I have not seen David Cunningham in a while, but my memories of him are good and strong. As different as our interests were we often found common ground in sharing our experiences of having gone to UC Berkeley in very different eras and our enthusiasm for bike riding and other vigorous activities. (I regularly marveled at the way he would ride from Pasadena to Newport Beach and back.) I am not and will never be a sailor, but you could not spend much time with David without experiencing first-hand his love of the sea.
I remember David as not only physically vigorous but interpersonally compassionate and gracious. As a natural introvert, I marvel at those so at ease in the world. Even a cursory look at the short biography printed in the service leaflet will suggest the range and scope of his friendships and affiliations. David was a man of the sea and a man of his world.
As time as gone by, I suppose the greatest way I have come to see David is through his children. It has not been my fortune really to know David, Robert, and Lesley, but I count Alexandra, Sarah, Mollie, and Dan as good friends. Whatever great professional and personal achievements David may have attained, his seven children and thirteen grandchildren provide more than a legacy: they are an ongoing gift to the world and a testament to the kind of person he aspired to be.
We are gathered this afternoon both to give thanks for David’s life and to bid him goodbye. There will be time at the reception to share more personal memories and anecdotes. But right now it is time to reflect together for a bit on how we make sense of David’s life and death in the light of some more transcendent realities. We have heard four readings just now—three from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, one from the Buddhist sutras—and I ask you to join me as we think briefly together on what those texts might have to say to us in the wake of David’s passing.
The readings from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes and Buddhism’s Wisdom at the Time of Death sutra help us understand that you and I human beings are caught up in something that is larger and more mysterious than we can finally ever take in. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance. “ Therefore, says the preacher, there is nothing better for us “than to be happy and enjoy [our]selves as long as we live.” [Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13] In a similar vein, the Wisdom at the Time of Death sutra reminds us that “All entities are impermanent and illusory/Cultivate the understanding of non-attachment.”
It is the shared wisdom of the world’s religious traditions that you and I are finite, fragile, dependent creatures. Though our culture tries mightily to convince us that we can be ever powerful and always in control, the facts appear to be otherwise. We all naturally want to have lives of happiness without pain, and we all naturally want to arrest the flow of time and fix things in the moments when we had things exactly the way we wanted them. But both the biblical and Buddhist traditions want us to see things differently. “For everything there is a season.” “All entities are impermanent and illusory.” We cannot control either time’s flow or its effects. We need to enjoy life as it is and cultivate non-attachment.
The first truth we hear today—and it’s a hard one—is that David did not spend his last years in a way that either he or we would have wanted or predicted. He was diminished during those years, and his children had to exercise a great deal of proactive and compassionate care on his behalf. And if we are attentive to what scripture and sutra are saying, we will resist the temptation to see the whole of David’s through the lens of his final diminishment. Instead, if we hear those texts aright, we will learn to see both David and ourselves in all our fullness and will honor the entire sweep of time as it flows through all our lives.
That’s the first truth, and here’s a second: in Matthew’s gospel [Matthew 7:24-27], Jesus invites us to become like the wise person who built their house on a rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” Surely these verses are here to remind us that David, like the wise person, was a builder. But more importantly they serve to show us the other side of what Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom at the Time of Death sutra are saying. Yes, life is transitory and impermanent, and yes there is a season for everything, but it is also true that how you and I spend our lives and our time matters. We can neither control our lives nor fix our times, but we can, over the course of a lifetime, be part of something greater and incrementally build something that will survive us. Our buildings may or may not outlive us. But our compassionate deeds, our loving relationships, our going outside of ourselves on behalf of others—these things will last and will become something like the house that did not fall in the onslaught of rain, floods, and winds. We are transitory and impermanent, but the people we love and the things we cherish survive us. And that is no small legacy.
And this second truth leads to a third, suggested both in Buddhist and Christian text. “All phenomena are naturally luminous and sacred/Cultivate the understanding of seeing things as they are.” “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” It is not only that we do not control time or events. It is also that even in the midst of them we fail fully to understand them. To live faithfully is to live in acknowledgment of the limitations of our perception and in hope of a truth that will be revealed. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, we see only partially. Our hope is that we know fully once all things have been revealed. For David as for all of us, death opens us up to a contemplation of what he called “the mysteries of the universe”.
While you and I await the ultimate unveiling of those mysteries, we can learn to trust and live into the luminosity and sacredness of all things now. In our dim mirror view the transitory and impermanent things of this world usually grab all our attention, while the enduring ones often escape our notice. As we reflect together on David’s life and death, we get a glimpse of that ultimate truth: here, now, we can enjoy life as it is given to us. We can experience the luminous and sacred joy of life in our connections with each other and the world we have been given to share together. For now, we know only in part. But when the complete comes, we will know fully.
The death of anyone we love—even when expected--is always a shock, but inside that shock lies an invitation to see into the depth and the meaning of life. We are finite and fragile, but we are not alone. We are invited to build the houses of our lives on the rock of the love which lies at the heart of the universe. And we are invited to look and move into the depth of that love as we move from the dim mirror of life’s distractions to the offer to see God and each other face to face.
I have seen the impact of David’s life revealed in the kind of friendships he treasured and in the wonderful children and grandchildren he has given us all. Life and death are mysteries, but every once in a while we get to pull back the veil and get a glimpse of things as they are. I am grateful for this glimpse of the larger truths into which David’s life has drawn us, and I will always treasure his great gift to us all of the ongoing blessing of his children and grandchildren in the world. For David, and for those he knew and loved, we proceed now, together, to give thanks. Amen.