Martin Luther was an earthy Christian, conscious of his sinfulness, profoundly grateful for God's radical grace in Jesus Christ. The Reformer was keenly aware that what holiness we attain grows not so much from our "religious" callings but as we fulfill our vocations as members of families and workers in the world.
In his dying, Walter Wangerin Jr.—Lutheran minister, award-winning author, radio broadcaster, professor, husband, and father—is living out that Lutheran vision.
Published this month, Wangerin's Letters from the Land of Cancer (Zondervan) was written in 2006 and 2007 as letters to praying friends. During much of that time, his cancer had slowed. But side effects, like a spreading pneumonitis that rendered his lungs incapable of exchanging oxygen, seriously slowed his pace. This gave him time, and a new perspective on time. The result is a rewarding reflection on living one's last years.
Lutherans are, at least in theory, more matter-of-fact about their sinfulness than other Christians. Throughou Letters, Wangerin confesses the way that the difficulties of his illness enable the Old Adam. Weary with his illness, he returns to his "pickier self, grumpier, fussier, graceless, ungrateful. Hypercritical. Deaf to human nuance, presuming insults no one meant, and, no longer patient in pain, consumed by my precious, superior, artistic labors." He abuses nurses and medical technicians. "When I am not tired, I can control outward, public manifestations. But these long exhaustions of my long disease disable me. I lose the strength for restraint."
"It isn't okay to be bitter," he writes. "No! Cancer does not give me freedoms others don't have. A snarking thought, even when kept internal, becomes a warm, pumping, venomous fluid that runs in one's vessels, whether bloody or lymphatic or made of the clay of the Creator—filling the vessel that one is."
But the real victims of the venom are "my friends and my family and my wife. And then it is these, oh, my most beloved, who suffer …. And then—recognizing the consequences of the Old Adam's liberation—I must, I must, I absolutely must believe in the mercy of God, which makes merciful the people whose mercy I do dearly need."
Called By Name
Far more than his compounded frustration over his sinful behavior, Wangerin's belief in Christ's mercy pervades this book. He knows that Christ met "the world that was even then dispatching him" with "serenity and forgiveness, grace and love." In Christ, he finds spiritual healing and grace. In Christ, he rejoices that his name is written in heaven. "My name. The Father who named me at my baptism will in a creating and re-creating voice call my name once more, and I shall arise, and I shall like Moses answer, 'Here I am.'"
And in Christ, Wangerin finds the tender Shepherd's care. In Letter 21, he traces through Scripture how God's word creates what it names. In John 10, he finds "the real source of [his] peace on the threshold of death." In that passage is the figure of the shepherd who calls his sheep by name. The one who, by naming them, makes them his sheep, and who gives to the sheep who follow him eternal life.
Wangerin begins this shepherd motif with a childhood experience: Thirteen-year-old Wally huddles in a wintry attic bedroom in Edmonton, Alberta. Pained with a stomachache, he tries to be an adult, tries not to cry. Finally, sobbing, he takes comfort as his mother sings: I am Jesus' little lamb, / Ever glad at heart I am. / For my Shepherd gently guides me, / Knows my need and well provides me.
This is "the image which even now most consoles" him as at age 64 he "is given to contemplate another sort of wintry darkness."
Jaded Christians often criticize Christian writing that avoids doubt as sappy and in flight from reality. Whose faith doesn't wobble? But Wangerin's Letters avoids both unreality and doubt. Though his life is full of pain and awkwardness, there is never any question about whom Walter Wangerin belongs to. Jesus the Shepherd cares for Wally the Lamb as much in Wangerin's 60s as in his teens.
Wangerin keeps his story real by his tangible accounts of pain, reduced capacity, and irritability. He is short of breath. He loses his temper. He worries for his wife, Thanne, and the uncertainty of her future. Medical tests force him to miss the New York debut of a musical based on his award-winning The Book of the Dun Cow. He describes the pain graphically:
No rubbing eases the ache …. It is a team of plow horses galloping up my spine, dancing on my ribcage …. A thundering down the femur and hard against my kneecap. Or across my back, as if I were the horse, saddled with a crop-whip pain. This particular assault causes a whizzing at the roots of my hair. It crawls down into the lower back—burrowing wormlike into my sacrum …. In my skull. Behind my eyes. In my chest. And always, always, morning to night, in the dead center of my chest.
Groaning helps. I recommend it. Seriously.
He describes the bodily changes with humor as well: "One of the advantages of an old man's losing all his hair (so thinks this old man) is that it clears his nostrils and his ear-holes of four mighty bushes. One of the disadvantages of the same fellow's hair's returning is …. Well, you get the picture."
Dylan Thomas famously wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Thomas's challenge to rage is mirrored in our everyday language. We talk about battling cancer. About fighting the disease. For Wangerin there is no reason to rage or fight. The disease is not the enemy, he writes; "it is a rooster's crow, calling me to the truth of myself and to the precise condition of my relationships—God, society, nature."
God loves, cares for, and protects his own. There may be other enemies, but the dying is something else. "By declining this change with great passion, or receiving it with a huge natural fear, we accuse the divine providence of tyranny, and exclaim against our natural constitution, and are discontent that we are human." And thus, he says, we become the enemy, because we fight against God.
Yet when death interrupts, we are overpowered by the impulse to fight. The defense is preparation.
When … we remain unprepared for the Ultimatum certainly to seize us, then the death that interrupts our daily lives is monstrous. Fight against it with all your might. Hate it. Be filled with envy and anger for those who are still healthy. Wail, plead, beg, make deals with friends and with the Infinite. Sink into despair. Lie down in hopelessness. Die, then—even before you die.
Or else, prepare. Long before that final confrontation, prepare.
Preparation means paying attention, especially to relationships. It means talking with children about who will care for their mother. It means talking with a spouse about her future. It means talking about everything that ultimately counts, and letting go of all that ultimately does not matter.
There is a literature of preparation. Luther himself wrote about preparing to die. Wangerin references Jeremy Taylor's famous The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. But in Letters, Wangerin, always a storyteller, has exchanged the didactic, spiritual advice giving of this ars morendi genre for memoir and confession. His story, he says, is "the story which must ultimately embrace every living body, every physical person." It is also "the story in which our faith in Christ most can shine."
In these letters, Walter Wangerin has given us a story to live by, and to die by.
David Neff is editor in chief of the Christianity Today Media Group.
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Letters from the Land of Cancer is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on cancer include:
When the Pastor Suffers | Matt Chandler comforts an anxious church following his Thanksgiving seizure. (December 14, 2009)
Three Gifts for Hard Times | What I've learned as life has taken a turn for what most people think is the worst. (August 28, 2009)
Cancer's Unexpected Blessings | When you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. By Tony Snow (July 20, 2007)
Christianity Today has more articles on death & dying, including:
Intensive Care Week | Thoughts while sitting beside my brother as his brain and body failed. (September 14, 2009)
The Empty Tomb and the Emptied Urn | What the wounds of Jesus can — and can't — tell us about our resurrection bodies. (April 7, 2009)
The Widow's Might | My husband's death forced me to change in ways I never wanted to. (January 18, 2008)
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