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    impressionistic painting of a village

    The Gift of Death

    Learning to live in kairos time

    Leslie Verner

    March 6, 2020
    7 Comments
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    • Jenn

      Elegant prose, which reminds me of Eudora Welty or Ann Patchett. Thank you for calling us to look upon the world with eyes of gratitude and awe.

    • Nina Mardauss

      What an awesome article Leslie! I confess that, having lost my dear husband to pancreatic cancer I was a bit leery or hesitant to read the article but having just passed the 7th anniversary of his death, it was extremely healing and poignant 4 me and I thank you for using your god-given gifts of writing to share such insightful thoughts with us.

    • Sandi

      Thank you. Beautifully written, and true.

    • Beau

      Too fractal

    • Agatha Bardoel

      Thank you.

    • Connie Owsley

      Wonderful article that lifted my spirits today.

    • Greg Bourn

      This article deeply touched me. Thank you. My father and I were not close. Perhaps we were, but did not know how to show it. The one time we hugged was awkward and we never again risked that discomfort. I was in the military and he came for a visit. Neither of us had ever seen the mountains, so I took some leave time and we drove to see the continental divide for the first time. As we came to the top of the pass, the entire horizon of the valley below was back dropped by snow capped peaks as far as the eye could see in either direction. I was taken by this Kairos you speak of in your article: For a moment there was no "me". I was experiencing pure being/God. My little personality self had no reference point for what I was seeing and it momentarily shut down my thinking mind (which is responsible for Cronos). I could sense my father's body shaking in the seat next to me and I knew he was having the same experience. He reached out and held my hand. For a moment, there was no distance between us. We were in full communion with each other, God, the mountains...all of creation. He said with a shaking voice, "what was that". We never talked about that experience, but for the short time he had left, we would look at each other with soft eyes and the knowing of love that goes beyond words. He died shortly thereafter. That was 30 years ago. I ache to have that experience again.

    Rebekah taught me to drive stick shift in her husband’s Jetta on the narrow northside streets of Chicago. She was a preschool teacher, so we all bargained that her patience would outlast her husband’s in teaching me to shift gears and stamp down the clutch at just the right time. Though we had gone to the same college, I first met Rebekah at church when we attended small group together. Many years later, she cradled and swooned over my six-week-old daughter at a friend’s wedding in Wisconsin. She and her husband had left their two kids back home with her parents in Oregon to take a red-eye out for the occasion. They chuckled about her rough transition back to teaching after years of staying home: who exactly was supposed to do the laundry now? Just weeks after that, she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.

    It’s eerie to watch someone die through the windowpane of social media. You observe the trips taken, the events documented, the final words crafted to share with a gaping world. When someone is dying, you pay attention to how she lives. You scrutinize her actions and words. You listen to and hope to internalize her wisdom. Books like When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by a surgeon who wrote it during his last year of life, offer secrets to the living about how the dying spend their final days.

    Rebekah survived nearly four years. In the months before she died at age forty-one, she shared a blog post called “Benedictions of Peace,” which concluded, “I truly believe that God will redeem this path, my pain and the hurt of those around me for His glory and our family’s good. Yes, there’s a loss of future time in the sense that my limited eyes can see, but my heart has been opened to the inescapable beauty of my right now. It’s one of the hardest tensions I’ve ever known. It’s learning to live in Kairos time.”

    I had heard the word kairos before, but never thought much about it. Since my friend found comfort and meaning in the concept, I started paying attention. What did it mean? What was I missing? Could I learn to live in kairos time too?

    In the West, we usually categorize time by the calendar and the clock. Experiences and memories, failures and accomplishments scratch consecutive notches on our timeline. We think of time as stacking blocks to build toward the next best thing. In biblical Greek, this is chronos, or chronological time. Elementary school prepares us for middle school, which prepares us for high school, college, the work place, and so on. But this is also why chronic illness, retirement, a cancer diagnosis, or aging can send us into depression: we’ve reached the penultimate moment of life (how did we miss it?) and life is downhill from here. Or is it?

    Studying languages other than our own can help excavate truth and complexities that English alone can’t explain. In this case, the word “time” in most English versions of the New Testament stands in for several Greek words for time. While some verses refer to chronos, or clock time, the majority refer to kairos time.

    The word kairos appears eighty-one times in the New Testament. In Mark 1:15, Jesus declares, “The kairos has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” And in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the kairos had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights as sons.” Paul reminds the church in Ephesus to “pay careful attention, then, to how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the kairos” (Eph. 5:15-16).

    In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle defines kairos as “that time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we are constantly checking our watches for chronological time.”

    If chronos is like a string stretched along the table, then kairos loops around, crosses, and intersects at unexpected junctures. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus reported in three of the four gospels represents kairos in the New Testament. In it, Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus up the mountain. Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes turn white as light. Suddenly Jesus is talking with the long-dead Elijah and Moses. Time overlaps, allowing three men from three different time periods to suddenly be on the same mountain at the same time, sharing a fleeting moment of transcendence.

    Kairos forces us to surrender our linear thinking and admit that God is not bound by time, so perhaps we aren’t meant to be either.

    In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis says “God is certainly not in time.” If we think of time in terms of “a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn.” Kairos forces us to surrender our linear thinking and admit that God is not bound by time, so perhaps we aren’t meant to be either.

