Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…
Novelists do a good job of having old preachers look back over their careers, realize they didn’t amount to much, and make peace with it. Like Marilynne Robinson in Gilead. And Conrad Richter in A Simple, Honorable Man. There are others. As a group, I call them POPUP books, for “Pathetic Old Preacher’s Ultimate Peace.”
As a long-time preacher and an occasional novelist, I resent Robinson and Richter and their ilk. I think they should let actual preachers instead of preacher-observers write POPUP books. Of course, it would help if actual preachers could create those stories and write them as well as Robinson and Richter.
Robinson [born 1943] may be the best writer ever. If you asked me to pick one book only as the best I ever read, I’d have to say Housekeeping. It would not come in very far ahead of Gilead. She doesn’t write much, but, oh, she’s so well worth waiting for.
Richter [1890 -1968] is not as well-known now, but he was a fiction force in his day. The Town won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Waters of Kronos won the 1961 National Book Award for Fiction.
He was a PK. Not only was his father a Lutheran pastor, but his grandfather, an uncle, and a great-uncle were, too. His writing was influenced by parsonage life. A Simple, Honorable Man is a novel, but it’s also the unacknowledged biography of his father.
As a young pastor, I was an avid reader of books about preachers, including POPUPs, and I liked A Simple, Honorable Man. Except…
I certainly wanted to be honorable, but “simple, honorable” sounded like a participation prize. I wanted a blue ribbon. I didn’t want to look back on my career and realize it didn’t amount to much but make peace with it. I wanted to have a career that was so successful no old-age peace-making was necessary. Honorable? Yes. Simple? No.
I remember now only two images from Richter’s book. In one, the pastor has gotten a new suit, his first in a long time, for he was always poorly paid. He thinks, as he walks home after preaching in it for the first time, with satisfaction, how good a new suit feels, how different, how successful. He doesn’t notice that his wife is wearing the same dress she has worn to church for over twenty years.
In the other, he is looking back and can’t remember any positive comment from a parishioner about one of his sermons.
There was a lot of simple and honorable about that pastor in the book, but what I remember is his insensitivity along the way and his despair at the end. It is not accidental. I tried to remember them, as a reminder, to be sensitive to others along the way, including my wife [and it’s very easy for a preacher to neglect his/her family and feel righteous about it] and to accept each comment of appreciation as it came, so that it made no difference if I could remember it at the end.
As I said above, I knew that when I looked back on my career, I did not want it to be simple, but I did want it to be honorable. I was only partially successful. I know now that I was a lot more simple than I thought I was as I went along. And I was not as honorable as I wanted to be.
So, looking back on my career, I realize it didn’t amount to much, but I’ve made peace with it. Damn, I could have written one of those POPUP books!
John Robert McFarland