Coyote Monday

I walked this morning from dark to before dawn.  The deer I expected to see on meadow’s edge by the creek were not there.  Instead, half an hour before sunrise, a pair of coyotes at eighty yards.  I stood stock-still while they came closer.  They cautiously regarded and knew the standing form of a man and only hastened away when I walked again.

Inside the city limits?  Yes, along with the deer, bobcat, skunk, opossum, raccoon, beaver, and other denizens of the woods, creeks and thickets that cover hundreds of acres next to us west and south.  Birds aplenty, too, including several hawk varieties and a clan of turkey vultures numbering in the dozens.  We are, after all, for now, simply renting space in their world.  It is a wonder how well they handle it all.

To update:  those coyotes may have been red wolves or a coy-wolf hybrid, so I have heard.

Why so disappointed in Atticus Finch?

 

(Updated October 9, 2016)

Along with “everyone else” I’ve been reading along in the papers about the revelations in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Evidently in our hyper-sensitized society the news that another version of Atticus Finch was a segregationist is, well, shocking.

But should we be so surprised? Southern – or American – leaders as segregationists? May I say confidently at some point in the past we are talking about most leaders? One could naively argue it wasn’t so outside the South, but the degree to which it was so in most places, Southern or not, appears to be one of the greatest revelations for some folk in today’s generation.

There’s plenty to read about the thorough change that has occurred in the general society since, let’s say, the World War II period. The witness of the African-American leaders who led the drive for accountability is most important.  Theirs was a drive to urge, or shame, the Congress and the state legislatures, the Supreme Court and the state courts, to be accountable to the Constitution of the United States and its Amendments regarding equality before the law. Dr. James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality, from the early 1940s onward, were primary examples.

Then what about Atticus Finch and his transformation away from segregationism–at least a brave gesture, anyhow? On this point Nelle Harper Lee’s novels are prophetic – in the sense that she identifies the spirit of transformation and healing needed in her time and expressing that spirit, “speaking forth” the words most needed for the time in our social consciousness and conscience. Atticus was like so many other thousands of leaders whose essential conscientiousness needed a re-baptism in the waters of freedom for everybody — beyond the societal framework that rested on the institution of slavery, that “mudsill of black” and its legacies. If for any of them their Christianity was prophetic enough to draw them out of that slough of racism and help them to represent a better, more truly human way, then they did so, but as a minority, especially in the South. Imagine the way that the non-prophetic but conflicted or sympathetic were overwhelmed in a society that equated the “natural” order of segregation with an equally “Christian” conception of order.

In the city where I live, the story resembles that of countless places across the South and, indeed, the United States. In whatever ways possible, at a certain time, and through the courts,and national and state legislatures, there were leaders of a new generation who recognized that change must come, and who, however hesitantly in most cases, worked through a process of change without waging a second civil war. That remembrance of the War Between the States actually had been responsible for much of the resistance and antipathy to fundamental social change. At a certain point in time, however, change had to occur. School integration, integration of city and county boards, hiring, and courts, were part of the process. The process was not immediate, and its completion is still not in sight, but the essential elements are present. Integration in the churches? Largely no, not even today as it should be.  But most young people in the recent generation refuse to accept the old status quo there.

The younger generations among us already are bringing their own changes to the process, perhaps completing it in some ways, and finding new ways to “go around” the old issues or to change the patterns of discourse about them. You may agree with me that integration of the churches depends a great deal on the acceptability of “interracial marriage”. And isn’t it true that many younger people reject even the use of that language? Habits of racist/racial discourse are basic to the problem and better reformed.

So, Atticus Finch exemplifies members of a generation who found a way to express new forms of enlightenment in a tensely racial atmosphere, even if they were not the vanguard of change. They were in varying degree the majority who decided to get along in order to get along. Many of them made difficult decisions and commitments, often paying a bitter personal price, for the sake of transformation in their communities. We should not be surprised or unduly dismayed, however, when those decisions and commitments were step wise or incremental, and somehow unsatisfactory in view of unperfected possibilities.  Most commonly, our lives by definition are just that way. The stereotype of the person or group that achieves complete transformation is the stuff of mythologies, or of the comic books.

