22 September anno Domine 1951 – 4 October anno Domine 2003
Princes also did sit and speak against me:
The wicked have waited for me to destroy me.
Help Thou me, Lord my God:
For I have kept Thy testimonies.
Introit, Saint Stephen, Martyr
There were other witnesses. One might say that Stephen was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses except that Stephen was an exegete and he would be the first to tell us that this is an abuse of the text. For the witnesses that I speak of were all terrestrial: family and friends from over five decades of Stephen’s pilgrimage on this earth. There were Lutherans – lapsed and otherwise – Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, a couple of Buddhists and some who might charitably be called pagans.
Stephen knew more people, engaged more different kinds of people, than anyone I know. If there is one simple fact that explains why Stephen did not fit in the cultural ghetto that is the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod it is this: he could enjoy the company of just about anybody from East Side bohemians to noted theological scholars. In his last days – by which I mean the days from the day of ordination on which God claimed him to be the servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God until the day the Lord took him to eternal rest – Stephen was a true evangelist largely misunderstood and unwelcomed in a church body that strains to be evangelical.
He was misunderstood and unwelcome because he was the kind of man who knew how to engage many people in different walks of life. This and the offense of the Gospel that he faithfully preached did not endear him to an ecclesiastical hierarchy that is all too white, middle class, suburban, and not too subtly focused on the Sunday morning offering plate.
So, at the end there were other witnesses. With the multiplication of witnesses, there is a multiplication of facts. Some witnesses are more reliable than others; some facts are fictions. I will attempt to record here what I know and no more. The bad I will not make worse by this record, neither will I augment the good. The Lord by His grace made Stephen a saint. He needs no hagiography.
The Reverend Dr. Stephen Richard Wiest entered St. Mary’s Hospital on the Feast of St. Michael, Monday, 29 September anno Domine 2003. He had been at war with lymphoma since February 2001. That had been battles won and battles lost. There had been a period of remission in 2002. By the end of that year he was sick again. We had been given hope that he would remain among us after a vigorous treatment of chemotherapy in Minneapolis that began early in 2003.
“Brother, this is what they are going to do to me,” he told me over the phone before he left. “They are going to kill me with chemo and bring me back to life again with a bone marrow transplant.” He delighted in the typology of death and resurrection that was going on in his own life. After treatment and one hundred days of observation he prepared to return to Milwaukee. He wrote home:
Dear Brothers and Sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ:
I write on the eve of our mid-July departure from Minneapolis to return to Milwaukee. My bone marrow transplant is progressing reasonably well although my immune system still has a long way to go before it is strong. There will be several more weeks of convalescence ahead for me in Milwaukee and probably a month of follow-up radiation treatment, to commence as soon as my low immunity level can tolerate it.
At this point, I feel the same strange mixture of agony and rapture reflected by the Patriarch Jacob right after his wrestling match with the Angel of God: I’ve gotten all beat up and been thoroughly blessed in the same bout! His rigorous rescue of me from my relapse of lymphoma could be termed my own personal “Peniel,” for in the medical maelstrom “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved!” (Gen. 32:30). Like Jacob, I have been left not a little maimed but also renamed and reclaimed by Him with Whom I had to do.
It is fitting that I should borrow Jacob’s language, too, to describe how I look forward to my longed for reunion with all of you. “For truly to see your face is like seeing the Face of God – since you have received me with such favor!” (Gen. 33:10). I could never repay all that God’s people have done for me in my affliction with their unceasing petitions and patronage, so I shall not even attempt it. Instead, I offer you some small fruit of the meditations on the Word granted me during these many months. Though we now see through a glass darkly, soon we shall see that Perfect Word Himself face to face. Therefore, I submit what follows in meek confession that in all my distress He was distressed and that the Angel of God’s Face has saved me (Isa. 63:9). …
Thus Stephen began his missive to his friends. Thus he introduced a meditation on the Angel of the Lord in Holy Scriptures. For the most part, what he wrote was published post-mortem in Higher Things. His understanding of the Word of the Lord was not one bit dimmed by his physical trials. He did not tire of preaching the Word. The Word is Christ and not any biblically warmed legalistic piety. Stephen would have no part of any variety of triumphalism. He did not deserve deliverance. The cross of Christ was his proclamation.
