Walter Wangerin, Jr. This Earthly Pilgrimage. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2003. Print.
Back in the eighties, I used to work in a bookstore. At one time or another I have read or tried to read something by an author that a respected customer recommended. For some reason I had never read anything by Walter Wangerin or Frederick Buechner, though both had been recommended to me back then. When I saw this book, I said to myself, “OK, let’s check him out” in both senses of that expression.
This Earthly Pilgrimage is actually a combined volume of three books that were originally published separately: Ragman and Other Cries of Faith; Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?; and Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace in that order.
Ragman is a collection of meditations and a few stories. The title story “Ragman” is a thoughtful parable of Jesus appearing in a modern setting. Many of the pieces are meditations based on events in liturgical churches. Most are well written but would probably speak more to people who embrace that tradition.
Still, there are some effective stories. “Christmas Pastorale” is written like a memoir in which the author is counseling a young woman with a boatload of problems. He hears her out for a while and comes to the point quickly, “Oh, why did you ask the Lord to leave your life?” This guy is for real.
Little Lamb, Who Made Thee? is a collection of short stories and memoirs. All are based on experiences the author had while pastoring churches, especially an urban all-black congregation. Some are straight memoirs; some have been fictionalized as much to protect identities as to add to the narrative.
If you read nothing else in this book, read the title story “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” Wangerin is a reader. He has literary allusions scattered throughout this whole volume. (Is there such a thing as a liturgical allusion?) I was half expecting a Ragman-type story that would expound on the William Blake poem that gives the story its title. It was nothing like that. It was powerful and heartbreaking at the same time.
Once Pastor Wangerin found himself counseling another pastor’s family when the daughter of the pastor of a nearby affiliated church attempted suicide. In the course of this experience, the two wives of the pastors became very close, and eventually Mrs. Wangerin was able to discern that the daughter had been sexually abused by her father. Her father, in turn, had been treated in a similar way when he was a boy.
I have worked with teenagers virtually all my adult life. I do not think I have ever read anything that deals with this issue as effectively. The “little lamb,” of course, is the daughter in this story. Wangerin is a preacher here—calling sin a sin and painting hell hot. But he is also an evangelist—sharing God’s way for healing, especially for the daughter, but also for the father.
This piece was worth reading the whole book for.
The stories in the Little Lamb volume are all about families and family relationships. Some are funny; some are tender. Some are memoirs about Wangerin’s own families; some are about families at his church.
One thing he has learned as a father of four—two white and two black—is that much of society really does look at African-Americans, especially young black men, differently. He writes that he lost track of the number of times that he had to go to a police station to pick up his black son. The boy was never charged with anything, but he was suspected of all kinds of mischief.
The third volume, Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, is the most consciously constructed volume. It, too, is a collection of short stories and memoirs, alternating between stories from his childhood and stories about his urban church. Chronicles of Grace has a double meaning. When taken as a whole, the collection demonstrates the grace of God in people’s lives. However, the inner-city church he pastored was named Grace Lutheran Church. Many are stories about that church named Grace.
The personal memoirs begin with his early childhood and end with his attending a Lutheran boarding school for high school boys interested in becoming ministers. The stories parallel the verses in George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” because by the time he had spent a year in this school, he really no longer believed in God. Some of this reaction is from the influence of the alpha males at the boarding school who sound like they came straight from The Chocolate War.
The collection begins with a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions and both stanzas of the Herbert poem. The first verse of the poem is about mankind; the second, about the poet; and how both mankind and the poet became separated from God. Each line in each stanza gets narrower until there are just two words in the line. Then the next line in both stanzas is “With thee,” and the lines get progressively longer agaain as the poet explains Christ’s coming to earth for mankind and Christ’s working in the poet’s own life.
The tales from his church develop in the opposite direction from the childhood memoirs. The first describe troubled people and, perhaps, mistakes Wangerin made in his ministry. The chronicles end with confidence—not so much confidence in his ministry techniques, but confidence in what God can do.
People in ministry will appreciate this collection since most of the stories are told from the perspective of a pastor or a preacher. There are both humor and tenderness with a great sense of the big picture. Pastors are there for infant baptisms or dedications, for confirmations (if you’re Lutheran), for weddings, for funerals. These volumes have a sweep and scope that is different from most writings—from birth to death, but as seen through the eyes of many different people. The second and third volumes of This Earthly Pilgrimage do remind us of Hebrews 11:13 (KJV):
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
Or perhaps that old country song:
I am a pilgrim and a stranger
Traveling through this wearisome land.
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord,
And it’s not not made by hand.