“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”
– Flannery O’Connor
In the last post I discussed some comparisons in O’Connor’s short works with Christ’s parables. I suppose outside of Jesus’ pointed stories, Flannery O’Connor owes the greatest debt to the life and story of Jonah, son of Amittai. Just as the protagonists in her Southern Gothic tales are hardly likable characters, so the prophet Jonah is far from the amiable hero. Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Hulga in “Good Country People” are self righteous, graceless figures devoid of compassion, but full of ferocious retribution. In other words, in them we see ourselves. Any grace which breaks through in the story comes in forcefully, unwelcomingly. It knocks them off their feet and, in at least one instance, quite literally hits them upside the head.
In commenting on her best known story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor says, “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.”
We are meant to judge these characters as pig-headed, small-minded, bigoted and hateful, and then, with a sudden shock, realize we might be looking into our own heart.
Jonah, the largest recipient of God’s grace in his story, is commanded by God to warn the Ninevites of their wickedness and urge their repentance. Jonah, however, truncates the message from God by simply announcing certain doom and damnation to the Assyrian capital. God, in his bounteous grace and mercy, sends a storm, a great fish, a vine and a worm all to save Jonah from his judgemental attitude. Even by the end of the question dangling at the end of the book Jonah never understands the depth of grace God has offered him. He never see himself in need.
In his half-repentant and desperate prayer, Jonah preached against his own soul from the belly of the undetermined fish. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8)
“All human nature vigorously rejects grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
In a time of profound polarization, when we automatically write people off for their looks, or their geography, or their background, when we feel justified for excluding someone or fearing someone, Flannery O’Connor is good for us. In a time when we congratulate ourselves for being American, or Republican, or open-minded, for thinking the label “Christian” can be pasted on at whim to mean morally decent or “nice,” the southern Gothic writer still holds up a relevant mirror for us.
Flannery recommends her stories be read as parables. Narratives full of spiritual depth and earthy grit with shocking conclusions. If we grant her this request, then we might read “Revelation” as we would Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, (Luke 18:9-14) searching through our hearts hoping to find purity, wincing at our hubris and duplicity. This is not to say we take Flannery’s words as the inspired Word of God, but we honor her efforts as she employs similar medium to Christ’s teachings.
Jesus began with the familiar, the typical, the understood, and by the end of his story, his listeners were either hit between the eyes, or deeply offended and scandalized. We, who are religious and well-read, have become comfortable and de-sensitized to the parables of Jesus. Both familiarity with the stories and the strangeness of ancient culture can make them feel somewhat safe. Yet “Good Country People” and “The Displaced Person,” though now already sixty-five years old, are yet modern and relatable to us in startlingly interpretive ways; they slap us across the face so we can ultimately listen to Christ.
Jonathan Rogers, author and host of The Habit blog and podcast, is offering a six week online course, Writing with Flannery O’Connor beginning June 4. Rogers, though now in Nashville, originally hails a short drive from Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor’s home town. He has authored The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.
I signed up. My family and I are currently going through some significant changes, some good, many not. We are dealing with different kinds of losses and sadness. This course comes at a good time for me. A writer whose themes are racism, bigotry and gratuitous violence may not seem an obvious way to extricate myself from emotional upheaval. However, grace is surprsing like that, whether it hits you in the hillsides of Galilee, the deep South or the morally tame Midwest.
There should still be time to sign up if you are interested. Find out more information here.
“He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command, GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.”
Gathering together in the mornings has always been important for me in our home school. On the rare days we skip it, I feel it is hard to reconnect with the older ones particularly. As we come together, I hope we are able to set a tone for our day of rest, an attitude of attentiveness to God and one another.
[Wipes away tears, laughing] Ok, ok, when we both collect ourselves again, I will continue. I mean, I do have three boys, right? Their priorities are not likely the same as mine. Often they begin their day with no greater goal than to hurry up and be done with their work. Even so, we plug away at our morning meetings, because over time the things we do repeatedly, unthinkingly, in mundane ways can form us into better people. This is how God forms us. As we cast our cares on him, or say our meals, as we sweep after dinner or talk with one another late at night, these habits and traditions make us who we are and can transform us into who we will be.
And so each morning, whether my boys care or not, whether they are engaged or not, we gather together for a few moments before we all disperse to our separate corners of the house or living room or kitchen to complete our own work.
