Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“Mean Grace?” Via Flannery O’Connor

This week I’m making my way through Flannery O’Connor’s book of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge.  (The book’s title comes from the first story that appears in this series of O’Connor’s stories.)

Three stories in, I’m struck by a common crescendo that describes O’Connor’s stories: her characters seem in some ways hopelessly and depressingly damned to their own self-constructed prisons of prejudice, self-righteousness and self-absorption— until the very end of the story, when in one final, startling, apocalyptic moment, some life-changing revelation hits them just as they meet their death.

“I desire the things which will destroy me in the end,” another author, Sylvia Plath, wrote, and maybe the same could be said of O’Connor’s characters, too.  They seem only really to begin seeing life in living colors—the kind of rich, vivid hues that will set them free—upon tasting death.  But then it’s too late, at least for this life, for such discoveries to matter.  Someone once called this common form of plot resolution in O’Connor’s stories “mean grace,” and I’m inclined to agree the reference is apropos.

But it remains hard to say in these stories whether the characters’ discoveries, however painful or lethal they may be, actually constitute grace—and maybe this ambiguity is intentional.  Maybe O’Connor leaves the reader to discern for herself whether there is in fact grace to be found in the final dissolution of these seemingly hopeless but all-too-real characters.

What do you think? Have you read O’Connor’s stories? Do you have a favorite and why? And would you agree with the assessment that her story lines often end with “mean grace”?

 

Mental Health Break—Mindy Kaling, to Harvard Law Graduates

Mindy Kaling is the author of "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?," which can be found at Harvard Square's Urban Outfitters, right next to "The Marijuana Chef's Cookbook."

Mindy Kaling is the author of “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?,” which can be found at Harvard Square’s Urban Outfitters, right next to “The Marijuana Chef’s Cookbook.”

This week’s mental health break comes from Mindy Kaling’s Class Day speech to graduates of Harvard Law School.  In addition to its main point—that these fresh-faced graduates of Harvard Law have the opportunity to use their power for good and not for “evil”—Kaling’s spiel features some especially amusing remarks about her own alma mater Dartmouth, as well as a quick summary of Harvard’s other graduate schools (such as the div school, which Kaling concludes is for “weird virgins”).

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Insights from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt is author of "The Secret History" and "The Little Friend." Her latest novel, "The Goldfinch," is worth a read.

Donna Tartt is author of “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend.” Her latest novel, “The Goldfinch,” is worth a read.

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, all 776 pages of it, was beach reading this past week.  In addition to being one of those books that drips with brilliance on just about every page and is hard to put down, it brims with the kind of writing that, if you’re a bit of a writer yourself, makes you covetous of Tartt’s craft.

But what I found most fascinating about the book as it pertains to this intersection between life and God—and, not knowing a thing about Tartt’s religious or non-religious sympathies—is how Tartt touches on larger theological issues through the voice of her narrator, Theo, a boy who having grown up under the long shadow of family tragedy is a jumble of dysfunction.

In the plot, Theo survives some hair-razing adventures to be able to wax philosophically towards the end of the book about the meaning of life and death and questions about moral determinism as it relates to identity and to fate.  He concludes that we’re hard-wired to be who we are, whether that is bad or good, and that we ultimately can’t do much to deter ourselves from being who we were born to be:  “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth.  Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.  We can’t escape who we are.”  Depressing? Yes, although there’s something very much in keeping here with the apostle Paul’s own self-awareness in Romans that undergirds an explanation of what many Christians have since called “justification by faith”–”I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7).

But for Theo, with this realization of his own hard-wired nature comes a certain freedom, too—because as he has discovered in his own life, which when surveyed from afar might just appear as mere randomness, the bad stuff (that happens to him or that he does) can, in the turn of a dice, become the very best, good thing that could happen to him and for others, and vice versa: the seemingly good turn of events in his life can in the end be the worst thing that could happen.  Theo’s newly discovered freedom lies in letting go of an internal need to be good or bad or to have control of the plot—so that tragedies and bad stuff don’t happen.  Instead, he chooses to live in that “middle space,” as he calls it, which, as he defines it, is that place “between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality…a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love.”

