In new book, seminary prof reflects on son’s death

By Yonat Shimron, Religion News Service…

DURHAM, N.C.—Nearly eight years ago, professor Richard Lischer got a call on his cell phone that would tear at his heart and test his faith.

It was his grown son, a successful lawyer, telling him his cancer had returned.

In the ensuing 95 days Dr. Lischer—a man used to offering pastoral advice to others—stood by his son, Adam Ewers Lischer, as he lost his battle to cancer. That experience is the subject of Dr. Lischer’s eloquent memoir, Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son.

Richard Lischer

Grief as the subject of memoir is now commonplace. But this volume, written by a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, conveys not only the anguish of grieving families, but also offers testimony to a faith that is tested but survives.

The journey, Dr. Lischer writes, took him from “the bitter gall” of feeling his son’s death was a “robbery” to a “settled sorrow” that proclaims: “He was my son, and I give thanks for him.”

Dr. Lischer, a gifted writer who has chronicled his earlier life as a Lutheran minister in Open Secrets (Three Rivers Press), is among a new crop of theologians writing about faith in a different way.

These writers aren’t interested in the formality of doctrine or in abstract theological argument. Instead, they write about how faith is lived day to day and in times of crisis.

“Because this felt so terribly significant to me, I wanted to write it down,” Dr. Lischer said, speaking from his office overlooking the Gothic gray Duke Chapel. “Silence was never an option. I felt as if I needed to make a testimony.”

At its core, Stations of the Heart is a love story of a father and son. That son was a onetime assistant district attorney in eastern North Carolina, a husband, a recent Roman Catholic convert and an expectant father when a three-month checkup revealed a recurrence of melanoma, this time in the form of multiple, inoperable lesions. He was 33.

The father, a longtime professor at the divinity school and an expert on the preaching of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was supposed to be the guardian of the faith. And yet, the book recounts, as Adam’s disease progressed, their roles reversed. In his final three months, Adam and his wife attended daily Mass, read the Bible, recited the Psalms. His father, meanwhile, replaced the prayer book in his cabinet with a dictionary.

It’s not that he lost his faith, he said; but “the lights went down for a while.”

Permission to doubt

“I can’t use the familiar platitudes certain religious people use,” Dr. Lischer said. “‘God will take care of him,’ and ‘God’s plans are always the wisest.’ It sounds like hollow speech. But that doesn’t mean you don’t trust in the love of God.”

At a time when believers and nonbelievers are locked in extreme polarities, Dr. Lischer offers an alternative: A faith that permits doubt.

“He’s willing to be publicly vulnerable, and that’s what makes the book powerful,” said the Rev. Heidi Neumark, pastor of Manhattan’s Trinity Lutheran Church and the author of Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

The ability to put words on paper helped Dr. Lischer cope with the grief. Within eight months of Adam’s death in 2005, Dr. Lischer was writing about those harrowing days following the diagnosis.

During that awful time, he scribbled notes at the end of a long day, usually after he returned home from the hospital. “I simply felt that what I was writing was representative of what so many people must feel in similar situations,” Dr. Lischer said.

Much later, he began to fill in the gaps. He researched Adam’s disease and interviewed friends and colleagues to round out his portrayal of his son.

But the book is not intended to be a biography or a definitive account of what happened to the Lischer family. It’s a personal account of a father’s grief.

After their son’s death, Dr. Lischer and his wife, Tracy, read the letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in which the theologian who died in Nazi Germany writes about the gap that separates grieving people from others. God keeps the gap open despite the pain, Dr. Lischer wrote, because God is not supposed to be the guarantor of happiness and security.

Dr. Lischer’s God, manifest in Jesus, is found in the homeless shelters, prison cells and cancer wards. God lives not “in the restored flesh we hoped for,” he wrote, referring to prayers for his son’s healing, “but in the flesh of those who suffer.”

Nearly eight years hence, Dr. Lischer still rejects pat truisms. The fact that Adam will never be able to brush his daughter’s hair or read her “Goodnight Moon” will always feel wrong.

But, Dr. Lischer adds, “When you get perspective, your faith tells you there is a basic goodness in the gifts God has given. It’s a terrible thing what happened. But that he was here in the world—that was good.”

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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