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!

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.