Gilead, Re-visited

Recently I was approached by a woman who was reading, or attempting to do so, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead for a book discussion group. The group had chosen the book upon my recommendation, so her considerable frustration with the book was focused on me.

“Tell me why it is you are making me read Gilead.”

“I’m not making you read it.”

“I know. But you must have some reason for recommending it, something we’re supposed to see in it. But I’m just not seeing it.”

Her conclusion was that she was simply too stupid to ‘get’ it which, obvious to all who know her, is by no means the case. I suggested she stop reading something she doesn’t enjoy, but she is of that stock that will plow to the end of the row no matter how many stones lie in the path.

I have yet to hear whether she has completed it. But the conversation raised a good question. Why would I recommend this book? Since I was nearing the end of my own (second!) reading, I was in a place to consider it.

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Gilead

Gilead is the name of a small town in Iowa, the home of the Reverend John Ames, the elderly pastor of the local Congregational church, a church served previously by his father and his grandfather. Though in his 70s, Rev. Ames has a seven year-old son, his only child. He knows that his time with his son will be brief and not like that of other fathers. He sets out, therefore, to write a letter to convey something of his heart and history to a son with whom his time will be short. The book is this letter.

This father’s desire is to say to his son what needs saying. He wants to give him not only a sense of his history, but some direction for his future. He recounts stories, and sometimes personal or theological reflections on those stories. Through it, Rev. Ames wishes to honor and bless his son and leave him an enduring legacy.

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Great books invite multiple visits yielding fresh treasures with each visit. Gilead does not disappoint.

My first reading impressed me with wonder at the care and sensitivity with which the author, a lay female, had drawn the character of her protagonist, a male pastor. [I commented on that first reading here.] She sketches him with insight and care neither magnifying his weaknesses nor obscuring his sins. In John Ames, we see reflected the best that can be said for those whose desire it is to care for the souls of others while trying to make sense of his own. In him I see those many I’ve been privileged to know and observe, pastors rarely noticed by the world they faithfully serve.

When the spotlight normally falls on pastors, it is because of their exceptional gifts or prodigious foolishness. The ordinary faithful and flawed pastor (of which there are many) goes largely unnoticed. To find a pastor so sympathetically and accurately portrayed in a novel so widely acclaimed is a wonder which alone makes reading the book worthwhile. It gives honor to countless men and women who quietly and faithfully serve Christ in such undramatic but substantive ways.

My second reading, however, has pushed the impressions of the first to the side. Larger themes, noticed but unconsidered in the first reading, have emerged. The book brims with reflections on fathers and sons and the relationship between them. How do older generations bless the younger? Or, as it may sometimes be, curse them? How do younger generations genuinely honor the older? How can the powerful impact of the generations be navigated so as to possibly maximize blessing? Good art raises and rarely answers questions. Fiction creates a parallel world by which we can measure our own.

The book also addresses the struggle between belief and doubt. Faith is never taken for granted or shown to be an easy thing. Doubt wells up with differing levels of intensity in different characters. Are some of us meant to believe and others meant not to believe? Do we freely choose belief and unbelief? Pastor Ames wrestles with his faith mightily and is troubled by the doubts of others, particularly his friend’s son Jack. In Jack, he sees an inverse reflection of himself, and it troubles him.

Fathers, sons, faith, doubt, and through it all grace. Grace displayed, lived out, and, sometimes, rejected.

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Robinson Marilynne

Huckleberry Finn introduces the novel titled after him by threatening to shoot anyone trying to find a plot in the book. Those attempting to find a plot in Gilead might wish to shoot the author. The plot is revealed in a non-linear fashion. A story is told of a life well-lived, intersecting and impacting the lives of others in a profound way. There is conflict; there is climax; there is resolution. It develops slowly and erratically and is meant to be savored, not devoured. First one, and then another character is illuminated, as then, in their reflection, are we. And that is good.

Or it can be.

I’m glad that my friend is diligent and will finish the book. I hope she grows as fond of the Reverend John Ames, and of his creator, as I have. I hope she thanks me for ‘making’ her read it.

Faith Anchored by Heaviness

As a pastor, of all the characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress I’m drawn especially to the faithful and fearless Mr. Greatheart. Mr. Greatheart was a guide guiding pilgrims from the City of Destruction to their hoped for arrival at the Celestial City.

He was, that is, a pastor.

Mr. Greatheart would guide people of every disposition. Those who made that journey were not only men of strength, such as Hopeful and Christian and Faithful, but also Mr. Little-faith, Much-Afraid, Mr. Despondency, and Mr. Ready-to-Halt. Pastors come alongside many people for whom the journey is long and hard and difficult. That is what a congregation looks like.

