Unafraid, CLU theologian faces death

Jarvis Streeter is dying.

Jarvis StreeterThe religion professor at California Lutheran University delivers the news of the pancreatic cancer that has spread to his lungs and a prognosis he measures in months without emotion.

It’s the first thing he told two dozen students in hooded jackets and T-shirts on a January Tuesday. In the same tone he uses to discuss the interplay of science and theology, Streeter told them he made it to the first day of class at the Thousand Oaks campus. He said he wasn’t sure about the last day.

Wearing a sports coat that enveloped thinning arms, he said he would understand if they didn’t want a class that might ultimately deal with more than its title: faith and reason.

No one left.

“He very matter-of-factly said how it is. Just point blank,” said Lacie Goff, a senior from Chicago. “I think I’ve thought about dying more. We’re confronted with it every Tuesday and Thursday. I think it’s good.”

Streeter is a 63-year-old theologian and ordained Lutheran pastor who does not always act like either. With silver hair and the looks of a California surfer, he plays alternative rock on a blue-violet Fender guitar. He owns a blow-dart gun from Borneo that he sometimes uses for target practice.

He taught school in Kenya, studied at Yale and met his wife of 24 years while leading a graduate class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He just finished a draft of a book that dismisses intelligent design as junk theology and attempts to explain how belief in God and the big-bang theory fit in the same jigsaw puzzle.

About 18 months ago, Streeter woke up in his Santa Rosa Valley home feeling as if all the energy had seeped from his body. His doctor thought he might have an ulcer. He did. It was sitting underneath a tumor the size of a golf ball.

Two days later, surgeons removed his gall bladder, his duodenum and parts of his stomach, small intestine and pancreas. They removed all the cancer they could see, but the malignancy had spread to his lymph nodes.

“I just started thinking through it: OK, you’re going to die,” he said, explaining why the news about the cancer didn’t make him bitter. “What I asked was ‘Why not me?’ People get it. Am I so special I shouldn’t?”

He decided to deal with it as another part of life, the final part. He talks about it with anyone who asks: his students, his friends, his wife, his two stepdaughters.

He hides nothing. When the woman with the lap dog in a doctor’s waiting room wants to know why a newspaper photographer would take his picture, he turns to her. “I have cancer,” he said evenly.

To those who want more, he explains how different chemotherapy drugs keep the cancer from progressing, temporarily. Then the malignancy mutates. The cancer grows.

His doctor said the toxic chemicals fed through a port in his chest every 10 days seem to be working for now. He said statistics that show how long most people survive with an incurable cancer can’t be used to predict how long Streeter will live. If they could, he’d already be gone.

“A person is never a statistic,” said Dr. Martin Palmer, a UCLA oncologist.

But because he is on his third regimen of chemo, Streeter thinks his time may be running out.

The ifs could hang in the air like a death sentence. His friends say that hasn’t happened.

“I think with his attitude and the way he has communicated with other people around him, it’s allowed us to focus on enjoying every day with him as opposed to dwelling on the loss,” Hengst said.

Goodbye tour

Susan Streeter took her husband to a Bruce Springsteen concert in December. They went on a cruise to the Caribbean in January. But he doesn’t worry much about making checkmarks on a final litany of to-dos. His bucket list is dominated by relationships.

About 150 friends from school and a Shakespeare company that he supports came to a surprise party planned by his wife. A bagpiper played. So did a rock band. People stood up and told stories. Streeter hugged everyone.

“It’s the greatest gift anyone could give you: taking the time and effort to see me,” he said.

His days are like that, too. His friends see their conversations and dinners as a chance to spend more time talking about religion, science and their love of Shakespeare. But in a sense, it’s as if his memorial service has been bumped ahead of his death.

“Sometimes, he refers to it as the long goodbye tour,” said his friend Michael Arndt. “He’s still fighting the disease and he doesn’t want to die. But he also knows he’s going to die and he’s trying to make the best of his life, every single minute.”

Perhaps the strangest thing about Streeter’s end are the words people use to describe it. Arndt said the way his friend has dealt with it has made the journey a wonderful experience to share. Streeter focuses on the chance to affirm relationships and tell people he loves them.

“I’ve had so much love poured out to me, it’s stunning,” he said. “It’s been the most fulfilling time of my entire life.”

He wants to be cremated. He wants a bagpiper to play at the beginning of his memorial service at CLU. He wants the service to end with Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

But Streeter hasn’t fleshed out many of the details. He hasn’t written his obituary. Those jobs may be left for Susan Streeter, who worries something won’t be exactly the way he wants it.

