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We live by metaphor

In this season of resurrection, I sometimes wonder what of my spirit, my center I will leave behind when ham-handed death pummels me into submission.

I’ve spent a career writing, so for me the answer may be easier than for others in that my descendants can always pour through my books, magazine and newspaper columns and blog entries  to see what mattered to me.

Particularly my last book, “Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans,” will serve as something of a spiritual will for my descendants in that it tries to explain what my generation brought to this country in the wake of the so-called Greatest Generation.

But even then I may leave things unsaid.

This summer I plan to address this — and I hope some of you will join me. I’ll be teaching a weeklong retreat called “Writing Your Spiritual Will,” at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico.

We will try to discern the difference between a spiritual will (and its many possible forms) and a spiritual legacy, over which each of us may have precious little control. And we will try to unpack what has connected us to the divine and why that’s been central to who we are, we’ll talk about the books, the teachers, the historic confessions, the pastors, relatives and friends who have contributed to that. Plus, we’ll explore how we have been channels of grace for others.

Then we’ll write about this in essays, poems, maybe even hymns and tweets. And we’ll share some of it with one another as a way of gaining greater clarity about what we’ve written and why.

This is soul work. And soul work requires that we set aside some special time and give ourselves a new perspective from which to see what we’re trying to see. I’ve taught at Ghost Ranch for most of 20 summers, and it’s exactly the sort of space necessary for soul work. In fact, my seminar in August will be at Casa del Sol, about two miles off the main Ghost Ranch campus, so it will be something of a retreat within a retreat.

When my children and grandchildren are with my wife and me, we’re often engaged in conversation about the next school concert or some issue connected to our kids’ work or even some social issue. Between us, Marcia and I have six children and seven grandchildren, so it’s hard to find much quiet time to speak about the faith choices we’ve made and why they’ve been crucial to who we have become.

Besides, the conversations may drift away in memory if we limit ourselves to spoken words. If, on the other hand, I can pass on to them some piece of writing that can focus more directly on the spiritual values I want them to understand about me, then they can always go back to it.

All words, of course, are metaphors, pointing to a reality beyond themselves. But perhaps that’s part of the spiritual will I will leave — to teach my descendants that we live by myth, by metaphor, by allegory because, in the end, we have no choice.

BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at