One of those struggling pilgrims was one Mr. Fearing. A cloud of darkness clung to Mr. Fearing, but Mr. Greatheart hung with him and saw him to his destination. In talking about him afterwards with Mr. Honest, Mr. Greatheart makes some thoughtful observations regarding those for whom such darkness is close companion.

Honest: But what should be the reason that such a good man should be all his days so much in the dark?

Great-heart: There are two sorts of reasons for it; one is, The wise God will have it so, some must pipe, and some must weep: Now Mr. Fearing was one that played upon this bass. He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other musick are; though indeed some say, the bass is the ground of musick: And for my part, I care not at all for that profession, that begins not in heaviness of mind. The first string that the musician usually touches, is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune; God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself. Only here was the imperfection of Mr. Fearing, he could play upon no other musick but this, till towards his latter end.

Heaviness of mind, depth of thought, even depression, adds a weight and solemnity to one’s profession of faith that holds it steady through much struggle. Too often, of course, as with Mr. Fearing, that is the only note we learn to play.

Safe Doubt

Rob Edenfield preached a helpful sermon on doubt this past Sunday at the church I pastor. The reaction to the sermon has shown that many are fearful of sharing their doubts and others (happily) surprised to find out they were not the only ones struggling with doubt. Doubt is real, and real to all honest Christians. Tim Keller has noted that “a faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” (The Reason for God, page xvi) It’s good to be aware of and to admit our doubts.

But often we do not express our doubts because we are fearful of how others will receive us if they know we are struggling. To ponder how to respond to those giving honest expression to their doubt is a helpful exercise. To that end, I shared with our community group this anecdote from Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, the daughter of noted apologist for the Christian faith, Francis Schaeffer. This story has always been immensely helpful to me. I share it here hoping it will be the same for all of us as we welcome doubt among us.

I started the process of thinking through my beliefs almost accidentally, when I was eleven years old, growing up in Switzerland. What touched it off was a squabble with my two sisters, Debby and Priscilla. We had nearly finished weeding the family vegetable garden, and we were hot, tired, and crabby. As I grew more and more obnoxious in my side of our argument, one of my sisters piped up and said that I wasn’t being a very good Christian example to any villagers passing by.

Without thinking, I said the most shocking thing that came into my head — pretty shocking, at least, when your father is a minister. “Well, I’m not a Christian anyway!” I yelled. “I don’t believe any of it!”
I was received with the dramatic reaction I’d wanted: shocked silence.

As we picked up our hoes and walked down the mountain path toward our home, I suddenly felt a tingle of fear creep up my spine. Inside, I had the dizzy sensation of standing on the edge of a dangerous cliff. I had said that I wasn’t a Christian because I’d wanted to shock Debby and Priscilla. But now I wondered: Did I really believe in God? Was the Bible true? Did I have reasons to think so, or had I just blindly accepted what my parents had told me?

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. I had loved this God of the Bible since I had been tiny. Now all that I’d heard about his teachings and his love seemed to be turning to ashes in my hand.

At the supper table, Priscilla announced, “Susan says she isn’t a Christian.”

By then I didn’t feel like denying her words, even though I could see that my mother looked sad. I was sad, too, for I felt as if I had lost God and his love. I wasn’t sure that there even was a God.

But I was also determined. I couldn’t believe in fairy tales! I had to grow up.

That easily could have been my last day of knowing God was there, and that I was safe in the order he had provided. It could have been the death of my faith.

Or it could have been the end of my progress into thinking as an adult. All it would have taken was a comment like, “Of course you’re a Christian, Susan,” or, “You’re only eleven; you don’t know what you’re saying,” or, “Don’t be foolish — it’s obvious that the Bible is true.’

But something else happened instead. That night when I was ready for bed, alone and quiet in my room, my father came in.

“Let’s talk, Susan,” he said seriously. “Tell me why you said you are no longer a Christian.”

I confessed that I’d first said the words because I was mad. “But as soon as I said it, I was scared,” I explained. “I can’t call myself a Christian! All this time, I’ve only believed it because you and mother told me about it. Now I’ll have to wait and see if it’s true or not. Maybe the other religions are true. Or maybe there isn’t even a God at all!”

There was a moment of silence. I still remember the quiet, friendly companionship in the atmosphere when my dad finally answered me. “Susan,” he said, “those are good questions. I’m glad you’ve asked them.”

What a relief! That dizzy, lonely feeling left me. It was OK to ask questions! It was important for me to find out for myself if what I’d believed was true.

As we talked that night, I discovered that my dad had asked these same questions about God in his own search for answers. Dad opened the door for me into a new adventure. He said that I didn’t have to go through life with a blindfold on my mind to believe in God, merely clinging to hopes and feelings. Neither did I have to throw my beliefs out the window.