“It’s important to me,” she said, focusing on the obituary. “I wonder how much detail he wants. … I don’t know.”

They met in a classroom in Dallas 26 years ago. She was the student. He was the teacher. Sometimes, she sits in his class at CLU to see him teach again.

She writes a blog that details his blood counts and the effectiveness of the latest drug. She sits beside his reclining chair in two-hour chemotherapy sessions, watching toxic chemicals drip down a plastic tube into his body.

It’s their journey. She said her part is walking down the path with him.

“It has helped give meaning for my life,” she said. “I feel like if this was the only reason for being put on the Earth, besides having my kids, of course, this is worth it.”

She has two adult daughters who play a central role in their lives. They’ve visited with both since the news of the cancer. Jarvis Streeter’s father is 91 and lives in a Thousand Oaks retirement community. He calls his son every evening just to chat, timing the calls so he can tell how the day went.

When the end comes, they’ll still be here. Streeter won’t. He and his wife say that’s the hardest part.

“I have faith enough that I will get through it,” she said. “Somehow, it will be OK, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

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A Death Meditation

While there are certainly more meditations out there that are harder to do, this one is one of the hardest to do well, even for experienced meditators. The meditation in fact is more or less insight focused, since it can’t be developed very far by means of concentration or be much use for relaxation, but the scope of benefits are vast. Indeed what seems such a grim and depressing meditation has such a beautiful and enlivening aspect that a wise practitioner will examine and put into fruition.

For some it might just “make sense” and make a connection to understanding. There are also a lot of benefits to be gained from it. Here’s a way to do it:


The forest or garden is a great place. It is hard to avoid dead leaves and trees, as well as fallen branches. However the strength of mindfulness and experience is needed to avoid melancholy.walk in park

Choose a quiet, peaceful place to meditate and a comfortable posture. This meditation shouldn’t be attempted by those in distress, in an unbalanced frame of mind, or those inclined to fantasy and should have a firm grounding of mindfulness.

Before starting, the practitioner should recognize that the focus of the meditation is totally objective and scientific, not personalized. Where (eg) loving kindness or goodwill is focused specifically towards individuals and people in mind, this one is not.

As with other meditations sincerity is essential, but the practice of virtue is also highly important in this meditation.


Firstly consider the many ways this meditation can go astray. Just like many other meditations, this one seldom stays on target and the mind wanders about in a whole scope of ways. The problem is a complicated duality in the mind, part of the mind wants to look into the subject of death, another part wants not only deny it but to stay as far away from the subject as possible. Some examples of many to avoid thinking about are:

The death of yourself in terms of fantasy such as how you’d imagine your funeral, who you would see and what you would like to say to them.

How you will die as it provokes fear and anxiety.

How other people that you love will die, since it will make you sad or anxious.death awakening

How others will die that you don’t like because it will make you feel glad for all the wrong reasons.

Where you and others will go after death. This often causes the most problems as the mind starts to become anxious, or is more likely to become prone to fantasy.

Falling into melancholia, or other emotions such as regret, fear, anger, worry etc. Crudely speaking, if the practitioner feels sad or angry (etc), it is a very clear sign they are not doing it right and so will need to start again.


Relax the tension and spend another few moments practicing awareness to become perfectly aware of what is going on in the mind. If it is still unsettled it is best to relax and focus on some aspect such as the breath a bit further, or to move to a different meditation practice, such as mindfulness. Once you feel that you are relaxed, stable and aware start to consider one of all of the following suggestions, keeping consistent awareness in check.

Consider the event of death as having the appearance of an assassin. No matter when or where you are, you won’t escape this appointment.tumblr_micomlrHfB1qargfho1_500

Consider the indifference of the end of life. No matter how successful you are in your ventures, or how much you plan, beg or negotiate there is nothing that can prevent it.

Expand you scope and compare to all peoples. The famous and wealthy, those who do good things, those who are very strong mentally or physically, had perfect health (etc), those with power, technology (etc), were sages, saints, prophets or wise people. None could prevent death. It’s not a matter of ability, or attainments or personal status.

Consider how the body is composite and an ecosystem. Your body is host to bacteria in the gut, viruses, parasites, skin flora etc. Likewise composite in the biological sense of blood, flesh etc. These things can keep you alive (in the normal sense) or make you fatally ill if any part becomes infected.

