SLIDE 3: FOLLOW ME
“Jesus walked along by the Sea of Galilee, and he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” This story provides an image of power and wonder as Jesus walks up to fishermen he doesn’t know and simply invites them to follow him, and they drop everything and go after him.
SLIDE 4: POWERFUL PICTURES CAN DISTORT REALITY
Powerful pictures sometimes distort reality. Pictures of Jesus that glow in the dark and are too good to be true probably are. The Gospel of John preserves a tradition that strongly hints Andrew and Peter were followers of John the Baptist before Jesus. The fishermen and Jesus may have met, when Jesus came from Nazareth to the River Jordan to hear John’s message and then present himself to be baptized. They were probably already friends before Jesus moved his residence from Nazareth to Capernaum. Perhaps Jesus even established the base for his ministry in Capernaum at the urging of Peter and Andrew.
SLIDE 5: WHEN GREAT PEOPLE DIE THEY BECOME LARGER THAT LIFE
Great people after their deaths become larger than life, as their words and deeds become the metaphors of their followers, who don’t always get it right. I was reminded by Lillian Daniel in a Still Speaking Devotion this week of how the followers of Martin Luther King messed up his statue.
SLIDE 6: MESSED UP THE STATUE
If you visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC, you will no longer see the quotation: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” It was there when the statue was unveiled in 2011, but it has since been removed. Why? Because it turns out he never said it.
What he actually said was this: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Dr. King said those memorable words in a 1968 sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church just two months before his assassination.
SLIDE 7: MAYA ANGELOU POINTED OUT THE PROBLEM
It was the writer Maya Angelou who spoke out against the shortened quotation on the statue, pointing out that there is a big difference between saying, “If you want to say that I was a drum major…” and saying “I was a drum major…”
The first statement has the self-perspective and humility Dr. King was known for. The shortened version, in Angelou’s opinion, made him look egotistical. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside,” she explained. “The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
SLIDE 8: SOUND BITES MISS THE TRUTH
I’m grateful for the great writers like Maya Angelou, who care so deeply about other people’s words that they defend them against the sloppy editing of history. Sometimes, in our desire for a sound bite or a slogan, we sacrifice meaning, nuance and depth.
SLIDE 9: JESUS SOUND BITES MISS THE TRUTH
Now I know some people will be upset by this statement but I believe one of our problems in trying read the New Testament is that the gospels are often the sound bites of Jesus’ followers rather than Jesus himself. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus never actually says, “I am the Messiah.” He asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” When others accuse him of saying he is the Messiah, he responds, “You have said so.” But in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is very careful not to claim that he is the Messiah. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, however, the later First Century Christians who wrote that narrative have Jesus saying, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Light. You can’t get to God except through me.” It is sort of like the difference between what Martin Luther King’s followers put on his statue and what Dr. King actually said.
SLIDE 10: WHEN GREAT LEADERS DIE THEY LOSE CONTROL
The problem is when great figures of history die, they lose control over the way their followers use their words and their memory. A good example of this phenomenon is the great Chabad Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Beth picked up a biography about him when we were on vacation, and Rabbi Schneerson was a truly remarkable person. He had University Degrees in Science and Engineering as well as a reputation as an outstanding Talmudic Scholar. He was also kind and wise, possessing extraordinary insight into people and the future. He was consulted by a plethora of public figures even Presidents. Before he died he had followers who began to claim that Rebbe Schneerson was the Messiah. Whenever the Rabbi heard people make those claims, he always denied them. He told his followers in no uncertain terms that he was not the Messiah. When he died on June 12th 1994 at the age of 92, he was no longer in a position to control the actions and words of his followers.
