Tag Archives: Marilynne Robinson

Advent and the Spirit of Joyless Urgency

urgencyI’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s relatively new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and came across this elegant and weighty phrase, “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency.”

She’s found words to describe what I see going on in my own life and around me. My to-do list is long and always growing. We crave relationship and intimacy and yet make no time for it, allowing Facebook and such to become a false and diabolical substitute. We neither make nor allow space — not for thinking, not for silence, not for people, not for God. It’s always on to the next thing. In fact, the urgency of the next thing makes it hard to focus on the now thing.

A few years ago, I convened a group where we talked about ancient spiritual practices and what they might look like in our highly technological, fast-paced world. When I talked about making space in our lives for silence, for doing nothing, for sitting and reflecting, for being with our loved ones in an unhurried, no-thought-given-to-productivity kind of way, one of the persons in the group responded that they simply could not do that. Their brain and their body would not allow it. And neither would their bank account. They had to be constantly busy and working. Alas.

Advent offers a profound antidote to urgency. We’re invited simply to wait with the prophets for the coming of the Messiah, prophets who waited for centuries, who did not see that which they were waiting for, but trusted in the promise that it would come.

Even the shortened days (at least in the northern hemisphere) of these last weeks of the calendar year invite me to sit in the quiet dark and wait and think and reflect and pray.

And when I do? I find that the image of God in which I have been created is more apparent when I slow down and when I make space. I am more generous to people, more gracious about their faults, less fearful about a broken world, more inclined to see things from the perspective of faith.

And what of the joy?

I sit in my reading and writing place on a gray morning. I’m tired from a long weekend of heavy responsibilities, sitting with a long list of things that need to get done, and little energy to get up and do any of them. This is just the kind of day to ignore the joy around me.

Yet, to see and experience those things around me that could bring joy is a decision, a choice. I think of some pretty amazing Advent worship on Sunday, of the buzz after the services about what people found meaningful. To know that people were touched by God is one of the reasons I do what I do. Surely, there is joy in that.

At one of those services, a husband and wife who had two days earlier lost their 30-something son to death by cancer were in church. I watched as they wept, as they smiled at the ways their young granddaughters engaged in the service, and as countless numbers of their fellow pilgrims shared hugs and tears with them after the service. Surely there is joy in deep human connection.

Last night as I laid on our bed reading, our 40 pound poodle mix jumped up and threw herself against me, pawing at my hand until I began to scratch her neck. As I did so, she began to relax, and laid her head down looking into my eyes as she fell asleep. A mysterious moment of connection between man and beast. Surely, there is joy in that.

The point here is not that there is no chance for moments of joy. It’s that I have not become very adept or practiced at noticing them, countless numbers of them day in and day out. Perhaps too consumed by the urgent?

So, this will by my advent discipline. To step away from urgency. And to find joy.

Of Lila, Love, and Misfits

lila.jpgBrian was one of the most interesting parishioners I have ever served. A blue collar guy in a community and congregation of the wealthy, Brian often turned heads. He’d come roaring through the parking lot on Sunday morning on his big Harley, black boots, black jeans, black leather jacket, long streaming blonde hair and beard. He’d park the Harley next to the wide portico leading to the entrance to the church, and before shutting the engine off, he’d give it one last twist of the accelerator, making sure the loud roar of the engine reverberated under the cover of the roof, startling those poor souls who somehow hadn’t noticed his arrival.

Years earlier, Brian had been on the street for a while, his life a mess as a result of alcohol and drug addiction. By the time I met him, he had found sobriety and was making a good living working in his father’s manufacturing business. He was an odd evangelist, but evangelist he was, telling everyone he knew — and often those he didn’t — about how Christ had turned his life around. He’d often bring new friends with him to church, sometimes guys, sometimes his new girlfriend.

