A blog entry here two and a half years ago (January 2016) discussed a phase I was in of reading Marilynn Robinson books. The phase is currently being revisited because my reading buddy, Linda, and I have taken up Gilead—we’re both reading it and will spend some time talking about it.
Robinson’s gift as an author is not plot, nor setting, nor pacing, but rather characterization. Her key characters are deeply drawn to the extent that they become unforgettable. This is true mostly of the characters who actually appear on the page as part of the story (the pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, for example), but also of a few who appear only in the memories of the key players.
Through John Ames’s memories, we come to know his grandfather pretty well, a difficult man long gone from the world but one who left his mark on his family and his church. No matter how dire a situation the old man faced—including the loss of an eye in wartime—he was inclined to remark: “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” How can you not love a character who makes such a statement his approach to life?
Gilead is a love story, of sorts, but much more it is a working out of one man’s theology and fortunately he is quite ready to admit when he’s in over his head. One of a great many lines I’ve marked is this one: “… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”
Anne Lamott, in her 2012 short book Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, offers this comment on grace: “But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.”
Grace is commonly defined as an undeserved gift from God. Lamott’s observation suggests that God, as the giver, always has a better idea than we do about what kind of grace we need. We may think we need clarity and resolution, but God gives us stamina and the strength to continue. We may think we need a different job than the horrid one we have now, but God gives us the patience and fortitude to manage to stay where we are a little longer and “bloom where we’re planted.” We may think we’d like a change in something fundamental about our partner, but, if we’re really fortunate, what we get is the grace to change something fundamental in ourselves.
Today, look at the second winds you’ve received in your life and take a moment for gratitude that God is in charge of grace and is a whole lot more astute than we are.
A friend in Indiana pointed me to the books of Richard Paul Evans, who is a skilled storyteller in the inspirational genre. I hadn’t read his work before, but he’s published a lot for a guy who is only 52.
I picked up his novel The Road to Grace at the library. The title page notes that this is the third journal of The Walk series. I’m sure I’ll look for more from him.
The story is about a man, a once-successful advertising executive, who has suddenly lost everything of value to him: his wife from complications following a riding accident, his business through the deceit of his business partner, and finally his home through foreclosure. He sets off on a cross-country journey on foot with nothing more than a backpack. Among the people he encounters is his mother-in-law, who follows him unrelentingly until she finally obtains his forgiveness.
The character has numerous insights along the way, and the one that has most remained with me has to do (as you might expect) with grace. Evans writes: “Grace sustains us on our journeys, no matter how perilous they may be and, make no mistake, they are all perilous. We need not hope for grace, we merely need to open our eyes to its abundance.”
The Bible repeatedly defines grace as God’s unmerited favor. We can’t possibly earn it, but it is there for the mere accepting of it.
One of the goals of everyday spirituality is figuring out how to live with grace, courage, and hope—no matter what life is handing you at the moment, even in the face of the most difficult situations. Fortunate are the people who have managed to identify for themselves the elements or thought patterns by which they can remain positive and strong.
The book Not Even My Nameby Thea Halo offers this kind of perspective. For more than its first half, the book is often not an easy read because of the appalling, sometimes even atrocious, circumstances of the life of a young Greek girl named Themía. Most of her family members are annihilated, and the reader often wonders how she herself can survive.
But at the end of the book, when she has nothing from her original life except scars—not even her name—she is able to tell her daughter: “even in my darkest hours, I need only watch a flower tilt its lovely face to drink the rain, or hear my children laughing, to know that life is good. Breath is God’s gift. Life is our reward. The rest is up to us.”
This true story, which is not intended to be a story about spirituality, has a lot to teach about enduring faith.
One of the evidences that spirituality is an “everyday” thing is how frequently spiritual or religious references show up in our culture.
I happened to see the 2006 movie Freedomland recently. The link will take you to a Wikipedia page that explains the plot. In brief, a young boy is missing, then found dead. Accusations are made against innocent people until the tragic truth is discovered. The lead characters are Julianne Moore as the boy’s mother and Samuel L. Jackson as the police detective. When the detective visits the boy’s mother in prison, he reflects upon his own personal history and tells her: “God’s grace is sorta like retroactive.”
What he means by this is that God’s grace has touched his life, giving him a chance to make up for past failures. That he can recognize this in his own life suggests that the same grace is available to her.
Even for people (like all of us) who have made mistakes, done things for which they have difficulty forgiving themselves, entrapped themselves in spirals of guilt and regret, God’s grace is available. It’s present; it’s future; it’s even retroactive. And if we think that our mistakes reveal our weaknesses, all the better.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes of asking God to rid him of a particular torment, a thorn in his flesh, but in response to his pleading, God said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (NIV). The Amplified text spells it out more clearly: “My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:9]
Our only role when it comes to God’s grace is to accept it.