Monday, September 12, 2011

An Evening with My Wife and "The Guys"

The other night my wife and I had an adult evening together.  I would call it a date but it didn't end the way all of our official dates end, with a stop at the supermarket.  Nonetheless, we had an evening together with dinner out, followed by a staged reading of the play "The Guys" by Anne Nelson.  The play was put on by the Vintage Theater Company, directed by Jason Young and starring the two-member cast of John and Linda O'Connor.  John is a professor of theater at Fairmont State and Linda does some costuming there as well.  In addition, Jason Young is a Fairmont State alum.  The Fairmont State connection is important since my wife is a professor there as well.  If there had been no Fairmont State connection, we likely would not have gone at all, and I would have been poorer for it. 

The play centers around the week following 9-11 in New York City.  An editor, Joan ends up helping Nick, the captain of a fire company, write eulogies for some of the men from his company.  It seems ultimately the playwright is seeking to see what she could contribute to the situation.  All the talk of the tools of fireifghters, most notably near the end, points us to see her tools at use.  Clearly there was a sense that 9-11 belonged to some in New York more than others.  Some voices were quieted because they were not nearly affected as badly as others.  The obvious reality is that everyone is affected but some don't feel they have a right to speak their distress because they might not have lost people close to them.  The play was written relatively soon after 9-11 (background can be read here) but still after ten years this play still speaks to people seeking to make sense out of the tragedy and wondering what they might contribute.

Throughout the play however, I have to say, as engaging as the story and performances were, my mind was caught in a parallel process.  I had known nothing about the play when I arrived except it had something to do with 9-11.  When Joan sat down with Nick to begin crafting eulogies, I did not see Joan and Nick.  Instead I saw myself reflected up there.  I saw an important part of the funeral sermon.  The crucial part of the funeral sermon, of course, the proclamation of the gospel, was not there.  But the proper narration of one's life was there.  Nick was awed when Joan could take his words that were hesitant at first but really flowing toward the end, and create a piece that portrayed the essence of another's life.  Joan simply works with Nick's words.  Pastors simply work with others' lives to distill and reflect.  The one part we pastors get to do though is show how the person's story intertwines with God's story.  And our exposure is usually not just a couple hour interaction with another person.  Our funeral preparation begins in a way with our first encounter with a person in our congregation. 

The task though is always eased by others.  Nick never imagined he would have to do so many eulogies so closely together.  His ability to reflect is stopped by the overwhelming immensity of his task.  Joan serves as a catalyst for Nick.  She becomes a release for him.  She knows the right questions to ask to aid the reflection and words so that Nick has something true to say.  Speaking the truth is important.  Joan even prompts him when the picture of one of the guys seems too perfect.  Overly perfect images never ring true. 

Joan also realizes that this task has an effect on her.  That she bears some of the pain and trauma that Nick bears.  This scene spoke with real truth.  Writing funeral sermons, I know, hits me in strange ways.  Joan comments that writing those eulogies made an impression on her like a thumbprint in clay.  The only difference I might say is that for us writing funeral sermons for congregation members, people with whom we have an ongoing relationship, their impression upon us has been made and we feel the loss of that relationship.  We miss the pressure of another upon us.  But severe tragedies do also come upon us and affect us when a person dies tragically. 

I could not help but see much of our task as preachers here in this play.  The tools of our trade being words that help make sense of life, death and the promises of God.  When I have written sermons that speak to the person's life while intertwining it with God's story, they have had the most profound impact on people.  Joan writes in a way that helps Nick's story show that these guys lives have intertwined with his and the firehouse and provides a great glimpse into the work of preachers and funeral sermons.  I think all preachers should see this play if they can.

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