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Lila is a hard and tender book. Until she arrives in the town of Gilead, the best part of Lila’s life came among migrant workers in the dustbowl, where she was cared for by a scar-faced woman who stole her from a life of neglect. That is a hard life.
But the novel is also tender because Lila perseveres; she fights against the worst of her ghosts and wants to care about others. She cares about Doll, who raised her, John Ames, the elderly pastor who marries her, and the expectant child she talks to for much of the novel. The fact she wants to love and wants to trust at all is a testament to grace.
If there is one word that describes this novel it is grace. It is not a pretty, pretend grace that makes everything rosy. Rather, it is a grace in spite of Lila’s dangerous life that is always on the edge of abandonment, It is a gritty grace that overcomes being a second generation knife-totting woman. The only grace that can touch Lila is a gritty grace experienced in the most dire of circumstances, ministered by the most unlikely of characters.
Reading reviews on Amazon.com is an interesting experience. The people who respond negatively to the book most likely prefer action over character development, which Robinson does so well. With consummate skill, Robinson follows the writers’ adage to “show, not tell Your Domain Name.” Showing the characters in this book takes a while, but seeing their souls grow is worth it.
People of faith and people of no faith are touched by Robinson’s ability to capture the mind of a woman who can carry her worldly possessions in her hands for decades, and how this woman becomes a wife – a pastor’s wife, at that.
Robinson is a rare theologian who can translate the deepest theology into life-giving words. John Ames says:
I realize I have always believed there is a great Providence that, so to speak, waits ahead of us. The father holds out his hands to a child who is learning to walk, and comforts the child with words and draws it toward him, and he lets the child feel the risk it is taken, and lets it choose its own courage and the certainty of love and comfort when he reaches his fathers…I was going to say safety, but there is no safety. And there is no choice, either, because it is the nature of the child to walk. As it is the want of the encouragement and attention of the father. And the promise of comfort. Which it is in the nature of the father to give.
She is also an accomplished student of the Bible, using a book as difficult as Ezekiel as the place where Lila encounters the God who rescues abandoned babies and is the source of hope that seems to grow out of nowhere.
I remember Gilead, as a warm and tender book that a give me much joy to read. Lila is a stand alone prequel to Gilead and a part of a trilogy that includes Home. Any of the three stands by itself. But as soon as I finish this review, I intend to start reading Gilead again, with a new understanding of how the characters arrived to the beginning of the story it tells.
Special thanks to Sam Ratcliff for the great shots from my retirement day. Thanks to Nancy for delivering!
Forgiveness is the number one spiritual problem. That’s my experience after 40 years in the ministry. More individuals struggle with the dynamics of forgiveness than any other spiritual issue. They ask questions such as:
“Can God forgive me for ________.” Fill in the blank. with your own worst sin.
“How can I ever forgive ______ for what he/she did?” Fill in the blank with the name of the person who has hurt you the worst.
“How can I forgive myself?”
I’ve encountered very few people – Christians or non-Christians – who have resolved all of these questions. Consequently, I’ve preached often on forgiveness and collected many books on the subject. One book that I’ve seen referenced, but had not read is Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Thus, during my first week of retirement I read it and offer some observations.
Those with a decent memory of the Holocaust will remember that Wiesenthal was a Austrian Jew and a concentration camp survivor who went on to be the most effective hunter of Nazi war criminals following WWII. The Sunflower represents his own encounter with the dynamics of forgiveness and is written in two parts.
The first portion of the book describes an event that occurred when Wiesenthal was a prisoner in WWII. One day while on a work detail in a hospital, a nurse approached him and bade him to follow her. Wiesenthal found himself in a room with a single patient, an SS officer dying of grave wounds. The Nazi officer’s head was wrapped in bandages could see nothing of his face.
With great physical and spiritual difficulty the officer described his transition from “a good Catholic” prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany to an SS officer who participated in a heinous atrocity against the Jewish inhabitants of a village on Germany’s Eastern front with the Soviets. This officer helped corral old men, women and children into a house drenched in gasoline and then set the house on fire with grenades. He and his comrades shot those who tired to escape. He shot one family in particular who stared straight at him in fear and pain as they jumped to their deaths.
The SS officer explained that he did not want to die with this crime on his conscience. He had asked the nurse to bring a Jew to his room in order that he might confess to him (all the prisoners in this context being male.).
Although Wiesenthal shows fragments of compassion to the SS officer during his telling of his story, when the officer asks for forgiveness, Wiesenthal eventually leaves the room in silence, withholding the forgiveness that he had sought. Wiesenthal then struggles with his decision and discusses it with other prisoners. After the war he located the officer’s mother and visited her, offering solace. But he did not forgive and asks the reader whether or not he was right in his decision.