When Kristy (not her real name) started coming with Brian, her presence turned a few heads. Her dresses were quite a bit shorter, her heels quite a bit taller, and her hair quite a bit more dazzling than what we were used to. Turns out Kristy was a dancer at a gentleman’s club (an oxymoron if ever there was one), and Brian was trying to rescue her from that life and get her a “real” job. She came with him pretty faithfully. I had a few conversations with them about church and Jesus and getting on the right track. Kristy decided she wanted to be baptized; I was never very sure whether it was something she really wanted to do or something Brian was pushing for her to do. I’m guessing it was some of both.

She showed up that morning in her Sunday best — actually her Saturday night best. Short skirt, tall heels and a top with a deep v-neck. It was quite a thing to have to decide where to have Kristy stand as she bent over the font to be baptized, a choice between having the congregation look up her skirt or down her sweater. Made me long for the old days of baptismal gowns. Regardless, it was a day of great joy and celebration. We didn’t do a lot of adult baptisms.  And we didn’t do a lot of baptisms where the contrast between the life behind and the baptismal life into which Kristy was being born was so sharp.

We didn’t see Kristy much longer after her baptism. After talk of marriage, Brian and Kristy suddenly broke up. Brian didn’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure what happened. She came a few weeks by herself and then nothing. When I asked, Brian told me she had moved back north, went home, he said. I’ve always wondered what happened to her. Did that short connection with the church mean anything, have any impact at all on what came later?

Kristy came to mind as I’ve been reflecting on Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila. Once again the story takes us back to Gilead, Iowa and to the characters we’ve already met in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home. In the first two novels, we encounter Lila as the young wife of the aging minister, John Ames. Now, we learn her story and the unlikely meeting and marriage of John and Lila.

Lila is born into a family on the very edge of survival in depression era middle America. She is taken from that family of neglect and abuse to be cared for by Doll, a loving and resourceful drifter. Doll is the only one she can trust, the only from whom she experiences love. They are virtually inseparable until Doll runs into trouble and lands in jail. Lila then has to fend for herself. While living in an abandoned shack on the edge of Gilead, she comes into contact with Rev. Ames, his church and the members of his church. What commences is an extraordinarily odd courtship and marriage. Only gradually does Lila come to know love; only gradually does she come to trust her husband and the church people around him. Constantly fearful of abandonment, she doesn’t even trust herself to stay, wondering when she will walk out the door with her baby and return to the hard life of a drifter.

Robinson captures so poignantly the cautious entry into the church by one who has learned to be suspicious of the church and church people. For those outside the church, and maybe especially for those on the edge of survival, the church can be a place to be afraid of, where those who desire to do good end up doing harm. There’s a scene when Doll temporarily leaves the loose group of itinerants, saddling them with one more mouth to feed. When they decide they can’t keep Lila, they abandon her on the steps of a church; there she is most afraid that church people will “steal” her away from Doll and that she will never again see the only one who has really cared for her, difficult though that life may be.

We get ringside seats into Lila’s struggle with the theology of exclusion so associated with the church. In particular, Lila simply can’t accept a God who would leave Doll out of heaven. Though she never got connected to the church and never was “saved,” it was Doll who saved her. We also get to see how Lila grows into the love of her husband and to some strange peace about her own part in the church. There is nothing fancy about their lives. Their love is deep, yet imperfect, hers seemingly tentative, as if that’s the only way she knows how to love. By the end, Lila seems to relax into the love of both her husband and her husband’s God.

Which brings me back to Kristy, to wondering what ever became of her. I know that wherever she is, she is still in God’s embrace. I just hope she has found a community that keeps on reminding her of that.


home.jpgWeary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, returns to Gilead, the fictional Iowa town that served as the setting for the novel of the same title. The return brings mostly the same characters, though the setting for most of the story shifts from the home and life of John Ames to his best friend and fellow minister, Robert Boughton. The story revisits and expands on the final episode of Gilead when Boughton’s troubled son, Jack returns home seeking forgiveness and the peace that has eluded him for his entire life. One of Boughton’s other children, Glory, has also returned home, ostensibly to care for her deteriorating father, but also because her own relational life has crashed and she needs a place to recover and restore.

Jack isn’t forthcoming with details of what has happened since he left, nor what has brought him back home. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the reader learns of Jack’s troubled life and of finally finding love and family, though home still eludes him. Glory, still sorting through her own shattered dreams of home, does her best to smooth the way for the repair of the breach between Jack and Papa Boughton.

At the heart of the wanderings and homecomings in Home is the difficult and gnarly question of forgiveness. Early on, when Glory is still trying to navigate her brother’s sudden return home and not fall through the thin ice of civility that covers the hard issues that still lie unresolved between Jack and his father, she says this, “There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.”

Papa Boughton genuinely tries to understand, a task made much more difficult by his son’s unwillingness to tell all. Still festering is a wrong from Jack’s earlier life that is still unresolved and for which Jack, ultimately is unwilling to acknowledge or for which is willing to take responsibility.

Forgiveness is not easy. It’s is not a one-dimensional. Forgiveness given can be retracted in a quick word of judgment. Intentions to forgive can be blocked by the difficulty of letting go of the transgression that cause the rift in the first place. And one can be offered forgiveness without the ability to receive it. Is reconciliation possible if the burden of transgression is so great that one cannot ever let go of it?

If home is the place where full acceptance and pure love is to be found, then I suppose none of us really ever find home. Probably, that’s simply too much to ask. Maybe home is, instead, the place where we work at it, a place where our best selves try to lay aside judgments and resentments, a paradoxical place of both warmth and struggle. Home is a place populated with skeletons of hopes and dreams unfulfilled and it is also a place were we occasionally find deep love and acceptance. It’s also the place where fathers and mothers recognize their own brokenness and failings, looking with hope not just to their sons and daughters, but to their sons’ and daughters’ sons and daughters.

What Jack came home looking for ultimately eluded him. As his sister caught a glimpse of what had almost been in his grasp, she comes to a moment of clarity and peace, realizing that at least for now, for all her wanderings, weary, bitter, and bewildered, she is home.


gliead.jpgA few days ago, I promised a review of Gilead. I realize now that this is not a review. Let me get this out of the way — Gilead is a fabulous book. In so many ways, it’s a fabulous book. Marilynne Robinson is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living American novelists.

The main character and narrator of the story is John Ames, a semi-retired, aging pastor in Gilead, a small town in Iowa. The story takes the form of a series of letters or journal entries that an aging father writes to his young son as a kind of recorded guidance for the son when the father is gone. The father has married a much younger woman late in life. John Ames believes that he will not live much longer and desperately hopes to provide materially for his wife and young son, and also to provide guidance for his son’s journey from childhood into adulthood.

In the course of these letters, he reflects far and wide — on the life of a pastor, on life in a small town, on the fragility of life, often coming back to his desperate wish that he could provide better for his wife and child and his concern about how they will get along after he dies. Much of the early part of the story recounts his own roots; both his father and his grandfather were a preacher. His grandfather had been a violent activist in cahoots with John Brown, and who embraced the use of guns and violence in the Lord’s name. By contrast, his father was an ardent pacifist who condemned his own father’s involvement in the Civil War violence in Missouri and Kansas. Late in the novel, the son of Ames’s best friend — a fellow minister in town — for whom he has become namesake returns home. He is a troubled young man who has nearly always been in trouble. The depth of his brokenness is revealed gradually and comes to a climax at a point where there will be judgment or grace.

The story resonates so deeply with me in part because of my own family history. My grandfather was a pastor, first in the wilds of northern Saskatchewan and then in the plains of Kansas. He had four sons, all of whom, as I understand felt some pressure to go into church work. The youngest son did for a time, and then left the pastoral ministry for a long and productive life work as a therapist. My own father went to junior college, then the army, then a brief stint delivering mail, and eventually returning to college to complete a degree to become a teacher in Lutheran schools. I have no strong evidence, but Dad always talked about the glory days when he was delivering mail. I don’t think he was ever very happy as a teacher, and he certainly had a roller coaster experience as a church worker.

