Most of us probably haven’t given much thought to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town since, maybe, it was the spring play during our high school years. That is, until Tom Long’s review of Howard Sherman’s new book, Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century in a recent issue of Christian Century. Responding to Sherman’s reading of the play, Long writes:
Our Town is in fact a deeply moving meditation on Christian eschatology. The play’s first two acts involve mundane, perhaps even tedious glimpses into quotidian life in Grover’s Corners. The milkman and the paperboy tend to their usual deliveries. Next-door neighbors the Gibbses and the Webbs begin an ordinary day, eating breakfast and dispatching the children to school. That evening, the choir at the Congregational church rehearses “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.”
The main character, Emily, dies at a young age, but, for a day, returns to observe continuing life in her hometown, reliving her 12th birthday, even though the other dead in the cemetery beg her not to return. Soon, she understands why. As Long describes, “With the eyes of one who has passed through the waters of death, she now sees everything about her life and family, once so ordinary, as luminescent and fleeting treasures.” The climax of the play is Emily’s astonishment and lament about life as we live it.
But the punchline, for our purposes, is the following story about audience response that Long recounts from Sherman’s book:
Sherman tells the story of a Chicago theater troupe, The Hypocrites, which revived Our Town in 2008. On the final night of previews, just as Emily’s farewell speech had been spoken, director David Cromer was unsettled to hear the small audience laughing loudly in the darkness of the auditorium. A disaster, Cromer thought. He wondered what had gone wrong to provoke laughter in the play’s most solemn moment. When the house lights came up for the curtain call, though, Cromer discovered that what he had heard wasn’t laughter at all, but deep, visceral, uncontrolled sobbing.
Which brings us to your congregation – and the ministry you have undertaken on your church board.
People are expressing emotions these days in ways that surprise even them.
“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow,” writes Toni Morrison in the novel Sula, describing her character Nel’s cry as she faces great loss. The emotions coming from congregations right now may be about deep loss. Or they may be about a significant de-centering of our lives over this past year.
Listen to the sobs of that Chicago audience. Listen to the joys and laments of your congregation this week. Listen to the hopes and fears of a divided society right now.
Those tears and laments and hopes and joys and fears are all now the focus of your ministry. This is a moment when the world has stopped, looked, listened, wondered, hoped, reviewed, grieved, lost, found, and taken stock of what life is made of. If any of us think “normal” now means cranking everything back up to where we left it, why are we crying?
In the following poem, New England poet Wesley McNair (b. 1941) captures the surprise of tears in a different light. (McNair’s use of “He” for God threw us off initially, but we think this is a poem well worth wrestling with.)
It must be difficult for God, listening
to our voices come up through his floor
of cloud to tell Him what’s been taken away:
Lord, I’ve lost my dog, my period, my hair,
all my money. What can He say, given
we’re so incomplete we can’t stop being
surprised by our condition, while He
is completeness itself? Or is God more
like us, made in His image—shaking His head
because He can’t be expected to keep track
of which voice goes with what name and address,
He being just one God. Either way, we seem
to be left here to discover our losses, everything
from car keys to larger items we can’t search
our pockets for, destined to face them
on our own. Even though the dentist gives us
music to listen to and the assistant looks down
with her lovely smile, it’s still our tooth
he yanks out, leaving a soft spot we ponder
with our tongue for days. Left to ourselves,
we always go over and over what’s missing—
tooth, dog, money, self-control, and even losses
as troubling as the absence the widower can’t stop
reaching for on the other side of his bed a year
later. Then one odd afternoon, watching something
as common as the way light from the window
lingers over a vase on the table, or how the leaves
on his backyard tree change colors all at once
in a quick wind, he begins to feel a lightness,
as if all his loss has led to finding just this.
Only God knows where the feeling came from,
or maybe God’s not some knower off on a cloud,
but there in the eye, which tears up now
at the strangest moments, over the smallest things.
What does McNair mean when he says, “we’re so incomplete we can’t stop being
surprised by our condition?”
How does he imagine God, from first to last?
What are the smallest things—and the largest things—your congregants are crying about in this moment?
How is God hearing those cries? How are you?