Acts 8:26-40 † Psalm 22:25-31 † 1 John 4:7-21 † John 15:1-8
There’s a scene in Marilynne Robinson’s 2014 novel Lila that always gets to me. The novel does frequently, in truth, which has got me wondering what it is about it, and about Robinson’s series of novels set in the fictitious Gilead, Iowa, where the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton and the Congregationalist minister John Ames live out their ministries and friendship side-by-side in the 1940s and 50s.
I suppose it gets to me because it touches on a deep truth or set of truths that hold me, perhaps in ways that are just beneath the surface, ways that I understand to a degree, yet they are born out of what I don’t understand, and don’t experience as much as I long to. What I mean, is that Robinson’s stories speak to a reality, a truth, a series of aspirations or a hoped-for state of being that is fleeting and fragile and good at its core—especially for how rarely we seem to experience it in full. Maybe you know what I’m talking about.
I take comfort that I’m not alone in this experience. Among the many who have noted Robinson’s work is our former president Barak Obama who listed Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead—which is another of her stories set in this same world—as one of his favorites. In 2015 President Obama reversing journalistic norms, interviewed Robinson for The New York Review of Books.
He told her then,
I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. Because I was campaigning at the time, and there's a lot of downtime when you're driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning. …one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly, and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And … I just fell in love with the character [and] the book...[i]
I can’t speak for our former president, of course, but for me, the heartfelt connection has something to do with the gentleness and kindness with which Aimes painstakingly conducts his every move. Robinson’s old pastor has a character and generosity about him that I long to have. And it is that gentle kindness and deep respect he shows that becomes a source of transformation for others in Gilead, and himself too, much like the preacher in 1 John is suggesting while reminding his audience that no one has ever seen God, and yet God is made visible in our loving others. Robinson, suggests, in other words, that love is a key that unlocks newness. So 1 John continues “Love has been perfected among us in this: as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”[ii]
Robinson’s novel Lila was written in 2014, 10 years after she penned Gilead, but it is set seven years earlier, telling the story of how the old preacher Aimes meets his second wife, Lila. He had lost his first wife and their newborn daughter years ago in a tragedy at childbirth that has left him wounded and alone. He expected he would live out his years in lonely service. But then Lila shows up one Pentecost Sunday. Their relationship develops, and Ames eventually baptizes her in a rather unorthodox way outside of town near a shack where she’s been staying.
Today’s texts, and particularly this story in Acts of another unorthodox baptism got me thinking of that one from Robinson’s novel.
Lila has lived, in many ways, a life of desolation—born into neglect and abuse, she is stolen—saved, really—by a woman named Doll, who takes her as her own, even as they live a transient life during the depression and the dust bowl era, camping along the dusty roads they walk, looking for any work they can find, no place to call their own; no place to lay their heads. It is a hard life, a life of mutual reliance against tough odds, a life that has made her strong and resilient, even as it has reinforced a sense of separation, distrust, and shame. She tells the old preacher Aimes at one point. “I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.”[iii]
I think Robinson lets something important breathe in this novel. Shame is a powerful force. A force that leads many of us away from our deep connection to one another and into debilitating isolation. I suspect this may be one of our greatest challenges, even today, the shame that we carry with us, “like a habit.”
It shows up again in the story as the old pastor and Lila find themselves out near the shack and on the verge of her baptism, even though they don’t yet realize it. “I can’t even stand up in front of them people and get baptized. I hate it when they’re looking at me.”
He glanced up, preacherly. “Yes, I hadn’t thought of that. I should have realized. I haven’t always performed baptisms in the church. If there are special circumstances— All I would need is a basin of some sort. I could take water from the river.”
“I can’t affirm nothing.”
“Then I guess we’ll skip that part.”
“I got a bucket. No basin.”
“That will do fine.”
“You wait here. I got to comb my hair.”
He laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She changed into a cleaner blouse and combed and braided her hair and put on her shoes. She’d do this and think about it afterward. She went out on the stoop and picked up the bucket, which would be clean enough after a rinse. The old man was in the field picking sunflowers. She walked to the road. He brought her his bouquet. “I like flowers at a baptism,” he said. “Now we’ll fetch a little water.” There was a kind of haste in his cheerfulness… He took the bucket from her and helped her down the bank as if she hadn’t gone to the river for water a hundred times by herself, and he sank the bucket into a pool and brought it up, brimming, and poured half of it back. The crouching was a little stiff, and the standing, and he smiled at her—I am old. “I don’t need much at all,” he said. He was dressed in his preacher clothes, and he was careful of them, but he liked being by the river, she could tell. “What do you think? Up there in the sunshine or down here by the water?” Then he said, “Oh, I left the Bible lying on the grass. I could do it from memory. But I like to have a Bible, you know, the cloud of witnesses.” She didn’t know. “Since there aren’t any others.” She still didn’t know. No matter. He was glad to be doing this, and not just so he could put aside that talk they’d had. So it must mean something.[iv]
And so he baptizes Lila, affirming the truth of her belonging. And blessing away the shame that she carried like an old habit. “Here is water,” the Ethiopian eunuch tells Philip. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And that’s where Philip and the old pastor Aimes seem to get it right. There’s nothing to prevent it, and everything to commend it for both of these children of God who deserve to know no shame.
In a letter earlier in the story Aimes explains it to Lila,
My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand on one’s faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. [v]
It is remarkable to me how we seem to have lost this idea that God sides with those who suffer, with those who have no place to lay their heads, with those who know shame like a habit. If Jesus’ life and words proclaim anything it is that God’s love is especially directed toward those who struggle and suffer and end up with the short end of the stick. This is not to say that our faith glamorizes or justifies poverty or any form of life that is forced to live on the margins of society. This could not be farther from the truth, in fact.
It is to say that love understands that lives are holy—no matter what humiliations or desolations we have worn through our lives—and that we are connected—that we are the branches, that we all draw our life from the same vine, the same Love.
And it is to suggest that to be people of faith is to do what we can to remember this, to practice it, to institutionalize it, and to proclaim it in thought, word, and deed—to look long and carefully at the wounds of others even if it means we will be wounded ourselves in the looking.
The 20th century philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil said, “looking is what saves us.”[vi] And I suspect that looking deeply will allow love to live on as well in the lives of those who suffer most.
[i] Quoted in Wikipedia article “Gilead (novel)” retrieved on April 27, 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilead_(novel)#cite_note-11. Originally found in “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa” in The New York Review of Books, November 5, 2015. Retrieved April 27, 2018 from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/05/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation/.
[ii] 1 John 4:17-18a.
[iii] Robinson, Marilynne. Lila: A Novel (p. 86). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Ibid. (p. 86).
[v] Ibid. (p. 77).
[vi] Simone Weil. Waiting for God (p. 125). Harper Perennial, 2001. Thanks to Paul Blankenship, a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union working currently among the homeless in Seattle who reminded me of this quote in a presentation for a paper for the Center for Religious Wisdom and World Affairs at Seattle University on April 27, 2018.
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