SLIDE 11: THE MESSIAH LOVES YOU
When Rabbi Ballon and I visited Israel twelve years later we found posters all over Jerusalem with the face of Rabbi Schneerson and the caption: “The Messiah Loves You.” A couple of years later, when the Birmingham Group visited Jerusalem, we met with a representative of the Chabad movement who steadfastly believes that though the Rebbe was buried on June 12th of 1994, he is still available to his followers giving them encouragement and guidance. Members of the Chabad community purchased a house next to the cemetery where he is buried and you can send faxes to that house and your prayer requests will be taken and laid on the grave of Rabbi Schneerson. Rabbi Schneerson must be turning over in his grave in disappointment, but once we die, we lose control of what our followers do with our words and our memory.
SLIDE 12: WHO ARE WE FOLLOWING?
The stories of Martin Luther King and Rabbi Schneerson lead me to ask the question who are we following. Jesus says follow me, but what does that mean? Does following Jesus just mean claiming that he is God, worshipping him, building churches and praying in his name, wearing “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets. Seems to me that all of those kind of external forms of praising Jesus are just empty sound bites. Shane Claiborne author and Christian Activist tells of the story of meeting with a businessman who thought of himself as a Christian. He had a solid gold bracelet with WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) inscribed on it to remind him to follow Jesus. But as Shane pointed out, his solid gold bracelet missed the whole point of following Jesus. If following Jesus is to have any real meaning, then it means following in the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 13: FOLLOWING THE WAY OF JESUS IS HARD
Following the way of Jesus is hard, turning the other cheek, praying for enemies, the film Selma is timely reminder of the costs of loving enemies. Following the way of Jesus means walking the second mile, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, reaching out to the homeless, loving difficult people, opening up our friendship circles to include people who are not like us, gathering at the Sharing Table of Jesus with everyone who shows up. Jesus was inviting those fishermen in our scripture to follow him and go and invite others to the Sharing Table the Commonwealth of God.
SLIDE 14: HEALING AND EATING TOGETHER
Two of the most important signs of Jesus’ ministry were healing and eating. Bringing together people by the love of God to pray with and for each other, to support one another in faith that we might all be healed. To eat together to practice hospitality, so no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome to join in a fellowship that bridges barriers of race, education, ethnicity, economics, class, belief, and gender. This is the beloved community envisioned by Jesus and Martin Luther King. In every age vested interests oppose and resist the gathering of the beloved community.
SLIDE 15: DR. ALBERT SCHWEITZER One of the great twentieth century examples of a person who followed in the way of Jesus was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life and his talents as a doctor in Africa. Dr. Schweitzer concluded his search for the historical Jesus with two memorable paragraphs.
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those people who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has for us to fulfill in our time.
He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
Study Guide for Jabbok
Our study book is a novel. As such it is not a factual story, but my guess is that at least some of the material is part of the biography of the author Kee Sloan. Like many other narratives that impart “truth” Kee has not allowed facts to get in the way of a good story. He has also allowed his imagination to help us make important spiritual connections that for myself help me to reflect on my own life – my own story. My hope is that this book has helped you to reflect upon your story.
Rather than arranging quotations from the book in sequential order and asking questions, I have divided this study guide into twelve sections I think reflect major themes in the novel: Love, Forgiveness, Bullying, Hierarchy, Fear, Death, Hope, Humility, Struggle, Stories, Spirituality and the Relationship between Jabbok and Genesis. No doubt other themes will suggest themselves to you, and you are invited to bring those insights to the discussion. Quotations from the book are in plain Times New Roman, my comments are in italics and questions for discussion are in bold.
Jake’s theme again and again is the love of God, and this is the first theme we will consider as we discuss Jabbok. Part of the wonder of the story is the love that is shared between all old black man and a white boy in the deep South in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s.
Page 35: “You and me ought to have us a little talk,” he murmured.
“No!” I screamed. “Leave me alone!” I made as if I was going to bite him. He didn’t move. Remembering what he looked like in the daylight, I decided that I didn’t want any part of him in my mouth. I had enough problems without catching an incurable case of Gray Man Cooties.
He looked down at me patiently. “You don’t want to be out here all by yourself, boy. You know how to get home?
Page 37: “Why didn’t you throw mud on me that day at the creek?”
