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Friday, September 26, 2008

There is a balm in Gilead

Back in March, I won a copy of Gilead, a book with which I was totally unfamiliar, from my blogger friend at Two Square Meals. I recieved it just before we left for a get-away weekend, but didn't get a chance to start it that weekend. We were...uh, busy. Heh.

Finally, earlier this summer, I got a chance to pick up this wonderful, beautiful, book. It is written as a memoir of an elderly pastor to his young son (he married very late in life, yet his wife was quite young).

"Your mother told you I was writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you? I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames.... At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa.... And what else should I tell you?"

From there the author, Marilynne Robinson, weaves a tale that stretches through the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War I and II - and yet, barely leaves the small, dusty town of Gilead where Ames' grows up the son of a pastor and becomes a pastor himself.

What shine throughout this book are John Ames' relationships with his brother, grandfather, son, wife, friend and fellow pastor, Boughton, and his namesake and Boughton's prodigal son. The centerpiece of the story is this prodigal son's return to his hometown of Gilead. John Ames must find the grace to forgive the person that has perhaps caused him the most pain by hurting those he loves. This forgiveness is personally costly to Ames, but certainly an amazing example of Christian grace and love. Marilynne Robinson's ability to express this in the simplest (and yet most profound) passages makes this book such a joy to read. I felt uplifted even in the saddest moments of the story.

Let me share some of my favorite quotes...

"To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise...."

Ames often comes across his old sermons and here he comments on one:
" makes the point that, in Scripture, the one sufficient reason for the forgiveness of debt is simply the existence of debt. And it goes on to compare this to divine grace, and to the Prodigal Son and his restoration to his place in his father's house, though he neither asks to be restored as son nor even repents of the grief he has caused the father."

"Last night I finished 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine'. It gave me sort of a turn for a while. The old man sees the girl with someone her own age and remarks how well suited they are, and then he starts getting old and shabby and broke, and she's still very beautiful, of course. But it all turns out fine. She loves him only and forever.... It strikes me that your mother could not have said a more heartening word to me by any other means than she did by loving that unremarkable book so much that I noticed and read it, too. That was providence telling me what she could not have told me."

"I don't know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else's virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it."

And that is the word that comes to mind when I think of John Ames, Boughton, and the town of Gilead: Beauty.

Yes, there is a balm in Gilead.

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TwoSquareMeals said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it. She just put out a companion book, telling the story of Boughton's son's return from the persepective of Glory Boughton. It's gotten fantastic reviews. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Kerry said...

Thank you again for sharing with me one of your favorite books.

I'm thrilled to hear there is more to read about Gilead. I especially wanted to know more about John Ames Boughton and Glory, so I'll be looking for that in paperback!