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On his birthday, Bruce Kramer contemplates faith

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Bruce Kramer
Ev Emerson holds a hymnal so that both she and her husband Bruce Kramer can see the music Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Edina. Kramer was diagnosed with ALS in December, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Editor's note: This is part of our continuing series of stories about Bruce Kramer, the former dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas, as he copes with life after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. You can read all the stories in the series by clicking here.

Today is Bruce Kramer's birthday. And for some like him, with a terminal illness, birthdays can take on special meanings: Tangible evidence that they are still here, yet also milestones on a dwindling journey. For Kramer, that journey is spiritual.

His birthday coincides with this season of Lent, and for Christians it's a time of introspection. Kramer and his wife Ev have been contemplating life, death and God, often during services at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church in Edina.

Kramer spoke again with Morning Edition's Cathy Wurzer. Interview highlights are below. 

Bruce Kramer: "I wasn't always a believer in God. If you're talking about the benevolent God sitting on the throne, throwing lightning bolts down and things like that...no. That just seems too human to me. I recognize that there is something so much greater than who I am. There is something so much greater than our humanity, and every once in a while I get to touch it."

Cathy Wurzer: Kramer was choir director at Good Samaritan until June 2009. Now he and his wife enjoy the choir from a pew at Sunday services.

Kramer: "I love to sing the old songs, and I can't sing them anymore. I don't have the voice for it, the way I used to.  I loved to sing the old songs. Now I try to hang in there with them. And I think if you were to ask Ev, she would tell you that invariably, by the time you get to verse three, where everybody else is thinking, "Oh man, we're on verse three of an eight verse hymn," there's a line that will hit me and I'll cry. So I think I go to church to cry. There is this channeling of pain and joy all at the same time."

Wurzer: "There are some people who have a very serious illness, a terminal illness, that often prompts self-examination of one's spiritual beliefs. Some people turn away. For other people, their faith becomes stronger for them. So I'm curious about your process. It sounds to me as if some of your spiritual beliefs have been made stronger by what you're going through. Is that an accurate read?"

Kramer: "No. I mean, it's a good story line though. I don't feel that my faith is any stronger than it was two years ago, three years ago, or five years ago. What I do feel is that I've been offered glimpses of a different way of seeing the world. This is going to sound a little corny, but you know what really strikes me is the great power here is love. It's love. The tears and the laughter and the time that I share, that I get to share now because I can see this freight train coming right at me and so do my friends and so does my family. So it causes us to be far more expressive of the love that we have, of the love that we feel. It's not like that love is any greater than it was two years ago before I was diagnosed, it's just it's all out in the open now. And I feel this way about my faith. It's the fact that having the ALS doesn't really strengthen it, it doesn't really weaken it, but it puts it out in the open."    Wurzer: "Do you have conversations with God about, 'Look God, why me? Why am I suffering? What is it about this that I need to learn?"

Kramer: "Why would I do that? Some people do. I just don't feel like I am in any more of a special place. And I think that it is very human of us to take this personally. But the fact of the matter is, if you really look around and you take in the experience of being human, there are two things you can count on. And I'm not going to say taxes. But death is coming ...I have ample proof that there is something greater than me. It sits in my existence every day. I'm not saying that ALS is a god, but ALS is certainly proof that there's something greater than me and ALS is certainly proof that human beings just aren't the end all and be all now are we?"

Wurzer: For Kramer and his wife, the time spent at a church service goes beyond the fellowship to something much deeper.

Kramer: "Even if it's not well stated, there's always something that strikes me and the thing that struck me today was the fourth verse of the last hymn. There's this question of when we're tempted in the desert and I'm tempted all the time. I'm tempted to throw off what I'm learning. I'm tempted to be bitter. I'm tempted to be upset, tempted to be mean spirited and angry about it and it reminds me I don't have to be. And so do I believe in God? Yes. Do I know what that means? No. Do I believe in eternity? Yes. Do I know what that means? No. But I find great comfort in this, in having this opportunity to engage that way. And to hear it, in a beautifully turned phrase, to see it in the sunrise this morning - oh, my gosh. You know, I go back to this idea of healing. I have no expectation that physically I am going to heal. That physically I've got a chance to heal. What I do have an expectation of is that my soul and my spirit and my heart will continue to grow. And will continue to find a meaningful life. Until I die."

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You can read all the stories in this series by clicking here.