November 12, 2018
Three widows are featured in our readings, including the woman in the story of the widow’s mite, as we used to call it. The “mite” was her tiny gift of all she had into the treasury, which Jesus counted higher than the big donations of the wealthy.
Our other two widows, Naomi and Ruth, are also poor. Theirs is a beautiful short Bible story with a harsh start and happy end. Naomi had been married to Elimilech, with whom she had two sons. Elimilech died. In Israel, the rain stopped, crops failed and there was famine. Looking for food, Naomi led her sons to the land of Moab. They settled there and the sons grew up to marry Orpah and Ruth, gentile women of that country. Then both sons died. Now there were three widows in one family with no children, no money, and no work. These were dire straits. Generously, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to the safety of their own parents’ homes. Tearfully, Orpah said goodbye, but Ruth wouldn’t leave Naomi. “Where you go, I will go,” she vowed. “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Like the widow with her mite, Ruth offered all she had. Ruth’s great-grandson David would be king.
I still have the Bible this cathedral gave me as an ordination gift in 1982: New Oxford Annotated, expanded edition, Revised Standard Version. It is handsome, black leather bound, but also scholarly and full of expert notes. The notes to Ruth date the story’s composition. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was written centuries after the events it describes occurred. By then, after David, Israel was divided and had been conquered several times, culminating in 587 when Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. In 538, Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, King of Persia, who let the Jews go home and rebuild their city and temple. In scripture, the books of Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah tell that story of return. Ruth was written at about the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.
Now I quote the experts in my old ordination Bible.
Israel after the Exile developed tendencies in two opposite directions: on the one hand a major tendency to draw within herself and emphasize the exclusiveness of her election as God’s chosen people, and on the other hand a broad and liberal one which sought to make of her “a blessing in the midst of the earth (Isaiah 19:24), a ‘light to the nations.’ (Isaiah 49:6) Among the noblest monuments to the latter tendency are the books of Jonah and Ruth.
So the Bible embodies a debate: Should we be like this, or like that, to be faithful?
If we follow Thomas Aquinas, and here I do, this was not a conflict between good and evil, but between two variants of good. According to Aquinas, “whatever is of value, and can satisfy desire, is good.” [i] That is a definition of good without judgment. It would include things we would judge as bad, but Aquinas would say that, even with bad things, if we want them it is because there is something good in them to attract us. In the Book of Ruth, the Bible shows the goodness in Ruth, a foreign immigrant. In Ezra and Nehemiah, it lays the accent on Israel’s unique vocation.
October 28, 2018
Today is “Heritage Sunday,” a day to celebrate the lives and ministry of:
Seven parishioners who have been members of Trinity for seventy-five years or more: Martha Campbell, Lawson Deloney, Pete Maris, Ed Penick, Jr., Frances Mitchell Ross, J.D. Simpson, and Belle Spatz; and of:
Eight parishioners who have enriched our lives on earth for 90 years or more: Ted Bailey, Kathryn Bost, Joanne Cooner, Mary Fine, Adolphine George, Catherine Hepinstall, Bill Pumphrey, and Nell Stephens; and of:
Three parishioners who done both ninety years of life and seventy-five years of ministry at Trinity: Marguerite Gamble, Gordon Wittenberg, and Betty Terry; and of:
One organist and choirmaster, Charles Rigsby, long and well loved here and throughout the church in Arkansas.
Trinity’s heritage began with our founding on October 19, 1884, by Bishop Pierce. That start (a birthday of sorts) brings to mind something Karl Barth said about people. On the day we are born we have a present and a future, with no past. Thereafter, our past gets longer and our future shorter by the day. Barth wasn’t counting heaven, which is on a different clock. On our clock, Trinity has 134 years of past, which is a nice length—and, we pray, a much longer future.
One of our honorees, Betty Terry, owns a past reaching back to the 1920s. A week ago last Wednesday, October 17, her birthday, Betty’s great-granddaughter and namesake was born—Madeline Elizabeth Borné -Williams—whose future stretches forward to the 22nd century, easily. In the heritage of Trinity Cathedral, that is a powerful one-two punch.
One woman who would have been honored today, Jane Wilson, was buried from here on Monday. In Jane’s funeral, our heritage of faith wrapped her death in transcendent, hopeful beauty.
Heritage is treasure.
