Sunday, August 17, 2014


Summer morning clouds
I do not speak of God in this cancer journal because I know the word is problematic for a lot of readers—as it is for me. Yet I have to admit that reading the words of others, who have given a lot more thought to this subject than I, has helped me come to terms with my mortality and the cancer itself.

A little background: I was brought up in a conservative branch of American Lutheranism I have long characterized as 95% law and 5% gospel. It fostered in me an image of the Almighty as not just a bearded old man in the clouds, but a nearly featureless block of clear ice, aloof and floating in the stratosphere.

I understand that this is as much from biblical teachings absorbed in eight years of parochial school (“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…”), as a projection of my own excesses of hubris and judgmental disconnection from most of my fellow beings. I even persuaded myself that I was so superior in my perfectionist brand of faith that I planned to go into the ministry myself. Thank God, though I waited for it, I never felt the call.

What saved me and the many parishioners I would surely have misled was my liking for literature. I enjoyed novels and making up stories of my own. Today those stories would have been classed as Christian fiction because their intent was not only to be wholesome but to proselytize. I recall one plot that involved men from Earth rocketing to another planet for an adventure that included missionary work and converting aliens.

More morning clouds
Eventually, and I won’t admit how long this took, my reading took me beyond the realm of my own self-imposed limits. It happened with Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, which evoked in me compassion for a “fallen” man that collided with my black and white, legalistic morality.

Because it can reveal so much more of characters’ inner lives than we ever know about actual people, no matter how intimately we think we know them, literature weakens our hold on certainty and challenges our blinkered notions of right and wrong. It does what religious doctrines fear will happen—it raises doubts. So Conrad cracked the shell, and what leaked in was a growing belief that to know all is to forgive all.

This did not alter that ethereal ice-field image of God, though it did not prevent me from reading others whose writings involved struggles with their own doubts. Among those, I especially recall Henri Nouwen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Being of German descent, I was absorbed by Bonhoeffer as he articulated the cost of discipleship while all around him the Nazis demolished a centuries-old culture which professed a faith based on Christian charity. I even wrote a play dramatizing Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, which were gathered and published after his execution by the Gestapo. 

Morning walk, clouds over San Jacinto
I’m wandering way afield here, but there’s a lot to unpack from a dusty, 70-year-old footlocker with a baptismal certificate from a German-speaking country church somewhere at the bottom. But I’m hoping that this accounts in some way for the clouds of unknowing and ambiguity around any allusion on these pages to a three-letter word spelled God.

For today I entertain notions of a Supreme Being that contribute to a sense of inner calm that medical science tells me will counter growth of the tumor in my brain. For one thing, I meditate, a practice I don’t recall ever hearing of in the writings of Martin Luther. But melting away is that icebound figure in the misty vapors above, even as the cold fearful reserve in myself begins to yield to a little understood but welcome notion of grace, uncompromised love, and compassion for all who suffer, which in this Dark Age embraces just about all of us. You only have to look at the headlines.

I’m coming to believe that if you reverse engineer the Creator who is said to have made humankind in his own image, you’ll find Someone who suffers continuously and mightily along with the rest of humanity. Not only that, but all of what is called creation. 

I’m not about to say this image is more than a fabrication that reassures me or puts me at ease about my mortality. To be perfectly honest, it’s not at all how I would have arranged things. But it offers a perspective that is an answer to doubt and keeps me keeping on. And for the moment, that’s good enough.

Previously: Useful


  1. I am sorry to read of your cancer. You'll be in my thoughts and prayers. Bonhoeffer and Nouwen both provide good insight.

    1. Thanks for dropping by. Always good to catch up with you. I wish you well in your new parish.

  2. Thank you for your review of Owen Ulph's The Leather Throne. I will be checking your blog for future Western book recommendations. I was raised Jodo Shinshu Buddhist in Utah in the 60's. I suspect Grace and Enlightenment are equivalent. There are many forms of meditation. One of them is chanting. Check Spotify for Gregorian and Sutra/Buddhist Monk chanting. Suffering is one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

    In Gassho

  3. I am absorbed by your journey; a difficult, complex passage through a new and very old world.Thank you.

  4. I was also raised Lutheran, although a more moderate branch, but attended a high school that brooked no deviation from the scriptures. I can imagine a religion I could live with, but it would more closely resemble Unitarian, which my mother said is merely a group of socialists pretending at faith.

  5. Your thoughts continue to be fascinating. You take lovely photos, too.

  6. Ron, this is beautiful prose. I read it out to my wife, who is a corporate trainer in communication skills, and she was highly impressed. Your thoughts on the metaphysical touched a chord as I often think about the purpose of our life only to pull myself back to the present and try and make the most of it. I look forward to reading your journal and uplift myself. Best wishes, Ron.

  7. I was confirmed with MO Synod wine in Nebraska and your percentage of law and gospel are astute. College introduced me to the branches that would become the ELCA along with Bonhoeffer. You are not alone, sir.'s perhaps pleasant to discover that you never were.

    1. Richard, I'm beginning to believe we were twins separated at birth.

    2. Ron and I both attended a Missouri Synod-affiliated (tho not run) university. I was raised LC-Missouri Synod and was heading for the ministry. But I found Missouri far-too dogmatic and 'legalistic'; at university I 'converted' to the Anglican / Episcopalian expression of Christianity (by means of taking instruction and receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. Subsequently, I joined the [Russian] Orthodox Church. Eventually, I found I had lost my 'theistic' understanding of the divine. Today, as a long-term, recovered member of A.A., my personal experience of spirituality is most comfortable in the basic teaching and practice of Buddhism; I follow the wise precept that, "Buddhism is not about being 'Buddhist''s about being awake."

      In your shares on this blog, Ron, I find much of the divine..much of that generative Power of the universe I call Love. And, in turn, I gift it back to you!

  8. Ron: I recently heard of your illness, and wanted to reach out to you to express my sympathies and best wishes. And now I find your blog, which is tremendously moving and beautiful. Yes to grace and compassion, wherever we can find them. I'll look forward to your future musings to guide this agnostic as we all make this journey together.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Stephanie. May the new semester go well for you.

  9. If you would allow just one scripture...

    A couple thousand years ago, the apostle named Paul stood on a hill in front of a bunch of Pagans and descrbed Him this way:

    "For in HIM we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." [Acts 17:28]

    He is ever near... and everywhere. He is acquainted with our every joy and sorrow.