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Unconditional love

Books | Walter Wangerin Jr. says love for his son Matthew made Matthew's rebellion difficult, but Matthew says it's also what led to their reconciliation

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

Walter Wangerin Jr.'s novels, including The Book of the Dun Cow (winner of the National Book Award) and Paul: A Novel, have received enthusiastic reviews. He is currently a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he teaches creative writing and is fighting lung cancer.

Wangerin's Father and Son: Finding Freedom (Zondervan, 2008) tells of his persevering relationship with Matthew, one of his four children. Matthew rebelled as a teenager and had some troubled years: Father and son are now reconciled.

Q: How's your health?

I am what you call stable. The tumors are there and they are metabolizing right now. I have maybe half capacity of lungs-there's a rumbling, but it's been stable now I think almost a year so that's really good.

Q: You tell one story about Matthew running away when he was 8. You had responded harshly; he ran away; then he forgives you. Can you talk a little bit about that? You say the child had no right to forgive you.

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He had no logical right. I definitely meant that God was active in the kid and that even down to today, the real miracles I see are the miracles of forgiveness. We sin to capacity but I don't think we forgive equally except as God is there.

Q: Matthew is now in his late 30s; when did the problems begin?

Where it became evident was in his sophomore year in high school. He might have been 15. Already in what we now call middle school he would keep his head down on the [dinner] table the whole time, which was already, I think, a kind of a beginning of silence. It builds.

Q: One man I know who's been through this felt powerless-as when Matthew was 14 and you noticed his strength and that you could no longer control him. When he was sitting there in his slouched position and you were not able to penetrate or get him to even open his eyes or listen to you. That sense of incredible love and then the incredible hopelessness and powerlessness.

If there was no love, then powerlessness and hopelessness would not be a prison. If there was no love, as I've seen in some families, you just dismiss the kid, Well, it's his fault. This is the life he chose and he's got to live with it. It's the love that makes it a prison. You wouldn't call it powerlessness without love. You'd call it sin and detachment on the kid's part. It's love that makes this so painful.

Q: You were a pastor of a church plus a writer. When it happens in your own family . . .

You keep saying to yourself, I should know better and why isn't that working?

Q: As your congregation became aware of what was going on, was it supportive?

Our experience was very common in the inner city-but because it was a black church in the inner city, with no condemnation on their part at all they took up the job of being mothers, aunties, grandmothers, and grandfathers to our children. And so I believe that most of them were unsurprised even though the father was a pastor.

Q: In lots of evangelical churches you'd want to hide the failures of your family.

The inner city is very much like the way farmers used to live when they really had to depend upon one another. The whole lot got together to thresh, to harvest and so forth. I saw in the inner city the very same thing. We knew when Matthew had snuck out at night. We got calls from the women who saw him, who had no problem calling the father, as opposed to the preacher. In a suburban community, don't you think that many, many of the members of the church would keep quiet for fear of embarrassment or something?

Q: There's the theology that if you put in X, you're guaranteed Y, and if you don't get Y, then there's something wrong with your X.

In the suburbs, people don't take their problems directly to a pastor, and nowadays it's much easier to buy the time for a psychiatrist or a psychologist. The pastor is pretty much an employee, and one has to actually go searching to find out what a family is suffering.

Q: How much do you think adoption was an issue for Matthew?

Even when you're really little and nobody means anything by it, I come on the scene where Matt is, and they have to whisper, "That's your dad?"

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