bill Bicknell giving his May 2 lecture

Part of the audience at Bill's (including
some we know well!)

Ray Bradbury (screen capture from
a wonderful video)
Sue Axtell of Richmond, Indiana, was the next to depart, on June 3. Just a couple of weeks earlier, she had written that she was entering a hospice program. I wasn't prepared for even that, never mind finding out how short her time in hospice actually would prove to be. Sue was one of the more recent in a series of people whose cancer I've been praying against ever since I started my "experiments with prayer," with Joseph Taylor. I got to know Sue first when she was a nurse at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Michigan, and clerk of Long Lake Friends Meeting. To my delight, she moved to Richmond in the late 90's to join our wonderful community of Friends and begin working at Earlham School of Religion--and, then, we had to follow her further progress from afar as we resettled in Portland, Oregon, and later in Russia.

Then, just a couple of days ago, we had to say goodbye to Judy's uncle Bill Bicknell, a doctor and a national and international leader in the field of public health. His transition to death matched the way he lived his life--with gusto. Just a bit over a month before his death on June 5, he delivered a major lecture at Boston University, cheerfully wheeling into the crowded auditorium on his Segway. I highly recommend watching the video of his lecture--he doesn't mince words as he describes the proper priorities and the temptations to corruption that exist in global public health, and in international development generally. For me personally, the lecture produced a whole list of questions I would love to follow up with Bill personally.

We never knew Ray Bradbury personally, but--in the company of millions of Americans growing up in the mid-20th century--his writings were part of our intellectual formation. I'm so grateful that there was a consistency between the humane values that saturated his writings and the person he was in real life. So it was, as with Jim Henson, Vladimir Horowitz, and Dr. Suess, the death of Ray Bradbury struck me far deeper than could be explained by personal connection. It's interesting that one of our students at the Institute here in Elektrostal is doing her diploma paper on the writings of Ray Bradbury.

Sue Axtell entered her hospice program just a few weeks ago--at the same time as another friend of ours, Duane Wallace, who is nearing the end of his battle with ALS. We don't get a respite from keeping company with dear people who are very likely to reach the finish line ahead of us. During these last weeks and months, I've been asked directly what I believe happens after death. Here, for better or worse, are some of the things I've said.
I can't believe how long it has taken me to answer your letter. I wonder why. Maybe it is because I know so little ... and hate to admit it.

For example, I have no idea at all what awaits us after death. I'm skeptical about totally materialistic answers because it is clear to me that the universe is far less linear and far deeper, more mysterious, than any purely mechanistic explanation could possibly account for. And underneath all of that is the question of how it even came to be. Maybe it's "turtles all the way down" but even those turtles came from somewhere. But my general confidence doesn't translate into specific insights about what we can expect after death.

When I was young I thought death was like the destruction of a tape recorder and the survival of the tape, or the destruction of the switchboard (the brain) and the survival of the voice (the soul). The connecting mechanisms don't survive, but the essence does. But I know it's very hard to imagine what it's like to be an "essence"!

Well, an essence doesn't need a haircut, and I do ... Natalia Vasilievna and her scissors await me.

*Later* OK, back with a gorgeous haircut. ... I went to have a late lunch at the Institute's cafe, and while eating I was reading Donald Miller's delightful book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Wow! He directly addresses your questions. Well, I'm still in the beginning of the book, so it's probably more accurate to say that he directly restates your questions; answers haven't come yet. So one way for me to stall in responding to your questions is to advise you to get the book--if you don't already have it. ... The setup is that he's been approached by some moviemakers who want to turn his first bestseller, Blue Like Jazz, into a screenplay. They love the book, but in order to make a film, they have to introduce a narrative arc, conflict, etc,--none of which exists in the book, and from Miller's point of view, in his life! All of this causes him to reflect on the meaning of life and death, and whether there really is any connectedness at all in his own life.

(You can preview the book here: http://donmilleris.com/2009/06/09/thoughts-on-the-first-three-chapters/ ... These are the first three chapters of the proof copy, but in the end he drops the middle chapter, so the final book only has proof chapters one and three.)

So all I can say for now about the book in relation to your questions is that Miller is apparently a Christian who is not devastated by reflecting on the same questions.

As I think about my own death, I have a number of priorities:
  • if I get a chance, in my last moments, I'm going to remember Judy.
  • I'm going to hold Jesus to his promises that he's going to be there with me. This promise keeps me from going insane; it's the cure for panic attacks.
  • It's very clear to me that I've had an incredible life ... [summarized in terms that don't belong here!]. It's never enough, but it has to end sometime. Or to put it another way, it has to end sometime, but it'll never be enough.
  • In the next life, either I will remember who I am or it will be so much better that it won't matter whether I do.
  • Scary thought: Judy will find out all the things about me that I don't want her to know! Consolation: she'll have a wider context to judge me.
I wonder whether God and Jesus have set up some kind of a division of labor: God anchors the eternal, and Jesus anchors the temporal/sensual.