I should not have been surprised that so many folk suggested their possible dismay at Harper Lee, even in advance of reading Watchman, that Atticus was not always the Atticus they admired as an icon of enlightened humanity. People are poor idols, prone to disappoint as societal or ideological icons.  Their life patterns look better at a distance than up close.  We live better by true words, not by ideology, nor by objectification as symbols; we live best by speaking true words and doing true things in a real world, in every present moment of the time we inhabit. If, by some transformative, right decision, a particular moment appreciates marvelously over moments past, then it is by some merciful, gracious process that invites us–calls us–to better ways and a better day.

There are those who argue that change for the good cannot happen without revolution, and the record of the past suggests this is often the case. I want to argue, however, that revolutions, especially if they are violent and bloody, carry another lesson for us besides the one that violent revolution is a type of insanity and weakness in the first place.  The lesson is that our use of language, intention, discipline, and grace-filled, active concern and care for our loved ones and our communities are the things that contribute to a slower, preferable revolution. We must take care about what we say, how we say it, and how we act toward everyone–no exceptions–defeating our prejudices.  And so we can contribute to true human flourishing–what these days some are calling The Beloved Community.  This kind of transformation happens when the “Jim Crow” Atticus becomes the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The latter Atticus has at least begun a new way among his contemporaries, even if he is late doing it.

 

//Copyright Jerry Summers 2015//

Bob Summers at Sea – 1953, 1954

In the days before our mother died, my sisters, brother, my wife, and other family surrounded her as she declined.  Still we were able to talk in small snatches with her, and on the Friday before her passing on Sunday morning, she joined us singing a hymn or two.  During a relatively wakeful time for Mom, my youngest sister produced two letters Dad had written, one in 1953, the other in 1954.  “Jerry, I think Mom would enjoy it if you read these aloud!”  There we were, the siblings, a niece, and I don’t remember who else, in the hospital room, and I read those letters.

Oh–My–Soul! a famous preacher often said when other words failed him.  The letters were PG-rated at most, but appropriately intimate for newlyweds across several thousand miles.  None of us had ever seen the letters before the youngest sister had found them in Mom’s treasured papers.  Do I have to say that the Sisters loved hearing the Older Brother read these letters, and that they laughed all the way through?  I’m sure some kind of revenge factor was involved.  Mom didn’t comment though, only smiled faintly, eyes mostly closed.  That’s not the only reason for writing this, though, because Memorial Day is just passed and Dad served in the US Navy from 1950 to 1954.

My father, Robert E. Summers, never left the boiler room, so to speak, during his years with the Navy — as a member, so I am told, of the “tin can navy,” a reference to destroyer service.  He began and ended his shipboard years as a boilerman of a modestly rising rating.  He said once that the guys in the engine room would do just about anything to get up on deck once in a while.  Several days before he died he recounted a story I had not heard.  We were in San Antonio for a niece’s wedding weekend; uncle Hubert and I were sitting.  Years before Dad had described going ashore in Korea with a small band of men.  He had been given a MP (Military Police) armband and a holstered 45-caliber pistol–it was only a brief excursion and he gave no details.

On this occasion in San Antonio, though, he told another, new story.  A messenger came to the engine room asking for volunteers for special duty.  Dad jumped at the chance.  He and three others were given sidearms and put in a launch off the coast of Vietnam.  They approached the coast several miles about equidistant between ship and shore.  Bob had a walkie-talkie and binoculars, or perhaps another had the binoculars.  His ship, probably the USS Cushing DD-797, was to fire onshore, and the small crew in the launch were to radio telemetry feedback to the ship (“too high”, “too low”, “right”, or “left”, I suppose).  That’s all he mentioned.  I asked why he hadn’t mentioned it before and he replied that he just never thought of it.

Now to the letters.  Dad wrote from port at Sasebo, Japan, on February 23rd, 1953, to Mom in Santa Paula.  They had been married on December 8, 1952.  When he wrote he was 21, she was 15 years, six months.  He thanked her for love, prayers, and oatmeal cookies that had come in a package.  But he had news to report about his ship.

