By Nancy Jo Sullivan
It's not hard to imagine Nancy Jo Sullivan's homespun stories being quietly read by fellow-Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, his sonorous baritone quietly transforming Sullivan's printed words into mellifluous megahertz. Sullivan's style is very much "Prairie Home Companion" material: filled with Midwestern, Bible-believing white folk, at once winsome and poignant, uplifting and heartbreaking. But where Keillor lets each of his segments rise to a laugh, or at worst a sigh, "Moments of Grace" doesn't shy from darkness.
In Sullivan's book, we meet the author herself, who writes of the everyday struggles that accompany the roles of wife and mother, as well as some extraordinary challenges, too. Sullivan is the mother of a Down's syndrome child. She thus knows firsthand the pain and disappointment that accompany such situations. Of her daughter Sarah she writes, "Because of her, I had learned how to hold onto the hand of God; the strong steady hand that guides us through our unexpected losses, the gentle hand which lovingly twirls us to the other side of our broken dreams. On that other side I had discovered, much to my delight, the irrepressible blessings of surrender and acceptance; I had uncovered the wondrous plan of God." Sullivan writes with unflinching honesty of her frustrations and anger, resentments and discontents, and also of how God has lovingly taught her humility and patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. In these divine lessons we, too, are invited to participate in God's grace.
Sullivan avoids the temptations of solipsism, spinning yarns not just about her own tribulations, but also the stories of family and friends: her father-in-law's experience as a POW in World War II, a friend's survival of a church shooting in Texas, her uncle's ministry to the poor, an employee's loss of family members in a tornado. In describing the aftermath of that tornado, the narrator recalls, "That night, my family and I stayed at the home of a pastor who lived in town. As I lay on the floor in a sleeping bag next to my parents' bed, trying to get some rest, I heard my father sobbing. I found it hard to understand the tragedy that had come to us. In all, seven died, three were members of my family. I grieved most for my sister Becky. Why had God taken her? She was so vulnerable. I felt guilty for the way I had treated her." Beneath this simple prose and vivid imagery is an attempt to tackle perhaps the most terrible question all humans must at one time or another face: If God loves us, why do we suffer?
Sullivan's response throughout the book is one I have heard many times before, particularly when I served as a chaplain intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Simply put, it's the belief that God has a plan, and that people suffer for a reason, but in the words of St. Paul, "all things work together for good for those who love God" (Romans 8:28, NRSV).
Sullivan seems to interpret Paul's comforting words in a troubling way to me: God has God's own "reasons" for inflicting pain and suffering. However, I believe God never wills or inflicts pain or suffering upon us. As imperfect humans in an imperfect and fallen world, suffering happens as a matter of course, and I tend to believe it often happens randomly, without divine direction. But when evil does strike, I believe God acts speedily to redeem the suffering, to comfort the afflicted and heal the brokenhearted. Perhaps the greatest barrier to God's redeeming and healing grace is our own willfulness, our inability to accept unconditional love. It is only in this sense that I can believe there's any truth to someone saying "God has a plan." God never has a plan for people to suffer--not even God's own Son--but that when we suffer, God has a heavenly Crisis Response Plan, as God had in raising Christ Jesus from the dead, and that plan is called salvation.
Whether you resonate or not with the author's apparent take on suffering, these stories are well worth the reading, particularly as private or family devotions. As an elementary-school chaplain and middle-school English teacher, I can also imagine using these anecdotes (appropriately attributed, of course) in my chapel talks, or reading them as morning meditations in homeroom. Any pastor or lay leader would find them accessible yet challenging, heartwarming and stimulating to the mind. Parents could easily use these stories as conversation-starters with their children.For anyone looking for solid, down-to-earth ways of living out a life of faith and experiencing God's grace in the mundane, this book is worth delving into. However, if you are by nature an unsentimental or pathologically analytical person, this book is probably not for you.