I first read Robinson’s Gilead on the road from California to Iowa as we were moving to serve our congregation in the home state of Robinson’s protagonist Rev. Ames. Finishing the novel in IA – and then getting my hands on the subsequent Home and Glory – was pure joy. The following quote has had a personal impact on me, I think I’ve used it as an illustration from the pulpit, and shared it with friends. We often ask ourselves, “How should I deal with difficult people?” But I think Robinson has it right. The real question, is “What opportunity is before me every moment?” (and I would add, “opportunity to live coram Deo for the purpose of soli Deo gloria). Here’s the quote:
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 perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.
Gilead p. 124
I have often been underwhelmed by Robinson’s “Calvinism” as little more than a historical curiosity or aethestic. But notice the strong theological assumptions here. A robust providence is responsible for this encounter, with real, beneficent, sovereignty bringing purpose and meaning. Human responsibility and spiritual obedience empowered by grace are highlighted. And yet, there is a simple (though not simplistic), integral truthfulness of how the voice of Ames conveys these truths.
Like so many of favorite authors – Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard – Robinson is a voice I love to return to over and over again.