Unrepeatable Miracle

Stimp Hawkins, 1933-2016

My friend Stimp Hawkins died in mid-June, but I just found out, almost by accident, this past weekend.  He’d gotten in touch with me several months ago to let me know about an article that had just come out about his new career as what he called a death pimp, and we agreed we’d get together soon.  I honestly intended to do that.  I wish I had.

Stimp loved life and lived it with great enthusiasm, but he was so interested in death in recent years that he almost seemed anxious to go.  I’d love to know how it went for him.

When we met—forty-three years ago—it was a different life for both of us.  I was 25 years old, teaching English at a secondary school in Winston-Salem.  Stimp was turning 40, had taken a job as Associate Minister at the First Presbyterian Church there, a major establishment church whose primary minister was the father of our Republican Senator in North Carolina, Richard Burr (who at that time was a teenager).  Stimp arrived with a beautiful wife and four good-looking children, all dressed up and ready to take on that role, which he occupied for seventeen years.

He’d graduated from the University of Virginia, been involved in sales for a while, then become a teacher and football coach and had been quite successful.  At the age of 33 he’d had a conversion experience and decided he wanted to change his life, dragged his wife and four kids to a seminary.  He apparently found that too academic—he wasn’t a scholar—though he continued and got his degree.  He had that big family, had to support them some way.  So he took a job at a big establishment church.

I really got to know him when we began to run together.  Stimp was always hearing about some new thing and jumping on the bandwagon; he’d heard about a practice called LSD running, long slow distance, where you got together in a large group and ran at the pace of the slowest, actually at a pace at which everyone could comfortably converse.  Our goal was to get such a group together but it was never more than the two of us, running over the Wake Forest cross country course on Saturday mornings for an hour at a very relaxed pace.  We talked quite personally, about big subjects.  It was the way I would eventually talk in a men’s group, though that was fifteen years in the future.  He was probably the first man I talked to that way.

I was very much at sea.  I deeply wanted to be a writer and was writing a lot but hadn’t published anything.  I was an essentially religious person—someone interested in the big questions—and believed that a person had to find truth in the tradition he had been brought up in, so I was trying to find truth in that blue suit fur coat lily white congregation of doctors, lawyers, businessmen.  It wasn’t going to happen.  I vividly remember being in some kind of study group there, hearing a woman talk about someone having a strong prayer life, wondering what the hell that was, where you found one of those.  I heard a lot from the pulpit about unconditional love and acceptance, but didn’t find it there (they accepted you unconditionally as long as you had on the right suit and tie and believed exactly the same thing they did).  I remember one afternoon going to a local tap room for a beer and feeling perfectly welcome as I slid into a stool at the bar.  There was more unconditional love at that bar than at the whole First Presbyterian Church.[1]

Stimp told me at the time that he was going, or had been, to some Buddhist Christian dialogues out in Colorado, but I wasn’t in the least interested.  I don’t think I even asked about them.  I wanted to know about Christianity.

When we got together again—it was definitely more than twenty years later, probably closer to thirty—I’d found out what a strong prayer life was, through Buddhist meditation.  I had done some writing for Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, had also published a couple of books with my first meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg, including one called Living in the Light of Death.  I think it was because of that book that Stimp contacted me.  He was divorced and living in Greensboro, working in hospice and as an interim minister, doing some teaching as well.  I’m sure he wasn’t making the money he once had; he may not have been making quite enough.  But he seemed much happier.  We ate at some crummy restaurant near Elon College (but Stimp always lit up at the thought of food, at the sight of the menu, upon hearing what the special was.  You’d have thought we were at the Ritz).  Gone were the blue suits and the stuffy congregation and the big money crowd, for both of us.  We were happy men.

Stimp told me much more detail about those Buddhist Christian dialogues.  He’d stayed with Father Thomas Keating, the Father (so to speak) of Centering Prayer.  He attended with a couple of other clergy, and he had the distinct impression they were surreptitiously sleeping together, though they were both with other people.  The first time he’d heard Chogyam Trungpa the man was drunk out of his mind and made no sense at all; Stimp said to Father Keating, “What the hell is this?”  Keating said, just wait.  Things got better.  And so it went.

Stimp was interested in Buddhist literature at that point but hadn’t been able to establish a meditation practice.  One problem was that, during an early attempt, he’d had a heart attack, which would tend to put you off the practice.  (He’d apparently had three heart attacks before he had major bypass surgery.)  He was heading up to Boston for some conference or other and wondered if there might be a way he could talk to Larry Rosenberg.  Conferences with Larry were scheduled way in advance, but I said I’d see what I could do.  Larry did get together with Stimp and they had a great conversation, liked each other immediately, as I knew they would.  Larry could see why the man would be reluctant to meditate.  But they may have talked it through, because in recent years Stimp had a regular meditation practice.  And by the time he died he referred to himself as a Buddhist.

Stimp had done the hospice work, had counseled people in death and dying; in recent years he’d gotten involved with death cafes, encouraging people to talk about this subject that they tend to be dead silent about it, though they know they have to go through the experience.  He devoted the end of his life to death, and then, whattya know, he died.  If anyone was ever ready to go, it was him.

Whenever I got together with Stimp he was completely alive, eyes bright, body alert, completely happy to be there.  We always had a beer at dinner, always had dessert—“I love sweets” he said to me the first time we got together—and we had marvelous conversations about important subjects.  Hours flew by.  I would guess he had conversations like that with any number of people.

Stimp was tall—6’4” or so—lean, sturdily built, a big physical presence.  One time when we were jogging we were heading down a gentle slope and he caught his foot on a tree root and tripped.  I’ve heard the expression falling head over heels, ass over teakettle, but had never actually seen it until that day; he rolled down the hill as if he were doing cartwheels.  It was like a cartoon.  You’d have thought he really hurt himself.  But he got up, dusted himself off, and we kept going.

That’s the way he lived his life.  Jumped into it, screwed up, fell head over heels, got up and started again with great enthusiasm.  When I saw him in recent years I felt he’d discovered his true man, found the real Stimp.  That’s all any of us can ask.

One year at the school where I taught he was asked to give an invocation and benediction for graduation.  I’m not sure I can quote it exactly—it was forty years ago—but I still remember the gist of the benediction.  “Go forth and live out your life as the unrepeatable miracle of God that you are.”

He did.

[1] I don’t mean that there weren’t good people at the church.  I don’t even mean that their faith wasn’t sincere, or valid.  But it was a social group.  It was like a country club.  It more or less was the country club, in a different locale.  It was a big money place.