[Another letter] On death: I re-read my earlier letter ... just to avoid repeating myself! Since then, we've been hit with the death of Kevin Gilbert [a good friend, theological conversation partner, and pastor in Northwest Yearly Meeting], and my hero Gordon Hirabayashi (who will get a postumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in a few days). And my old friend Sue Axtell in Richmond, Indiana, has just entered a hospice program; her blood is getting thick with cancer cells. I'm trying to insert a prayer filter in her bloodstream, but so far without success.

[Here I tell some family stories of very direct experiences of immortality. This is not stuff I'm at liberty to make public.]

Death is hard work, said a friend of ours, Charles Thomas, who has since died. While I'm still around, I hope I don't get too anxious about doing it right, because (1) the end might come with very bad timing (God might have a sense of humor about my Germanic obsession with time!!); and (2) my only real task in life is to learn to pray without ceasing. Maybe someone else would say the only task is awareness of the eternal; probably nobody can define the task for someone else, but the point is that there's no need to worry about meeting a final goal, just learning to be more aware and grounded and honest, which is a never-ending task. Once you're on that path, there's no such thing as failure. Even interruptions and tangents are instructive.

Some might say that love and friendship, and communicating it to those closest to us, are part of that task of awareness. But at some point the physical mechanisms fail. We can't neurologically communicate what we want to communicate; we have to rest in what we've already succeeded in saying in the past. None of that is revoked at the moment when we only have ourselves for immediate company just because the physical ties are broken in the outward sense. Some ... are gifted with the ability not to be limited by physical arrangements, but the rest of us can only rest in what we know to be true, without the consolation of new reassurances from those we love--whether we are the one dying now or the one dying later.

That word "rest" is very important to me, and not just because I'm exhausted at the moment from the unusual pace of the last few weeks of school .... It refers to a promise from Jesus himself--not from his self-important spokespeople--and I know that we can hold him to his promise. Death may be the best chance we have of having that promise come true, although dying is usually not an easy way to get there.

An interview with Bill Bicknell.

Neil Gaiman writes a warm tribute to Ray Bradbury. And this, too, from Chicago: Bradbury on Hemingway.

"Assassin-in-Chief": Tom Engelhardt on U.S. president Obama's part in institutionalizing extra-judicial executions. Those who hoped that Obama would bring competence into the executive branch now have to deal with one of the consequences of hiring a competent president: imperial policies may now be carried out more effectively, but that doesn't make them right.

The spirituality of Dirt.

July 4 music opportunities--Portland, Oregon; Tokyo, Japan. Will you be at the Waterfront Blues Festival? Let's meet!

Around the world in a solar-powered airplane.

BBC's "Radio 4: The World At One." This article about the expanded time slot for this news program caught my attention because, in passing, it deals with one of my major peeves in radio journalism: rude treatment of interviewees. I listen to a lot of BBC podcasts, especially during workouts at the gym, and I am grateful for their treatment of issues I'd otherwise barely be aware of. A recent example: the sporadic hostilities and ongoing peace efforts between Sudan and South Sudan. But I'm struck sometimes by the grating tendency of some radio journalists to interrupt their interviewees. It's not just to speed them up as mentioned in the World At One story linked above; sometimes the reporter seems to want to embarrass the interviewee in some (to my mind) relatively trivial contradiction.  Sometimes you get a very odd effect: an elite British accent seemingly reinforcing colonialist superiority with unnecessarily confrontational questions to a person who would, a few generations ago, have been under the colonialist thumb.

I don't want journalists exclusively throwing softballs, but I hope they consider whether the time they have for an interview is best used to fill us listeners in on the general situation, including a variety of representative views, even if that doesn't make for dramatic radio. If you only have two minutes, you simply don't have time to peel away the cross-cultural layers that might offer an alternative explanation for the things you don't understand. Just ask for the facts and viewpoints, and forgo the satisfaction of asking, "Why aren't you more embarrassed by this screwup?"

After mentioning Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee last week, I enjoyed reviewing some of the videos still available of their performances. In this one, they look very much the way I remember them:


Nancy Thomas said...

I was struck by your statement that "My only real task in life is to learn to pray without ceasing." Can that be true? Possibly, but it's hard, so hard. Is it something like the unnamed pilgrim wandering around Russia, learning to repeat the Jesus Prayer? That may be one way. There are probably other ways. Thank you for giving me something to ponder. I will carry this with me.

Johan Maurer said...

I used to talk about how important the Jesus Prayer has been to me--and it IS important to this moment, but if I mention this, I'm also obligated to confess that sometimes I lose the thread for days at a time.

Thanks to something that Bill Vaswig wrote, I'm trying to train my eyes to look at people (even when just idly people-watching) with intent to bless. It's hard. I'm trying to remember Douglas Steere's advice to learn from the lapses.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear that you're going through such a time of loss. It's never easy, and I appreciate reading your honest and heartfelt thoughts about death. I like your statement about holding Jesus to His promises--I feel He's very pleased when we do just that.

I think that praying without ceasing isn't necessarily a constant, conscious monologue of prayer, but more an attitude of being aware of constantly being in God's presence, and like you said, looking at the world and others with the "intent to bless"--including others/drawing them into your awareness of God's presence with you, by conscious prayer or just by holding them before God.

cremation said...

This is the real music. Authentic blues.