In honor of his passing, I want to share two of my favorite stories from Abba's Child. (all quotations from Mannings book are in italics.)
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The book opens with the following story that hit me right between the eyes. It was like looking into a mirror where the underpinnings of my own adolescent faith were painfully revealed:
In Flannery O'Conner's short story The Turkey, the antihero and principle protagonist is a little boy named Ruller. He has a poor self-image because nothing he turns his hand to seems to work. At night in bed he overhears his parents analyzing him. "Ruller's an unusual one,: his father says. "Why does he always play by himself?" And his mother answers, "How am I to know?"
One day in the woods, Ruller spot a wild and wounded turkey and sets off in hot pursuit. "Oh, if only I can catch it," he cries. He will catch it, even if he has to run it out of state. He sees himself triumphantly marching through the front door of his house with the turkey slung over his shoulder and the whole family screaming, "Look at Ruller with that wild turkey!" "Ruller, where did you get that turkey?"
"Oh, I caught it in the woods. Maybe you would like me to catch you one sometime."
But then the thought flashes across his mind, "God will probably make me chase that damn turkey all afternoon for nothing." He knows he shouldn't think that way about God - yet that's the way he feels. If that's the way he feels, can he help it? He wonders if he is unusual.
Ruller finally captures the turkey when it rolls over dead from a previous gunshot wound. He hoists it on his shoulders and begins his messianic march back through the center of town. He remembers the things he had thought before he got the bird. They were pretty bad, he guesses. He figures God has stopped him before it's too late. He should be very thankful. "Thank You, God," he says. "Much obliged t You. This turkey must weigh ten pounds. You were mighty generous."
Maybe getting the turkey was a sign, he thinks. Maybe God wants him to be a preacher. He thinks of Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy as he enters town with the turkey slung over his shoulder. He wants to do something for God but he doesn't know what to do. If anybody were playing the accordion on the street today, he would give them his dime. It is the only dime he has but he would give it to them.
Two men approach and whistle at the turkey. They yell at some other men on the corner to look. "How much do you think it weighs?" they ask.
"At least ten pounds," Ruller answers.
"How long did you chase it?"
"About an hour," says Ruller.
"That's really amazing. You must be very tired."
"No, but I have to go," Ruller replies.
"I'm in a hurry." He cannot wait to get home.
He wishes he would see somebody begging. Suddenly he prays, "Lord, send me a beggar. Send me one before I get home." God has put the turkey here. Surely God will send him a beggar. He knows for a fact God will send him one. Because he is an unusual child, he interests God. :Please, one right now" - and the minute he says it, an old beggar woman heads straight toward him. His heart stomps up and down in his chest. He spring at the woman, shouting, "here, here," thrusts the dime into her hand, and dashes on without looking back.
Slowly his heart calms and he begins to feel a new feeling - like being happy and embarrassed at the same time. Maybe, he thinks, he will give all him money to her. H feels as if the ground does not need to be under him any longer.
Ruller notices a group of country boys shuffling behind him. He turns around and asks generously, "Y'all wanna see this turkey?"
They stare at him. "Where did ya get that turkey?"
"I found it in the woods. I chased it dead. See it's been shot under the wing."
"Lemme see it," one boy says. Ruller hands him the turkey. The turkey's head flies into his face as the country boy slings it up in the air and over his own shoulder and turns. The other turn with him and saunter away.
They are a quarter mile away before Ruller moves. Finally they are so far away he can't even see them anymore. He walks for a bit and then, noticing that it is dark, suddenly begins to run. And Flannery O'Conner's exquisite tale ends with the words: "He ran faster and faster and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch."
* * * *
Later in the book, Manning tells the story of another boy . . .
The story is told of a very pious Jewish couple. They had married with great love, and the love never died. Their greatest hope was to have a child so their love could walk the earth with joy.
Yet there were difficulties. And since they were very pious, they prayed and prayed and prayed. Along with considerable other efforts, lo and behold, the wife conceived. When she conceived, she laughed louder than Sarah laughed when she conceived Isaac. And the child leapt in her womb more joyously than John leapt in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary visited her. And nine months later a delightful little boy came rumbling into the world.
They named him Mordecai. He was rambunctious, zestful, gulping down the days and dreaming through the nights. The sun and the moon were his toys. He grew in age and wisdom and grace, until it was time to go to the synagogue and learn the Word of God.
The night before his studies were to begin, his parents sat Mordecai down and told him how important the Word of God was. They stressed that without the Word of God Mordecai would be an autumn lead in the winter's wind. He listened wide-eyed.
Yet the next day he never arrived at the synagogue. Instead he found himself in the woods, swimming in the lake and climbing the trees.
When he came home that night, the news had spread throughout the small village. Everyone knew of his shame. His parents were beside themselves. They did not know what to do.
So they called in the behavior modificationists to modify Mordecai's behavior, until there was no behavior of Mordecai's that was not modified. Nevertheless, the next day he found himself in the woods, swimming in the lake and climbing the trees.
So they called in the psychoanalysts, who unblocked Mordecai's blockages, so there were no more blocks for Mordecai to be blocked by. Nevertheless, he found himself the next day, swimming in the lake and climbing the trees.
His parents grieved for their beloved son. There seemed to be no hope.
At this same time the Great Rabbi visited the village. And the parents said, "Ah! Perhaps the Rabbi." So they took Mordecai to the Rabbi and told him their tale of woe. The Rabbi bellowed, "Leave the boy with me, and I will have a talking with him"
It was bad enough that Mordecai would not go to the synagogue. But to leave their beloved son alone with this lion of a man was terrifying. However, they had come this far, and so they left him.
Now Mordecai stood in the hallway, and the Great Rabbi stood in his parlor. He beckoned, "Boy, come here." Trembling, Mordecai came forward.
And then the Great Rabbi picked him up and held him silently against his heart.
His parents came to get Mordecai and they took him home. The next day he went to the synagogue to learn the Word of God. And when he was done, he went to the woods. and the Word of God became one with the words of the woods, which became one with the words of Mordecai. And he swam in the lake. and the Word of God became one with the words of the lake, which became one with the words of Mordecai. And he climbed the trees. And the Word of God became one with the words of the trees, which became one with the words of Mordecai.
And Mordecai himself grew up to become a great man. People who were seized with panic came to him and found peace. People who were without anybody came to him and found communion. People with no exits came to him and found a way out. And when they came to him he said, "I first learned the word of God when the Great Rabbi held me silently against his heart."
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I spent the first twenty or more years of my life living the first story, but since then I've turned a corner and now I'm leaning in and learning to listen as Manning says of his own journey, "I knew there was only one place to go. I sank down to the center of my soul, grew still, and listened to the Rabbi's heartbeat."