November 29, 2020

A Letter from Gilead

By Chaplain Mike

My dearest children,

This weekend I had the profound pleasure to visit with the Rev. John Ames, a Congregational minister from Gilead, Iowa. He came to my attention and told me his stories through Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead.

Hearing him speak and weave his tales was a revelation, I must say.

Like you, John was born into a preacher’s family. However, unlike our family, the vocation of minister was everywhere among his kin, on both his father and mother’s side. It was in their blood.

Ames’s father and grandfather were particularly strong influences on him. His father’s father was a legendary, larger than life figure who had moved from Maine to Kansas in the 1830’s to support the abolitionists. Over the years, he kept a lot of secrets about his activities in Kansas–it was a wild and tempestuous era in our history–and it’s likely he had a great deal of human frailty and perhaps downright impiety to confess to the Lord when all was said and done. He joined a graybeard regiment in the Civil War and ended up losing an eye, came home and moved in with his son’s family for a time, and then ran back off to Kansas, where he died in a town that died too, because of the railroad and drought.

One of the formative events in John’s life was when his father took the boy (at age twelve) and set off to find the old man’s grave. They had a hard time of it, travel being what it was then, and the parchedness making food and comfort hard to come by. They put themselves at great risk of dying themselves, out there in that desolate land. But John’s father had to make the journey. The last words he and his own father had exchanged were angry and bitter, and it drove him to find one last way to honor the man.

Father and son finally found the unkempt graveyard, which John describes as “just a patch of ground with a half-fallen fence around it and gate on a chain weighted with a cowbell.” They fixed up the fence as best they could. Then, borrowing some tools from a nearby farmhouse, they tended to the ground, cutting the brush, righting the falling markers, and being careful not to tread on the graves. After scattering flower seeds they had carried from their own garden, John’s father offered a prayer, asking for pardon and remembering his father to the Lord.

It was during that prayer that John had an epiphany. I will let him describe it.

Moonrise, Berberian

Every prayer seemed long to me at that age, and I was truly bone tired. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but after a while I had to look around a little. And this is something I remember very well. At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, “Look at the moon.” And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time. I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.

My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.”

And that, dear children, is one of the main things you should know about John Ames. He’s learned what it means to stand squarely between the horizons, and he can describe the light.

Let me tell you a bit more about this fine man.

John Ames married in his youth. But his bride and first child died during childbirth, and the young preacher was bereft for years. He faithfully served his church and community, writing each sermon out by hand, filing them in boxes that eventually made their way to the attic. In his older years, a woman a generation younger than he walked in to church one morning, captured his heart, and they were married. They had a child in John’s old age, and the stories he tells were always intended for the boy to hear first. Having missed the chance to walk through life with a child, to impart wisdom along the way, having never been a living example to his own flesh and blood in home and parish, John Ames saved up all those stories, all those lessons, and passed them on in writing to his beloved son.

Oh! to hear him tell them. He often writes of plain and pleasant matters. Like me, for example, John loves baseball. In fact, I heard him say once that the greater part of his life consisted of “getting by on books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches.” Now, that’s my kind of man. He describes the beauty of the simple art of playing catch like few I know. Plus, he agrees with me that watching baseball on television is rather two-dimensional compared with listening on the radio.

John also has a dry and captivating way about telling a funny tale. I still smile when I recall his story about how the townspeople, who were much into digging tunnels as secret passages for runaway slaves, had to deal with an unexpected crisis. A man passing through town in his horse-drawn wagon fell right through the earth into a great hole caused by a cave-in of one of those tunnels. The folks from town sweet-talked the fellow into taking another horse in trade, then they fed his poor half-buried animal oats soaked in whiskey so he would fall asleep and give them time to dig him out. I also enjoyed the account about when John’s godson stole one of the first automobiles in town. By the time it was found, it had been sold and traded so many times the law wasn’t sufficient to prosecute all the parties involved.

But, my dear children, what I really want to tell you about John Ames is that he understands where life’s roots take hold. He has the wisdom to know that, in the end, life is all about family. It all comes down to the curses our families lay on our heads and the blessings they give to our hearts. Oh yes, and what we do to pass all of that on to our children. Bottom line, life is about how we deal with the family stuff, what we do with it, where we run from it, how we get reconciled to it.