He returned home. He was tired, but the treatment seemed to have worked. He wanted to work. He was restless. He was impatient. He was petulant. He was back to his old self and maybe even a little more so. He would rail against legalism in all the forms he saw inflicting his church body.
He ranted against the idolatry of the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary. He wrote a brilliant denunciation against the same and it was published in the Shepherd Express. This, it must be admitted, was a sad example of casting pearls before hog-lovers, a rant that his audience would not understand.
It was what he could do.
His body rebelled against his efforts. The cancer returned. Or perhaps it had never left him. By 19 September we learned that there would be no further treatments.
On Saturday 20 September, I telephoned him. I called not knowing what to say and not looking forward to the awkwardness. Stephen knew what to say.
“Brother, I have a job for you,” he said immediately when the phone was given to him.
“What is that?”
“I want you to feed cigars and brandy to a dying reprobate.”
Stephen would have no awkwardness. Earlier there may have been a time when in his room at St. Mary’s Hospital overlooking all his East Side haunts he held my hand and pleaded for strength to face his dear wife and not weaken before his daughters. There was no time for self-pity now. He robbed the moment of its awkwardness. He had thought it all through before I called. He knew that he would be encouraging others with the sure and certain hope that he had by the grace of God. I, of course, felt ashamed that in my good health I could not give so courageous a voice to the faith we shared.
Stephen knew all the battles were lost and his victory was near.
He had been reading Job in the days before entering hospice. Eclectic to the end, he had been listening to the last recorded album of the recently deceased Johnny Cash. He lay on his couch and took some nourishment, took some pain medicine, and weakly received numerous visitors until it was too much and he entered hospice.
Then came the Feast of St. Michael.
The significance of the day was not lost on Stephen. The Reverend Peter Bender came and read the lessons, sang some hymns, and prayed. Pastor Bender brought with him a statue of St. Michael, armored, wings spread, trampling on the old evil foe, holding a spear at the throat of our accuser. The devil, defeated and still defiant, stared up at the Prince of our people, his fanged visage manifesting futile violent rage. Stephen had purchased this statue for the St. Michael Evangelical-Lutheran Mission, his peripatetic effort to do evangelism from an East Side coffee house in defiance of the Mission Board of the South Wisconsin District. Pastor Bender and his congregation had supported Stephen at that time. I doubt an account of Stephen’s steadfast faithfulness and this quixotic mission will be written. That the Lord blesses the preaching of His Word and the right administration of the Sacraments no one should doubt.
The statue was there, Pastor Bender having placed it at the table under the window where Stephen could see it from his bed. On Monday, Stephen could look from his bed and see the statue and the blue sky stretching over Lake Michigan.
The sensitive might wonder if this was an appropriate icon to place before the face of Stephen as he lay upon his deathbed. Would it not remind him of certain dark days when he struggled to continue to be faithful to his calling on the East Side? Would it not remind him of his days under the discipline of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod when he was slandered by the mission board, vilified by the so-called princes of the church, and left to preach to ever dwindling numbers of parishioners? Would not this statue, which he purchased to instruct and lead the faithful, remind him of a mission that he finally had to give up?
A nurse entered the room.
“What a nice statue,” she said.
His eyes were nearly closed – either from the medicine that gave him some succor or from the fatigue of the disease within no one knows – he said, “Yes, but do you know who it is?”
He was ready to tell her.
He was ready to tell her that it was St. Michael. He wanted to tell her about St. Michael and the Angel of the Lord. He wanted to run from one end of Scripture to the other and demonstrate to her that St. Michael and every other instance of the Angel of the Lord pointed us to the Second Person of the Trinity, to no one else but the pre-incarnate Son of God who is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
He wanted to preach.
“It is St. Michael,” she said.
He smiled, his eyes closed. He was tired. He could say no more. He smiled, she left and someone spoke in his ear, “You are still at it, aren’t you. Still preaching even here.” And he smiled.
Pastor Bender chuckled. Stephen was his good friend.
Someone said to Stephen, “Well, I see you are still up to your old tricks, Stephen. Here it is the first day of the South Wisconsin Pastors Conference and here you are tempting your brethren to play hooky.”