Well, honey we got in today.  We won’t be going out for sometime probably a month.  We came from Korea at seven knots.  The ship[s] we put in commission were U.S.S. Cushing (DD 797), U.S.S. Pritchett (DD 561) and U.S.S. Owen (DD 536) on August 17, 1951.  Well, at 0407 A.M. Friday 20 February, 1953 the U.S.S. Cushing (DD 797) collided with the U.S.S. Pritchett (DD 561).  We hit them amid-ships starboard.  We were with sixteen Destroyers and three carriers on operation off North Korea.  The Pritchett crossed our bow and we hit them.  We don’t know how long we will be laid up.  We have to have a whole new bow.  The ship is damaged right on the very front end.  No one was hurt on either ship.  You can tell mom about it if you want.  I will write her sometime soon, although I won’t write about the ship.

Bob was missing Lois and told her to get some good sleep.  He missed her and told her so, again, and he looked forward to the next time home.

Well, we didn’t wreck our ship Friday 13 but we did Fri 20.  Honey, I believe you[r] prayers saved us from certain disaster because we were doing 18 knots [top speed was 35 knots] and the other ship was doing 20 knots and we got a full back down just before we hit.  Although the ship was moving forward it was slowing due to the opposite direction of the propellers.

And that was it, apart from more personal comments!

The USS Cushing was part of Seventh Fleet operations during the Korean War, serving as a plane guard for carrier aircraft and sometimes among the destroyers firing on North Korean onshore positions.  The Cushing (the fourth naval ship of that name) had first been commissioned during World War II and saw extensive service in Pacific naval operations.

A USS Cushing reunion site:  http://www.hullnumber.com/crew1.php?cm=DD-797  Dad’s name is on their list.

If you have more information or would like to correct something, send me an e-mail or give me a call!

 

Thrumming and Humming

"Here - my best side!"

Until yesterday I had never seen a large charm of hummingbirds – a dozen or more around the feeder. I am told it’s time to migrate, so I wonder how many of the daily visitors are familiars with our back yard. Ours or others, some seem to know to tap – or thump – the back windows to get the feeder refilled. The Inca believed they were visiting gods.

 

Psalm 42

In a special preaching class at SBTS, around 1978, George Arthur Buttrick, then about 86, commented that certain passages left the preacher mute, they were beyond profound.  Deep calleth unto deep . . . .  Yes, in Psalm 42, opening Book 2, the psalmist limns deer, streams of water, the “I” and “my soul,” depression; but the LORD who gives loyal love and gives songs in the night, the living God, his mountain summit, his deliverer, is absent.  When will I be able to go and appear in God’s presence?  (v.2–see the face of God)  Not so his enemies, his mourning and depression.  My tears have become my food day and night.  (v.3)  But despite all the psalmist is undeterred:  I will again give thanks to my God for his saving intervention. (vv 5-11)  I can imagine the psalmist  driven to the high hills by enemies, separated from the community of Israel and temple worship, needing reunion, vindication, and the soul-quenching presence of the LORD.  Enemies say relentlessly Where is your God?  (vv 3, 10) There were the deer, drinking deeply at the mountain streams early and late, hiding in secure places at other times.  They, too, live in refuge and seek to replenish their souls.  O, to seek God early and late each day!  The promise is at mid-psalm:  One deep stream calls out to another at the sound of your waterfalls; all your billows and waves overwhelm me.  By day the LORD decrees his loyal love, and by night his song is with me, a prayer to the living God. (vv 7-8)  And twice the psalmist says to his soul Wait for God!  (vv 5, 11)  Meantime the psalmist knows the depth of his distress and the saving intervention of God–both at once?–as he is overwhelmed in the stream’s torrent.  This might be the place where the preacher knows only to choose the best understanding for the day.  The stream so desired appears ready for drinking, it announces love by day and songs by night, yet for the psalmist the promise of deeper replenishment is not fulfilled.  Hope remains, though, for one deep stream calls out to another — deep calleth unto deep — the human soul in bottomless need calls out to the LORD who is the endless resource.

I will add here that Psalm 43 following shows God’s holy hill where he lives as our psalmist’s desire.  In the mountains of Psalm 42, only promises, the true source is on a special hill.  See, too, Revelation 21:9–22:5.

Quotations from the NET Bible ; for superlative poetic value, try the Authorized or King James Version.