And I would add, maybe not just love, but faith, hope and love together.  These are the qualities of a life lived out in the middle space, between a gaping chasm of despair and a hovering sky of “pure otherness,” right where “despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”  The folks who have learned that they don’t need to justify themselves—to find some sort of existential justification for the way they’ve turned out and for the hard-scrabble cruelty of fate that has made them do what they don’t want or want what they don’t do—live here.  In the middle.  “Justification by faith” might be another way to name it.  Theo’s transformation lies in his embrace of this middle distance:

“And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The seam between death and resurrection is a thin one, but it’s there, always beckoning to a new creation.  And maybe the best way to apprehend it (at least in this life) is to stand on the seam.  In the middle.

I guess I’m with Theo.

 

Mental Health Break—One Saint’s Admonitions for Living in Present

thereseSaint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), also known as “the Little Flower of Jesus,” was a French Carmelite nun who had wisdom beyond her years.  I stumbled across her reflections on living in the present in a little devotional I’ve been using lately, A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People:

If I did not simply live from one moment to the next, it would be impossible for me to keep my patience.  I can see only the present, I forget the past and I take good care not to think about the future.  We get discouraged and feel despair because we brood about the past and the future.  It is such folly to pass one’s time fretting, instead of resting quietly on the heart of Jesus.

 

What You Are Saying—On Piper’s “Masculine Christianity” and Evangelicals

One of the reasons I keep showing up at this intersection between life and God is you, your comments, your questions, and even in some cases, your downright infuriating remarks (which also keep me writing).

The other day Jan thanked me for my post on John Piper’s call for a “masculine Christianity.”  That post sparked some thoughts from Jan on the subject at her own wonderful blog here.  Jan thanks me for being “an inspired voice of compassion and inclusiveness for women and men together.”  (Thank you, Jan.  Your encouragement means a lot.)

Jan was not alone in leaving a comment to this post.  Tyler Loge has a very different take than Jan, and I’ll let his comment speak for itself.  The caps and misspellings are his, not mine:

YE ARE SO LOST AS OT IS SO VERY VERY CLEAR THAT WOMEN ARE NOT CALLED TO BE PASTORS NOR PRIEST ! WE ARE FAILING OUR CHILDREN BY WOMEN THAT DO THIS! BE A NUN ID YE WANT TO! MY MAMA WAS EVER BIT THE SWEET GENTAL LOVING CHRISTIAN MOTHER THAT COULD MINISTER ALL “FODS ” TEAVHINGS WITHOUT TRYING TO MEDDLE INTO JESUS CHRIST PLANS FOR ONLY MEN TO FULFILL! WHT ARE YE WOMEN SO AGAINST ALMIGHTY “GODS” LAW! NE A REAL MOTHER AN STAY HOME INSTEAD OF ALLOWING YE CHILD TO BE A ORPKEN IN ANOTHERS HOME WHILE YE TRY BEING A MAN ! BE A “LADY ! AN DO NOT WHAT MAN ON EARTH SAID < BUT AS JESUS CHRIST “FOD” ALMIGHTY SAID! LEAVE THE MEN BE MEN FOR THE HEAD OF THINGS ! AMEN & AMEN ! ++++++ <3 ++++++ YOULL COME TO SEE THIS FROM ALMIGHTY “GOD” IN THE END! AN SAY ALL YE PLEASE AN GET THE GEATHERS UP BUT IT WONT FAZE ME AS I GET MY IMFORMATION FROM ALMIGHTY “GOD” AN THE BLESSED BLOOD OF JESUS CHRIST! AMEN & AMEN !!!!!

And then, regarding Jan and me, who Tyler describes as a “liberal women,” Tyler writes:

BUT SHE COMPLEYELY WENT BY HER MADE LAWS AN EULES AN LEFT OUT “GODS” SO YE SEE I LOVE HAYS MORE THEN HER AS I MONISTER TO THEM NOT TO PRACTISE THAT EVIL SO THEY AS “GOD” SAID CAN GO TO HEAVEN ! THIS LIBERAL WOMEN SHOULD LOVE THERE SOULS TO AS WE DO ! AMEN AN AMEN ++++++ <3 ++++++

A more gratifying and enlightening exchange came from Michael in South Africa who writes:

I have just read your “About” page on beliefnet.com. I see that you have a similar missionary and evangelical family background to myself.

