Marilynne Robinson wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning novel called Gilead, I just finished reading it last night. It’s an epistle from a dying man to his beloved son. The father, a Reverend is 77 years old and writing to his seven year old son, whom he knows he will never see mature and wishes to leave him something tangible and heartfelt.
Ms. Robinson has deftly threaded stories of the past through glimpses of current life and heaped dollops of timeless questions of God’s grace and presence along with the Reverend’s concerns for the future of his wife and son.
The book is paced slowly and written in a way that reflects how our minds alight from dark memories to cherished moments and dreaded unknowns. It spans enough time to include civil war stories of Kansas on the cusp of the free land for slaves, through the era when television has made it’s way into our households. We get to experience hard times in our country’s midwest during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, when having food to eat meant a scrap of bread smeared with lard.
The antagonistic relationship of the Reverand’s own father with his grandfather overshadows the first half of the book, as the diametrically opposed politics and consequences affect three generations. Loss and pride sour and muddy what could have been a town’s family dynasty as the Reverend’s father and grandfather were also revered preachers of the Word.
Midway through the book we are introduced to a character that plagues the Reverend, as he is at odds with the man’s past laundry list of crimes and his sudden interest in the Reverend’s son and wife. We watch how he struggles with judging the man’s charachter and prays for guidance, how he is tested over and over to impart some sort of Godly wisdom to the man, and despairs at failing him again and again.
The Reverend is no stranger to loneliness and loss, he is ever grateful for his new family which he holds in the highest regard. His fractured relationship with his own father and brother affects his outlook on his own son. We see how segregated the life of the clergy can be, charged with lacing the entire community together with comforting words filled with clarity and spiritual food, yet people are hyper-aware and guarded when they are around.
There are well balanced discourses on God’s presence in our lives, prevenient grace and how our attitudes line up with God’s expectations. For example here is a passage from page 189:
“I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault. Those things can only be true. It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them. I have probably preached on that a hundred times.”
I found these insightful passages filled with enough food for thought to fill a book in and of itself. The tranquil writing paints a picture of the majesty of a small life, in a small town, with spectacular love held in and for the most ordinary of things.
“Trees sound different at night, and they smell different too.”
A father trying to gift his son with lifetime of insights with so short a time to spare, in doing so discovers that love and mercy are always available to us, no matter how educated in the Lord we may think we are. We can still learn and reach and forgive and receive even if it could be our last day on this planet after a long life lived.