(Dr. Buttrick was visiting by special request by SBTS from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary where he was a guest lecturer.  He was among the most profound of preachers and lecturers.)

Copyright 2012 by Jerry Summers.

“Interpretation” for my students, re G. Steiner

In his book, Real Presences, George Steiner asserts a “wager on transcendence.”  He is referring to

“the wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addresses another, when we come face to face with the text and work of art or music, which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, is a wager on transcendence.” (4)

He argues for that which is real or substantiated when people use language or create forms, when in making meaning they arrive at “meaningfulness.”  Now, all that is possible, Steiner argues, because God is present and is the transcendent reality that makes it possible for us to truly create art and to communicate.

We are talking about interpretation or hermeneutics in class.  Steiner writes that hermeneutics defines “the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension.”  We may have to unpack that a bit in class . . . .

He also mentions three “principal senses” of interpretation:

An interpreter is:

  • a decipherer and communicator of meanings;
  • a translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions;
  • in essence, an executant, one who “acts out” the material before him so as to give it intelligible life.
An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia.  A dancer interprets Balanchine’s choreography.  A violinist a Bach partita.  In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation. (8)
Another quote from Steiner–and though he refers to music, theatre, art and poetry, he also refers to “non-dramatic literature,” which of course can mean for us the more “typical” primary source texts in history, whatever they would be–dealing with the moral aspect of interpretation and the question is “the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?”
Interpretive response under pressure of enactment I shall, using a dated word, call answerability.  The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibly.  We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological.  (8)
Steiner has much more to say, but for our purposes right now, these points may help us to reflect on how we examine and analyse historical source documents or other primary source artifacts in our study of history.  This means that as historians we are not just examining evidence from the past.  We are serving as interpreters, translators in an important sense.  This kind of study requires us to be fully engaged and surprisingly deeply committed to what it is we think is important about the past.  In this kind of study we actually become historians in much more personal, intellectual and spiritual ways.  We gain new understanding about our own moral sensibilities and responsibilities.  So, we are involved in an exciting, holistic, human pursuit.
Sooner or later we all experience the challenge or delight of “interpretive response under pressure of enactment.”  Actually, in a sense, we face this each day; there is no day when we are not required to be answerable or responsible, even in the “everyday” or mundane things.  To propose a point to ponder:  was not Jesus the Christ, the incarnate God, the ultimate enactor-responder-artist of humanity, the model not just of a fully-realized humanity but of the immanence of God–God’s very presence in human person and community?  And even in his earthly, human life, did he not show us the extraordinary dimensions of wholeness as well as holiness?  And why should we not strive to realize, to find him “made real” in every part of our individual and social lives?  Even in a history class?  Let’s think about it and try it out.
Hebrews 9:1–10:25
Quotations from George Steiner, Real Presences, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

If we do not pray with Israel . . .

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) continues to challenge and engage me.  So, too, his mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), the steel to Rosenzweig’s flint.  They escort me roughly out of the easy seats onto the stone seats of a contentious forum; there they bid me listen until I squirm, my butt on the hard limestone, my brain on their hard arguments.

Yet this I want to do, it’s worth the effort and discomfort.  Rosenzweig was the skeptical Jew converted to his own people’s religion; Rosenstock the acculturated Jew who was baptized a Christian in his teens, and who eviscerated Rosenzweig’s sloppy thinking about reality, forcing him to dare to face God.

Right now I am working through Judaism Despite Christianity and find in Rosenstock’s letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943 many stunning comments making a unified argument that prayer is an absolute necessity–and his definition of prayer encompasses the entire life of a people.  Nineteenth-century biblical scholars did not represent Jewish history accurately or fairly.  The missed the “No” of the Jews to idols–Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and God’s three “No’s”:  the Fall, the Great Flood, and the Exodus.  “‘Revelation’ is a knowledge of God’s will, after his ‘No’ to our will has become known.” (181)  But the “No” was necessary if Israel was to recognize “herself as God’s servant, merely a man in the face of God’s majesty.”  (181)  This is not just strong stuff, it is the basic stuff.  It undergirds everything else Rosenstock wrote in the letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943.

