Seizing life and all its riches
I begin with a cautionary tale. The story of my one and only blind date. It was Spring term at the University of Oregon &
1976. A friend and his wife decided that this particular girl (a music student) and I ought to meet. You know how these things generally go; the mystery person shows up and you realize in the first three seconds (blink) it's not going to "happen" but you've got to be polite and dance it through.
I remember that her instrument was the viola d'amore; the viola of love. Irony &
life is full of it. Anyway, after supper our mutual friends decided we ought to go over to the university courts and play doubles tennis. Why, I have no idea?
I hit a soft lob to "Miss D'Amore" who I think now may never have ever played tennis before. She swung wildly, missed, fell down and promptly broke her wrist. The first stroke. Can you believe it?
We walked a few hundred yards over to the city's hospital (conveniently located for college blind-dates gone horribly wrong) and waited in emergency forever. I put my arm around the poor thing and she leaned her head on my shoulder like we were married or something. Finally she went for the exam and an X-ray. An hour later she came back with this dazed look on her face and a ragged note in her hand. Her first words were, "The orderly tried to pick me up."
I looked at the note and it said, "Stephen Purkey" and gave a phone number. "Oh my," I thought, "that's my pastor's son." This was our introduction.
This column is really about Stephen. No he didn't marry the girl, either. I don't know what ever happened to her. I was merely her date from hell. But Steven and I became friends for life. His life, that is. He died a couple of weeks ago at the tender age of 49 (his heart just gave out). But he filled those years to brimming.
As with my blind date, Steven never let any kind of opportunity slip by him. That put a lot of people off, at first. He wasn't someone to wait his turn for anything, but he was so full of love. it was impossible not to love him back.
Stephen was a chef by trade. To get an invitation to his place for Easter dinner was pretty huge. My family loved the food and we loved the company and we knew anybody in the world could be there. Anybody. It was like Jesus' description of heaven. When Jesus wanted to illustrate the nature of God's reign he would invariably mention a great banquet &
one in which the participants were often the least lovely individuals on the planet: "the poor, the blind, the lame, the maimed. "
In one such story a rich man orders his servant to bring these lowly folk to dinner because his friends are all making excuses and won't come. The servant says he's done that and there's still lots of room. "Then go out to the highways and hedges, and compel anybody at all to come in. I want my table to be filled," says the master. That's the way it was at Stephen's house. There was always a hand to grab for grace beside you all around the massive table.
And that's the way it was when Stephen went on the road. Before his girls were born he often traveled with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. It was the tour that promised to go on forever. There was little in life that he loved more than feeding Jerry and all the people who made "The Dead" live. Stephen felt entirely at home with that company.
Of the enterprise, Jerry Garcia once said, "We are in reality a group of misfits, crazy people, who have voluntarily come together to work this stuff out and do the best we can and try to be as fair as we possibly can with each other, and just struggle through life."
And, if we're honest with ourselves, that's who we all are, right? No matter what kind of money or privilege we trade in. We're all just struggling through this vale.
Stephen struggled with substance abuse for most of his life. But he died clean and sober. That was a goal of his. It was out of that struggle and his own woundedness that Stephen drew his life's purpose. That's where his abundant passions and compassion came from. A lot of people draw their strength from that kind of life. Most of us are just doing our best to heal most of the time. And we're lucky if we find the grace to accept the sordid and assorted facts of our life and make the best of them. The first Easter, after all, began with little more than a corpse. I love how Pesha Girdler puts the process in her poem, "The Healing Time."
Scott Dalgarno is pastor of Ashland's First Presbyterian Church.