Thanks to a friend's recommendation, I've just finished John Irving's acclaimed novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meany." This powerful story, tracing the friendship of two young boys through adulthood, leaves much to ponder on several levels. First, there is the obvious theme of faith. Owen Meany is possessed of an unwavering belief in God, a belief that moves him without shirking toward a destiny he believes is God-ordained. What do we do with this brand of faith? Is it helpful, hindering, ridiculous, necessary? Owen's friend, John, the narrator, struggles with this question throughout much of the novel.

But along with the discussion of faith, there are also questions regarding the legitimacy of war, and of the ability of the United States to effectively plan and execute the liberation of the Vietnamese people. The boys come of age during the Vietnam war, and John's wrestling with the administrations that shape and respond to  this conflict occupies a large part of the story. Yet Owen's self-prophesied vocation is intertwined with the war. It necessitates him pressing forward to active duty, while going to all lengths to keep his friend from being drafted into service.

Here is another set of conflicts. How does one commit to sacrifice in the context of a situation that seems untenable? Owen seeks to make things clean cut for those around him (including, of course, his solution for John's upcoming draft recruitment). And yet for himself, life is complicated, even paradoxical. Near the end of the book, Owen and his friend John, are visiting a trailer park, filled with people who teeter on the verge of mental illness, degraded by incest, alcohol, poverty. They have come to be a presence at the wake of a soldier who's been killed in action. "What's wrong with this country?" Owen Meany asked. "We should all be at home, looking after people like this. Instead, we're sending people like this to Vietnam?"

I rarely subscribe to either/or scenarios. I don't believe that we should only look out for ourselves, and not be concerned about the welfare of those around the world. But I am struck by this question and how it shines a light on our vocation as a nation, especially as we approach the commemoration of September 11 and our response as a nation. Are we living out here at home what we are trying to influence abroad? As we talk about encouraging democracy in nascent countries, what does it mean that our political system is slowly grinding to a halt? Do we participate in our capitalistic economic system in a compassionate way, as a means of generating meainingful employment and income for all people of all walks of life, or are we succumbing to greed, putting self interest before the interests of the community? 

On a personal level I am challenged to "practice what I preach." If I write a daily blog about choosing joy, am I living a life that is worth emulating? If I call myself a Christian, do I take Christ's admonitions to pray for my enemies seriously? As American forces headed toward Iraq, I consciously prayed for the Iraqi people, but never seriously considered praying for Saddam Hussein, and I never dreamed of praying for Osama bin Laden and the rest of Al-Qaeda. Refusing to take vengeance is only the first of Christ's teachings. Pouring out blessing on our enemies is even crazier. And yet it is the only way to move towards reconciliation. If we desire our enemies to cease becoming our enemies, then we need to imagine them as future friends and begin to desire their best.

September 11 gives us a chance to remember those who died because of hate. It allows us to honor all of those who offered and continue to offer themselves freely for the lives of others, whether in full or just partial agreement to the cause they are enlisted in. But it also can prod us toward honestly evaluating whether we are living up to the ideals that we espouse. Are there ways in which we contribute, either by omission or comission, to the state of our world? "A Prayer for Owen Meany" challenges us to act from a deep-seated belief in our vocation to live and love well, even in the midst of confusion and paradox, showing the better way.