I’ve been getting into some novels again lately and enjoying it. This time of year is great for lying in the hammock, kicking back and reading and I’ve been able to slow the work rate with the business down so it’s been nice to be able to settle into a few books.
Eyrie by Tim Winton is the story of a 49 year old man whose life has just fallen apart. Tom Keeley was environmental activist who went too far one day and lost his job, his wife and his cushy lifestyle and now finds himself holed up in a dingy one bedroom Fremantle high rise. His life is on the skids, he drinks too much and takes too many pills.
He grew up in a family of faith where his dad was a rough working class bloke who found God. Winton describes him as ‘half Billy Graham and half Billy Jack’. He was a protector of others and a man who was known for his muscular faith. He defended those who couldn’t look out for themselves and one of those people was Gemma, a young girl who lived down the street, who men took advantage of, until Nev gave them a hiding (in the name of Jesus)
Now Tom finds himself living next door to this girl from his childhood with her autistic son. She is a bigger mess than ever and he finds himself drawn into her life – to help – but also conflicted by his own selfish needs.
He wants to find his way again in life but he doesn’t know where to start… He wants live a decent life but what does that look like?
Then there’s Barracuda by Christos Tsoilkas, author of The Slap. Danny grows up in a working class Aussie family and discovers he is a good swimmer. He earns a scholarship to an elite boys school where he goes and swims expecting to make the Olympics. He does very well, but in the world of elite swimming he is not elite enough. He fails, his dreams are shattered and he can’t cope with his failure. He ends up assaulting another swimmer and going to jail for a short time and his life comes unstuck in every way.
This novel is about Dan trying to figure out what it ‘means to be a good man’. He works with the disabled – he inherits a large sum of money and tries to give it to his family all as a way of making up for his failings. But he is on a quest to ‘right his life’. Barracuda is actually a very good story and intriguing in the way it follows Danny’s screwed up life and his desire to make things right.
My next read is Khaled Hossein’s new one ‘And the Mountains Echoed’. Hussein is another writer who regularly writes stories of people seeking to live lives of goodness – seeking redemption and wholeness often out of great darkness.
If you’ve read the Kite Runner you would remember that Amir’s quest throughout the book is to make up for his abandonment and betrayal of his friend Hassan. He watches him get beaten up and raped and says nothing – in fact he has his father dismissed from his job as a servant in their home because he can’t live with his shame.
The book opens with the words ‘there is a way to be good again’. And the rest of the story looks at how Amir seeks to atone for his failures. How he tries hard to find his way in life again – to be ‘good again’.
And my hunch is that that theme is so common in literature – because it is so common in humanity. The quest for a life that is noble and honourable and good. The desire to overcome the evil that lurks in us and to somehow ‘right the ship’.
With few exceptions, (because there are some wackos out there) none of us wants to live a bad life. None of us wants to screw up our own lives and the lives of others.
But because we are naturally self centred – because it is part of our DNA to seek our own best interests first – that is the trajectory our life will take unless there is another power at work. And unless a new imagination of life can grasped, we will inevitably find our lives veering in that direction. Like a car with steering problems it takes all of your effort just to keep the thing on the road.
Most people live trying to balance the scales of life in favour of ‘good’ never really knowing if they’ve done enough – or if they’ve done enough if that ‘enough’ was done with the right motives – and will it count?
What does it mean to live well – to live a full life – to live in ‘shalom’ – peace – wholeness and goodness as God intends?
No one ever wants to think of themselves as a bad person… Why is that?… Why does goodness matter even to people who aren’t that good?
And you know in your gut that this is true. Its what we contend with. Our own brokenness and fallibility – our own darkness constantly reminding us that all is not well.
Sooner or later as you go thru this life you come to the dark realisation that you are broken – that you are messed up and your brokenness affects everything about you and everything you do.
Some of us hide that well – we appear to be ‘together’ – while for others of us it just leaks out all over the place and there is a big ‘mess’. And I’m not talking about being criminally messed up – I’m just talking about realising that because of who you are life does not seem to work as it should.
Because of who you are you never feel content. Because of who you are your marriage is always on the edge. Because of the person you are its hard to keep a job – or its hard to have friends. Because of who you are your finances are in a mess. Because of who you are your kids are living dysfunctional, destructive lives.
And you hate that. You despise your part in your own dysfunction
But you don’t know what to do… You don’t have an answer…
And even if your life is not in chaos – you still know that something is not right. The quest to attain to the kind of life we hope for feels always out of reach.
Its where the Jesus story offers such great hope. There is a ‘way to be good again’, but it doesn’t stem from our own efforts and our own ability to right the ship. It comes from his willingness to take the penalty for our sin and to rise again and offer that power to us to follow him and live differently.
There is way to be good again, but it s rooted in grace rather than in earning. It is an act of God that restores us rather than our own performance. Its totally counterintuitive and it isn’t a theme we see in much literature. Most of it is people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and ‘making good’.
Les Miserables is possibly the best picture of the nature of grace and the way it can transform in a way that effort never could. Valjean experiences love and grace at the hands of the priest who could have sent him back to jail and it transforms his life for ever. Javert lives by the law and finishes a broken man.
There is a way to be good again, but it finds its life in the gracious salvation God offers through Jesus rather than in our own moral actions.
As I read the end of Mark’s gospel again this week I am reminded again of God’s plan of redemption, from creation to the cross and beyond – to see his kingdom come and the world renewed, all hinging on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And then our willingness to surrender and follow him, believing he is the one who offers us the shalom we seek.