If this is too personal a question, or if you have already written about it, then please forgive me – I haven’t read any of your articles. 

I’m just wondering if you still hold to, or if you ever held to, the orthodox evangelical core beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, the Trinity, Heaven and Hell, etc?

I see that you say that you write for those who are seeking more. “More meaning and purpose. More truthfulness. More real and abundant life.” Would you say that these are found primarily in the Jesus of the Bible? 

I am not looking for a debate or anything, just a quick answer will be fine. Or no answer. I will make a point to start reading some of your articles. Any that you can recommend?

Thanks. Take care.

Michael

In response, I write the following:

Hi Michael,

Thanks so much for visiting Fellowship of Saints and Sinners and for sharing your question.  I’m curious, incidentally, where you grew up as an MK? [It turns out Michael's wife was the MK, having grown up in Zambia and Zimbabwe.]

Re: your question, I believe I essentially answer it in my book, Grace Sticks, which touches on my beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, heaven and hell, etc. (You can get it at a rock-bottom price right now on my publisher’s website, I believe, and all author proceeds will go to the Malala Fund.) :)

I think a fair way to describe my evolution is that I’ve gone from having a theological system that is quite closed to one that is quite open.  Does that mean that my current theology is less evangelical? It depends on how you’re using the term “evangelical” and what you mean by that.  I’d like to think that I’ve kept the very best of my evangelical background, in terms of the centrality of Christ, but have shelved the elements that were not spiritually life-giving.  If anything, maybe I’ve become more “catholic” in my appreciation for the long, broad precedent of church tradition, which thankfully extends far beyond the small hiccup of certain narrow-minded expressions of American evangelicalism that I have been privy to.  Such expressions, for example, take my ordination as a woman to be “unbiblical,” equate being a Christian with being a gun-wielding, capitalist Republican, etc…

Michael’s query has prompted both of us to ask what the term “evangelical” means, and I’m guessing there are multiple interpretations.  In fact, I’m inclined to do a series asking the question, “What is Evangelicalism?,” with a view to inviting readers to share some guest posts in response…is this something you’d be up for?  I’ve love to hear from you.

 

“Belief Without Borders”—The Importance of Wandering

The older I get the more I’m convinced wandering is essential to rest.  A soul that has come to rest has known what it means to wander.  And, God forbid that our souls should ever only rest and never wander in this life!  This would make us less than human.

Our souls can wander in so many ways:

…We sin by doing what we should not do and failing to do what we should do, and in turn “miss the mark” of God’s best for us.

…We grow distracted, and this distraction may be an extension of our propensity to sin.  “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, go the words of the old hymn.  Distractions are maybe more widespread, endemic and more perniciously marketed in today’s environment of capitalism on steroids than they ever have been in human history.  I can’t help but wonder if the current form of capitalism we’ve come to accept as par for the course, much like we accept that the sun comes up every morning, so extensively and reflexively measures human beings entirely in terms of what they can produce and consume, that today more than ever the challenge to live even just a bit outside of this system, or to refuse the lure of acquisition and material self-fulfillment, seems that much more radically unconventional.  On any given day I can find myself weaving through emails on my iPhone with the best intention of sending a note to someone in need, only to discover that Ann Taylor Loft is having another mind-blowing sale—they seem to have one every day now—and I become distracted.