Father Bender mouthed, “I forgot,” with raised eyebrows. (He was unconvincing. He had no use for district pastors conferences.)
Stephen, with mock indignation that almost sounded effeminate, “I don’t know why you say that about me.” The joke was in the tone of voice and they laughed and Stephen smiled.
Donna, his faithful wife and mother of their daughters, Evangeline and Sophia, returned and Pastor Bender begged his leave.
Donna had been with Stephen in Minneapolis. She had nursed him at home on his return. She was his wife in good times and bad. She had taxied him about when the cancer seemed to be cured and he was simply too weak to drive himself. She would be by his side throughout the days in the hospice. No wife could be more devoted to her husband. In the last days there was little one could do for Stephen except give his faithful wife a little time away, to eat, get a change of clothes, or look after their daughters.
Throughout Monday afternoon and evening Stephen slept, spoke a little with anyone who visited and took some nourishment from his wife’s hand. By Tuesday the word had spread and more gathered about his bed. By Tuesday evening a congregation of brother pastors, parishioners, and family had gathered. The Lutheran Hymnal was passed out and a service of hymns began. Stephen with eyes closed moved his lips to the sing hymns.
There were words spoken to Stephen, heard by others that are not to be shared here. Thanksgiving for his counsel, his hearing of confession and the succor of absolution he gave in keeping with his Holy Office. He could still speak. He said simply, “You’re welcome.”
A prayer of thanksgiving was offered for his faithful preaching of the Word, even to this very time. He added his word to the prayer. He could barely be heard. He prayed for “felicitous expression …”. It was the last thing heard by many that would attend him through the days.
By Wednesday Stephen entered a deep sleep. A tube for palliative medicine was attached to a port in his chest. When he moved, it was taken to be an indication of discomfort, and it probably was. He would be given an extra dose of the medicine by the press of a button, which was probably good.
More people came.
The nurses indicated that there should be a limit to how many were let in the room. Tuesday night the hymn singing was a mixed blessing. No one could raise a voice against the singing of hymns in such a place. There were, however, others on the floor to consider.
On Wednesday morning the Reverend Kenneth Wieting prayed with Stephen the Commendation of the Dying. It was the only administration of this rite I know of, though there may have been others. In addition to Pastor Bender and Pastor Wieting, Pastor Gary Gehlbach, Pastor Aaron Koch, and of course his colleague and pastor the Reverend Karl Fabrizius attended to Stephen in his last days and heard his witness.
I am told that South Wisconsin District President Ronald Meyer visited on the morning of Saturday, 4 October. There may have been other clergy who visited. There is no numbering of lay people, as I have said at the beginning of this remembrance.
From Wednesday, 1 October, to Saturday, 4 October, Stephen slept. To my knowledge, he said nothing. Whatever movements he made were unconscious movements and I do not believe that anything for certain can be attributed to them. There was little, if any, indication of pain.
Stephen was a big man. Not tall, but broad through the shoulder with arms as big as a small man’s leg. He had a large head with hair that was thinning long before the chemotherapy did its work. He wore a full beard that was now thin and grey, giving even more prominence to his strong jawline and sharp chin.
On Saturday, 4 October, Fr. Fabrizius and a companion encouraged Donna to go and refresh herself at home. It was dark outside and the hospice, as was its practice, had the lights dimmed in the hallway.
Soon after Donna left, Stephen’s breathing became erratic and seemed to stop.
Fr. Fabrizius called for the nurse.
She touched Stephen and he revived. His heart was still bounding. She left.
Fr. Fabrizius called for his companion to read the Psalms.
“Where do I begin?”
“Anywhere,” Fr. Fabrizius stated firmly as he stood over Stephen, his hand on Stephen’s forehead in benediction, “they are all good. And I need to hear them.”
“Unless the Lord builds the house,” Psalm 127 was begun and read though.
“Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,” continued Psalm 128.
The reading went through 129.
The reader faltered, wiped his eyes and read Psalm 130.
Stephen struggled to breathe and did not breathe and breathed again.
The reader read on through Psalm 132. …
He looked at Psalm 133, “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” and he could not read.
He stopped reading.
Fr. Fabrizius looked only at Stephen. The reader reached out and touched Stephen’s chest. That strong heart was still.