One Christmas, Owen Meany, the remarkable title character in John Irving’s terrific novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, plays the role of the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come in a local production of A Christmas Carol. At the climactic scene when he shows Scrooge the empty grave that is waiting for him, with its carved tombstone, Owen, too, looks at the grave and the stone, and promptly faints. The reason he fainted, Owen explains later, is that, in a kind of mystical vision, he had seen his own name on the tombstone. But, he reports to his best friend, there were no dates carved on the stone.
It transpires in the novel that Owen Meany did see dates on the stone. And since he was the son of a stone-carver, it also transpires that Owen Meany then carves his own tombstone and correctly inscribes on it the dates of his birth and his own death, on the basis of his vision during the childhood performance of the play.
Owen Meany believed in God, though he was surrounded by people who struggled with their belief, if they believed at all. He’d have had no trouble with Saint Paul’s well-known assertion that all things work together for good for those who love God. But most of us struggle with this idea, much as we struggle with the ideas of pre-destination, justification, and glorification that Paul writes about. But it might be enough for us today to ask ourselves if it’s true that all things work together for good for those that love God?
Let us admit that there is ample evidence to the contrary. There was certainly ample evidence to the contrary for Owen Meany. He was a freakishly small boy with a strange voice that didn’t seem to change at puberty, and he was regarded by nearly one and all as an oddity. Nothing in the plot of the novel hinges on Owen’s faith – it is simply a given. The crucial moment of the novel, like the crucial moment of Owen’s life, actually hinges on a trick basketball shot that Owen and his best friend have practiced their entire life.
To recount the details of this rather intricate story would take more time than we have, since it involves, at the end of the story, a deranged psychopath, a gaggle of nuns, and a bunch of Vietnamese orphans, these latter two groups endangered by the psychopath, who encounters them with a hand grenade. Owen and his best friend manage to save the day by using their trick basketball shot to dispense with the grenade through a small window, but their valor comes at the cost of Owen’s life.
It is typical of John Irving novels that a myriad of seemingly unrelated details come together in the end to be stitched together into a climax that shows you the meaning of all these things. But the question we face is whether or not this is also true in real life – whether the myriad details of our lives are eventually stitched together with meaning: whether or not all things really do work together for good for those who love God.
We find this hard to believe – even in a novel, certainly in real life. It would be hard to convey this message today, for instance, to the people of Oslo, after the massacre there that’s taken the lives of 92 innocent people there. And it is a cruel and painful disappointment that the Scriptures contain no answer to the question of why such things happen in the world.
Christians, sharing in the Jewish heritage, have often searched for but never found the answer to why bad things happen to good people. The entire Book of Job is concerned with this question, and never provides an answer. Jesus himself did not offer much teaching on the subject. It is a chronic mystery of our relationship with God and an equally chronic reality of our daily lives that terrible things happen to all kinds of people – the good and the bad.
So the statement that all things work together for good for those who love God is not a report on the current condition of our lives or of the world. It is, rather, an encouragement to begin to see the world differently. Because sometimes faith is a matter of vision – of seeing things differently than we once saw them.
Whenever I hear this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, I remember a bishop I once heard preach on this very line: all things work together for those who love God. He was a retired bishop who’d had a happy ministry and a long and happy marriage. He told us from the pulpit how retirement had seemed to be a fulfillment of the promise in Paul’s letter. He had landed a post as a chaplain on the QE-II and he and his wife had begun regular journeys on that great ship, always returning to their comfortable home in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m sure there were other details, but these are enough to give you the picture that all things seemed to be working together for good for these two who had loved God so well and so long.
But, the bishop said, this dreamy existence did not last long. Not long after retirement he was diagnosed with cancer – what form, I can’t recall, suffice it to say that treatment was only mildly effective at best - and it seemed that the number of his days was beginning to come into view. The cruises on board the ocean liner came to an end. The happy existence in Newport was disrupted for regular trips to New York for chemotherapy, or radiation, or whatever. The ease of life was replaced by a battle with pain. Walking now required a cane. How could all things be working together for good for this man and his wife, who had loved God?
