Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Two years ago I read this book for the first time, but it was my fourth Robinson book in 2 months. This is a story about an elderly, decrepit, hopelessly loving preacher. Two of his children, the black sheep and one whose life accumulated baggage, have come home. Now I am back as its themes do well over and over again. There is a darkness to the realities of their lives, but so much redemptive material.
As I usually have my smartphone read these books to me a phrase caught in my ear while I was driving to work. The reading went on sentence-by-sentence, further and further into the book but I was missing them because my mind had anchored to three words. Finally, I paused the reading to unpack those words and did so all the rest of the way to work. Even the next morning while in the midst of this lesson I continued the thinking about it: “…as if he had trained himself to note the mere fact of kindness…” The last three words of these 13 were the substance of my many thoughts.
The fellow who seemed to have trained himself was a lifelong prodigal. He had come home to the immense satisfaction of his troubled father. Already there, though, was a sister whose life, too, had fallen into a bevy of complications. Here they both were with their father. Much of the story is about how these two broken and isolated children heal under there father’s roof in each other’s presence.
Jack Boughton, this almost unwitting black-sheep of the family, has lived a life of ill-repute. He did not even know really why he did so. Jack indicated that the worst part of his petty thefts was their inexplicability. Why did he steal the baseball glove of his father’s best friend? No idea. It was just a thing that he did, almost accidentally. Life this way did not treat him kindly, and he found himself off in a world where everything has a cost. Others are more willing to accept misdeeds if there is a motive.
When Jack experiences kindness, it is merely a fact to be observed, and then tagged with a “thank you.” He gives back his “thank yous” to mitigate the debts incurred by the kindness of others.
So, why am I interjecting this story into 1 John 3? Just as Jack’s need for misdeeds seemed to be but reflexes so also was the love of his father. Jack’s dad was unnerved by unconditional love. Jack’s father could not excuse or understand his son’s misdeeds, but he was also unnerved by his love for him, his graciousness toward him.
Guess what? Jack does not understand such love. He does not comprehend a love where kindness is not exchanged like coins. Kindness as an outpouring of a loving heart makes no sense to him. He is guarded viewing kindness as a way to take hostages.
John the Apostle says, “Look at God’s love! What kind of a love is it that we are welcomed into the family? God calls us his children. Really? Wow!” For some of us, this makes all the sense in the world. For others, it is foreign, ill-grasped, tricky. The thing is we are not dealing with mere facts of forgiveness, or redemption. There was no, “Oh great; I have to go die on the cross to obey my father and rescue these ungrateful humans.” That is redemption as fact, not redemption as kindness.
John does not struggle with facts, but easily accepts the love of God. He is trying hard to break down those barriers that others find so common.