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"Story-writers," said Flannery O'Connor, one of the best, "are always talking about what makes a story 'work.'"

From my own experience in trying to make stories "work," I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace. This is not a piece of knowledge that I consciously put into my stories; it is a discovery that I get out of them. My own life story contains details that I regret and may even resent: pain from childhood, illness and injury, times of poverty, wrong choices, broken relationships, missed opportunities, disappointment in my own failures. Can I trust, truly trust, that God can weave these redemptively into my overall story, as "unwilling instruments of grace"?I think of God's style as ironic. A more straightforward approach would respond to each new problem with an immediate solution. A woman gets sick; God heals her. A man is falsely imprisoned; God releases him. Rarely does God use such an approach, however. An author of great subtlety, he lets the plot line play out in perilous ways, then ingeniously incorporates those apparent detours into the route home. Thus Paul gives thanks for his "thorn in the flesh" because it advances, rather than impedes, God's work through him; and Joseph can look back on his harrowing life and say to his cruel brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good."In high school, I took pride in my ability to play chess. I joined the chess club, and during lunch hour could be found sitting at a table with other nerds poring ...

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May 22, 2000

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