You can’t know John Ames, or me, or anyone, without knowing about the family. Fathers and grandfathers, brides and babies, generations of strong women, sibling rivalries, and prodigal children slinking home–none can escape the effects of what happened in our heritage and what transpires in our homes.

John Ames’s best friend, another minister in town named Boughton, surprised the Rev. Ames at the very moment John was baptizing Boughton’s son. As a gift to the bereaved young minister, Rev. Boughton announced, right there at the christening, that the child’s name would be “John Ames Boughton.” Having lost his own child, he now had a namesake.

Well, let me tell you, that godson, nicknamed “Jack,” became the black sheep of the Boughton family. As he grew up he was constantly in trouble, and some of his mature sins were so despicable as to bring everlasting shame on his family name. When John Ames began to write his memoirs for his young son, Jack had found his way back to town, and the preacher had a complicated problem on his hands. I won’t tell you here how it all worked out, but suffice to say that Jack’s presence caused a great deal of uneasiness in his own home and in the home of Rev. Ames.

Somehow, it always comes back to family. Our relationships with the ones closest to us shape us most. This is often not apparent until we take time, as John Ames did, to reflect on the journey and discover that the wide open world of choice and opportunity we thought was ours for the taking was, in reality, just scenery along the narrow path we were bound to walk.

And so, my children, I am afraid you are, to a large degree, stuck with what you’ve received. As I said before, that will be both a blessing in your heart and a curse on your head at various times throughout your life. And I don’t mean to imply that you are limited merely to live out a script written for you. Like John Ames, I believe in a living God who takes the material that is present and shapes it in ways most surprising and unforeseen. Yes, he works with what he finds, and none of us are made up of what you might call unblemished stock. But what he can do, children, what he can do!

As John Ames says,“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who would have the courage to see?”

I hope you will take a courageous stand firmly between the horizons, where the light from the setting sun and rising moon mingles, where even an old graveyard can shine by heaven’s pure light.

For those of you who would like to get to know John Ames for yourself and read the memoir he wrote to and for the son of his old age, I urge you to get a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gilead: A Novel, as soon as possible.

You will be glad you got to know John Ames. And perhaps you will get to know yourself a little better too.


  1. This is a fantastic book, really, one of the best I’ve read. One of the best things about is how quotable some sentences are! Marilynne Robinson really did an awesome job! She’s a Calvinist too, not that such a thing really matters.

    Btw, Barack Obama and John Piper list this book as one of their favorites. Interesting, no? The amazing power of literature I say!

  2. This book made me yearn for something that I still cannot put my finger on.

  3. Yes, Yes, and Yes – truly one of the most spellbinding books I’ve ready. And the follow up book “Home” – oh, achingly beautiful. It is written from the point of view of the youngest Boughton daughter and you learn quite a bit about dear Jack. He really does become dear. And he does break everyone’s hearts, even the reader’s.

  4. Gilead is an amazing book that is full of deep truths and simple beauty. Some sections are almost devotional in nature … so much so that I bought a hardback copy just to be able to underline profound sections.


  5. It’s been some years since I read Gilead – so thank you for bringing me back. One passage especially has stuck; “That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.” I needed to remember this today.

    • One of my favorite passages, Sue. I wish I had used it in the post now.

      • My mind now has been traveling down this road all morning. Probably will need to blog about it. David Brooks mentioned in a commentary some time ago about a 1911 book he had discovered, “Autobiography of an elderly Woman”. I associate one quote from this book with Robinson’s passage above; “We have learned then that we can’t help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single little stone we can clear before their feet.” As a mother of 5 adult children I have given this much thought – as I have repeatedly and with no success tried to remove even a pebble.

  6. Brilliant book. I’ve noticed it on various reading lists in a good number of theological schools.

  7. A wonderful book! I was on the waiting list for months to finally get it to read.

    Thanks Mike for that also wonderful story review.


  8. Dan Crawford says

    I love Marilyn Robinson’s novels: I’m always surprised to hear she is a Calvinist – I’m grateful that what shines forth so beautifully in her novels is a Christian faith considerably more hopeful than Calvinism.

  9. A very touching article, Mike. Thank you.

  10. Love, love love her writing. I too was amazed to find that she is a Calvinist. Read Housekeeping first- really quirky family. It took a long time to read Gilead- because I had to keep re-reading and sometimes just sitting in astonishment at such beautiful writing.