Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Kairos and Chronos

Glad to be home at the end of a chaotic and difficult fortnight, in bed in the darkness of pre-dawn listening to the dripping rain and the call of the gulls, enjoying the freshness of cold air through the slightly open window, and the still-warmth of last night’s hot water bottle at my feet.

I’m pleased with the book I am writing, which will come in on target for time. I changed the word-length to 65,000, because the 2,000 words a day through Lent would have taken me over 95,000, which would have been wrong for the book it is and the series it belongs to. It is a fourth novel for the Hawk & the Dove books, because they have stayed steadily in print for twenty years now, and I had the idea to mark the passing of that time with a new book. I have 3,000 words and six days (inc today) to go: next week’s task is to look for a publisher! I hope Crossway, who have done a good job with the original trilogy, will want it. Some of you have been praying for me in the writing: thank you thank you thank you! I rely on you utterly and you did good. The in-house committee of quality control is giving it the thumbs-up so far and I think something real has come through.

But mainly I was meaning to tell you about the last two weeks.

There are two kinds of time (or so the ancient Greeks thought): Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the ‘life is just one darn thing after another’ (Mark Twain) kind of time: ‘Day-labouring out life’s age’ (T.S.Eliot??). Days wearing out days inevitably. In the Greek pantheon, Chronos was a god and he ate his children. Do I need to unpack that metaphor for you? Nah. Suffice it to say, some people still eat and breathe and make love and work by the clock, and are harassed and driven by the passing hour – they still make it their god and that god still eats his children. Tip: living simply is the way out of that.

Kairos, on the other hand, a word that means both action and timing (like the performer’s cue – Now! ) is about the prophetic reality of God’s now moment: or the present moment that Zen practitioners have taught us to notice and realize as the only doorway of Life. If you don’t live in the present moment, well you’re dead, aren’t you.

And it is possible to choose kairos over chronos: as a matter of decision to choose to order and experience life not by the imperatives of old age, lunch-time, the factory day and the television schedule, but by ‘moving when the Spirit says move’. The Kairos does not eat its children. It energises and delights them, and gives them hope.

Lao Tsu (wrote the Tao Te Ching) evidently understood about Kairos. Apart from saying that the sages of old were watchful, like men crossing a winter stream (they were taking cognizance of the living moment), he introduced us to the concept of wu-wei – the art of non-doing. If you want a good litmus test to distinguish Chronos people from Kairos people, wu-wei is your bunny. The Chronos people never get it. The Kairos people live it every day. Lao-Tsu described wu-wei as ‘I do nothing and it all happens’. What he meant was, if you are living in the ‘I’m gonna move when the Spirit says move’ Kairos kind of way (not the ‘I hope he doesn’t die this afternoon because it’s Wednesday so I have to return my library books’ / ‘I know you want to show me the first poem you wrote but I can’t read it now or I will be late for the office’ Chronos kind of way) you will become the right person in the right place at the right time doing the right thing just naturally: with no extra effort and no cunning plan, it will happen round you. This is not the same as being passive. You don’t cease to act. But you become watchful like men crossing a winter stream – you watch for the kairos and act when the Spirit says ‘Act!’. So you don’t fritter your life energy on treadwheels and other people’s agendas. Therefore you don’t burn out and you don’t become an indispensable hero/super-star. You remain humble and insignificant, the people and events around you organize themselves and do what needs to be done themselves – but they are able to do so because you are there. Jesus had this off to a fine art – he even got diseases and storms into the loop of the harmony he was generating by fixing his eyes and his personal identity squarely upon the template of God’s pattern.

Because I talk SO MUCH, you must need a tea break by now. Tell you what: you go and have a nice cup of tea, then come back. Then you can read about that happenings of the fortnight just gone and you will see why I have been going on about this. It has been like machine-gun fire of kairos moments.

LP (That’s my kanji of your mug of tea) Uo There’s another. One has a hole in the bottom, the other has a detached handle. Take your pick. Tip: you can drink a mug of tea with no handle, but with no tea is a challenge.

* * * * *


My mother is in her 80s. I won’t write about the relationships and dynamics of my family of origin here or any public place, but to understand this you need to know that my mother lives alone. I visit her, but she lives several hours from me; so, much of our contact is by phone. The last ten years of her marriage she has lived separated from my father, but they spoke on the phone many times a day, spent most of most weekends together, took holidays (US – vacations) together and were good friends.

Because she is so much alone her next-door neighbour Pamela, who has become a good friend, is very important to her. My mother still drives, and she and Pamela have taken each other to places the other has never seen, and enjoyed all kinds of jaunts out and cosy fireside evenings in and tasty suppers cooked at home or enjoyed in restaurants and hotels in each other’s company.

