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Rev. Joey N. Welsh:
Life-long learning and fullness of appreciation

Another Angle. Life-long learning and fullness of appreciation was first published 13 August 2006 in the Hart County News-Herald.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier Another Angle: Isaac Watts on the KY frontier

by The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Life-long learning and fullness of appreciation

In a recent sermon I referenced the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This book won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2006 Grawemeyer Award for Religion. I think it is a wonderful story, centering on a man who is thoroughly good and caring. The Reverend John Ames, the narrator, is a third-generation minister, the Congregational pastor in a small southwest Iowa town in the 1950's.

A widower who has married again late in life and become a father, he adores his very young son who is 70 years younger than he. Ames knows that his heart problems won't let him live much longer, and he wants his son to grow up knowing some things about the Ames family history, about faith and scripture, about relationships, and about real love and grace.

Long letter reads like entries in a diary

Ames writes his son a long letter that reads like the entries of a diary or a theological memoir. This letter comprises the entire text of the novel. There are no traditional chapter headings. Here is humor that is wonderfully warm and subtle. Once, when rocking his baby son, he is feeling very intimidated about holding this new life, his son he never expected to have so late in life. He does the natural thing, and hums and sings to the baby. It is only after his wife suggests that he might choose some happier music for the baby that he realizes he has used the hymn "Go to Dark Gethsemane" as a lullaby. At another point he wonders where on earth birds went to sit before telephone lines were invented.

There is nothing in the book that is vicious or exploitive or mean-spirited. The story is not a thriller, yet it is riveting. A good word to describe the mood of the book is prayerful. Ames is fond of walking slowly around the town in quiet contemplation, praying for each member of every household as he walks by the houses, praying for all living souls in the town on a single walk. In his writings for his son, Ames tells about scripture passages, past sermons, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.

Broken relationships and the concept of grace

He tells about the broken relationship between Ames' own father and grandfather. He tells about his dearest friend in ministry ("old Boughton") and that pastor's troubles with his son, John Ames Boughton, named after the narrator of the story. Ames tells about how these fractured relationships - and his attitudes toward them - touch on the concept of grace, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the practice of the sacraments.

Throughout the story we realize that the Rev. Ames has never stopped learning. His is an inquiring mind. He also has never ceased finding new things to appreciate. I find his outlook on life and faith very winsome. An old preacher's maxim says: beware of folks who take their stand for Christ, join the church, then never, ever move again. Those people may view themselves as God's favorites, but they could more properly see themselves as the "frozen chosen."

Never be frozen in space

The Rev. Ames is never frozen in place; he is a believer in life-long learning and appreciation. He even learns from and has appreciation for people and situations that are challenges to him. This attitude leads to my favorite passage in the book. It is found about halfway through the novel:
"This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind.

"But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it."
Never stop learning

Amen. We would do well to heed the words of guidance John Ames has left for his son. Let's never stop learning as individuals and as a society. Let's never stop appreciating life. Let's always look for the better way instead of the most popular way through life and faith. And let's learn from and appreciate people and situations, even when they at first appear as problems to us.

Have a good and growing time as the days of summer pass on by and we head toward fall!


This story was posted on 2010-07-18 06:53:23
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