…Finally, we test the boundaries of our belief systems where those boundaries have kept us from finding freedom and abundant life and from becoming fully human.  Here Linda Mercadante’s book Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious (Oxford University Press) offers precious insights.  The phenomenon that causes church growth gurus to tremble and is putting more and more church ministers out of work gives Mercadante occasion to express a cautious hopefulness that outward appearances are not the full story: between 1990 and 2010, the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has more than tripled, from 14 million to 46 million; and this translates as more and more Americans leaving church.  Does this mass departure from organized religion prophesy future generations of faithless, atheistic Americans for whom God, faith and spirituality are simply non-existent?  No, Mercadante maintains, based on more than 80 interviews with self-professed “Nones.”  On the contrary, Mercadante finds, as her reviewer Timothy Renick describes in a recent issue of The Christian Century, “that the typical none is neither a theological novice nor a moral relativist.”  Renick goes on to summarize Mercadante’s view like this: that “the very reason that many nones reject traditional religious affiliations is that they are theologically sophisticated and have a strong commitment to moral principles.”  Nones have rejected traditional religion because of its conflicts with modern science or because of bad versions of the atonement, such as the notion that God is a stern disciplinarian Father whose wrath requires the blood of His own son to be satisfied.

In the end, there is something hopeful here for fellow wanderers in this third category I am writing for.  They–we–are simply looking for the More we haven’t yet found, and the answer is not cleverer church growth tactics.  The answer is Someone who calls Himself The Way, The Truth and The Life and invites us to come along and see.

A Mother’s Day Tribute to Peggy Hight-Robb (a.k.a. “Grandmom Peggy”)

A few days ago my grandmother died. It’s poignantly fitting that “Grandmom Peggy” made her exit from this life just before Mother’s Day. She was after all a mother to six children.

I only quite recently discovered how much Grandmom Peggy genuinely loved kids. During occasional visits to the Rio Grande home that she designed, built and spent most of her life in, raising her children, she would insist on knowing who my children were and that they sit on her lap.  By that time (well into her mid eighties), Grandmom Peggy had begun to drift into that state unclouded by memories that once troubled her more than they needed to—she had been a life-long artist after all, prone to anxieties and intuitions—so her brief intervals with my children were spent in asking their names and being reminded that they were her great grandchildren. To which she would smile, as if something vaguely familiar had touched that distant shore where she spent most of her time now, maybe daydreaming in colors as vivid as those she once painted in soft brushstrokes in Georgia O’Keefe-like abstractions on canvases that seemed twice her size. (The Holy Spirit was among them. In luminous yellows and gushing blues.)

Towards the end of her life, Grandmom Peggy seemed often to be smiling.  Now that I think about it, I don’t think I actually ever heard Grandmom Peggy laugh, but her smiles were frequent in her last years. Big, guttural, unrestrained laughs were not her way. But that smile that in earlier days seemed tinged by a certain melancholy knowingness, and that in much younger days emitted the rare beauty and dignity of a Grace Kelly, was, towards the end, so often on her face—without the subtle casting of an implicit sadness I intuited as a child.

About two days before Grandmom Peggy unexpectedly slipped away in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 8, a memory of her having to endure my adolescent self came to me. One summer—as kids we often spent a week or two at a time here or there over the summer—we were sitting at the kitchen table (the same 1970′s white-lacquered ensemble that it is now and probably will be for a very long time); and we were enjoying (or trying to enjoy) one of the many creatively reinvented meals Grandmom would make, employing her artistry in the kitchen for better or worse.

That’s when we somehow found ourselves on the topic of children and childbearing. I, a boisterous teenager at the time, made known my strong views on the subject, clarifying for the record that I would “never ever” have children. Period. End of subject.  Grandmom Peggy begged to differ, with the result that we went back and forth in an argumentative volley of declarations.

Needless to say, she won—even if it never really was about winning or losing.  Years later, after the birth of my first child, Grandmom Peggy sent me a James Dobson book on parenting.  I kept it, but wrote a polite “thank you” note clarifying that Dobson would not be my role model for parenting.  (I didn’t hear back, maybe because Grandmom Peggy had learned long before me that life isn’t ultimately about winning and losing.)

Grandmom Peggy was also an avid lover of nature. Before it was popular or hip, and for as far back as I can remember, Grandmom Peggy was faithfully composting.  And she would take us on short trips to the mountains or to the zoo.  Then sometime during my later childhood she opened up a wing of her house to make it a sun room that she in turn populated with plants and with her eccentric parakeet Chico, her moody companion.  That sun room was, in addition to her art studio, where she spent much of her time: its spaciousness, vegetation and the warmth of the sun streaming through its windows were her cloister of sorts.