If something is true, he explained, you can look at it hard, and think about it, and compare it with other beliefs, and it will stand. It will be reliable.

I decided to do just that.

[From How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig, pages 15-17.]

The full sermon will be found here when posted.

One Foot on a Banana Peel and the Other in the (Empty!) Grave

Winston Churchill, not unlike many who have a Bible on their nightstands, found Christianity implausible. According to biographers William Manchester and Paul Reid,

”[Churchill] found no reward in theological exercises. He subscribed to the Christian values of mercy and forgiveness, but his beliefs were not dictated by doctrine, and certainly not by clerics. …he rejected the carrot and stick of heaven and hell. The idea of an afterlife was not much more than an afterthought for Churchill, and one he considered equivalent to a belief in ghosts and goblins.” (The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, page 18)

There are times and senses in which I find his casual dismissal of the supernatural attractive. It seems so easy. So defensible in a modern world.

Illusionist Penn Jillette is no mild agnostic like Churchill, but an aggressive atheist, snarkily and proudly evangelizing for unbelief. When asked what book on religion he would have every college freshman read, he responds,

”The Bible — cover to cover, without someone alibiing it. Just read it. Nothing will turn you into an atheist faster.”

Though he’s trying to be surprising and shocking, I’ve read the Bible enough times to know where he’s coming from. There are parts that are troubling and without clarification hard to understand and to fit into an agreeable picture of the world and of God.

French Philosopher Luc Ferry unlike the two above finds Christianity wonderfully attractive, and would love to believe. But he finds that he can’t.

”I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity – provided, that is, if you are a believer… were it to be true, I would certainly be a taker.” (A Brief History of Thought, pages 261, 263)

Why have I, in contrast to even a willing would be believer, like Luc Ferry, come to believe, when there are plausible and at times attractive alternatives? What’s wrong (or right!) with me? The question drives me in two directions.

The first is the humbling conclusion that if I believe I do so because, in fact, God has enabled me to believe. The description of the conversion of the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of scales falling from his eyes. What was true but could not be seen was made visible.

That faith is a gift comes with its own barrel full of philosophical questions, but it is clear that this is what the Bible teaches. I can’t answer why faith is granted to me and not to Luc Ferry. But to be where one says ‘Why me?’ is to be in a place where pride has a harder time growing.

With the scales removed, though, what do I see? I see Jesus – a person so attractive in person, teaching, and work that I want to be with him and to be what he wants me to be. I fail, of course, but I can’t deny the attraction. I am drawn not to doctrine, but to a person I want to follow.

But perhaps the stories of Jesus are largely fabrications? The evidence against this suggestion is quite strong and the central feature of Jesus’ life and work is impregnable: Jesus was not only a powerful and attractive person, he is one who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.

When the waves of doubt lap at my feet and when questions arise for which I don’t have the answers, I’m reminded again and again that Jesus was raised from the dead. As Steve Brown put it to me last Easter,

“A dead man got out of a grave and said we could too. That changes everything.”

Apart from the empty tomb, I am lost. I don’t merely BELIEVE in the resurrection; I cling to it as a drowning man might to the last thing floating.

And I am not alone in this. Paul clung to this as well:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17)

The man who first told me about a church that would become my first pastorate said that it had “one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave”. It was not meant as a compliment.

With a small variation, however, it nails me. Though I always seem to have one foot in slippery places, the other, thankfully, is anchored solidly in the empty grave of Jesus.

Dr. Jeremiah, Reprise

Thoughts this week have been driven by a desire to see the hope of Christ rekindled in those for whom it has burned dimly, that as we come to the celebration of Easter we might indeed be renewed in the joy of life given by the life of Him raised from the grave.

These thoughts lead me to a post made a couple of years ago. I repost it here for the sake of those who struggle. Some have found it helpful. I trust others might as well.

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Prone to self-pity, I told my wife the other day that I must like despair like some like ice cream since I indulge so often. But though our thoughts may be trained to flow down well-worn channels, we are never meant to stay there.

My Bible reading plan for the other morning had me reading the book of Lamentations. This is by no means the first place I’d go to or recommend going to when one is feeling the weight of life, and I had little hope of the morning’s reading bringing much comfort.

But the prophet Jeremiah, the book’s reluctant author, has been nicknamed ‘the weeping prophet’ not because he curled up in a useless puddle in the face of the affairs of life, but because he gave expression to the frustrations that life brought to him. He took those frustrations to the One whom he believed to be the source of life.

He wrote as the city of Jerusalem fell apart around him under a Babylonian siege. That siege, Jeremiah had repeatedly pointed out, was the judgment of God upon the squishy, superficial spirituality of Israel. God had had enough and was bringing his promised judgment.

As I sat in “Dr. Jeremiah’s” couch, he showed me that affliction and sin all mixed up and confounded can drag one from freedom to bondage.