“Why didn’t you go on and hit me with that stick that day I had to kill the doe? Why didn’t you call me names when the other boys did?”
Page 43: At last he spoke. He didn’t turn around to face me; he just spoke aloud words I will always remember, in a voice I could believe had belonged to a preacher. “They ain’t many boys know how to be quiet, thank you. Hear me say this now: the mysteries is ever before us.”
I couldn’t tell if he was talking about the sky or about God; I had no idea what he was saying. I said, “Huh?”
He turned to look at me. “You got a lot of questions, Buddy, and you know how to listen. That’s good, that’s real good. . . ”
Buddy’s sensitivity, and listening were part of the basis for the forming of a relationship between Jake and Buddy. Some people perceived Buddy’s sensitivity as a weakness rather that a strength.
When you were growing up, did you form any close relationships with adults other than your parents? Have you had opportunities to form significant relationships across class, income or racial barriers?
Page 54- 55: “And then them boys would know where I live. Them same boys who threw mud on me when I was fishin’ would be up in my house. Them same boys who been kickin’ over grave markers ‘cause it’s ‘only niggers’ buried up there. Hell, I’d have to go find a new place, build a new house. No, thank you.”
It was a difficult critical moment. On the one hand, the idea of letting Lee and his friends just walk on by made me feel miserable, deceitful. My parents had drilled it into each of their children that we stick together, that we take care of each other. This was more than letting Lee walk around out in the rain; it seemed disloyal to my family. On the other hand, a different part of me newly born desperately wanted to stay with this man, to hear his story. I’ve often wondered how different my life would have been if I’d gone back out into the rain right then.
I didn’t know what to say, so I was surprised to hear myself talking. As it happened, I got more than I bargained for. “How come you’re okay with me knowing where you live?”
“Cause . . . well, ‘cause I trust you, Buddy. I ain’t sure why, but I just do. You ain’t like them other boys. They ain’t no meanness in you, they sure ain’t. You ain’t one of them. You know it and I know it, and there it is. I trust you is all.”
I was completely overwhelmed by the idea of being different from the other boys. Looking back on it, I should have been flattered, but at the time it felt threatening, like I would never fit in no matter how hard I tried, like there was something wrong with me. But even as he said it, I knew it was true.
Page 56: “But you don’t even know me.”
“Well, that may be. But I see you, and I do know some things ‘bout peoples. I can see you got a good heart. I ‘spect I know who you are more’n I know you, really. Let’s see what I might know, you want to?”
With some apprehension, I nodded, fearful and excited, wondering what there could be to know about me. I don’t think I knew that much about myself then.
“Let’s see here. I bet you don’t like it when them other boys fight and fuss, do you?”
“How do you know they fight?”
“’Cause they’s boys, and fightin’ is just somethin’ most boys seem to want to do.”
Page 57: Jake puffed on his pipe and continued, “You spend a good bit of time alone, thinkin’ your own thoughts. You like to write down some of your ideas and what not, but you don’t ever want anybody else to read’em.” . . .
He was right on all counts, and I felt naked, exposed. It is an amazing thing to be known so fully, to be understood, to be trusted. I felt like I’d been given a precious and frightening gift, and I knew I’d made the right choice by staying. . . .
When Buddy wants to know why Jake is O.K. with Buddy knowing where he lives, Jake says because I trust you. How important is trust in the establishment of friendships? How can we know whether or not to trust other people? How do you experience the relationship between trust and vulnerability? How important has trust been in your past friendships? Do you feel other people can trust you?
Page 82 – 83: . . .Or you can just try to put the love of God on ’em.
“What does that mean?”
“It ain’t no easy thing to do, it really ain’t. You just got to look in they eyes, and tell yourself that this mean alligator is a child of God just like you. They ain’t no better’n you, and you ain’t not better’n them. It don’t matter why they bein’ mean, you just got to love them best you can. But be careful, they still goin’ to try to bite off your damn hand!
“Does that work?”
“Well, