I went to a workshop this morning sponsored by Christian Century magazine. It was at Fourth Presbyterian Church, up on north Michigan Ave., so already I was happy--all I had to do was get off my usual train a few stops earlier. Add to this a ginger-peach tea from Argo on the way, and I was ready to learn about funerals.
Yes, funerals. A roomful of us (the majority I would guess were pastors) listened to Thomas G. Long, author of Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, and then to Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. I attended for two reasons: I'm always ready to hear Lynch speak, and, given that I seem headed for ministry myself, lectures on Christian funerals could come in handy down the way.
I've always liked that Lynch is both a poet/essayist and an undertaker--how appropriate that one who must deal with people when they are most wounded is also one who practices the very careful and lovely use of language. Those of us who dare to enter peoples' lives in a spiritual capacity become the namers of things. And like poets, we must ceaselessly work with the vocabulary--sometimes we must first of all supply the vocabulary so that people will have something to work with.
A good friend of mine, Emily Blaire Stribling, is a poet who became a priest a couple of years ago. Ever since then, the term "poet-priest" has worked on my soul with vigor and persistence. Of course these vocations belong together. Of course the profound events--birth, marriage, death--require the utmost wrestling with our syllables and our silences. A poet knows that the silences between the words are as important as the words themselves. In the same way, a spiritual helper knows when to speak and when to refrain from speaking. Also, both poets and priests know that words have frightening power and must be released with care and humility.
Maybe the thing to do, as a writer, is to imagine that always my words are landing upon desperate people, upon those who have no choice but to listen and take to heart the words they are given. I won't be able to protest later, "Oh, I was only kidding" or "I sort of tossed that in as an afterthought." However I regarded my words, whatever measure of seriousness I gave them, they became substance. They made meaning. They left marks.
Perhaps Thomas Lynch is a good poet precisely because he's in the business of burying bodies. His sense of humor is sharp and spontaneous, and his presence is uplifting, even pastoral. But one who faces grieving families day after day has developed an ear for the unspoken fears and unexpressed needs. Not only must he read between the lines but often he's helping write the lines. He must supply the missing words, the ones we can't get to on our own because loss is ringing in our ears and weariness has dimmed our capacities.
I highly recommend both authors. Thomas Long is professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. I'm well into Accompany Them with Singing and can tell it will stay in my library for years to come. When it comes to Thomas Lynch, you must read his poetry as well as his essays--go to his Amazon page to find Still Life in Milford and other volumes.