One example will be enough:

The Germans all knew in 1918 that the World War had been lost deservedly.  Faith accepted the defeat.  But it takes faith in God to accept defeat fully.  If there be no divine will, then our will must reign supreme.  Naturally the whisperers came–those all-knowing ones who cannot be named but who are always being quoted–those who said, “It was a stab in the back,” “It was this or that,” “It was unnecessary,” etc.  The reaction was inevitable:  “We shall undo the defeat.”  Whispering is unauthorized speech.  The devil is any person who does not wish to be quoted; and so he never attains the rank of a person.  For a person accepts God’s judgement over what he has said or done.  Thus can he come to know the truth.  The devil never receives his verdict because he whispers only and never speaks truly and confidently.

. . . The people who had believed only in science, and who could not distinguish between spell-binding magic and prayer, now fell for the stump speakers.

Rosenstock summarizes the German history of persecution and repression against Lutherans (after 1825) and Catholics (certainly after 1871) and identifies Hitler as “the third attempt to free the German nation from any check on its nationalistic conscience.  This time, the triangle Luther-Rome-Israel is attacked foremost at the Jewish corner.  Also, the attack is far more violent than the two former.”  The furor Teutonicus runs a system of hatred, and there are other arguments to illustrate, but I will finish this statement with a few more of Rosenstock’s sentences:

Hitler hates everything started by the Jews, including democracy and the Freemasons.  Why?  They all know of the insertion of God’s “No” into history as a vital element.  But a spellbinder must be sure that his spell will work under all circumstances.  This prevents him from admitting God’s “No” to the fabric of history.

Hitler’s will and his god’s will are nauseatingly one.  The great art of speech has made Hitler crazy.  Since he has the privilege of speaking, of inflaming the masses, he spellbinds.  And so he hovers as a ghost from the abyss of paganism, a ghost of the days before God touched Israel’s lips with his fiery coal:  “My will, O mortal, not thine, be done.”

The specific character of biblical prayer explains the uniqueness of the Bible.  We can’t forget the Bible because the divine “No” was created, in our speech, during those thousand years of Jewish prayer.  And all the other departments of our linguistic faculty rest on this clear distinction between prayer, on the one side, and science, poetry, fiction, and law, on the other.  If we do not pray with Israel, we cannot retain our Greek mathematics or our Roman law.  This will sound arbitrary or exaggerated at first reading.  But it is simple truth. (183)

Rosenstock goes on to illustrate examples that bind ancient and modern paganisms together while they show biblical prayer (faith, religion, core of revelation) to be absolutely distinct from them.  It is the distinction and emphasis that energized the philosophical, faithful thinking and dialogue that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig conducted over many years — theirs was an astonishing interchange between Christian and Jew; it started a century ago and lasted until Rosenzweig died.  Rosenstock lived to write voluminously on themes that grew out of scholarship as — I would like to say this —  a form of prayer.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, letter to Cynthia Harris (in 1943 a freshman at Radcliffe College): “Hitler and Israel, or On Prayer,” first published in The Journal of Religion (University of Chicago Press, April 1945).  Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, ed., Judaism Despite Christianity:  The 1916 Wartime Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (with a new  foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a new preface by Harold Stahmer, and a new chronology by Michael Gormann-Thelen (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Close to, but not always on, Tornado Alley

There is a Dear One who lives in Washington D.C. and who would move back to Texas but for a few things, two of them being “Texas has tornadoes” and “D.C. has lots to offer.”  True, very true.

Surely there are many delights for folk who live inside the Beltway.  But one of them, certainly, is simply that there are many delights Beyond the Beltway, in many most sociable and historic locales, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, just to start a list, one rather long as you know.

Far from the Beltway, perhaps far enough to gain treasured perspective about matters within and without the fabled, enchanted, fantastical Beltway, lies the Great State of Texas.  As Mr. Tubb used to sing, “There’s a Little Bit of Everything in Texas.”  Yes, more and more, I say, a little bit of everything for most everyone. Again, as Ernest Tubb put it, ” . . . and a little bit of Texas in me!”

And, yes, even tornadoes, twisters, cyclones, what have you.  But is there one for everyone?  I think not; no, not enough tornadoes for everyone.  Why, a fella or a gal might live to be ninety-nine in Texas and never see, or hear, a tornado, at least not “up close and personal” as some like to say.  It’s true most folk want to avoid that type of encounter.

The topic brings to memory a story about a Kansas girl swooshed up in a tornado to the land of Oz.  Oz was L. Frank Baum’s fantasiacal, allegorical double for the Good ‘Ol U.S.A., and the Emerald City for Washington, D.C., the enchanted capital where the Yellow Brick Road ended.  I refrain from recapitulating the adventures of Dorothy and her companions in Oz, and her disenchantment upon learning that the Wizard of Oz was just a man like any other.  Baum’s Wizard stood in for the Gilded Age American presidents, according to one interpretation.  I agree with it.

We have a love-hate relationship with our capital and the doings in the Capitol chambers, the presidential and congressional politics, and the profound weight of bureaucracy in service to our Republic.  Asked how much of the bureaucracy we would like to keep, we would have to admit that much of it seems to meet more than a few of our needs. And asked whether we would do away with our government, we might pause long enough to ask how we could replace it. We will settle for improvements.  And we will accept that our government is as humanly limited as any other institution, it’s just bigger.

From the founding of our republic, indeed before that, presidents, congressmen, civil servants, students, interns and others have come to the point in life’s journey when they know it is time to “go home,” to “come home.”  Their work is done, able to do no more, they leave what is yet to be done to others.

Dorothy, once delivered to OZ by tornado, finds her way home (after having helped others out in her sweet, Kansasy-American way) by clicking her silver shoes together (in Baum’s reference to the Silver Crusade of the late 180os).  In the cinematic version, her heart’s deepest desire does the real work while she clicks the heels of her ruby red slippers together; no balloon ride for her!  She wakens as from a dream and finds herself at home, among her loved ones.

Such is the allure of the Emerald City, but no match for the allure of home.  It cannot replace the thousands of other places that Americans call “home.” Yes, Dear One, Jen, there’s no place like home.  Home is where one’s “people” are.  That being so, the real question becomes who one’s people are, and the where can become secondary.  That’s more the truth among us Americans wherever we land in the world.  Or, as is the case, wherever  the peoples of the world land among us!  At the end of it all, we are all sojourners in far countries.  We may not actually be far from home, for even our home can be for someone else a foreign land, a far country.

In reflection on Jim and Cathy’s experiences lately, I have been reminded that our own communities hold and keep great distances between individuals.  Economic status, religious groupings, social identity, ethnicity, in-group traditions and settled attitudes make it seem as though our neighbors live great distances apart from us, and we from them.  There are all kinds of distances. Some of them we should be impatient to do away with; it should not be that way among all us locals.  These kinds of things make it hard to feel right at home.  What could be more important than that?

Heartless Paganism

I follow up here on a previous posting with a challenging quotation that caught my eye — or should I say it caught me between the eyes?  Yes, it’s the Rosenzweig connection again, but it has to do with the struggle of the believer, certainly of Christian and Jew, and perhaps others.  The quotation is from the Koren Sacks Siddur 4th edition (citation below):

The prophets were critical of the sacrificial system. They reserved for it some of their most lacerating prose. Yet none proposed its abolition, because what they opposed was not the sacrificial act, but the ma’aseh without the kiyum, the outer act without the inner acknowledgement that gives the act its meaning and significance. The idea that God can be worshiped through externalities alone is pagan, and there is nothing worse than the intrusion of paganism into the domain of holiness itself. Then as now, the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion in the dealings between the worshiper and the world.

O Dear Reader, check THAT out against the teaching of Jesus, and you will know why I have that pain between my eyes! “. . . the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion . . . .” What did Jesus say? (Let us remember that the Christ was of the Jews and emphatically of the Father.) Let me make a blanket statement here in saying the “Sermon on the Mount” is a full-blown commentary on the believer’s tendency to paganism (but then, so is the Bible entire). For example, after providing examples of exterior religion and profession versus interior purity of response to God, Jesus exclaims that not all who claim him as Lord will enter his Kingdom, but only those who do the will of the heavenly Father. (Matthew 7:21) His simile of the wise man’s house built on the solid rock and comparison to the fool’s house built on sand sums up the difference between true belief and paganism. (Matt. 7:24-27) And then, to conclude the sermon section, Matthew’s Gospel reads, “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law.” (Matt. 7:28-29, NET Bible)

The Gospel accounts of Jesus illustrate and validate his identity as Son of God and Son of Man, and in him no hint of the divided mind, the selfish heart, the deceptive intention, the hidden agenda, the need to manipulate. He stands apart from all other human persons for he is holy, uniquely God’s Son, yet fully and honestly human, and so, human in the best way.

