It was one of those moments when a piece of writing simply begins to write itself. The occasion was the funeral of a man, a professor and former colleague, whose story I knew, and that story included chapters of real tragedy, sadness, and horror. But when, at that funeral, absolutely nothing was mentioned of all those dark moments, my heart rebelled, not because I was angry with the preacher for not telling the story, but because I understood, somehow painfully, that some stories simply can't be told at some moments, even if those stories would have made what happened there in church that day immensely more powerful and memorable. Some things maybe just can't be said, and it just about killed me.
When I say it was a story that began to write itself, what I mean is that the essay came to me, almost in its entireity, while sitting in church, in part because I knew the essay's audience. I'd let myself be talked into doing the Sunday morning worship at the annual meeting of a small group of Christian writers I'm a part of, and I needed a sermon. The text was Psalm 121, a psalm I happen to love, the "death song" the old professor had told the preacher he wanted used as a text for the funeral. The congregation I would be facing would be fellow writers, people I knew would understand the strange frustration I felt that morning--on one side such an unusual and powerful story; and on the other, the rigid constraints of what? decorum or good taste or propriety. What could be said went to war with what should be said, and I couldn't help wonder about what I felt during that long service, why I wanted to scream. I thought my friends, writers all, could help me understand what I'd felt during a funeral that simply had to be sanitized.
And I wondered a great deal about the source of that voice in me that wouldn't be quiet, that voice that wanted the whole story told, that wouldn't tolerate decorum. And I wondered--I really did--about the nature of that impulse. Was it good or ill? I didn't know, but I knew that, if I wrote the essay/sermon I wanted to, my friends would understand and help.
That's how the essay was born. The editor of Books and Culture sat at a couch that morning in Texas when the "The Professor's Death Song" was the sermon. And when it was over, he asked for it for the magazine.
It may well be one of those most powerful pieces of writing I have ever written, not because my talent is so rich but because the story itself is so utterly compelling--I'm talking, of course, about the story that couldn't be told. So I told it, and I'm telling you now that if you'd like to read that essay/sermon, you can find it here.
I still feel skiddish about it, even though I have absolutely no question about whether or not God and his love is praised by the song, the story. But when to speak and when to remain silent will likely always remain good and difficult questions.