Homily for Jane Thomas McGehee Wilson

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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.

After starting life as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, the book, Jane evolved over time into Elizabeth Taylor playing Leslie Benedict in the latter scenes of Giant, the movie. By then, Leslie was the foxy gray-haired matriarch to a sprawling, lively clan of Texans. The Benedicts did not exactly match what Leslie’s husband, Bick (Rock Hudson) had thought a ranchers’ family ought to look like—but Leslie showed him how to see the glory in it. Oil and cattle were their stock in trade, while Jane’s Arkansas clan built Pyramid Life, the Red Apple Inn, and Cheese Dip. (Jane still looked so good at the age of ninety-two that Elizabeth Taylor might have wanted beauty tips.)

The beauty ran deep. Jane was artistic but she wasn’t artsy-fartsy. Her philanthropy was sensible and business-like. She was loyal—a fixed point for family and friends through ups and downs. She was elegant. Two church nights Julie and I won’t forget were spent at Jane’s place at River Bend. “Russian Winter Nights” she called them. Kiril Laskarov played Tchaikovsky on violin while guests sipped White Russians and ate smoked fish and caviar.  She was sharp and talked straight and to the point, but she was also warm and kind. If, in 1926, a gypsy fortune teller, or an angel, had come to Ruby and Herbert Thomas, Sr. and shown them their baby daughter’s life in full, they would have felt the peace that passes understanding.

In my father’s house are many dwelling places.

What Jesus meant by that we’ll come to in a moment, but first the same can be said of the house of Little Rock volunteer philanthropy.

I was explaining Trinity Cathedral to a young member of our staff who was having trouble scheduling a committee meeting. Everyone was always busy. Yep, I said. There are lots of good things that need doing around our town, and our folks are shouldering the load for quite a few of them. To illustrate, I brought up an Arts Center event I went to last spring, where four women were recognized for lifetime contributions and all four were members here. Of course one of them was Jane, for work going back to 1963. As much as she means to us here, she means that much to art in Arkansas, and to nursing, and to cancer research. Around town, it will take a team to fill her shoes. Here, she was that oak I mentioned. Just for one example: for several years now Jane has funded a Choral Scholars program for young singers, helping them and raising our music to a higher key.

Now it is Jane whose life is lifted to a higher key.

In my father’s house are many dwelling places.

In movies, there sometimes comes a comment towards the end that signals “yes, there will be a sequel.” In John’s gospel, Jesus does that here. “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”

Even his disciples aren’t convinced. Logically, Jesus’s assurance—if it weren’t true, I would not have told you––is circular. For proof, that doesn’t do the job. But in art and gospel writing, logic is not the only way to signal truth. Already in John’s gospel other signs have appeared that attest the claim—strange things, like water turned to wine. John’s readers know what the disciples do not—that Easter is coming, with timpani and trumpets, a little later in the story. We see and taste and hear the proof between the lines.

“I go to prepare a place for you.” That turns on the imagination.

I had started with the thought of Jesus at the Red Apple Inn, brand spanking new, making beds, fluffing pillows, switching on lamps for Jane—the heaven of a Hallmark card.

Discarding that, I thought of a better analogy, to Jane’s father, Herbert Thomas, Sr., walking Ozark ridges in the 1950s, topography map in hand, marking and then buying elevated land above the Little Red, high and dry now before the damn, but shoreline property someday. He hauled in extra dirt to build the causeway—a land bridge out to Eden Isle. Like Noah’s ark, it was ready for the flood. We drive back and forth across it now, taking it for granted, because it was prepared. That raises our sights to the heaven of a civil engineer, which is still a pale comparison—because the Lord isn’t buying land and moving dirt to prepare a place for Jane, for us. He is making earth, rivers, mountains, stars, again, from scratch.

And he who was seated on the throne said . . .  I am making all things new.

“The lamb on the throne will shepherd them,” we’re told. That’s Christ: the shepherd-lamb. Lambs we know and shepherds we know, but seeing lambs doing shepherd things is new. Imagine our delight at seeing familiar things enhanced to unfamiliar roles. Now Jane is Dorothy, meeting Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man. She looks down to Sasha Fierce McGehee, her grand dog. “Sasha, I have a feeling we’re not in Cleburne Country anymore.” The weather is changed for better and so is the food economy. “They will hunger no more, the sun will not strike them nor any scorching heat.” This is Paradise, for real. From his cross, Jesus promised it to a thief for no more reason than that this thief knew goodness when he saw it and had faith enough to ask a favor of him.

No wonder heaven is filled “with multitudes no one could count” of every color, from every tribe and nation, speaking every language known on earth—and, for all we know, more languages from other worlds. The lamb will guide this massive, multicolored, multilingual flock to springs of water, we are told: the waters of eternal life. This is water turned to wine.

But now I come back to thinking of the Ozarks because, of all the tribes and nations on the planet earth, we in Arkansas know springs. We’ve got them hot and cold. Right now I’m thinking clear and cold: Mammoth Spring, Blanchard Springs, and such. A favorite of mine is the spring-fed swimming hole up at Cotter, with that graceful old four-arched White River bridge high up, nearby— a heavenly scene on summer days. There is rope swing there, with kids from town lined up every afternoon. By the age of twelve, they are experts at flips and cannonballs. They take their turns to grab the rope and swing out high, and show off their stuff, splashing in to cheers, laughter and applause. Dogs are barking, having fun.

Hey look whose next: a sapling girl who is new to the spring. She reminds someone of Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and just as brave. She’s got the rope in hand now. “Hey y’all—watch this!” she shouts. And there she goes: up, up, and away—a somersault—and splash!