Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

That woman healed on the Sabbath

I’ve got this friend—let’s call him Jerry. He’s autistic. He’s also in his forties. He’s not a kid. I called him “a friend,” and I’m not patronizing him. I know he’d call me a friend because he does, even though what friend means to someone like Jerry may not be exactly what it means to me.

Last Sunday, as I drove him home from church, he did something he’s never done before: he inaugurated a conversation. Generally, he’s quite happy to be the recipient of my questions, but he’d never before brought anything up on his own.

“Jim,” he said, “you know that story about Jesus and the Jewish authorities?” I asked him which one. “You know that story about Jesus and the Jewish authorities?” he repeated, which he does. But, which one, I asked him again. “You know that story about Jesus and the Jewish authorities when he healed that woman on the Sabbath?”

That one, I said. Sure, I know that one.

“Why did Jesus get in trouble?” Jerry asked me.

He doesn’t ask questions normally, except in retaliation. What did you do last night, Jerry? Went out for dinner. What you have, chicken? I had a cheeseburger. I had a cheeseburger. I had a cheeseburger. You like cheeseburgers, Jerry? Why, do you?

But yesterday was different. “Why did Jesus get in trouble with the Jewish authorities?” Maybe four or five times.

So I told him Jesus got in trouble because he broke the law by healing the woman on the Sabbath. That answer did nothing more than incite a whole new round of the same old question. So I told him again. And I told him again. And again. Everything gets repeated.

Then, finally, I made him repeat the answers, and he did. I figured maybe the lesson got home by the time we did.

But the whole conversation was stunning because in the decade or so that I’ve known Jerry, he’d never before picked a topic out of the air and asked my opinion. We’d just come from church, but the preacher hadn’t said a word about Sabbath healings, not a word. That question had to be something that mind of his brought up specially, and I thought I’d been blessed.

Later, I told my wife what had happened. She knows far more about autism than I do. She told me that, in her estimation that particular Bible story would likely be troublesome to Jerry because his autism pushes him to regiment his life. He’s happy when he lives within the framework of structure and ritual.

When I pick Jerry up for church on Sunday, he goes through a ritual dance—with the door to the building, with the door of the car, with all kinds of things at the entrance to his apartment. He touches everything methodically, every last time, because order really pleases Jerry.

My wife says his concern with Jesus’s not pleasing “the Jewish authorities” may well stem, in part, from his inability to understand not so much why, but how Jesus—the Savior, his savior—could possibly violate that authority. My wife says a story like that might well drive Jerry crazy because it makes no sense. Jerry is not good at nuance.

Last night I taught a class of mine—smart kids, good kids—who’ve been reading the latest collection of Best American Short Stories.

Confession: I love the stories. I really do—almost every one of them.

Confession: some of those stories are not particularly righteous, and that’s understatement.

Confession: sometimes I wonder what my students’ parents would say if they knew what their good Christian prof was making them read. I know what my own mother would say.

Last night, one of the stories assigned was Beverly Jensen's “Wake,” a wild romp of a story about a fractured, battered family trying to put their miserable, oaf-ish father to rest, a jerk of a man who frequently made their lives miserable, if not impossible. The Hillards are a lyin’, cussin’, heavy drinkin’ gang of fools that every Sunday School teacher I know would love to hate. That story brings readers into the lives of these madcap folks--Beverly Hillbillies on bad bourbon—and somehow locates within them a precious core of their own beloved humanity.

Yesterday, our monthly church magazine arrived, and it was full—chocked full—of letters condemning an earlier article by a college prof, an article in which she’d said blessed things about Harry Potter.

Geesh. Harry Potter. Good night, I told myself, what on earth would those folks say about the stories I force my good, Christian kids to read? They’d have my hide. There’d be a hangin’, right here in River City, I swear, the Board of Trustees more than happy to kick out the plank.

In one of the stories last night, "L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story," by Lauren Groff, a 40-year-old swimming champ gets hired to rehabilitate a rich man’s precocious daughter, a 16-year-old who knows exactly what she wants and has more than rehabilitation in mind with her swimming teacher. In her first lesson, the two of them in the water together, without saying a word she makes it clear that she’s interested in more than his award-winning crawl.

I’ll spare the details, but it’s an incredibly good story, a love story. Shoot, I loved it. Most of my students did too. Should I? Should they?

Sometimes, the old man in me, the elderly prof in a Christian college, wonders if I’m doing the right thing, requiring contemporary fiction that make Harry Potter look like sixth-grade fantasy.

Look, I don’t know the answers to all of that; but I do know my answer, and it has to do with excellence. If I want my students to become the best writers they can be, then they’d better check out the stories readers in this world calls excellent; they’d better read at least something of the best American short stories. So we do.

And we do because we, in fact, live in a world my friend Jerry has a lot of trouble understanding, a world where some authorities are occasionally not so much wrong as beguiled by their own blinding righteousness. We live in a world where Sunday school doesn't always tell the whole story. Those Jewish authorities had good reason to protect the Sabbath; they were trying to be holy.

Shoot, the Bible isn't always the best book for Sunday school either. Maybe I'm trying to be holy in an unholy way. If that makes sense.

It does to me, but I doubt it does to Jerry.

Whatever. Next week the two of us will ride together to church. Maybe he’ll have more to say, more to teach me.

And then again next week, there’ll be more stories—for which, this morning, I’m very thankful.

1 comment:

Jesse Brauning said...

Fascinating.
I think I will read your blog more often.