(The UCU Standard – Monday, January 30, 2017)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ The short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a story taught in my literature class at UCU. It’s written by esteemed American writer Flannery O’Connor. At its end, the grandmother, a character in a lady-like flowery dress, is shot three times in the chest. It’s a horrible and violent death. The rest of her family had already been killed.
It doesn’t first seem like a promising way to share the good news that believers around the world hold so dear. But O’Connor, a devout Catholic, maintained that her desire was not to just to write stories, but to reveal in these stories the mystery of God’s grace in everyday life.
Her fictitious characters are plain and comical and sometimes grotesque in their inability to look in the mirror and see themselves with any accuracy. Violence, O’Connor said, is sometimes the only way to make these characters – and readers – understand their need for God’s grace. When looking eternity in the eye, things can get rather focused.
Of course grace, the undeserving and unmerited favour of God, is a word that’s used so often that it can get worn and void of any meaning. Grace can easily become cheap grace.
In some circles of faith, especially institutionalized circles, it’s also not unimaginable to miss the point of grace entirely. There are programs to run and degrees to bestow and, more than anything, answers to give.
The world can then become rather black and white: a world of good and bad, or moral and immoral, or saved and unsaved. Real life, however, is different. It’s more muddy. So are real people. More mystery is involved. And mystery, after all, is at the heart of God’s grace.
This is what O’Connor steadily said, even as Jesus said this when He made God’s grace accessible to any person through the violent and mysterious way of the crucifixion.
This is what we, my students and I, explored in my American literature class. Sometimes it’s a study of what I call theological art, the art being the text that’s studied. As said by the Misfit, the killer in O’Connor’s story, “Jesus was the One who raised the dead. And he shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance.”
All this would have stayed in the classroom except for one thing. At the end of this lesson, one student asked for a Bible. He’d never owned a Bible. Never read a Bible. From a country with a foreign faith and foreign language, he, in fact, came to Uganda and UCU to improve his English as much as study literature.
So I obliged. Thanks to my wife, I found not only an English New Testament but one gospel in his own language. In his mother-tongue, this student then read aloud for me on my front porch. It was a remarkable moment. I’ll never forget it. And I have memories from UCU over many years.
My own view (and I’m not alone) is that this reflects something unique about UCU, something latent and not yet developed. It’s this. With its rich spiritual heritage, alongside theological and university training, UCU could be a substantive centre for sending missionaries.
Historically, western missionaries travelled to Africa. And westerners can still fill certain roles very fittingly. But entire swaths of Africa, such as this student’s homeland, and regions beyond Africa are now far better served by indigenous Africans who are better equipped. And for less cost.
The spark of this thought might be fanned into something more at UCU someday. It might happen, as Ugandans say, “somehow.” In the meantime, we can keep alert to what just unfolded with this searching student. He’s not alone.
In this, grace and mystery is clear to see.