Bruce Kramer writes that, for him, 2010 had been a great year. He was in his second year as dean of the College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling just up the road at the University of St. Thomas. Both of his sons had found life partners, and there were weddings to look forward to. He and his wife had spent an incredible month in Indonesia. They enjoyed a lot of wine and ate a lot of fish. A good year.
Then he began to notice that his leg muscles seemed to twitch on their own and that he couldn’t get his left leg into the driver’s seat of his car without lifting it with his hand. He found that it was becoming harder and harder to ride his bike. Walking around Lake Harriet one day, his wife told him his foot sounded funny when he walked, like “step kerflop, step kerflop.” His doctor said it might be a pinched nerve, and at age fifty-four, he figured it was probably no big deal. But the symptoms persisted. In fact, they got worse. Eventually, he contacted a neurologist his doctor had recommended, and he endured a barrage of tests. In December, he received a diagnosis: ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“Each of us knows how it feels to be helpless. Each of us can point to some event where we feel like we have been figuratively, if not literally, crucified…. When I was first diagnosed,” Bruce Kramer writes, “I composed my own variations on the theme of ‘Take this cup from me.’ The more I learned about what was coming, the more frightened and angry I became…. Dis ease brought me to the precipice: Will I live into the life I have been given, or die in anger, frustration, and grief?”
His book, We Know How This Ends, chronicles his journey with ALS and captures profound insights about how he approached life even as death was closing in. Near the end of the book, Bruce Kramer says this:
The greatest challenge of dis ease is that the moment fear overwhelms you, the moment you are dragged into your own soul-wrenching vulnerability, this is precisely the moment to open yourself to love. It is fear that causes us to feel estranged and alone, apart from God and from each other. To be closed off from love is crushing, angry loneliness, whether intentional or not…. To be open is to embrace your own great big messy humanity, to cry in sadness but not despair, to recognize presence in the emptiness of the bitter moment of truth, to be afraid but not fearful. Dis ease presents the choice of being open or closed, and opening to [its] lessons, [its] gifts, [its] challenges, is not easy. But dis ease clarifies vision, bringing sight to the blindness of what you thought you knew about living, light to the darkness of cynicism that life’s grief piled upon itself can foster. I know ALS is a horror, yet when fully embraced, it has taught me, it has revealed to me pure unsullied, uncontaminated, unbelievable love.
Bruce Kramer’s entire book is a testimony, a witness to hope in the face of despair, to joy in the midst of sorrow, to life in the face of death. There is no hint of denial; he is brutally honest with himself and his readers about his mortality. As he says, he knows this ends. And yet, even as he confronts his impending death, he finds reasons to hope. His heart bursts with love. And he leaves behind this book as a testimony to the power of life over death.
As today’s Gospel lesson begins, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It had been rebuilt by King Herod and had more than doubled in size. It was a sight to behold. And Jesus says, “Just wait. Not a stone will be left on stone. All will be destroyed.” The disciples have all sorts of questions—questions like, “When?” and, “What will be the sign?” Jesus describes what will happen, and it’s not a pretty picture. It’s chaos and destruction, opposing voices speaking contradictory truths, conflict between nations, natural disasters, and more. He says they will experience persecution and be treated as criminals.
And then Jesus says something very strange. He says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” They must have been thinking, “Excuse me? An ‘opportunity’?” He even tells them not to worry about preparing their speeches in advance, as though he expects that in the midst of catastrophe, eloquent words of hope and encouragement will pour forth out of their mouths, that as chaos rages around them, their testimony will be on the tips of their tongues.
What kind of testimony can someone give when they are faced with the sorts of horrors described here? What kind of testimony do we have to offer when faced with the types of hardship some of us endure today—with chronic pain, a terminal diagnosis, a child living with addiction, or a parent slowly succumbing to dementia? Jesus tells us this will provide an opportunity. How can this be true?
Black feminist theologian Nancy Lynne Westfield writes that the “opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering.” She says, “Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope.” Another Black theologian, Howard Thurman, once wrote that into the faces of those who suffer “comes a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; [and] into their relationships a vital generosity the opens the sealed doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.”
Bruce Kramer died in 2015. Ultimately, the hope and courage he found to live life with such vigor and passion, even in the face of death, could not alter the course of his disease. That’s the thing. It’s not that the testimony we muster amid catastrophe necessarily changes our situation. We are not promised a different world or an escape from reality. But the opportunity to testify does invite us to assume a different posture in relation to the world as it is. We are not allowed to abandon our reality in favor of something that will not come to be. Instead, we are invited to live courageously in the world we’ve received; in the words of the prayer many of us know and love, to accept with serenity the things we cannot change and to change the things we can. When we do—even when our deepest longings go unfulfilled and our hopes go unsatisfied—we still may find that it is enough. That we can endure. That we have what we need to face another day.
Before he died, Bruce Kramer sat for an interview with Krista Tippett on her public radio show, On Being. “Is there anything else you want to add that we haven’t talked about? Anything that feels really important?” He offered one last profound little morsel of testimony. He said:
All sadness is a way of sensitizing you to what really matters, what’s really meaningful. And death does that. I see my death. It looms in front of me sooner than I would like, but because it’s there, because we live with that, I am so grateful for just this moment, for this time together. And that is a great gift. And by embracing that, I realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.
An opportunity to testify? For us, as for Bruce Kramer, may it be so.
Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986).
Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
Bruce H. Kramer, We Know How This Ends: Living while Dying, with Cathy Wurzer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015).
Nancy Lynne Westfield, “Luke 21:5-19: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).