Consider Charlie Rigsby, at the organ. In Charlie at the age of 27, Dean Higgins saw energy and talent and hired him on the spot, bringing a musical life to this Cathedral the likes of which is seldom heard, not only but especially with children. The musical and spiritual seeds Charlie planted in lives going back to forty years ago continue to flower here, even as new seeds are being sown by Victoria, who is one of Charlie’s many protégés.
Heritage can be baggage too, of course. Our southern heritage is a glaring example. We southern states were on the wrong side in the Civil War, and again in the struggle after that for civil rights for black folk. From that bad history, we can’t hide. Shelby Foote, in a low moment in the sixties, said he was ashamed to be southerner—when for most of his life the South had been “the one thing [he] really ever loved.” “Good Lord,” he swore, “when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!” Then he began to list things he long had loved about the south: “the misspent courage, the hardcore independence. The way a rich man always had to call a poor man “Mister.”[i]And that brings us back to treasure. As for me, even with the baggage, I would rather be from here than anywhere. I am speaking now both of the South and Trinity Cathedral.
October 22, 2018
“Pillar” had been the first word that came to mind for Jane: pillar of her family, pillar of the city and this church. But pillar is a dusty word, so I was going to add a pretty one: jewel. “And she was a jewel of a lady too.”
Then the Bible offered up a better word. Tuesday afternoon, Lisa was looking over the prayer book’s list of suggested readings for this service. For each suggestion, it gives a very short description. On the list was Isaiah 61. The description says: “to comfort all that mourn.” At that point, Tuesday, in all of us, mourning felt like shock. Lisa looked up. “What else does it say? Could you read the passage?” I went over to the shelf and picked up a Bible. Make of this what you will, but in my hands it fell open to Isaiah 61.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
“Oak,” there’s a word for Jane that blends the strength of a pillar and the beauty of a jewel. I have a particular oak in mind, a giant willow oak I love on Hawthorne Road: broad, rooted, vibrant, green. It covers the street. Watch it shimmer on a windy day.
I knew about Jane since I was twelve years old and moved to Little Rock. My source was her nephew Herbert Thomas III, who had reached out and befriended me. Herbert would tell me about Little Rock while beating me at tennis. “We’ll get two good snow days almost every winter. (By the way, its forty-love.)” He was proud of his cousin Frank who played for Hall, and in talking about Frank he would throw in compliments to Frank’s mother, Jane. Most grown-ups are invisible to teens, but Jane was not to Herbert.
For the next fifty years that truth about Jane didn’t budge an inch. Lisa mentioned it in passing Tuesday, that Jane was a feather in her grandchildren’s caps. When college friends would come to town, they wanted to hang out with Jane. Sophie said to Lisa: “Mom, I don’t know my friends’ grandmothers, but they all know mine!”
“Oaks of righteousness”: What’s that? I still keep a big fat dictionary by my desk: Random House, 2nd edition, unabridged. I looked up righteous just to see what it would say. It means “cool,” and the opposite of cool. Literally, it means upright, virtuous, moral, as in “righteous indignation.” None of that is cool. But definition four reads metaphorical: “Righteous (slang): absolutely genuine or wonderful,” as in “some righteous playing by a jazz great.” Now righteous is the epitome of cool. Jane was all of it—righteous in the cool way, and also in the way that isn’t charmed by cool. She navigated by a higher star.
I also looked up growth stages in an oak tree. Google gave me six: sprout, seedling, sapling, mature, ancient, and decay. We never saw decay in Jane. She was ancient like the Willow Oak: powerful, majestic. Thinking back to “sprout,” she was born in 1926, the same year as Harper Lee. As a sapling, I could picture Jane as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her high school years were almost exactly those of World War II. She was mature, at 37, when John F. Kennedy was killed, and 42 when we landed on the moon. She raised three boys through the tumult of the sixties, and had what that took: ingenuity and spunk, wrapped up in love. At fifty-one, she suffered the death of Frank, Sr., her husband, and at seventy-five of Frank, Jr., her son. She was eighty-seven when she lost her second husband, Bob. According to an old song, “without a hurt the heart will hollow.” Jane’s heart was full.
October 14, 2018
May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Our readings today may confuse us if we’re not careful.
We hear three distinct voices in our readings. They communicate sadness, desire, need, and perhaps helplessness.
All of these may fall under the broad umbrella of suffering.
