SIX MONTHS TO LIVE: Learning from a Young Man with Cancer
Plough, 136 pages, $10
Late in november 1999, in Farmington, Pennsylvania, 22-year-old Matt Gauger discovered he had lymphoma. The cancer had already spread from his abdomen to his chest. In a week he went from being a music-loving, basketball-playing twentysomething to being a hospital patient doped up on morphine and with very poor prospects. He undertook a rigorous course of chemotherapy, got engaged in December, married in January, had a positive spring, relapsed in May, and died in June.
During the course of his illness, several people became Christians or rededicated themselves to living for God because of how Matt conducted himself.
What makes Six Months to Live by Daniel Hallock more than a script for a TV Tragedy of the Week is that it was lived out in the context of an intentional Christian community called the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof is an international neo-Anabaptist group started by Eberhard Arnold in 1920 in Germany. They eventually found their way to the United States in 1954, via England and Paraguay, and now number over 3,000 spread over nine communities on three continents. The head elder is Johann Christoph Arnold, the grandson of the founder. While Bruderhof members resemble the Amish or Hutterites, they are a comparably new group made up mostly of people who have come out of the secular world and have chosen to enter this one.
Dying is a particularly good context for viewing the nature of community life. We see Matt surrounded by friends at the outset of his diagnosis, even adopted by a larger family while Matt's parents worked at the Bruderhof community in Australia. Matt's parents are flown back to be with their son and relieved from having to work.
After Matt is married, the same is done for his wife's parents. Not many companies, no matter how generous their benefits plan, would cover months off with pay as well as covering relocation costs. When Matt relapses, his parents are sent for again, and as they walk toward the house where their son awaits them, community members line the sidewalk holding lanterns and singing, showing their support.
More than a mere support group, this community is a church. What God is doing is the ever-asked question on people's lips. Making sense of Matt's suffering and death is, from beginning to end and for all involved, a theological journey. As Hallock reflects, "The anguish of Matt's loss. … was carried not only by his widow, his parents, and hers, but by an entire community that surrounded and upheld them. Moreover, it was accepted and embraced and plumbed for meaning in a way I can't imagine happening anywhere else."
Suffering and God's Will
This being a theological journey, the answers were not always easy or, I believe, necessarily right. Matt's wife, Cynthia, records how their God-can-work-miracles phase of dealing with the cancer ended with news of a relapse: "But God had answered our prayers so wonderfully this far, and now this!"
On whether to pursue another round of chemotherapy, Cynthia shares this strange line of reasoning: "What if it worked, and gave us more time, but we weren't supposed to have that time?" Eventually they decided to "leave everything to God," which to them meant saying no to chemotherapy.
Head elder Arnold gave his perspective to Matt: "God was saying, 'Uh-uh. You're no good to me.' God had allowed him to have cancer. It was a terrific blow—there was no question. But perhaps God couldn't use him with all his gifts. I said, 'Matt, God had to bring you low, because God works in the weak. Now you have to ask for strength to accept it.' Amazingly, he agreed."
Their zeal to live all out for God comes across especially in Cynthia's closing thoughts, which she recorded a few weeks after Matt's death: "People tell me how deeply Matt's life affected them. They tell me that it's made them love others more, or showed them how short life is. But that makes me really angry. I think, 'Wow, I lost my husband so that you can love your wife more?. … To me it isn't right if the love people feel because of Matt is just wasted on themselves. … If the kingdom is going to come, it's going to cost each of us some kind of sacrifice. And I think a lot of people try and hide so that they're not used by God. If we ask for renewal, we have to be willing to pay the price."
One of the arguments for cloistered communities is that they provide a living testimony to the rest of us that there are alternatives to the accepted structures of our lives. They are a witness to life in another, more explicitly Christian, key. In fact, Hallock seems earnestly to desire that we understand this utopian side of Bruderhof existence.
"Matt and Cynthia did not suffer together in a vacuum, but in the context of an entire community who suffered with them and on their behalf. And because their pain was shared by others, it was somehow robbed of its power to end in despair." Often we hear the different main characters share how their lives were meaningless or dark before they joined the community. Again and again we see the Bruderhof as the answer to their problems.
In fact, I worry that wanting a good ending that affirms the community may have played too large a role in Matt's story. I can't imagine a pastor agreeing to a shotgun wedding of a cancer patient. Matt had known Cynthia for a time before his illness, when he had an extended stay at her Bruderhof community in New York earlier in 1999. But he returned to Pennsylvania and told friends he was not ready for marriage.
In November, he finds out he has cancer. He is not close enough to Cynthia to tell her directly; she hears about his illness from others. She writes an encouraging note. Matt asks Christoph if he should pursue the marriage since "my chances are not great," but he still feels the relationship "would be good for me." Christoph agrees. So does Cynthia. So do Matt's parents. So does the community. They are engaged in December and married two weeks later in January. Cynthia becomes a 21-year-old widow five months later. Cynthia's mother found it all "bittersweet."
A 22-year-old dying of cancer is a tragedy, period. But for Christians death is not the last word and it certainly was not for the Bruderhof. The book, like the community it reflects, is deep, fascinating, theologically rich, and not for everyone.
Michael G. Maudlin, an editorial vice president of Christianity Today International, is executive editor of Books & Culture.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Plough, the publishing house of Bruderhof, has basic information on Six Months to Live and endorsements for it. There's another Plough site with information on Matt Gauger, including comments from his family.
Six Months to Live is available at Christianbook.com.
The offical site for Bruderhof Communities answers who they are, what they believe, and other frequently asked questions. The site also offers first-hand accounts from members, who include Daniel Hallock. In addition, there is a tribute to the life of Matt Gauger written by his youth group mentor.
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