Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Life Stranger than Fiction

I have long been taken with Walker Percy.  I am fascinated more by his life than by his novels.  I am not much of a fiction reader, to be honest, but I have learned from his profound essays.  Much of what I write below is drawn from the moving PBS special on his life.

If it were not biography, Tennessee Williams could have written the life of Walker Percy.  He was born into a prominent and tragic Southern family.  His grandfather had committed suicide.  His father was a prominent Birmingham attorney, with wealth and privilege.  He, too, ended his life.  Suicide felt like the family curse to Walker, and he wondered if he were destined to walk that same road.

Walker, his brothers and his mother went to live with his cousin, "Uncle" Will Percy, himself the author of a haunting memoir Lanterns on the Levee (a very worthwhile read).  Will was a Southern gentleman, never married, and a leading citizen of Greenville, MS.  His father LeRoy, whom he lionized, was a United States Senator who stood down the Klan.  Will himself had rather liberal sympathies.  Greenville was anything but a stereotypical Southern town.  It produced a progressive newspaper, edited by Hodding Carter.  It had a prominent synagogue.  It was wealthy beyond imagining and a cosmopolitan oasis in the Mississippi Delta.  Will entertained luminaries of every sort in his capacious estate and Walker was the beneficiary of it.  His childhood friend included another man who would become an equally prominent Southern author --Shelby Foote.

While still a young man, Walker's mother drowned.  She was driving on a treacherous road, her car came around a sharp corner and missed the entrance to a bridge.  She drowned with her younger son in the car.  He lived, but she died.  Walker was soon at the scene --he did not know it was his mother's car until he arrived.

One can understand why a young man might want to leave much of this behind.  The settled philosophy of his early life was agnosticism --he was to be a man of science.  He went to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He settled on becoming a doctor, and studied pathology at Columbia University.  While there, working on cadavers, he contracted tuburculosis, and was forced to lie flat on his back for months in a sanitorium.

At some point, Walker began to realize that science could not account for the deeper, richer things in life --beauty, love, nor could it grapple with man's plight, blindly trying to make his way in the silent universe, sensing there is meaning, but not being able to read what that meaning was.  He awakened to the reality of God, yet not without profound and burning questions.  He had been profoundly influenced by existentialism.  He became a Christian Existential Catholic.  Existentialism prizes the individual acting decisively.  While in the sanitorium, he resolved to marry his long-time fiancee, become a Catholic and move to New Orleans.

Only he didn't quite move to New Orleans.  He settled in the nearby town of Covington, and writes movingly of why he did so.  Though becoming a literary giant through his novel, The Moviegoer, he was a regular citizen, in his later days, found at the waffle house and driving a beat-up Toyota.

He and his wife, Mary Bernice ("Bunt"), had two daughters.  They would take walks down by the river.  Because snakes abounded, Walker carried a rifle.  Once, when the younger daughter was a baby, he shot a snake.  Bernice and the older daughter winced.  The younger daughter didn't make a sound --they had just discovered she was deaf.

Percy's life was marked by tragic and difficult circumstances.  Many people's are.  Is it right to draw lessons from a person's life?  Was it Percy's circumstances that gave him so many things to say?

I wanted to introduce you to Walker Percy because he has some wonderful things to say --perhaps I'll chronicle some of those in a later post.  I am not commending him religiously or philosophically.  I am commending him because he makes me think.  Maybe he will make you think, too.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Some Random Thoughts about Doing Good while Doing Minimal Harm

There has been a lot of healthy talk in Christian circles lately about how best to go about doing good in the name of Christ.  Both Fikkert and Corbett's When Helping Hurts and Tim Keller's Generous Justice contribute much to this discussion.  Some of this is distilled from them, and some from my own experiences.  Some of it may not even be right!  Just some thoughts.

1.) You have to be willing to be "taken," up to a point, without getting jaded.  This is really difficult.  The Christian should be wise --we don't want to help in a way that winds up hurting, but neither do we want to deny aid just because a person might be playing us.

2.)  Sometimes, the best thing to offer is comfort, support and companionship.  Some financial holes are simply too deep for most individuals (or even congregations) to fill.  The apostles once said to a beggar, "Silver and gold have I none."  Of course, they promptly offered healing that is beyond most of our spiritual gifting, but we can offer the same Jesus.

3.)  When in doubt, ask for counsel.  If you are faced with a decision as to how to help, or whether to help, get some quick counsel from like-minded brothers and sisters.  They will help you avoid purely emotional or reactionary decisions.

4.) Don't be too cautious.  God is with you and you have the Holy Spirit.  Not all doing good is safe.  Don't be foolish (I was once, and am glad I escaped), but don't be reticent.  Don't let the possible worst case scenario, or all the potential contingencies, keep you from helping someone.

5.) Doing real and lasting good is very hard to do.  Many people's problems are the result of factors far out of your control (relationship issues, health difficulties, lifestyle choices).  You can often alleviate immediate needs, but more needs will present themselves because of poor choices or just the size of the predicament the person is in.  Do what you can, but realize you can't do everything.

6.)  If you don't know how to help a person in a particular situation, get to know some people who do.

7.) Be willing to say "no," while still offering support.  Sometimes people will ask you to do things that are dangerous for them (like collecting an outstanding debt).  Politely refuse and tell them why.

8.) Be careful what you pray for.  Sunday night we had a prayer service.  Since we are an urban church, I told the congregation we needed to ask God to bring us all sorts of people, and help us welcome them and meet whatever needs we can.  Immediately afterwards (actually before!) an acute need became available.

9.)  Expect unexpected blessings.  Getting involved in peoples' messy lives is hard.  You will probably get hurt and taken advantage of.  But, you will also get some really awesome unexpected blessings, too.  I've seen it --tangibly and really.  I don't want to share details because of the potential for embarrassing some involved, but let's just say it can be spectacular to help people.

10.) Build relationships, don't just write checks.  We are good at alleviating guilt by giving money.  Money is necessary, to be sure.  Look to build friendships.  Ask for God to bring you friends who present particular challenges --who aren't from your walk of life, your race, your education level, your economic class.  Take them out, invite them over (Jesus said to!).  People are people.  You will be surprised at the deep bonds that can be forged.

11.)  It's not wrong to feel good about doing good.  Kant told us that if a virtuous act made us feel good, it wasn't virtuous (or something like that).  Nonsense.  It's okay to feel satisfaction when you help somebody.  It's part of the reward.  You won't always feel it, and not feeling it is not a reason for not doing it, but when you do, enjoy it.  "I did somebody some good today" is not a bad thing.