Observe the conditional nature of life. You need food, water, sleep, air, light, the right temperatures (etc), you need the organs and muscles to be able to breath, pump blood, digest food etc. You need the ability to get food and know safety and danger etc. Can you live without them?

Evaluate it can be natural or unnatural. Death may occur in our sleep, or we may be involved in an accident or other event. It can be at our choosing, or without our choosing.

Consider its unpredictability. We will never really know how long life is, when the time comes, how or where. There’s no way to properly define how and when with 100% certainty.

Think about the shortness of life. A long life is 90 to 100 years, few live beyond that or even make it that far. Days soon become weeks, months, years etc.

Look at the shortness of the moment. We are only here now, the past is gone and the future isn’t here yet. Tomorrow (technically) never comes, there’s only the “now”, which doesn’t stop because people die.

Measure these against you own experiences of people you know that have died. Also expand to understanding that death happens constantly, everywhere on earth something or someone, somewhere is dying right now.

Like other meditations, the analogy of the lotus is still a good one to consider. It grows in the dark and muddy water, but grows towards the light and stands free and beautiful. Like this meditation, the goal is to rise above death by understanding and accepting it, standing free of sorrow, fear and anger by letting go.

Like other meditations, the analogy of the lotus is still a good one to consider. It grows in the dark and muddy water, but grows towards the light and stands free and beautiful. Like this meditation, the goal is to rise above death by understanding and accepting it, standing free of sorrow, fear and anger by letting go.

This section is about recognizing the that everyone experiences a struggle against death at some point or often in their lives either out of fear, despair, anger and other concerns. Nobody wants death when they live happy lives, but it is important to reflect there are many people who do not live happy lives and become either embittered by unhappiness, or experience so much pain they wish to end their lives. Regardless of our own levels of happiness and aspirations, it comes to us all. Regardless of who we are and what wonderful things we may attain, it too will come to us eventually. The fight against it, as well as the feelings about death and what comes afterwards causes so much distress, sorrow and anger in the world and ourselves. The practitioner should question the wisdom of extreme emotions when we may die in a few seconds, days, months, years or decades. The things we cannot predict may be jut around the corner.


Start to develop ways of accepting the fact by measuring against your own experiences. Have there been times that death has caused you fear or stress? The important aspect to investigate is that did the wanting to know, wanting to prevent or change already occurred deaths (etc) cause you misery? Ultimately what leads us back every time to the four noble truths is the wanting of things to be, or not to be. The question for the practitioner then to investigate, is does the stress, fear, anger (etc) abate, when that desire is released?accepting death


The sun sets for us all eventually, but to fall into melancholy is the same as to wildly try and fight it. They are both a form of indulging in death. The practice therefore, is to understand and accept, but let go of it, making life a beautiful thing.

The sun sets for us all eventually, but to fall into melancholy is the same as to wildly try and fight it. They are both a form of indulging in death. The practice therefore, is to understand and accept, but let go of it, making life a beautiful thing.

Start now to practice ways of improving the well being of your life. While the facts of life may cause of sorrow and despair, it still doesn’t need to be so. Some ways of many to improve your happiness and well being are listed as follows, but the practitioner should reflect again that without sincerity, it will be virtually impossible to come to terms and transcend the issues.

  • Practice virtue. The innocent really do have nothing to fear.
  • Practice investigative understanding. The wise likewise have nothing to fear as they know that we can hasten illness, unhappiness and injury by living carelessly.
  • Practice appreciation. When we are unhappy with what we have, by valuing the many things that touch our hearts we balance out the dissatisfaction and we can build appreciation to make it of greater value.
  • Practice goodwill or loving kindness. Not just to others but ourselves when we fell angry about how we cannot prevent death, or that there isn’t someone we can turn to to do it for us.
  • Practice equanimity. This pulls us back into balance when we run off into fits of emotion. Equanimity is the great balancer.
  • Practice compassion. Compassion finally reminds us that all beings are in the same boat, bound to the same wheel of life. Only when we understand how we are bound to it will we ever be free of it.

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Deathbed Visions and Escorts

Deathbed visions are apparitions; that is, appearances of ghostly beings to the dying near the time of their death. These beings are usually deceased family members or friends of the one who is dying. However, they can also be appearances of living people or of famous religious figures. Usually these visions are only seen and reported by the dying, but caretakers and those attending the dying have also reported witnessing such apparitions. In the majority of these cases, the apparition came to either announce the imminent death of the individual or to help that person die. In the latter situation they act as escorts to the dying in the process of passing from this life to the next.

Deathbed Visions and EscortsVisions at the time of death and announcements or omens of impending death, as well as escorts for the dead, are part of many cultures and religious traditions stretching back through antiquity. The religious motif of the soul making a journey from this life through death to another form of existence, whether it be reincarnation or to an eternal realm, is commonly found in many religions throughout history.

Shamans from many native cultures were adept at journeying from the land of the living to the land of the dead and were thus able to act as guides for those who were dying. Hermes, the Greek god of travel, was also known as the Psychopompos, the one who guided the soul from this life to Hades, and the realm of dead. Certain religious traditions have elaborate rituals of instruction for the soul at the time of death. The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the coffin texts of ancient Egypt gave detailed instructions for the soul’s journey to the next life. Similarly, by use of the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tibetan Buddhist monks have guided the souls of the dying through death to their next incarnation. In the Christian tradition it has been guardian angels that have acted as the soul’s guide to paradise. The ancient hymn, “In Paradisum,” invoking the angels to escort the soul to heaven, is still sung at twenty-first-century Roman Catholic funerals.

Christianity’s belief in resurrection and the concept of a communion of saints, that is, the continued involvement of the dead with the spiritual welfare of the living, is reflected in the historical accounts of deathbed visions in the West. Third-century legends about the life of the Virgin Mary recount Christ’s appearing to her to tell her of the approaching hour of her death and to lead her into glory. In the hagiography of many early Christian martyrs and saints, impending death is revealed by the visitation of Christ, Mary, or another saint who has come to accompany the dying into heaven. This tradition is carried over into early historical records. The eighth-century English historian Bede wrote of a dying nun who is visited by a recently deceased holy man telling her that she would die at dawn, and she did. Medieval texts such as the thirteenth-century Dialogue of Miracles by the German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach recount similar stories, but always within a theological framework.

In the seventeenth century treatises began to be published specifically on the phenomena of apparitions and ghosts. By the nineteenth century specific categories within this type of phenomena were being described. For instance, apparitions began to be distinguished between those seen by healthy people and those seen by the dying. It was noted that when the dead appeared to the living, it was usually to impart some information to them such as the location of a treasure, or the identity of a murderer. However, when an apparition was seen by a dying person, its intent was almost always to announce the impending death of that individual, and often to be an escort for that death.

Early in the twentieth century, the doctor James H. Hyslop of Columbia University, and later Sir William F. Barrett of the University of Dublin, researched the deathbed visions of the dying. They were particularly interested in what became known as the “Peak in Darien” cases. These were instances when dying persons saw an apparition of someone coming to escort them to the next world whom they thought to be still alive and could not have known that they had preceded them in death.

In 1961 the physician Karlis Osis published Deathbed Observations of Physicians and Nurses. In it he analyzed 640 questionnaires returned by physicians and nurses on their experience of observing over 35,000 deaths. Osis refers to the deathbed visions of the dying as hallucinations because they cannot be empirically verified. He categorized two types of hallucinations: visions that were nonhuman (i.e., nature or landscapes), and apparitions that were of people. His work confirmed previous research that the dying who see apparitions predominantly see deceased relatives or friends who are there to aid them in their transition to the next life. With the assistance of another physician, Erlandur Haraldsson, Osis conducted two more surveys of physicians and nurses: one in the United States and one in northern India. The results of these surveys confirmed Osis’s earlier research on deathbed hallucinations with the exception that there were more apparitions of religious figures in the Indian population.

These studies and the extensive literature on this subject confirm that throughout history and across cultures, the dying often experience apparitional hallucinations. What significance these deathbed visions have depends on the worldview with which one holds them. In this data those with religious or spiritual beliefs can find support for their beliefs. Parapsychological explanations such as telepathy or the doctrine of psychometry, whereby environments can hold emotional energy that is received by the subconscious of the dying, have all been advanced to explain apparitions at the time of death. The Jungian psychoanalyst Aniela Jaffe viewed apparitions, including those of the dying, as manifestations of Carl Jung’s transpersonal views of the psyche and, therefore, a validation of Jungian metapsychology. Indeed both the visions as well as the apparitional hallucinations described by Osis can be attributed to a number of medical causes, including lack of oxygen to the brain. Ultimately the research into the phenomenon of deathbed visions, while confirming that such events are common, offers no clear explanations.

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