“Christian: The Path of Writing”

Sermon—19Jan14

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This is the third sermon in a series entitled, “Christians.” In each sermon, I discuss a Christian I have known personally. Each sermon is independent, so you don’t have to hear them all; they’ll be on our website in any case. The idea is that reflecting on the lives of other Christians helps us to live our own lives of faith.

Madeleine L’Engle was a New York writer best known for the stories she published for children. Although she died six years ago at the age of 88, her works remain popular; her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time sold millions of copies and won the Newberry Award, which is equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for children’s books.

In the 1960’s, L’Engle became an active Episcopalian. After that, she began to write autobiographical and spiritual books as well as stories for children. She was often asked to lead retreats and lecture to religious groups.

I first met her in 1974, when she came to speak to a group of young singles that I had formed at the parish I was serving in Manhattan.

I will refer to her as “Madeleine,” because even those who barely knew her called her by her first name. Tall and gangly, Madeleine grew up in a relatively privileged family that didn’t pay a lot of attention to her.

After college, she acted in the theater. She met her husband, Hugh Franklin when they were both cast in the same play. Franklin went on to a successful career as a soap opera actor. They divided their time between a rambling apartment on the Upper West Side and an equally rambling country house in Connecticut.

Madeleine always wanted to be a writer and, after a lot of effort, she succeeded. She liked to tell people how A Wrinkle in Time had been refused by some 28 publishers. After the book became a bestseller, her life seemed to proceed onward and upward, a happy progression of increasing fame and fortune.

But then, in 2004, when Madeleine was 83, a long profile of her was published in The New Yorker magazine. The article was entitled, “The Storyteller: Fact, fiction, and the books of Madeleine L’Engle”. It revealed a number of dark family secrets.

The author of the profile, Cynthia Zarin claimed that when she began writing it, she was an admirer of L’Engle and her work. She only became critical when she interviewed family members, and they said that Madeleine’s autobiographical writings painted a picture of a life that she wished she had lived, rather than the one she did lead.

Madeleine’s children felt that she was more likely to give her time to some young writer who wanted her advice than to her own flesh-and-blood. And while L’Engle’s writings are filled with numerous references to her marriage and her beloved husband, the New Yorker article reported that Hugh was an alcoholic and had extramarital affairs.

Also unknown to L’Engle’s fans and unmentioned in her writings, Madeleine and Hugh’s son, Bion, died from alcoholism-related causes at the age of 49.

Now I realize that this negative picture may itself be biased. A former student of L’Engle’s said that the Franklins were a model family.

But whatever the truth, the twists and turns of L’Engle’s reputation remind us that when you put yourself before the public, you become vulnerable. You have to be ready for people to take pot shots at you. This is especially true of Christians because we claim to base our lives on a higher standard than others. When we question conventional business ethics, for instance, we propose stricter rules of honesty and fair treatment, and we’ll be criticized if we don’t follow the higher standard ourselves.

So what do we make of this complex Christian life? How can Madeleine’s biography help us to comprehend the complexities of our own lives?

Well, for one thing, Madeleine’s personal writings were early examples of the confessional spirituality that has become so popular today. Today, people from all religious traditions tell stories of their spiritual journeys. They may even speak of intimate matters that their grandparents would never have shared with the public.

At the same time, Madeleine L’Engle’s confessional spirituality shows that you can be famous for writing books about yourself and still have glaring gaps in understanding who you are!

This is true for the rest of us who aren’t professional writers. We can still fail to know ourselves as well as we think we do.

We might believe that we’re aware of what’s going on in our souls. We may be comfortable speaking with our friends about personal matters. But Madeleine L’Engle’s case reminds us that just feeling free to talk isn’t a guarantee that what you share will be the truth.

While “spirituality” is about our inner feelings, it’s also about understanding what those feelings mean. And whatever we conclude about L’Engle’s memoirs, we can receive new insights into our lives when we put our feelings into words.

We might, for example, keep a journal or express our thoughts in a blog. In these ways, we can use writing to focus our thoughts.

Putting things into writing, then, can give us a broader perspective on what God is doing in our lives.

I have kept a journal myself from time to time over the years. I found it especially valuable in the weeks after my first wife died. I could get things out in my journal that were bothering me. And I could go back later and read past entries; I could sometimes see how I was given healing over time.

Sharing one’s thoughts can also be valuable to others. When Madeleine L’Engle came to lecture to my young adult group, I had just been ordained, and I was nervous about how many people would be attending that evening. I told Madeleine of my worries. She replied, “Don’t count your sheep—feed them.”

Good advice for me—reassuring me that the important thing was to help the people God put in front of me. This is true for all Christians. We are called not to measure our own success but to share the spiritual truths we have found.

Madeleine fed her many readers, and her books still nourish us today. And her idea that it’s more important to feed the sheep than to count them reflects Christian optimism that appreciates the gifts of a shared life—gifts that Madeleine herself offered to the world.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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