We hear Job’s and his angst about God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him…”
In our gospel reading, we hear the question posed: “what must I do to be saved?” – Jesus walks thru some commandments in answer…the person – who’s not identified in this gospel is referred to as the ‘rich young ruler’ in the other gospel narratives – he says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” --- this response by him in our narrative seems to show assurance is not being experienced. No sense that this is enough or “working.”
We’re seeing individual perceptions of reality.
Perception is a funny thing. It has to do with awareness and understanding – especially through the senses. We all have perceptions of things – situations, people, ourselves, God. Our perceptions are how we interpret and orient ourselves in our daily lives. Our perceptions are our reality…what we tend to forget is that our perceptions can be on point or they can be really wrong…but they tend to feel right because they’re ours.
Perception is the reality to each of us. Though it is not always the same reality.
In Job, his perception is that God is not there.
In contrast, the gospel reading shows an angst that we all, in ways, can dial into. This person is perceiving his obedience as not paying off or doing the trick…this person is not satisfied.
We also catch a glimpse of perception in our psalm appointed for the day. This is a familiar Psalm of lament by one who feels utterly abandoned by God. The psalmist cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
October 07, 2018
In the winter of 1863, Union troops surrounding Vicksburg were themselves besieged by high water. Rains were “heavy and continuous,” U.S. Grant remembered. Because of war, the levees had been neglected and now they failed. Grant writes: “The whole country was covered with water. Troops could scarcely find dry ground on which to pitch their tents. Malarial fevers broke out among the men. Measles and smallpox also attacked them.[i] When word of the dismal conditions reached the north, there was hue and cry. Grant had not disclosed his strategy and no one could figure out what he was up to. Now soldiers were dying in their own camp. Much of the public and many in the press demanded Grant’s removal and replacement.
This is all reported in Grant’s memoir, which many say is still the best-written memoir any president has left us. It is at this point in the book that Grant tells readers one of his beliefs about leadership. He calls it a superstition, but it sounds to me like a pearl of wisdom.
Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine is that everyone should do his duty to the best of his ability where assigned by competent authority, without application or the use of influence to change his position. . . . I had no idea, myself, of ever having any large command, nor did I suppose that I was equal to one. . . . Having been selected, my responsibility ended with my doing the best I knew how. If I had bought the place or obtained it through personal or political influence, my belief is that I would have feared to undertake any plan of my own conception, and would probably have awaited direct orders from my distant superiors. Persons obtaining important commands by application or political influence are apt to keep a written record of [their] complaints and predictions of defeat. Somebody must be responsible for their failures.[ii]
In other words: if Grant’s being commanding general had been his own idea, he would be more inclined to doubt his best judgment and second-guess his own decisions. It was the fact that others had recognized his skill and judgment and called him to high rank that added strength to his convictions. Doing what seemed right to give his army the best chance to win the battle was his duty—and nothing less, or more.
I think about that, reflecting on my decades in the priesthood. It started with a call.
Growing up, I had heard my father talk about his sense of being called, a feeling he had had in college but deferred at the time out of a sense of his unworthiness. Then it was further deferred to serve his country in World War II, then again to help build a growing family business. His story was that one day after a business trip to a wine and dine weekend at the Kentucky Derby, he and my mother were on their way back from Lexington to El Dorado. At Memphis, he pulled the car off the road and the two of them sat in silence. Finally, mother said: “What’s wrong?” “I just can’t do this anymore, he said, almost shaking, and meaning by “this” running (as second-in-command) a big company—a job he was good at and took pride in, working with people he loved and admired. “I just feel that God is calling me to be a priest.” “OK,” my mother said and that was that.
[i] U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Kindle edition, p. 161)
[ii] Gant, Memoirs, 162.
September 23, 2018
James asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13) We might answer: “We know it when we see it.”
I saw it at War Memorial Stadium: November 28, 2008. It was fourth down, one yard to go at the LSU 24 yard line, Arkansas trailing 30-24, less than a minute remaining in the game. Our running backs were small. Big Tigers crowded the line of scrimmage, their backs cheating up to stuff the run. London Crawford—fast, but to this point unreliable—had single coverage on the right. The choices: run, short-pass, or go for broke. Nothing was guaranteed, except this: making the first down would still leave 20 yards to go, hard-slogging against a more talented team. Coach decided that going for broke now would give the Razorbacks their best chance to win the game. Casey Dick threw it up, London hauled it in: touchdown, Arkansas. Hogs win. (The good old days.)