The old Christian hater, Saul of Tarsus cum Paul the Apostle, having met the glorified Christ en route to Damascus, certainly speaks from experience when he challenges the Jews, “. . . you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself?” He questions whether, though they “rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, . . . ” and despite teaching these things to others, they actually put them into practice.  Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:5, for immediate effect, I think, but also with a much deeper allusion or implication in mind.  “The name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” or, “my name is being constantly slandered.”  (See Romans 2:17-24) In Romans he moves immediately to discuss circumcision as a primary evidence of adherence to the Law.  In Isaiah 52, captive Zion (Judah, Jerusalem) is in exile at the hands of Cyrus of Persia, but the special servant of the Lord (call him Israel who can be understood as fully representing the Lord God) will complete the Lord’s will as redeemer and deliverer.  His activities fully match the presence, power, and glory of the LORD who is king, who consoles, who displays his power to all the earth, who goes before the people, just as he did when he led Israel from Egypt and through the wilderness. (Isaiah 52:7-12; compare Isaiah 42:1-7; and see 43:14-21)

These are only parts, but important parts, of the vision of Isaiah. But they proceed to the astonishing vision of Isaiah 53 (actually beginning with 52:13). We can hardly read that one without immediately projecting forward to the suffering servant, Messiah, Jesus Christ, so that we leave the immediate historical context behind. Yet that context is important because it suggests hope that the “ideal servant” sacrifices every desire, every prerogative and honor in order to be a healer and redeemer for the people and to serve the will of the Lord God completely.

Paul writes in the context of his example of circumcision, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29, NET Bible. Compare Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4, Ezekiel 44:9.)  The Romans letter takes us beyond the teachings of Jesus, yet only by illustrations suitable to the demands of the day and situation Paul addressed, not only to the Roman church, but to all of the churches of Christ. Jesus’ instruction holds firm as revealed truth. Elsewhere, in James and the Petrine letters for example, that instruction holds firm in its application in the earliest church. Paul writes out of a background that includes the prophets, Isaiah included here, who looked not to the sacrificial system or the outward trappings of religion, but to the heart of his people in Zion in response to the redemptive work of the sovereign king, through his servant Israel, but only that servant whose heart and intention was completely obedient to his will and intention; with that his name could be praised.

There is no praise in paganism, whether in superficial Jewish life and practice, or in skin-deep Christian life and practice, for there is in that superficial religion and worship no turning of the human heart, the core of God-given personhood, to the creator who alone is to be worshiped–as Jesus said, “in spirit and in truth.”

I think this connects with the Koren Sacks quotation in this way. If someone hurts, or needs, or suffers to the point of hopelessness, he or she does not want to hear from anyone who does not have a firm hold on a true source of hope. The hungry do not want to hear “bless you” while they are left with an empty bowl. The impoverished do not want to hear “Oh, you’ll work this out eventually,” because if they could have done so, then they would have already. Victims of injustice here and elsewhere cannot get the liberation and hope they need from others’ apathy and claims “there is nothing to be done.” Rarely is a person’s problem simply “a problem” but a complex of problems.  That is why the connection of life and worship is so important. It is why discussions about changing communities has been so important. It is also a good reason not to lose faith in our churches–that is, to lose our resolve to make, or keep, our churches significant in the right ways.

Citation: Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (UK), “Understanding Jewish Prayer,” The Koren Siddur, 1st Hebrew/English ed., Jerusalem: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2009), xxxviii.

Birding I.D. Today

For such a little bird, it hit the plate glass with a surprisingly loud thud. I am thankful this one was only stunned and upright on the patio. I took her up, checked the wings, and neck, lofted her on finger and thumb, and after several minutes she flew–just fine.  An immature, female Hairy Woodpecker. She must have been in the yard for the sunflower seeds.