At the beginning of March, Pamela’s sister died. Pamela was raised in northern Scotland and currently lives in Essex (near Cambridge) but her sister happened to live in Driffield. The funeral was to take place at Octon crematorium out in the open farmland near Driffield. Pamela knew neither the location nor the route, but as it happened my mother’s brother, my Uncle Jeff, lived in a village on the edge of Driffield. So when she called him on the phone, he was able to give my mother precise, accurate, careful and helpful directions to get to Octon crematorium; which she passed on to Pamela who came back from the funeral saying those directions were spot-on.

My Uncle Jeff has been in failing health for years. Last year (having myself not seen him for a very long time) I went with my mother to see him, and we had a lovely visit; since then his health which was poor then continued to decline. Just after he had given my mother the directions to Octon crematorium, my Uncle Jeff was taken into hospital. After a few days, he just longed to come home. The staff thought him too ill to discharge, but he insisted. He lives with my Auntie Dinah who is equally old and frail, but has a loving family and a kind carer who comes by each day. When he came home his carer and daughter were there to help, and he asked to have a bath, having only been washed in bed in the hospital. He wanted a bubble bath (whether that’s a foam bath or jacuzzi function in his case I don’t know). So they ran the bath, and he had his bubbles. He said it was really lovely. He appreciated it so much. And while he was luxuriating in his hot bath with both his carer and his daughter on hand to look after Auntie Dinah, he suddenly died.

In the days that followed, my mother became quite exasperated with my father who kept telling her about a really good funeral director in Scarborough, the people who had looked after both his mother’s and father’s funeral. And he kept telling her the readings and psalms suitable for a funeral. She found this frustrating as she had no part in arranging her brother’s funeral and anyway he didn’t live in Scarborough: but she heard it enough times to have indelibly imprinted on her mind the address (1 Prospect Road) of B.Bernard & Sons, Funeral Director.

Because my uncle had just given my mother the directions to Octon crematorium the previous week, when Tony & I took her up to Yorkshire for the funeral she was able to take us straight there with no difficulty. There is a duty rota at the crem there: it so happened that Uncle Jeff’s ceremony officiant was a retired bishop – wise, gentle, dignified. In that safe pair of hands, we had the best funeral imaginable. The funeral was on Monday 15th March at 1.15, so we went up on the Sunday and stayed at the beautiful Monk Fryston Hall (I recommend) overnight, returning to my mother’s place after a bite to eat following the funeral.

Tony had to get back for work in Oxford the following day, so he left me at my mother’s place near Cambridge, and after a bite of supper with us he headed back west. I stayed over with my mother, planning to take a train back down to Hastings in the morning. It’s a four-hour drive from Yorkshire to my mother’s place, and two hours on from there to Tony’s Aylesbury work-roost, so our minds were occupied with supper and general tiredness that night. My father didn’t phone as he often would, but then as he sometimes didn’t phone, that was not something we noticed. He had been given the option to come with us to the funeral, but finding long journeys and big gatherings too exhausting at the age of 82, he had been grateful to sit out that number.

As we chatted over a cup of tea in the morning, my mother asked if I would like to call in and see my father before she dropped me off at the station. I had not thought of this myself, but saw at once it would be an excellent idea. A solitary soul, he did not enjoy long or busy visits, but loved to see me – so we agreed upon that. Over breakfast, my mother called his home several times but got no reply. This wasn’t odd. He usually started calling her any time from 7am, but if he got on the trail of some project of his own he was often out of touch. What to do? I suggested we go over anyway, reasoning that if he was out we could put a note through the (mail-slot in the) door for him to find, and he would be happy that we had made the effort.

So we went over to his cottage. His car was still parked out back, and as his walking was no longer good enough to take a walk for fun, that meant he was home – so we knew we’d find him in. Walking down the garden path to the back of the house, we saw his blinds were drawn; but my mother said that wasn’t odd, he sometimes drew them if the sun was bright, which it was.

However the back door was locked, and my mother began to wonder if something was wrong. We went round to the front of the cottage, where we saw the curtains were also closed. This began to look a bit ‘uh-oh’! He could not be away if his car was there (are you seeing this gentle preparation we had?). What to do? If the front door was locked, neither of us had a key.

To our surprise, the front door actually stood open – not wide open, just a little ajar. The front door opens directly off the front garden into the living room, so he had a door curtain against drafts, which pulled back not to the hinge side but the opening side, so obstructed the opening & closing of the door, and he had an insubstantial doormat which had ridden a little over the threshold. I had to reach in and poke the curtain aside to be able to get in, and the curtain would have stopped any draft and hidden that the door was open – so I guess maybe that’s why it had got left that way.