    Though it may seem maudlin to say so, the shoulder-tap of death often reminds us how to live. Kathleen Norris, writing of her husband’s long slog with cancer, notes that one of Saint Benedict’s “tools for good works” is to “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” French priest Jean-Charles Nault, using the writings of Evagrius and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, proposed some remedies to spiritual apathy, naming “contemplating death” as one way to rediscover joy when we are listless or unable to find meaning in life. Contemplating death – our own and the deaths of our loved ones – brings kairos moments into greater focus.

    I brushed crusty french fries off a table at a McDonald’s playplace as my three- and five-year-olds shrieked and hung from plastic climbing structures. I sighed and inhaled grease-laden air, wishing I were anywhere but there, with anyone but my kids. A tired-looking woman with greying hair struck up a conversation with me. She was with her granddaughter and mentioned that her daughter had died unexpectedly a few months before. She and her husband had moved in with her son-in-law to care for her daughter’s four- and six-year-old children. I was sobered.

    My children are not guaranteed a mother, just as I am not guaranteed to see my own little ones grow old. A friend once admitted she’s learned to savor today by telling herself that her three-year-old son could die tomorrow. As the woman left McDonald’s with her four-year-old, motherless granddaughter, my arms ached to scoop up that little girl and embrace her like I knew her mother would want to do. Opting not to scare her, I refrained.

    Death reminds us to keep noticing, keep feeling our feelings, keep cracking up at silly things, and keep risking it all by loving anyway.

    Death reminds us to keep noticing, keep feeling our feelings, keep cracking up at silly things, and keep risking it all by loving anyway. In the chronos sense, we are not entitled to tomorrow. At a retreat I attended, speaker Jen Schmidt said death reminds us that life is a gift. She said our mindsets shift as we change our attitude from “I have to” to “I get to.” We get to do this another day. We get to.

    In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle connects the idea of kairos to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town, which centers on the life of a girl named Emily in a small American anytown. Most of us have encountered it at some point – my husband, an actor, once played the character known as the Stage Manager, who interacts both with the audience and with the other characters as he narrates the story.

    In the last act, Emily dies giving birth to her second child. Her ghost begs to re-live just one day of her life. Reticent and arguing that she won’t be able to handle it, the ghosts of other deceased characters allow her to return to observe her twelfth birthday. She watches as her mother bustles around the kitchen, shrugs off young Emily’s attempts at affection, and won’t even make eye contact with her living daughter. The ghost of Emily is undone. Although her mother cannot hear her, she begs her to just take one look at her life while she’s living it.

    Emily laments, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize.” Then she turns to the Stage Manager and asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every minute?”

    He answers quietly, “No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.”

    Our Town “is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life,” Wilder later wrote. “Emily’s joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents – what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live?” The answer is that they are everything, to Emily. By this final confrontation, the Stage Manager has stripped all the scenery away. “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind – not in things,” Wilder explains. “Molière said that for the theater all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

    This scene from Our Town reminded me of Rebekah’s blog post and the gift of sight given to her in her last days. She wrote, “There’s just something about getting sick and deciding to put all your chips on the ‘one wild and precious life’ you’re already living. At first I thought it was a curse. How cruel to make me so keenly aware of the weight of beauty around me, only to have it stripped away. Yet . . . yet . . . yet . . . when I really look around me, I mean really look at the LOVE in my life, I couldn’t be more grateful to have been so devastated about losing it all.”

    My father-in-law was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Just months before his death, he attended my niece’s christening. A priest who had heard about his diagnosis introduced himself and said he had the gift of healing. Ushering him with a few family members to the altar at the front of the church, the priest gestured to the cross and said, “What do you want to ask Jesus for?” Instead of asking to be healed of cancer, my father-in-law shocked everyone with his response: “I want eternal life,” he mumbled. Death reveals the potency of life. Death exposes our desire for chronos to stop constricting and choking us. Instead, we yearn for kairos.

    I had the privilege of sitting vigil the final weeks of his life. I had given birth to my first child just five months before and I marveled at the similarities between birth and death. Strangely, both experiences felt like an ushering into life. Sitting with the dying, we are with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration. In our sincerity, we scramble to do something tangible like construct an altar (or clean a cabinet) as we tread the ground in that thin place where earth and eternity mingle. Instead, we witness this shimmering moment of transcendence with gratitude and awe.

    If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence.

    I once helped throw a birthday party for my roommate and asked the guests to bring their favorite book as a gift. Rebekah brought Middlemarch. In it, George Eliot comments that “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity.” Rebekah had a keener vision of all ordinary human life because of her cancer. Her senses were fine-tuned to hear, see, and experience life, love, and God in time’s fullness. She grew to rejoice in the other side of silence by recognizing that while her body was dying, her soul – and the souls of all those she loved – lived on in kairos time.

    detail of orchard in spring painting by Van Gogh
    Contributed By Leslie Verner, freelance writer and speaker

    Leslie Verner is a goer who is learning how to stay. She is the author of Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness (Herald Press). Leslie studied and taught elementary and middle grade education and earned a masters in intercultural studies, both from Wheaton College. She is currently a freelance writer and speaker in northern Colorado.

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