Every day our family experiences its own micro-diaspora. Like the early Christians gathered in Jerusalem waiting for instruction after the ascension of Jesus, we gather in our sunroom before being sent out.
Each year our morning time looks slightly different. This year we have my oldest back with us. He put in a few years at a private school, but is now back with us to finish out high school next year. Our road has been up and down with this one, but we are so grateful to have him back home.
We always have Bible readings. Some years we incorporate art appreciation or poetry. Here is what the 2019-2020 has looked like:
B I B L E
This year we read through the book of 2 Samuel as the youth in our church were studying this particular book.
We moved on to Advent readings in the prophets, then 1 John and the Gospel of Mark guiding us through Lent. As we finish out the school year we are choosing selected passages from the Gospel of Luke. My oldest has been choosing these for us. He uses YouVersion Bible app and likes to randomize the translations he reads from. Admittedly, this aggravates the youngest who has more difficulty following along if the words don’t match up just right.
Mostly, we read the passage and pray briefly. Other times we might practice lectio divina, although they are often too impatient to participate in this. They do enjoy periodically practicing imaginative prayer, placing yourself within the story and using your senses to explore the text.
We name things in the story we wonder about.
T H E B I B L E P R O J E C T
Along with our Bible reading we started watching YouTube videos produced by the animators at thebibleproject. This is a crowd-funded group who creates animated videos on the literary themes and stories of the Bible, as well as podcasts and other resource teaching materials. They are impressive for their quality, accessibility and depth. Each book of the Bible has its own 5 – 7 minute video highlighting the setting, genre, structure and message. We are currently up to the book of Jeremiah.
And we follow this all up with the day’s episode of CNN 10 with Carl Azuz. We have watched the ten minute world news report off and on over the last several years. It keeps us just enough informed without the news becoming oppressive in our thoughts. You know what I mean, right? Often, a human interest story or science and technology feature will inspire us (sometimes read, distract) to look something up or ask questions. The nine-year-old usually stops Carl at the end before he starts in on his “cringey” puns. G’s words, not mine.
So what do I hope we gain this year from our morning time together? A few things:
1. I hope we recognize ourselves as a single unit, a unified family with many members functioning together. ( 1 Corinthians 12:12-14)
2. I hope that God’s word seeps into all the cracks of their minds and hearts, and stays. I hope that years later they will remember reading passages in times of need. I hope that this daily Bible reading will become so normal, so habitual that they will do it on their own.
3. I hope they learn how to read the Bible well. I hope they will understand that these ancient documents have personal and eternal significance, but that they also have specific genres and settings and immediate audiences.
4. I hope that in engaging with the text of Scripture in a variety of ways, they will develop an appreciation for it. I hope that through its stories they will learn how to empathize with the characters in it. I hope they grow their biblical imaginations and that it leads them into more profound lives of faith.
5. I hope that by maintaining an awareness of the world,we can maintain a worldview that confirms God’s sovereignty in all things while recognizing our partnership with him as his people. I hope that they love the world.
Next year may look different. We may not include as many things in our time together. My guys may be sick of watching videos. It is difficult to rally 2 teenaged boys out of bed at similar times. But our priorities will always be the same.
Home schoolers, how do you start your mornings? What is your favorite thing you do together?
Other schoolers, how do you develop routines in your family? What has been the most beneficial habit that has stuck?
Yesterday was Orthodox Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as commemorated by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Their observance of this most significant Christian holiday is often differentiated from Christians in the West by a week or two as they liturgically follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian. Even so, we remember the same event, the rejuvenation of the body and life of Jesus. We celebrate and hope in our eventual resurrection because of his sacrifice and promise and triumph.
Good Friday is a day of mourning and loss and confession. The world is not what it should be. Our hearts are not what they were meant to be. Saturday is a day of sitting with this loss in uncertainty, learning to grieve before we can experience the joy of Easter. Saturday is painfully remembering Friday, but hopefully looking toward Sunday.
Yesterday I posted these photographs on another social media site. My own backyard demonstrated the process and change the resurrection makes in our lives.
As we sit with his mortality and our own, Saturday provides us with flickers of hope and the beauty in his promise. We will not always know death and sickness and pain and sadness. A day is coming when all of creation will be full and new. It will perpetually refresh and bloom, and it will defy the laws of entropy and ennui.
Sunday, the day of his resurrection, we fully acknowledge his eternal nature. We are glad because he is alive and has restored life to us. We can now live with the faith that he will perfect us and guide us into the flourishing life he longs for us all.
Many of you are busy, taking full advantage of the vast amounts of free time newly at your disposal due to the Covid-19 quarantine. As we shelter in place, one of my friends cleaned out all of her closets. My brother painted his back bedroom he uses as a studio. The neighbors are organizing their garages. I, on the other hand, have had no such motivations. I have been reading several books and have taken our mini labradoodle on even more walks. In other words, life has not been too different, except I do miss my people. I hope you are all doing well, staying healthy, remaining hopeful and loving.
Yesterday, however, something made me turn to my old friend Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who suffered under and survived the Stalinist regime. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a day both joyous and sobering. As we picture ourselves in the story, we cheer with the crowds while knowing the path leads to death. We feel the triumphant victory of Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem, yet know he will be buried by the end of the week. I feel these conflicting emotions in Akhmatova’s poetic laments. They are only the more beautiful as she uses biblical images and biblically-rooted characters to relate both her grief and her hope.
Born in 1889, Akhmatova survived the Russian Revolution and married fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son Lev. Nikolai was imprisoned and secretly executed by the Bolsheviks. Many years later, in 1935, their son was arrested as an enemy of the state and Akhmatova virtually lived outside of the prison walls in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, bringing bread, fighting for his release. Although they were estranged at the time of his death, she had lost a husband to the Soviets. She could not lose a son.
It is as this grief-stricken mother she writes the “Requiem” over the next several years each section a part of a cycle of loss, lament and persistence. In this portion entitled “Crucifix” her lament is both human and holy, a grappling for justice when there seemed to be none. Her identification with the mother of the Christ in the hour of deep sorrow seems so honest.
This portion of the poem is beautiful because of its simplicity. In the original Akhmatova employs spare, clean language with an AB rhyme scheme. There is surely a good translation of this work, but I was not happy with the one I found online. I have produced an average translation mostly for the sense and understanding, not really capturing the style. As we approach nearer to Good Friday, I am thankful we have this poet’s perspective on grief. It reminds us that in Christ’s story no one is forgotten.
“Не рыдай Мене, Мати, во гробе зрящи…”
Хор ангелов великий час восславил,
И небеса расплавились в огне.
Отцу сказал: “Почто Меня оставил!”
А Матери: “О, не рыдай Мене…”
Магдалина билась и рыдала,
Ученик любимый каменел,
А туда, где молча Мать стояла,
Так никто взглянуть и не посмел
“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing me in the tomb….”
A choir of angels glorified the great hour,
and the heavens melted in fire.
To the Father he spoke: “Why have you forsaken me?”
If I were to count up all the hours my boys and I read Strega Nona, or Days of the Blackbird, or our very favorite Tom, it would span a life time. At least, it would seem so. I cannot think of another author whom we read more than Mr. Tomie de Paola in those preschool and very early elementary years. He absorbed the largest amounts of time, along with perhaps, Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Barbara Cooney. This all makes me smile through my sadness, because, well, what great friends I introduced my children to!
Tomie de Paola passed away yesterday due to complications from surgery after an injurious fall in his studio. Because of the necessity of isolation during COVID-19 concerns, he apparently died alone in a hospital room. I don’t want to think about this too much. He was not alone. From all I have read about him, he was a gentle man full of kindness and joy. I know he provided our family with more laughs and hugs than we would have otherwise shared.
Today, we will sit under the willow tree in our backyard. The leaves are just barely returning to bending branches. G has always called it “the Jesus tree,” because the flowing branches waft in breezes as he imagines Jesus’ hair did. We will sit and we will thank Mr. de Paola for Strega Nona, and Big Anthony, for the beautiful Bible story illustrations, for Fin McCoul, for The Night of Las Posadas, but especially for Tom and his poignant and hilarious relationship with his grandfather. And he will be in our thoughts and prayers. He will not be alone.
For those of you who have experienced Christians as hateful, tight-fisted, paranoid, selfish, self-serving, power hungry or callous, I express regret. Here I am referring to politics and to comments on the internet. I am talking about the conversation you overheard in line to buy your coffee, and the relative at the last family event. I hope this impression has never come from me, or the people with whom I am closely connected. If it has, however, I am sorry. Please allow me time to reflect on that and to make the difficult but appropriate changes.
This is not the Christ we follow. Sometimes people professing his name miss the mark or get it wrong. Always, Jesus is better than the people who serve him. This is what we want to be able to do – look to him and model his example of love and service. I know we fail. Our full intention, however is genuinely to emulate him.
We recognize that many of you who are not Christians, or are not religious, are also striving to attain to the ideals you believe in. We know you fail at times, like we do, but we also see diverse people working together to create goodness for thriving communities. I am so grateful when this happens. Please know the hateful speech and the bitter accusations do not reflect the Christ we love.
Today, I would like to share a Christmas poem with you. It is by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Wendell Berry. I am not sure it is really a Christmas poem in the most traditional sense, for I think part of the poem speaks to the ordinariness of the moment. So much of the time we want Christmas to be extraordinary.
I appreciate authors who remind us of the holiness and the beauty in daily routines. I love when someone can effectively point and say to me, “Look. Don’t forget to notice this. Here is the divine thumbprint right here in the middle of your day.” Berry does this beautifully with his suggestions and anticipations of the holy family appearing in an ordinary barn.
So much of the time I fight against compartmentalizing holy things and ordinary things, spiritual and earthy. But Berry’s poem here showcases what the Gospels also do in extraordinary ways: it points out that we are not unreasonable to think that the most marvelous things can appear on a Tuesday, in the middle of a routine we have encountered countless times before.
Berry’s caution is that we be ready to see the holy.
You may recognize Garth William’s illustration above from E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web. This is from the portion of the beloved tale of friendship when Fern and Avery spend their summer days hanging around their Uncle Homer’s farm. The brother and sister run from the kitchen after eating blueberry pie to swing on a rope from the barn loft. E.B. White not only seemed to remember childhood and its great sense of wonder, but he also seemed to genuinely respect the people living it.
I suppose I was about seven years old the first time I read this book. It was the first book that made me cry, and not just a few silent tears slipping past my cheeks. You can hardly classify this as realistic fiction, but there is something so poignant and deeply true about White’s thoughts on the importance of the right people in our lives at the right time. It is a story which still speaks to bravery and loyalty and selflessness, even to an audience of six, seven, eight and nine year olds.
As my nine year old and I are re-reading excerpts for our narration and dictation work, I was struck by a passage in a new way. I chose this part of the story specifically because it contained a sentence that had struck my seven-year old self as just and true. But as a much older adult, the application had grown much rounder and more robust.
Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will. p. 69
At seven, eight, nine, ten years old I remember the comfortable feeling of stubborn satisfaction I felt at having an adult express my capability. Forty years later, I suspect Mr. White may have subtly been straddling the fence with layered meanings.
Certainly children can climb higher than we think they can, but they also may hold on to swings and siblings’ hands and ideas and values and teaching tighter than parents think they will.
At least, with some emerging adults in my care, I live in hope and faith that this is the case. Although proverbs do not always ring true in every case, I have the comfort of the words of Scripture:
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Although as I imagine Fern swinging from the old barn rope, I like E.B. White’s way of expressing it as well.
With the exception of a few of us homeschooling parents who stubbornly persist in a twentieth century school calendar, all of the teachers here in Indiana are back at school welcoming children, teaching multiplication tables, listening to and reading stories, encouraging learning and helping develop character.
Back to school is also back to the business of loving your neighbor as yourself. Whether your neighbor is an elementary school student, middle schooler, high schooler or even a college student, if you are a Christian your focus is to love the one before you as Christ would love them, as, indeed, he loves them.
Beloved children’s author Katherine Paterson, creator of The Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, after a speaking engagement was once asked by a teacher for a piece of advice he could share with his class. In her speech, “The Child in the Attic” delivered at The Ohio State University Children’s Literature Festival in February 2000, she gives the following response:
“I’m very biblically oriented,” I said, “and so for me the most important thing is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”
Twenty years later, the only difference is that children are tempted to see their value not necessarily by way of television, but by YouTube.
I write these few words to teachers, administrators, custodial staff, bus drivers, counselors and cafeteria workers: your light shines. Your smile matters. Your compassion changes hearts and futures. Your influence may be incalculable.
And, really, this is the charge Christ gives to all of us, whether we are a teacher, student, neighbor, friend, employee, manager or stranger on the street. We are the light of the world. We are his ambassadors for a different life possible. We are his love incarnate. We are that word become flesh. We take on Christ both in the insignificant gestures and the grandiose ones, because they all reflect his movements.