Knowing it might well have gone the other way, yet seeing here the best opportunity to win, playing the odds and rolling the dice: that is football coaching wisdom.
Wisdom comes in many flavors.
The wise teacher knows when to be strict—and when to cut a kid some slack.
The wise lawyer knows when to go to trial––and when to cut a deal.
The wise ninth grader knows to stay out of a car whose driver has been drinking.
The wise high school graduate goes off to college and finds new friends to match her values, rather than the other way around.
Wisdom is discernment. It perceives the opportunities and dangers in a situation, has a feel for the choice that will yield the desired result.
None of us is as wise we would like to be—raise your hand if you’ve never played the fool— but there is a lot of accumulated wisdom in this room: wisdom for doctoring and nursing, teaching, leading, lawyering, and simply growing up. We bring this wealth of wisdom with us into church on Sunday mornings.
And here we ask God to help us understand our varieties of wisdom within the broader compass of the wisdom of a different kind: the wisdom about God and the value, meaning and direction of our lives. This wisdom the early, Greek-speaking Christians called “Hagia Sophia”—“Holy Wisdom.”
September 09, 2018
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What does it mean to call a truth “self-evident”?
Questions like that, I take to Thomas Aquinas, and with a click or two, I had his answer. In the first few pages of the Summa Theologiae Aquinas asks if the truth that God exists is self-evident. The answer will be that it is to God but not to us. In the answer, he works with two different ways to hold a truth self-evident. Here is the first: “Those things are said by us to be self-evident the knowledge of which is naturally within us.”
Some do say that knowledge of God is naturally within us. Aquinas disagrees:
“It must be said that a general and confused knowledge of God’s existence is naturally infused within us, for God is our beatitude and we naturally desire beatitude. What a person naturally desires she naturally knows. This is not to know God’s existence specifically, however. . . [because] many think the perfect good of humankind, called beatitude, is wealth, some imagine it to be pleasure, and so on.”[i]
Beatitude means happiness. Striking, that our desire for happiness shows up early in both the Declaration of Independence and the Summa Theologiae. According to the Declaration, the right to pursue it is part of our endowment. Rather than “rights,” Aquinas thinks in terms of “goods.” Desire for the good of happiness is natural to us—part of our endowment. Both the source and final goal of that desire is God. The pursuit of happiness puts us on the scent of God. However, we are easily thrown off the scent by wealth, pleasure, power, etc. We are in the woods and on the hunt, but too often found barking up the wrong tree. So, by that first definition, the truth that God exists is not self-evident: close, but no cigar.
Here is the second definition, which is the one I more easily remember: “Those things are said to be self-evident the truth of which is obvious once the meaning of the words is clear.” (For example: “Liars can’t be trusted.”) With the truth that “God exists” this isn’t so. As we know, someone may know the meaning of those words and doubt their truth.
So is it the case with “All men are created equal”? I don’t see how. For that statement to be true, there must be a Creator, meaning God. If God is not self-evident, to that extent the whole statement is in question, is it not? So we can know the meaning of the words “created equal” and still doubt their truth.
[i] Thomas Aquinas, ST 1a Q2, Article 1. Objection 1 and its reply.
September 02, 2018
May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Christian life is a supernatural life. When someone is a Christian, we see an observable difference in their life. It shows up. Scripture tells us that we are miraculously, though we may not feel it, new creatures in Christ. The old has passed away and behold the new has come. Our Epistle today gives us a tangible example and exhortation of how our Christian life is different and observable…or not…
In this reading today, we hear about our actions, handling our emotions, and the importance of the state of our hearts.
“Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
And a great word picture: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away immediately forget what they were like.”
The Christian life is one of response and action to all that God has done for us. As we relate to God and one another, simply put – Love is something you do.
But this is not an expectation to live up to from God…we are not saved by any works we do and cannot make God think any more of us than God already does. Salvation, like all things from God, is a gift.
James asserts: God gave us birth by the word of truth and we are to welcome this word implanted in us with meekness.
We live in the midst of profound miracle through God’s power and provision for us, but we still – still - are plagued by limitation. We sin, we fall short…and we do this, at times with great creativity.
James also asserts: if we are mere hearers of the word we “deceive ourselves” and become like one who walks away from a mirror and forgets what they looked like. James strongly says, religion lived from a deceived heart is worthless…worthless.
