My Donkey Body

It’s a small world, sometimes. Last weekend Fiona and I were camped in the shearers quarters at Lake Menindee, together with the members of Saltbush Church from Broken Hill. We hadn’t been there before and it’s quite a while since we were anywhere so remote. Over breakfast I met John Wenham, and I jokingly said that I had a few books written by him at home. Turns out that I had read books by his grandfather of the same name, also a few by his dad, and a couple by one of his uncles. I’ve since read a book by another of his uncles, Michael Wenham, called My Donkey Body: Living with a body that no longer obeys you. Wow, so many books in one family!

donkeyMy Donkey Body recounts Michael Wenham’s journey with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). If you’re unfamiliar with this disease, think Stephen Hawking. The motor neurones that transmit instructions from the brain to the muscles deteriorate and cannot replace themselves. The brain keeps working but it becomes unable to get messages to the muscles to do their work. The person becomes more and more debilitated and eventually the muscles that keep you alive stop working. MND is a terminal illness and there is currently no known cure.

Michael Wenham is a Christian, who tells his story of discovering and living with this disease from the perspective of faith. My Donkey Body is a sad, gripping, and often humorous account of one man, together with his wife and family, coming to grips with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality. As a preacher, whose voice was his tool of trade, he recounts what it’s like to lose control over your vocal muscles. He shares about the humiliation of being picked up out of the gutter by strangers and relying on his wife to wipe his backside. There’s nothing romantic about MND.

I checked with Google and discovered that Wenham continues to blog, write articles, and he has done some very moving video interviews. Wenham has now been living with this disease for many years. While his physical abilities have declined, his mind has remained sharp. He engages with real issues of relationships, health, religion, dependence, living and dying. Wenham has engaged with Stephen Hawking and provided informed and sympathetic rebuttals to Hawking’s dismissive critiques of any afterlife. He has written against legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill like himself.  He opposes the creation of human stem cells for the purpose of experimentation, even if it should provide the cure for MND. His arguments aren’t a bigoted bias toward regressive religion over against progressive science. Rather, they arise from one who knows suffering and mortality, but who deeply respects that all persons are made in God’s image. He demonstrates powerfully that people are not valuable according to their utility and value to society (however that might be measured), but because God has made them human. Every person matters.

Wenham argues for the importance of knowing God and having faith in God’s power and goodness. He’s prepared to ask the hard questions and admits to not having all the answers. Being a Christian doesn’t take away the pain or the suffering. He argues with CS Lewis:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.
(quoting CS Lewis A Grief Observed p23) in My Donkey Body p128

I am grateful that Michael Wenham took the time and made the effort to share his thoughts. Much of this book resonates with my experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis, coping with physical and mental pain, losing things that have shaped my identity, and asking questions of faith and doubt. Yet my circumstances have taken a turn for the better. Many of my disabilities have been replaced by renewed abilities. And that brings it’s own dangers and threats—especially the risk of forgetting how much I need God.

There is something about weakness that drives us back to our Father in heaven. I need to be reminded that this life is a gift from God. Every day is a day for rejoicing. Nothing should be taken for granted. The less I remember my dependence on God, the bigger an ass I become.

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10 thoughts on “My Donkey Body”

  1. What an encouraging read.
    MND is an overpowering disease in many ways, but so sobering and confronting to read of the courage God has given this man.
    Not to forget the journey you have had health wise. It’s too easy to forget God’s love and grace when things are ok. So a good reminder to me to continue to “ watch and pray”!

  2. Hi Dave,

    Boy you get around. Remarkable how many books are written within that family line. I appreciate the review as I am unable to read books anymore and for over a decade or more but I get a feeling for it and some of the key points.

    My Donkey Body. I can relate to that as well. I cannot imagine having MND and coping with that level of disability. This level is hard enough. You said there were some good interviews with him. Do you have links to the ones you referred too?

    Also what is the ethical problem with stem cells. Are they only able to be harvested from baby embryos? Is that the objection?

    Thanks for taking the time to review the books you read as I benefit from them.

    1. From Megan Best:

      “Now many people are confused about stem cells because they don’t realise there are two types, depending on from where they are collected. Firstly there are embryonic stem cells, collected from the inner cell mass of a six day old blastocyst, a process which kills the embryo.

      The second category is adult stem cells, a slightly confusing term as they are collected not just from adults, but also children, placenta, cord blood, in fact any source other than embryos. The harvest of these stem cells does not cause any lasting damage to the person from whom they are collected.”

      https://www.publicchristianity.org/stem-cell-research-whats-the-big-deal/

  3. HI Macca,
    Thank you for your review on this book. Based on your wise words I’ve just ordered this book online as well as the book “Remember” which you’d also recommended. I too am fighting the good but hard fight, trying and hoping I can live beyond a grim cancer diagnosis. I need to live, as I’m a mum of primary school children and I need to be here to love and nurture them.
    I’ve not stepped foot into a church for over 25 years, but felt an urge to go in the past 2 months. So have been attending and trying to talk and pray to God. I wonder where does faith come from? How does one develop faith? How do you go from a position of no faith to one of concrete faith? I’m not sure. But I’ll keep reading, searching and seeking. And listening. Thank you for your blog. X

    1. G’day Lee n Dave – Lee take it from someone who has a terminal cancer illness, Macca’s book “Hope Beyond a Cure” ticks all the boxes. It gives such a great overview of our Christian belief and covers much of what occurs when one’s faith clashes headlong with their mortality. I have now purchased several copies and have given them away to a variety of people facing a similar diagnosis. Come 2 1/2 years post diagnosis, I’m still here, back doing some part time work and giving all my thanks to my Creator and his hand over modern medication.
      Hang in there and hope and pray for your healing and that you’ll make it back into a church soon, best wishes, Steve

  4. I am delighted that you and Fiona have at last had the opportunity to visit Broken Hill. It is a beautiful part of Australia which I was privileged to visit on several occasions, initially to difficult and stressful pastoral contexts, but also meeting wonderful people reflecting the grace and love of God in word and deed. I remember the later occasions when you mother and I travelled with the caravan to those parts with the vast openness, the distant horizon demonstrating the curvature of the earth, the brilliance of the stars in the night sky and on the ground the brilliance of the colours of the native wildflowers, for it was springtime on one of those visits,

    Visits to Menindee and its then dry lakes, to Silverton, and to other places brought together history, geography, art, culture, politics and human struggle, We learned, too, of missionary endeavour and Christian outreach in the remotest of settings. It is over ten years since I last visited, learning something of and sharing the ministry of the Flying Patrol Padre. I hope you will have occasion to visit again; there is much to experience.

    I am struck by the sub-title of Wenham’s book ‘Living with a body that no longer obeys you’. This is a issue that should resonate with all of us. Not that all of us know the experience of MND that Wenham so openly speaks about, or your own journey, even though we have journeyed closely with you. Yet each of us is faced at some point “with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality”.

    The illnesses experienced by a close friend in recent years has led to neuropathy and significant restrictions to many aspects of his former life. You have witnessed my own unsteadiness and lack of response in some of the previously enjoyed aspects of life (i am appreciating your gift as I somewhat unsteadily walk about this beautiful city of Ottawa.)

    You are grateful for Michael Wenham’s words, and so am i, though I have yet to read the book. I am also grateful for your writing, highlighting issues which face each one of us, not only in weakness and the terminal times and circumstances, but in the everyday and in those occasions of perceived strength wnen, as you say. we may be inclined to behave like an ass.

    And so I sing “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

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