Faith: Harper Lee and The Gift of Giving

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by David Cassidy,Christ Community Church

My library is in mourning. It’s been a difficult week in the literary world, the deaths of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee reminding us all that great story tellers are very rare. We should appreciate their presence while we can, and treasure their work. The characters and narratives they create outlive the author’s chronologies, speaking to many coming generations. The world is made more sane by the work of an Eco in Italy and a Lee in Alabama – different genders, different cultures, different languages, and yet the same rare gift.

Lee’s To ‘Kill A Mockingbird’ was an instant hit, something she didn’t anticipate. “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird”, she said in an interview. “ I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

To ‘Kill A Mockingbird’ was voted the greatest American novel of the twentieth century. Until her death it earned her over three million dollars a year in royalties, but that is only because it continues to inspire and inform so many.

There’s almost always a story behind the story though. Like the fact that Harper Lee had a young friend in Monroeville, Alabama named Truman, a fellow who grew up to be Truman Capote. That connection eventually led her to New York City, where, as the Wall Street Journal reports about her, “The daughter of a lawyer, she studied law in Alabama then moved to New York aged 23 and found work as an airline reservation agent. But she always wanted to write and, at a Christmas party in 1956, received a gift of a year’s wages from all her friends, with a note: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’”

It turns out that her friends recognized both her gift and passion, and made a way for her to explore both.

Which means the gift of friendship is central to the a person expressing the gifts God has given to each of us. Harper Lee was as fearful about putting the result of her passion into the public eye as anyone else; she was as frustrated in the cultivation of her work as anyone else (at one point throwing the Mockingbird manuscript out of her NYC apartment window in frustration); she was as limited as anyone else when it came to creating the space where she could do what she was born to do. Her friends made the difference – and the world is richer and sweeter and more just because they did so. Thank God for good friends.

The truth is that if we look back we can see the intervention of friends in our lives, people that recognized a gift in us and did something to help us pursue it. It might not have been a year’s wages, but it was surely the treasure appropriate to the life and the gift and the friendship. We make our life contributions because of the riches of the friendships God gives us.

There is a Harper Lee somewhere near you, an artist waking up to the possibilities of grace. Your encouragement to them this week might make all the difference in their life – and ultimately in our world. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts we can give and receive.

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