But we felt relieved, and went in, thinking he must be busy with something. The ‘uh-oh’ feeling persisted however, especially as the reading lamp beside his chair was on. My father was a very tidy man, and the scatter cushions on his sofa were in disarray, which was not like him. The cottage was in silence, no-one answered when we called. We began to feel very apprehensive. We looked in the kitchen and the bathroom (adjoins the kitchen). No-one.

Now we began to feel scared. Realising it was unreasonable for my mother to go up first, I went up the stairs, calling for him. There are two rooms upstairs. The door to the first – his study – stood open, and I could see there was no-one inside. Even so, I gave myself a moment to look in and check all was well, because I was afraid to proceed to the bedroom at the end of the corridor, where the door was only ajar but I could see the light was on. And there was that smell.

It’s a few years now since I was as scared as I was approaching the bedroom. I glimpsed his chair overturned and rug disheveled. His front door had been open. Had he been attacked? Would he be alive? Would he be alone?

I went into the bedroom. He was lying face-down and mostly on the bed, his head resting on his arm as you do when you don’t feel well and you just make it there, and crash out before you raise the energy to crawl right into bed. He was dressed neatly in pyjamas, and his support stockings were round his ankles. The drawers to his clothes chest stood open (I realize now on piecing together what I saw that he was in process of going to bed, had been sitting in the chair taking off his support stockings which he would put in the drawer, had felt odd suddenly, stood up and staggered forward kicking the chair over, got to the bed – and got no further).

I saw that (in his body tissues) the blood had settled gravitationally, which meant he had been some while dead.

I called to my mother as soon as I found him – then realizing he was dead, I called that to her as well. So she came hurrying to the room, then, not wanting to see, wisely withdrew. She wanted her last memory to be a living man, not a corpse.

So we went downstairs and began the phone calls. Later, between answering questions of paramedics and police, I bethought me to go back to his bedroom, and stroke his head, commend his soul to the great journey home, place him in Christ’s safe keeping, tell him I loved him, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

It all had to go to the coroner and be investigated by the police of course, but all was well. His aorta split, and his death (he’d been in very good health for his age) was sudden, instant and unpredictable – no warning and nothing that could or should have been done.

His funeral was yesterday, in St Martins-on-the-Hill church, in Scarborough, Yorkshire. B.Bernard and Sons took care of the funeral.

Are you seeing the hand of God’s love in all this? If I had gone straight home (as I’d planned to) my mother would have found him alone. Pamela’s sister… Octon… Uncle Jeff… B.Bernard & Sons… the open door… so many odd coincidences (coincidences are all kairos-nodes) that handed my mother gently from one moment to the next, knowing that we are frail in old age and need to be carried with care, taking her through these inevitable deep and terrible losses with the greatest of kindness. Do not ever doubt there is someone watching over us.

Isaiah 46:3-4: you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs; I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you says the Lord.

The dawn has come. The sun has risen. My bedside light is not needed. I can hear power machines from the road works. The school bus has called for the little girl next door. It took a long time to tell you that story!


Gerry Snape said...

Thankyou for this post. I love the thought of living in the kairos even if I often end up in the chronos. I have just noticed that you have written a book with Ben Eccleston .I know him well and have worked with him during the last two summers in Brighton at the Festival. How great are these links, don't you think!

Tim Hodgens said...


Thank you for sharing your story. If I may, your father died healthy. We don't get to choose these events, but he was so fortunate.

Yes, ... guided by unseen hands.

And the introductory life lesson of Chronos and Kairos; perfect.

Cry well and be in the day.


Julie B. said...

Thank you for sharing all of this, Ember. It's a gift that you have the kinds of spiritual lenses on that allow you to see all the mercy and love in your father's passing. I would like the same lenses on my nose. :)

God bless the finishing of your book, the publishing of it, the reading of it by those He leads, and your day.

Ganeida said...

I am sorry for your losses, glad Christ in His love & grace sustained you throughout.

My father fell ill suddenly away from home, dying a week later, making things very chaotic. When I finally had time to seek the presence of the Lord & unload my grief he gave me Psalm 68:5 ~ a verse I'd never heard before. If we are His he goes before us as a light to our feet, & behind us as a shield & beneath us to uphold us. Pax.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks for your lovely messages friends; and Hi, Gerry - nice to meet you. My love to Ben Eccleston when next you see him!

DaisyAnon said...

Thank you for this example of Kairos and Chronos. It is an extraordinary thing when we find ourselves caught in the gentle current of the power of the Holy Spirit, who arranges all the tiny details just so. I had a similar experience when my mother died.

Blessed indeed are those who mourn, we are comforted.

Pen Wilcock said...


Hi Marilyn - good to see you here!