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Death comes for Sir Walter Wangerin

by davesandel on August 15th, 2021

Sunday, August 15, 2021                                                       (today’s lectionary)

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mass During the Day

Death comes for Sir Walter Wangerin

“Maroooooned!” Old Sir Walter wailed the word.

How came you to this marooning then?

“They have left me, all the keepers of the earth. All gone away.”

Have you seen some holy vision, sir? But it seemed an ancient grief came upon the withered knight. He shuddered in his iron cage and wept beside the fire.

So writes Pete Peterson, founder of The Rabbit Room Press, of pastor, priest and poet Walter Wangerin, who died 10 days ago of lung cancer, discovered in his body fifteen years ago, which somehow stayed its hand till now.

“I have been given years uncountable and undeserved, and I have learned better than to speak simply of any mystery or terror. For it’s in mystery the howling resounds and tumbles round in the belly of the good earth, striving with powers vast and unreckonable to mortal men.”

Sir Galahad was wandering his forest and came upon this dying creature full of wisdom.

Are you ill? And if nothing plain may be said of it, adorn it with a tale and spin it in the light of our fire.

No energy tonight. Must rest.

“Ill? Aye. Ill with a wound that cannot heal. Every breath a trial. Every word a trouble. Yet of breath do words take flight. And by words are stories flown. So suffer I must, for it’s a story my chest is shaped to toll. Strike me, and I shall ring it out.”

Do not fear for whom the bell tolls. On August 5, it tolled for Sir Walter, age 77, surrounded by his wife Thanne and his family and a few Valpo friends. Had we been together in time at Valparaiso University, I hope I might have been his friend. His books have taken me around the universe and back to the fire Pete Peterson evokes, warm on the hearth of heaven. Because of him I’m more able to hold onto thoughts that contradict each other and celebrate the mix of joy and sorrow that life IS.

A huge red dragon appeared in the sky with seven heads and ten horns, and on its head were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman, waiting to devour her child as she gave birth. But her child was caught up to God, and the woman fled into the desert, to a place prepared by God.

Walter Wangerin wrote a story about his childhood. Eight years old in North Dakota, on dark winter nights with wind howling outside, he listened to his father dramatize the stories of Jesus’ passion. Like today’s story from Revelation honoring Mary’s assumption into heaven, Wangerin’s imagination carries me away. All he can see, as he spends those last hours in the presence, in the face, in the mind of Jesus at last on the cross, is … teeth.

I had slipped into The Story …

Teeth. I saw teeth before me. In Gethsemane Judas grinning with teeth like tombstones. He kissed the Lord Jesus. I shivered.

The High Priest clashing his teeth together, hissing horribly, “Blasssssphemy!”

Ugly men spat on the Lord through crumbling teeth …

My father was reading: “And when they crucified him –“ I heard a gasp as they lifted the Lord aloft.

Suddenly I was seeing everything as Jesus saw it. I was (we were) looking down on the sea of faces, twisted faces, brown teeth, broken teeth, jeering at Jesus, crying him down from the cross. I heard him groan by my ear.

Like his friend Miz Lil, Wangerin never leaves us broken by the devil, he always finds a way back to grace. I imagine today was one of his favorite days in the church calendar. Even as a Lutheran, Wangerin might have heard Mary’s words to Elizabeth as if they now echoed down from heaven.

From this day all generations will call me blessed. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has remembered his promise of mercy.

Philip Yancey is still with us, and he wrote about his friend Walter Wangerin.

Walt, like Chauntecleer, you have been through the silent passage – a time when God was not speaking. You have plumbed the depths, and there you have tasted grace. You have found The Story at the foundation of the universe, that by his wounds we are healed. And because you paid attention, so can we.

(Revelation 11, Psalm 45, 1 Corinthians 15, Luke 1)


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One Comment
  1. Don permalink

    Nice, Dave…

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