The word for heart in the Greek James uses will sound familiar: Kardia. Cardia. Cardio. We think of our hearts physically. However, in the Greek this is a big word conceptually and, in our context, refers to the center of our physical and spiritual life. From the New Testament Greek, Lexicon sees that this involves the mind, the will and character, and emotions or appetites and desires. Great inclusivity in its meaning.
August 26, 2018
This morning in our lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scripture, we read from a historical document—the First book of the Kings—a book said to be a holy history of a holy people, history recounted from a spiritual vantage point with a theological agenda to promote. Our particular pericope this morning involves the great King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, ruler of the United Kingdom, and exemplary of Israel’s leadership at the height of her worldly greatness—that being 10 centuries before the birth of Jesus.
Throughout the ages, sacred history has revered and celebrated King Solomon—most especially for an asset of character that we call wisdom, a God-given ability to discern the Spirit’s movement, a blessing of insight and perspicacity—and then for his application of that holy gift in building a temple for the worship of God right at the heart of Israel’s life. Wise King Solomon knew that the God of the Universe (whose breadth and depth never ever could be contained in an earthly vessel or quartered by human hands) must nevertheless have a name, an address, and a visible, audible, feelable, touchable, sensible, and BEAUTIFUL presence in a particular place in ordinary time and recognizable space if flesh and blood human beings like ourselves are ever to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” [Psalm 34:8]
So Solomon constructs this lavish temple; he adorns it with worldly greatness and inspirited beauty; and from its description it apparently was as awe-inspiring in its architecture and fabric as is Trinity Cathedral on Spring Street in Little Rock—the point being those beautiful buildings are very very important to us, and should never be taken for granted or thought to be excessive. Within the heart of this magnificent Temple, Solomon ensconces the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of holy for God’s chosen, the sacred law that binds God and God’s people in a relationship. Solomon pleads with God to listen to the prayers of those who come to the temple to venerate the Law, and he even delineates for God the kinds of prayers that will undoubtedly travel from human lips to the divine ear:
Most especially prayers uttered —
by those seeking help in times of need…
by those In the clutch of transgression, begging for forgiveness…
by those in crisis because of great famine or withering drought
by those in despair when a loss is pronounced and failure colors the day…
by those living through seasons when a loss is pronounced and failure and colors the day.
even by those who are foreigners and aliens who come as curiosity-seekers hoping they might find the One who is said to live here.
August 19, 2018
Where Do We Go from Here? was the last full book by Martin Luther King, Jr. In reading him this year, one thing I have found is that his arguments are often dialectical. Start a train of thought with opposites––freedom and service, for example––then find the truth of each embedded in the other: in service is our perfect freedom. Hegel, the philosopher, was the master of that way of thinking.
In Where Do We Go from Here? Dr. King’s eye is on the plight of northern black folk trapped in urban ghettos. Having fought so hard against legal racial segregation in the south, now he is hearing calls by blacks that blacks should separate themselves from white society, to preserve their racial solidarity and protect their culture. The separatists view America as incurably hostile to blacks. Rather than American, they stand on their African identity. African or American? Those are the opposites King frames, and he writes this:
The Negro is the child of two cultures –Africa and America. The problem is that in the search for wholeness all too many Negros seek to embrace only one side of their natures. Some seeking to reject their heritage, are ashamed of their color, ashamed of black art and music, and determine what is beautiful and good by the standards of white society. They end up frustrated and without cultural roots. Others seek to reject everything American and to identify totally with Africa, even to the point of wearing African clothes. But this approach also leads to frustration because the American Negro is not an African. The old Hegelian synthesis still offers the best answer to many of life’s dilemmas. The American Negro is neither totally African nor totally Western. He is Afro-American, a true hybrid, a combination of two cultures.[i]
Faithful life is also dialectical. As Christians, we are children of two worlds. The scripture writers pair opposites to name them: time and eternity; earth and heaven; flesh and spirit; life in Adam/ life in Christ. I am not talking about church and state, or secular and sacred. I am talking about this world, this life, all of it, punctuated with a beginning and an end––and life with different punctuation.
Karl Barth called the first “the old world of Adam . . . the world of history, time, people, and things.”[ii] Barth’s words remind me of the last words of my favorite novel, All the King’s Men, when Jack and Ann, finally married, leave the gulf coast:
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time.[iii]
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here? Kindle edition, p. 54-55.
[iii] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.