We still get a daily newspaper tossed onto the driveway.
My wife likes Sudoku. Not me. I ignore those sneaky numbers.
My reading is often “professional:” I regularly browse the obituaries.
As someone who has written (unpublished) novels, the “obits” represent a treasure trove for names once popular. Even if the facts were spare, an obituary confirms that a name was used when a Roosevelt or Coolidge occupied the Oval Office. Names that I’ve included have also been purloined from people I’ve met. Add a friend’s first name to another’s last name! Some successful novelists provide contests for naming a character. Bid high, have your real name in a best-selling book, with all the money headed to charity.
Obituaries once represented a Plan B. I usually knew when a parishioner died, but not always! Regardless of how well I visited folks (known as Plan A), I couldn’t read minds or see the future. Visiting Jane Doe last month never guaranteed I’d hear about her heart attack two weeks later. Nor did it guarantee out-of-town family members would call the church to let anyone know.
If the “obit” contained details, another variation of Plan B was discovering that a church member’s brother-in-law or grandmother had died. That meant I could gently ask them about a grief they might never mention.
Nowadays, since I’m officially retired (but living in the same community where I’ve served churches), the “obits” provide second-hand information. I don’t want to interfere in my “old” congregation’s ministry. Let the current pastor be the here-and-now pastor. But still, I want to know. Sometimes I open the newspaper and weep.
Occasionally, I’ll get a good chuckle.
When I know the person, a paragraph may contain an insider’s secret. Maybe there’s a brief mention of John Smith’s Little League coaching experience. And the next line noted he was a Rotarian, a veteran, and so forth. But I know that John hated Little League and suffered through years of losing seasons because of how deeply he loved to spend time with his kids. Mentioning Little League was always a family joke.
Sometimes I don’t know a person but wonder how could anyone be that, well, perfect? Line after line is all about how great, respected, and unique he or she was.
But that’s just it. Obituaries, or eulogies at funerals, never reveal the whole truth. It’s just the good stuff for public consumption.
Once, at a writing conference, the group leader cautioned the participants: “For our critiques, please have two positive comments for each negative.” In other words, when my fellow writers read my work-in-progress, I’ll get feedback that’s not all nasty. Having been in many critique groups over the years, negative criticism is the norm . . . and I’m glad. Thoughtful criticism is priceless. But J.K. Rowling or Stephen King could bring in their best stuff and most critique groups would hammer at their crummy adverbs or underwritten characters. Wake up and smell the run-on sentences, Mr. King! That Potter kid is one-dimensional, Ms. Rowling! All writers, known and unknown, need a balance of positive and negative comments.
Few “mistakes” appear in an obituary.
And yet . . . I understand. When a person dies—tragically young or after a long, lovely life—there are always regrets and failures. But, as Johnny Mercer’s old song goes:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
And also make sure that everything in the “obit” makes perfect sense between the date of the birth and the death.
I think it’s like that with many of Jesus’ parables. Too often the Gospel writers include a summary that helps everything make sense. It’s all perfect! For example, in Matthew 13’s “sower sowing seeds” parable, the story has seven enigmatic verses about weeds growing in the midst of wheat. Among many interpretations, I believe that particular parable challenges us to see how unsettling life can be.
But those seven verses are followed by seven more verses that explain “everything.” Jesus’ demanding, perplexing parable was summarized in easily understandable words. Disagree with me if you will—and you probably should—but I think Jesus told many of his parables so that listeners would walk away scratching their heads. The parables aren’t easy and safe. What did Jesus really mean? How does this apply to my life? Why does another see or hear those words differently than me?
But I believe the writers of the Gospels wanted to make the interpretation easy. This is bad, while that is good. Do this, but don’t do that. Or, quoting theologian Mercer, “don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”
Our messy lives aren’t like that. Faith contains moments of joyous clarity and long stretches of slogging through marshlands of doubt and complacency.
The “obits” reveal little. Only the positive is accentuated. But I still read them and may shed a tear. And a smile. Because I knew the person, and knew the hard truths, nagging failures, and simple beauties of their life.
Please God, deliver me from easily and safely summing things up.