“She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.” (1:1)

He showed me as well that it is okay to trace this to its source.

“…because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions.” (1:5)

The cause may be my sin, but the source of the affliction is and always will be God. It does not help to try to sidestep God’s sovereignty when we are suffering. In fact, it is appropriate to give full vent to how this makes us feel.

“The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob….” (2:2)

It seems wrong to accuse God of acting “without mercy”, but when that is the way it feels, that is what we need to say. But in Jeremiah I see as well one who, giving vent to bitter honesty, cannot remain at the place of bitter honesty. That is the case with any who truly know God. Yes speaking with such honesty is good, but we must at some point emerge elsewhere.

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22, 23)

I want to live in that verse, but I often don’t. I think that one of the reasons public worship is so important is that being with God’s people under the ministry of God’s word is a place where, if even for a brief moment, God can move us from the despair of 2:2 to the affirmation of 3:22, 23.

But we want to be there always, not just for a brief moment, we protest from Dr. Jeremiah’s couch. He knows that. But he also knows that in God’s wisdom there is ordained a time for everything under heaven, and for some times we must wait.

“The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (3:25, 26)

Waiting is something foreign to me and to many others. Waiting is not what spoiled and soft children are prone to practice. But waiting, nevertheless, is what God demands.

It does not take one long to realize that the afflictions facing the Israelites and observed and experienced by Jeremiah were far worse than those faced by the readers of this blog (both of us). Nevertheless, ours FEEL as real and as painful and the hard place for all of us is to wait quietly. Quiet waiting is a far better place than quiet (or noisy) desperation.

And so Dr. Jeremiah dismisses us from his office with a prayer purged of complaint and focused as it ought to be.

“Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old….” (5:21)

The ellipses can be used to hide things to make the text say what I want it to say. Many writers hide behind abbreviated texts. Here note that I have dropped an important qualifier from the text.

“…unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.’

What Jeremiah could only sense is what we know to be fact – that we may trust in one who was utterly rejected for us, so that we might know that God would never remain exceedingly angry with us.

With that hope we leave our appointment with this soul doctor. And the good thing is that his consultation was free.

Hearing the Voice

I don’t see dead people.

But I hear voices. Or, perhaps I should say, I hear ‘the Voice’.

Take your hand away from the phone. Don’t be calling the guys in the white jackets just yet.

But I’m serious. I hear the voice that we all hear. The voice that says, “That’s not really true.” I hear the voice of doubt.

I’m not saying that the Voice is audible and I’m not saying that the Voice is welcome. But I would be lying if I said that I was a stranger to the Voice.

The Voice is annoying when I’m praying. It whispers to me that praying is a waste of time, that there is no God to hear me, that to imagine him hearing and responding to the prayers of a billion people is just fantasy. I do my best to ignore it and to remember that a man once, who rose again from the dead, found that prayer was very important.

The Voice is threatening when I’m traumatized. It speaks questions to my heart challenging the claims of the love of this one whom we call God. It is quite the logical voice, speaking in propositions which begin with some variation of “If this God was real…” or “If this God really loved you….” Like Christian fleeing the city of destruction, all I can do sometimes is put my hands over my ears and try my best not to listen.

But, I confess, I sometimes am taken in. I believe the Voice. I want to believe the Voice. I want to be led beside waters of self pity and to wallow in the muddy fields of rotten luck. I give into the Voice for a time, but somehow I always emerge. Someone comes along and says, unknowingly, and in so many words, “What are you doing there?”

I long for the day when the Voice is silenced. When his threatening tones are no more. When try as I might, I won’t be able to hear. When the only voice I will hear will be that of a Good Shepherd.

But until then, I’ll still hear the Voice. I’m comforted that others have heard the Voice and persevered – Spurgeon, Luther, John the Baptist, and our patron saint, Thomas. And I’m grateful to be and to have been in churches where people are honest enough to admit that they hear and listen to the Voice. Such honesty helps me realize that the Voice has no real substance and his logic no real basis.

But still, I listen. And I grieve for those who find no outlet to admit what they hear and how they struggle. In sympathy, a man has put together an online group called Doubters Annonymous [via Justin Taylor] and this is a good and courageous thing. I’m just sad that such cannot be admitted openly in the church. I’m sad that anonymity seems necessary.

In hearing the Voice, I figure I’m in good company. Like everyone. I also know that there are answers to every question the Voice throws at me. Just sometimes I’m not in a frame of mind to hear those answers. I just need to be loved and embraced and supported.

But I also know that Jesus died and rose again. For hearers of the Voice. It’s His voice, then, that I strive to hear above the din.

And I do. But often I hear it through the means of fellow pilgrims. And for them, I’m grateful.