Emily's Secret Good Life

wooden-boxOur Westside King’s Church service times are changing. This weekend we move to 10 and 11:30 am starts in order to make room for more people, and for a potential third morning service. We are excited and encouraged by all of this, of course. But we also hold to the idea that growth at Westside should always mean more than numbers: to grow means to push further in to the life that Jesus calls us to, to find and experience those tangible expressions of grace that uniquely belong to each of us as individuals. We grow in grace, by grace, and for gracious purposes. You have probably said it yourself at some point: “he lived a secret life”. When we want a way to describe some human failure that has recently come to light, or to try and understand the latest moral scandal, we tend to say something like “there was a side to her no one knew”. When we refer to “secret life” in this way, we almost always mean to describe the worst parts about us. But consider the possibility of the opposite; consider the possibility of a secret good life.

A few years ago I read Roger Lundin’s excellent biography of the 19th century poet Emily Dickinson (Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, Eerdmans, 2004). In reading Lundin’s portrayal of this brilliant but quiet and enigmatic life, I found myself straightened up by the idea of the secret good life. Emily Dickenson’s life was like a parable on this possibility, living out a secret goodness in her own particular way.

When Emily Dickinson passed away in May 1886, her family and friends gathered at her home to mourn her passing. At the time of her death, Emily would not have been much known beyond a fairly small number of people in her town of Amherst, Massachusetts. But those who now gathered for her funeral had no idea that they were mourning the loss of one of the greatest poets of that era. Emily was loved, to be sure, but there was always a mystery to her, a “more than meets the eye” kind of quality. All who knew her knew she wrote poetry -- sort of. A few of her pieces had been anonymously published and she had at times included one of her poems in letters to friends. But there was a very large part of Emily’s life that no one knew about.

Roger Lundin says this about that moment when her family and friend gathered to remember her: “None of them… had any notion of the enormous scope of this woman’s genius or the abiding significance of the work that lay upstairs in a box in Emily’s room” [p. 1]. Emily had secretly written 1,800 poems, some of the best poetry we have in the English language. When that treasure of words was discovered, it was not long until Dickinson’s good secret was exposed. There was more goodness, more insight, more depth to Emily than anyone really knew. Her secret, now exposed, did not diminish her legacy as so many exposed secrets do. Instead, her secret became her gift and blessing to the world.

I love this image and I suggest it illustrates a simple, yet profound way of thinking about the life of grace: that to practice secret goodness is not only a grace, but the evidence of grace. To practice secret goodness is to understand that our lives are lived before God, the audience of one. The commendation of people becomes a secondary matter.

Perhaps, in light of Emily’s secret good life, we should ask ourselves: what good could I practice secretly? What kind of generosity could I practice without fanfare? When might I refuse to pass on that which puts someone else in a bad light, and refuse to say anything more about it? Or when and how might I quietly add value and grace to a community without any recognition?

You might get found out -- at some point -- but it will be even more fun if you don’t.

We continue our series in the parables of grace this Sunday. Remember: our new times are 10 and 11:30 am.

Bob Osborne