I went away to college. To become a musician. An environmental engineer. Anything but churchwork. And in an explicable sense of calling (or was it guilt?), I completely changed direction and decided to pursue training to become a pastor.

I’m at that age when the years are catching up. I’ve now been a pastor longer than I was not a pastor. In a sense, I went into the family business. And now I also have a son who went into the family business. I felt some mild pressure toward a church vocation, but I don’t think that was what led me. I don’t think our son felt that pressure; if anything, we tried to talk him out of it, knowing that it’s a vocation with a high reward, but also can exact a high human cost. Reading this story always pushes me not only to reflect on my own family history and how it has shaped me, but more to the point, how I can continue to be a good father to my own sons. My relationship with them is not over now that they have left home, and I still have both the opportunity and calling to continue to shape them for good or not.
Gilead is a lot of things. It is simply a good story, beautifully written and artfully told.  It is a story about friendship; it is a story about the simple joy of love and family and about how that love is complicated and incomplete; it is a story about judgment and grace and how difficult the grace part can be.  And it is a story about generations and the way we want to or don’t want to be like our parents and how we inevitably are shaped by them regardless of our intentions.

The Testimony of Marilynne Robinson

MRobinson.jpgWhen I first read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead shortly after it came out in 2004, I remember being deeply moved. I read it once and then I turned right around and read it again, something I rarely do. So touched was I at the exquisite portrayal of the aging father writing to his young son, not to mention how the narrator talks about his relationship with his own father and grandfather, that I bought a copy of the novel for each of my sons for Christmas and included in the gift a letter trying to express my hopes, dreams, and love for them.

Good literature and good writers do that for us. They are not just stories that we live into for a short time, but they touch us in the places we live, how we relate to the people around us, how we face the complexities, the joys, and the struggles of our own lives.

Over the past few months, I’ve reread Gilead (for the fourth time, I think) and then went on to read her next two novels, Home, and Lila. They’re not sequels exactly, but the same characters populate all three stories in roughly the same time in the same place.

Robinson’s creates characters of such depth and nuance that we can identify with them as if they were real, regardless of the fact that the reader has almost nothing in common with the characters’ context. For  instance, in Lila, the title character is a woman whose grew up in the most difficult of circumstances; her life was bare existence. Yet in the midst of the abuse and violence and scarcity, she knew the deep love of the woman who cared for her. At the depth of her humanness, we relate; we know her loneliness; we know her drive for acceptance; we know her doubts about easy answers.  With what seems like perfect timing, the author gradually reveals the characters as the story progresses; the more we read, the more we learn about them and the more we want to care about them.

Robinson has such command of the language, masterfully putting words together to form descriptive and evocative sentences. Her writing is beautiful and elegant, yet with a simple economy of language. For instance here’s a passage where the narrator of Gilead reflects on an afternoon when his wife and son brought him a bouquet of honeysuckles.

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light — pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. 

In her stories, Robinson deals with the bones of life, the things that lie deeply embedded, what makes life the wonderful and sometimes terrible thing that it is: judgment and grace and forgiveness or the struggle to forgive; the constant recognition of the shortness of life, the passing of the generations and the complications of progeny. Neither does she shy away from the harshness and meanness with which the human sometimes treat the other.

I recently learned that as an adult Robinson has passionately pursued a study of theology. No surprise to me. While it’s clear from her popular success that one doesn’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate her writing and her stories, I consistently find that her writing informs, deepens, and challenges my own life of faith. She puts the flesh of character and story on some of the most gnarly theological problems. Lila, who by virtue of her marriage to John Ames has become connected to the church — “saved” in the language of the church members —  struggles to understand the eternal destiny of the woman who brought her up, cared for her, and loved her deeply. Theological questions are always human questions.

Back in October, an excellent biographical article appeared in the New York Times Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/magazine/the-revelations-of-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

Come back on Thursday to read my review of Gilead, and next week, reviews of Home and Lila. I look forward to hearing what you think and joining the conversation.