This past Christmas was my last with Grandmom Peggy.  In the years when she was still with us mentally, Grandmom Peggy’s favorite time was Christmas.  That was when all or most of her children and grandchildren would come home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and her roost would again be full with the chatter, laughter, drama and of course children that made Christmas so special.  My dad (Grandmom Peggy’s first child) knew this well, which is probably why I can remember numerous Christmastime car trips from Southern California to Albuquerque, New Mexico, punctuated by the occasional sibling spat or stop at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, at the end of which would be Grandmom Peggy to greet us always with great big, appreciative hugs and “Are you hungry?”  As far as I can remember, apart from one time when we intended to surprise her with a visit, Grandmom Peggy was always there— just as she was when it was time to leave.  In those times, too, she would be there, standing at the end of the long, dirt driveway leading to her house, her small figure framed by alfalfa fields and overhanging pinon trees, and she waving until our car was no longer in sight.

Grandmom Peggy believed in the Resurrection—that the same Holy Spirit that inspired her paintings over the years and gifted her with life and six children and many more grandchildren would resurrect her to life everlasting.  This same Spirit would some day reunite her with her husband of more than 65 years, who survives her, and the many family, both alive and dead, who she will meet some day in the Kingdom of God.  So it is not just with tears of sadness that I say “goodbye” to Grandmom Peggy, for I can’t help but take comfort in the hope that she’ll be there again to greet me at the end of another long driveway, this one leading to that House with many spacious, light-filled rooms.  And I can’t help but wonder if there I’ll find her painting and gardening and speaking to the birds.  Godspeed, Grandmom, until we meet again.

Mental Health Break—from “The Onion”

The other day at a local library book sale I stumbled upon a $1 copy of The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete News Archives. Needless to say, I bought it—and I’m now convinced that next to the Bible The Onion should be required reading for all Christians. Okay, I’m kidding. But seriously, it’s a great way to find yourself laughing on a weekday morning between making lunches, brushing teeth and scuttling kids out the door.

This morning’s headline read “Father Bitter That Son Has Everything He Never Had,” and the article itself is even funnier. I mean, what sort of brilliance does it take to come up with this stuff?

 

“Daybreak”— A Poem

This is a poem I wrote this morning. May your day be full of hope:

Daybreak

When the sound is birds,
and the harvest of night is gathering into
morning’s first blooms,
the silent prayer of the universe for every living, beating thing
stretches itself out across the plain of my heart in hope.

Maybe this is what He means when He says “even the stones will cry out.”

Faith from the Underside

Faith turned over to the side that doesn’t capture the light: the underbelly of trust in God—or is it distrust?—so often not shown.  At first glance, Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, Learning To Walk in the Dark, seems an exercise in gently poking at faith, like the study of some awkward specimen turned over under a microscope, helplessly squirming under the glare.

I love this about Taylor’s work. To paraphrase her own words in a local book signing appearance on Thursday, she is more interested in exploring the dimensions of human experience that can cause us to call into question long-cherished beliefs and theological moorings. Hers is an appeal as much to the so-called “Nones” who now number 1 in 5 Americans and 1 in 3 Americans under the age of 30, as it is to a shrinking church in North America now grappling with its own mortality and longing for More. (My own book Grace Sticks is written for just these sorts of “restless souls.”)

Before Learning To Walk in the Dark, there were Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, where the shedding of glib religious identity and answers becomes an invitation to become more fully human and more fully in love with this world. Darkness is the latest metaphor by which this gifted writer and preacher approaches the empty vortex of suffering, loss and evil, angling to review the lessons physical darkness can teach us and to put new flesh on the dry bones of old religious answers.

Hearing Barbara speak on Thursday was a breath of fresh air, challenging me, in a period of general ennui and distraction— “distraction from distraction by distraction,” as T.S. Eliot once put it, or maybe just that familiar sickness known as “writer’s block”— to keep writing about the underside of Christian faith.

 

 

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