I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.
This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.
A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.
Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.
“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”
An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.
He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.
“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.
He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”
The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.
In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.
Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.
What would you have done?
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”
It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.
This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.
We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.
The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.
No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.
One can only have compassion on him.
The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?
At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.
And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.
We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.
It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.
We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.
Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:
It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.
“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.
But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.
I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.
But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.
What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.
What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.
I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.
Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.
And hope never fails.
God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.
Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.
Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B
Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.
Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).