CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter… ©
The Rev. Dr. William Luther White, Bill, always lived in the present moment, but in that constantly present moment, he was a citizen of all of time. We were friends through almost 60 years of that time. He ended one of his last emails to us with “Life is fun.”
We were students together at Garrett Seminary, at Northwestern U, when I was working on what was then called a BD degree and Bill was gaining his PhD. We were among the brown bag commuters who ate lunch together, including grad students like James Cone and Ron Goetz and Tom Tredway, who, like Bill, went on to distinguished careers melding theology and church and university as college and seminary professors and presidents.
We were young ministers to the university together in the 1960-70s, Bill to Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and me to Illinois State University, a mile down the Franklin Street in Normal. He had gone to IWU as chaplain in 1962, and when Don Ruthenberg, the president of the board of The Wesley Foundation at ILSU told Bill that the WF was looking for a new minister, Bill immediately said, “You need to get John McFarland.” So we became colleagues in ministry in Bloomington-Normal, often sharing student retreats and chapel worship services.
My career took me many other places after I left ILSU, but Bill remained a steadfast intellectual and spiritual presence at IWU and in Bloomington-Normal. Throughout that time, we remained close and grew closer, attending conferences together, visiting in each other’s homes, even traveling overseas together.
He died on Sunday, June 28, 2015, just nine days short of his 84th birthday. His funeral will be in a few weeks, when far-flung family can all be present. Ann has asked me to do that funeral, and so I shall write more then. I do, though, want to tell now what I learned from Bill about touching.
We were Great Depression boys, from Southern Indiana. Unlike today, when everyone hugs everyone, for any reason or none, in that era and place, people did not hug. Especially men. A man hugged no one, except his wife, on special occasions, when no one was looking. If you had no wife, you were out of hugging luck. I like today a lot better.
Bill came to see me after emergency surgery revealed I had cancer, and after my first oncologist told me “a year or two.” Here is what I wrote in my book, Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Reflections On Life And Healing For Cancer Patients And Those Who Love Them, pages 108-9:
My friend Bill came to see me, a week after I was out of the hospital. He drove a hundred miles each way to spend an hour with me. We’ve been friends for almost thirty years. Between us we’ve had three wives and seven children. We don’t see each other often, but we don’t need to; our friendship is always still there. Bill’s first wife left him ten years ago. Just told him one day that she was leaving. No previous symptoms, even in retrospect. Just like my cancer. We share that kind of surprised grieving—he in his first marriage, me in my body.
When he was ready to leave, he sat on the sofa beside me and put his arm around me. I held onto his leg, like a little boy might wrap himself around his father’s knee. We prayed together. He told me he loved me. I tried to tell him I loved him, too, but I couldn’t get it out. I believe he understood, though. Other than shaking hands, I believe that’s the first time we’ve touched, in thirty years.
Now that I have cancer there seems to be an unspoken word of permission for people to touch me, for me to touch them. It’s funny, that a broken body should somehow be more touchable than one that’s whole. Or am I more touchable because my spirit is broken? “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” [Psalm 51:17] It is interesting that in all the stories of Jesus, there is only one instance of anyone touching him while he was alive in the body. He, of course, touched many: a leper, a hand to raise Simon’s mother-in-law or Jairus’s daughter up from beds of illness and death, deaf ears, blind eyes, the feet of the disciples, children. The woman with the hemorrhage reached only as far as the edge of his robe. The woman who broke the alabaster jar of ointment on his feet wiped it off with her hair—no touch. The only time anyone reached out to touch Jesus was to betray him, Judas with a kiss, the authorities of his own faith and people with a slap.
Maybe that’s why “doubting” Thomas insisted on his famous touch-and-feel session after the crucifixion. Perhaps he was really “knowing” Thomas. Because no one had touched Jesus while he was alive, Thomas knew the real proof of the resurrection was that he could be touched, his body was broken. It’s only after the breaking of the crucifixion that resurrection, the touching time, comes.
Somehow we seem able to touch one another in our brokenness in ways we never can in wholeness. God uses broken things: broken bread, broken ointment jars, broken bodies, even relationships broken with a kiss.
My body and my spirit have been broken by cancer. That means I can touch and be touched. I’m thankful for the cancer.
Helen and I went to see Bill for the last time the day before he died. He was in hospice care, on a strong morphine drip, and unaware. I touched him, though. I sat beside his bed and held his hand and told him how fortunate I had been to have his friendship all these years. Friendship is always a touching time, even when it’s not.
John Robert McFarland
I started this blog several years ago, when we followed the grandchildren to the “place of winter,” Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP]. I put that in the sub-title, Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] The grandchildren, though, are grown up, so in May, 2015 we moved “home,” to Bloomington, IN, where we met and married. It’s not a “place of winter,” but we are still in winter years of the life cycle, so I am still trying to understand what it means to be a follower of Christ in winter.
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