Now, let me tell you that this sermon impressed me greatly. It was moving and hopeful and forceful in its proclamation of faith. It must have been nearly twenty years ago that I heard it, and I have remembered these details of the story as far as it goes – I remember the bad things that happened to these good people. But for years, though I have tried to recall it, I have been unable to remember what came next. I have been unable to remember his answer to the question – why did this happen to you? Why was your happiness cut off? How is it that anything at all was working for good in your life as you gave up the things you thought you’d worked to enjoy, and as you endured the pain of your illness, and saw your own end move more clearly into sight? How is it that all these things were working together for good?
And for years I have been unable to recall the answer to that question that the bishop might have supplied. Did he tell us some secret of faith that I have foolishly forgotten? Did he turn the key of wisdom and understanding in the lock of mystery and show us how it all made sense? Did he reveal some insight that turned the cloud of his illness in-side-out so that it became all silver lining? How could I be so silly as to forget this most important part of the sermon, which, frankly would come in handy right about now!?
The truth is that it is easy to end the sermon right where I started forgetting, just after the going got tough, and the gentle suasions of Saint Paul began to seem unlikely. Isn’t that what most of us do? We find it nearly impossible to believe that all things work together for good. We are offended at the suggestion that if it were so, it might only be so for those who love God. And we are affronted this week by havoc-wreaking gunfire, cloaking itself in the name of Christianity, that took the lives of 92 people in Norway. And tomorrow there will be another atrocity somewhere else.
No wonder I have forgotten the good part of the bishop’s sermon! Where is the good part for those 92 families now grieving their loved ones? Where is the good part for the people whose lives have been ruined in spate of natural disasters recently? Where is the good part for those who live in extreme poverty, as many millions in the world still do? Where is the good part for the unemployed of this country?
As I say, it’s easy to end the sermon before you get to the good part – that’s how life often seems to be for so many people.
I have concluded that I have forgotten the good part of that sermon because it contained no answer to the question, “Why?” – which is what would have amounted to the good part under the circumstances. And an answer never existed. I do not think for one minute that that bishop could explain why his life took such a turn. I do not think he believed he should be able to explain it. What I remember is this – that that bishop, standing in the pulpit with his cane, talking about the cancer that would not too long thereafter take his life, said that he believed more than ever that all things work together for good for those who love God?
And I believe that the only thing that could account for this assertion is a change of vision, a way of seeing God’s mercy at work especially in the painful moments of life, of discovering that the love of a husband and wife, for instance, could endure not just the good life, but a hard sickness, too.
And Saint Paul was not trying teach about some secret that brings good out of bad, he was trying to teach a new way of seeing. He was trying to talk about the God who knows the number of hairs on your head, and who accounts for you as of greater value than many sparrows. He was reminding us that the greatest love ever known has been the love of God made know in the death of his Son on the Cross. He was showing us that pain can be hallowed, that suffering is not punishment.
Paul knew, as God knows, that we would encounter hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. He knew that death lay ahead of him, as it lies ahead for each of us, as it is written, “we are being killed all day long.” But Paul saw what God wants all of his children to see. He saw the goodness in simply knowing you are a child of God and that God regards you as the apple of his eye, and holds you in his hand.
At the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen, having absorbed the blast of the grenade to save the children, lies dying as his oldest and best friend stands over him, unable to help. Owen looks at his friend and says, “YOU’RE GETTING SMALLER, BUT I CAN STILL SEE YOU!”
“Then,” the narrator, his friend, writes, “he left us; he was gone. I could tell by his almost cheerful expression that he was at least as high as the palm trees.” And the date on which he died was the date he had carved onto his own tombstone.
It’s so easy to end the sermon before you get to the good part. Because it’s hard to see with the eyes of faith that show us that all things working together for good, does not mean just the good parts; it also, and especially means that the bad parts are somehow, by God’s providence, working together for good for those who love God.
I thank God that at least once in my life I heard a man who happened to be a bishop, tell the story of how the bad parts didn’t deter him from believing that all things work together for good for those who love God. Because having heard that sermon to the end, I at least know where to look – and looking, seeing, having a different kind of vision, is the thing.
It is the vision that assures us that in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. And the vision that convinces us that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
24 July 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia