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Moral Compass

The acclaimed novelist, John Grisham, has published a collection of short stories, Ford County. I highly recommend these seven stories to add to your summer reading list. Here’s a few brief thoughts about two of them…

“Blood Drive” is a tale involving a young man who was injured in a construction accident down in Memphis. When word reaches his hometown in rural Tennessee, three other young men volunteer to travel the couple of hours distance and donate their blood on his behalf. The road to Memphis is clearly marked. They know exactly how they are supposed go and exactly what they are supposed to do but…step-by-step, the boys leave the road. They get side-tracked by their own desires. One beer at a gas station quickly turns into five; their boasts about girlfriends turn into a visit to a strip club; in a drunken stupor, they get into a barroom brawl. By the end of the story, they don’t reach the hospital. They end up in jail.

It strikes me that Grisham’s story could serve as a fitting metaphor for the human condition. As the Apostle Paul once lamented, instead of doing what we know is right, we do what we know is wrong (Ro 7:19; paraphrase).

And yet, this tale is really a parody. Most of us can do a little better than these three misfits on the highways of life, can’t we? Where the rubber meets the road is not in the dark exit signs of human depravity, but when the signs disappear. What do we do when things are not so straightforward and easy-to-understand?

Another Grisham story, “Funny Boy,” drives to the heart of this issue. A young white man, Adrian, has returned to Mississippi to die. He has spent the past decade living in San Francisco and contracted AIDS. His wealthy family is disgusted by his homosexuality and essentially disowns him, leaving him to die in a rental property they own… located in the black section of town. He spends his last few weeks under the care of Emporia, an African American spinster who has rented the house for decades.

Grisham’s portrayal is sympathetic, not necessarily towards being gay, but being a victim of prejudice. The cruelty of the white community is starkly depicted as precisely that. It’s possibly even more tragic, however, to note the black community’s shunning of Emporia. Though she has been a fine neighbor, people gradually stop visiting on her porch. She has been a stalwart member of her church; yet her pastor informs her that she must take a “leave of absence.” He kicks her out because she welcomed a dying man into her home. The reader will bristle at such hypocrisy.

The narrator makes it clear that such behavior, thought horrible, is deeply rooted in fear–a fear that is itself the product of ignorance. In the 1980s, misinformation about AIDS sparked urban legends about the ways the virus could be spread. People won’t even shake Adrian’s hand; he is treated as a modern day leper.

Jesus modeled reaching out to lepers and other social outcasts; but he also counseled his disciples to not be afraid. Perhaps this connection is too often overlooked. Emporia dealt with her fear head-on. She had no idea how long he would live with her or, quite frankly, how they would live together. And yet, even when she didn’t know the road ahead, she went forward, trusting her compassion to guide her. Her moral compass pointed towards others, even if that meant she would experience discrimination herself. May it be so for you and me as well.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.


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