Saturday, March 25, 2006

flannery o'connor and other matters

Life has been busy lately, so the posts have been less frequent.
Thanks for checking in to see what is here. Today is the birthday of
Flannery O' Connor. You can find Garrison Keillor's homage to her
at the Writer's Almanac link on this blog.

Here is a portion:

"Flannery O'Connor [was] born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). As a young girl
she was terribly
shy and prone to temper tantrums. She became famous in her
hometown when
she was five years old by teaching one of her chickens to walk
backward. A New York City reporter came and filmed the chicken for a newsreel.

She wanted either to be a writer or a cartoonist. During college, she
submitted her cartoons to The New Yorker, but she was rejected, so she
began to focus on her writing. She applied to one of the only creative
writing programs in the country at the time, the Iowa Writer's
Workshop, and she was almost rejected because the admissions
interviewer couldn't understand her southern accent.

Once she got into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, people there didn't know
what to make of her. She never read James Joyce or Franz Kafka, or any
of the other fashionable writers of the era. She was more interested
in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. During class, she almost
never spoke, and her classmates only knew she was listening by the way
she occasionally smiled when she thought something was funny.

But even though O'Connor was an outsider, her fiction impressed
everybody, and she won an award that got her a contract to publish her
first novel. She was still working on that novel when she began to
notice a heaviness in her arms while she typed. Traveling home to
Georgia for Christmas that year, she grew so sick on the train that
she had to be hospitalized when she arrived. It turned out that she
had inherited lupus, the same disease that had killed her father.

She moved in with her mother and began receiving steroid treatments,
which made it difficult to walk without crutches. She said at the
time, "I walk like I have one foot in the gutter but it's not an
inconvenience and I get out of doing a great many things I don't want
to do." Even though the disease made her extremely tired, she forced
herself to write for three hours every day on the screened in porch of
her mother's house. She wrote to her friend Robert Lowell, "I have
enough energy to write with and as that is all I have business doing
anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What
you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, (or so I tell

O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood came out in 1952. Three years later,
she published the story collection that made her name A Good Man Is
Hard To Find (1955). It contains her two most famous short stories: "A
Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose
entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good
Country People" about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is
stolen by a Bible salesman.

O'Connor filled her stories with crazy preachers, murderers, the
deformed, the disabled, freaks and outcasts. An uncle once asked her
why she didn't write about nice folks. O'Connor focused on the
grotesque because she said, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for
the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." She died a
little more than a week shy of her fortieth birthday".

Remembering Flannery O' Connor brought a number of connections to
the surface: Ralph Wood, my wife's professor at Wake Forest (now at Baylor),
introduced Pam and me to Flannery's short stories, especially "A Good
Man Is Hard To Find"; the first book my wife gave me, when we were still
dating, was a copy of The Habit of Being; O'Connor's short story "The River",
which has one of the most compelling baptism scenes in all of literature;
and her story "Parker's Back", which is a retelling of the crucifixion. And
I must mention "Revelation", a remarkable modern account of the last

There is more to say about O' Connor, but I would instead commend her
writings to you. She was a woman of deep Christian conviction and fierce
artistic vision. She was a master of the short story genre, which has always
seemed to me to be the best analogy to the sermon, in both length and in
what needs to happen, in terms of plot, from beginning to end. There was
always an epiphany, a revelation in the stories of Flannery O'Connor. Of
course, that would be a goal for my sermons too, but...


Lots more to comment on: two visits in the last month with groups of
one in Louisville (convened by Diana Butler Bass, and related to the
on Congregations of Intentional Practice), the second in Princeton
by Wallace Alston and related to the Center of Theological Inquiry).
to both initiatives can be found on this blog as well. I have completed a
manuscript on baptism, a brief book, my favorite kind, and also contributed
three sermons to the Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008 (!) and one to the
Biblical Preaching Journal. Two good friends and preachers, David Mosser
and Michael Mooty, edit these last two works, and they are among the best
resources for those who must get sermons together Sunday after Sunday.

I am also having fun teaching Life of The Beloved by Henri Nouwen.
I spent
a great deal of time with this book in the early 1990s, and came to
it in an
unusual way, via Mary and Gordon Cosby, which I will discuss at a
later time
also. I remembered a comment by David DeVries, a good friend,
that we
would benefit from reading a few classics in a continuous way,
rather than focusing
solely on new publications, and that comment inspired
me to go back to
Life of The Beloved.

It is a simple and compelling book--Nouwen likens the movements of the
spirit in
our lives to the words of the Eucharist: taken, blessed, broken
given. Many inProvidence are using it as their Lenten study. Tomorrow
morning I teach a number
of choir members, and will focus on the meaning
of "Holy Communion" for Nouwen
and for us. On Palm Sunday evening I will
preach on the word "broken". And on the
Wednesday of Holy Week, I will
lead a study of the word "given", in light of Nouwen's
concept of eternal life.


More still: the death of Buck Owens, today. Another sign that an era
has ended.Rejoicing that the Christian in Afghanistan will be released,
it seems. Morerejoicing that the three members of the Christian peacemaker
team were releasedlast week. The honor of officiating at the wedding of a
wonderful couple today. Gratitude that a capital campaign seems to be bearing
fruit, and enters now into the public phase.

Prayers for Don and Ramona Turman, missionaries toIndonesia, who visited
our church last week; Don supervised Pam and me in fieldeducation while we
were Duke Divinity Students, as we lived for the summer in Cherokee,
thanksgiving for their long life of faithful service. Prayers for a gentleman
in our church, near death, and for a couple, she also experiencing significant
health issues. And for members of our congregation on spring break with their
children, as they travel to Montana, various islands, New York City, Utah,
New England, and, of course, Disneyworld.


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