The remainder of the book is comprised of essays by Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thought leaders who respond to Wiesenthal’s question. Their divergent responses further suggest that forgiveness is a pivotal, spiritual problem. There are themes that appear and reappear, but there is no agreement on what Wiesenthal did or should have done.
Several of the essayists ask whether Wiesenthal had the capacity to forgive on behalf of others. If he was not among the SS officer’s victims, did he have standing to forgive?
Others ask if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS officer, would he have done justice to the victims. They suggesting that for Wiesenthal to forgive would slight the victims’ injuries; therefore, they counsel that he did the correct thing by not forgiving.
Other writers ascribe impure motives to the SS officer. Was his confession genuine? Did he continue to objectify Jews by asking that a representative Jewish man hear his confession? Why didn’t he confess to a priest? I found the assumptions behind many of these criticisms to be highly prejudiced and unhelpful.
A few respondents, chief among them the Dali Lama, recognized that forgiveness is essentially about the heart of the person offering forgiveness. With that understanding of forgiveness, Wiesenthal could have offered forgiveness from himself to the officer. He could have expressed that the officer’s past actions did not dictate Wiesenthal’s future attitude and actions toward him. This view coincides with my own understanding of forgiveness.
The essays not only point out the critical nature of forgiveness as a spiritual problem, but they also serve as evidence that there is confusion about the vocabulary surrounding forgiveness.
In the New Testament, forgiveness is not presented as the equivalent of full reconciliation or as the restoration of fellowship between two, estranged parties. Forgiveness is the attitude of the injured party directed toward the injurer. In this attitude the heart of the injured does not count the injury as the defining issue between the two. Instead, love – agape love – defines the relationship – at least from the side of the injured. Forgiveness is the removal of the obstacles of hate, anger, or the desire for vengeance which stand in the way of possible reconciliation. In direct relationship to the Greek of the NT, it is letting go of all these negative attitudes.
With humans, this new perspective represents a change from all the negative emotions which had previously defined the relationship between the injured and the injurer. With God, the desire is always there, always reaching toward us. Forgiveness is an expression of God’s constant and abiding love. Romans 5:8 says: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Therefore, forgiveness in the NT is not identified with reconciliation; it is a stage antecedent to reconciliation. It is that which makes reconciliation possible. Repentance on the part of the injuring party allows forgiveness to be received. Then reconciliation may take place. In our relationship with God, it means accepting what God was already offering. This understanding of forgiveness is missing in the majority of essays in the second part of The Sunflower.
Additionally, as a Christian I remember Jesus’s resurrection statement to the disciples in John 20:22-23:
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (ESV)
Christens do have a ministry of forgiveness.
I don’t offer these observations as a debate about the correctness of Christian theology vis a vis Jewish theology, but my tradition does direct my response, just as the Jewish tradition directs Wiesenthal’s.
I wonder what the response of a Viktor Frankl or Corrie Ten Boom might have been. Both were alive and available when the first edition of The Sunflower was published.
Cherry and I have spent our first Sunday of retirement going to church together. We have done that rarely over the past 35 years and it was one of my goals for this new chapter of life. We worshipped at the Chapel on Bald Head Island, NC.
We also enjoyed watching worship at FBC.
Sunday marked my retirement from First Baptist Church of Rome. It is a wonderful church made up of great people.
I’d like to thank the ministers I’ve worked with: Keith Reaves, Music and Worship; Tamara Smathers, Education and Administration; John Uldrick, Students and Missions; Gwen Stephens, Interim Faith Development (Children and Preschool. They are a wonderful group of Christians who are dedicated to their callings. They have made me a better pastor .
I’d also like to thank the church for hosting a marvelous reception last Thursday night. Cherry and I were honored and humbled by the presence of everyone who came. We are not half-way through reading notes, letters, and remembrances that you have sent.
I’m also thankful for conversations that retirement afforded. Concluding my ministry at FBC precipitated the opportunity to express affection, respect, healing, and hope to each other in ways that we might not do if next week looked the same as last week. Routine can kill initiative, but the conclusion of 21 years together made it possible to say things that were long overdue. I am thankful for these exchanges.
John Head mentioned on Sunday morning that I plan to write. You could not tell it from visiting this website over the past weeks. One of my goals is to write here much more often than I haven the past few months. Without a sermon to prepare, The Substance of Faith site will be primary outlet for book reviews and observations. I’ll have more on those future plans soon.
Again, there are no words to express appreciation to the great people of FBC for your kindness and generosity. Cherry and I love you all and join you in praying for the Pastor Search Committee as they continue their work.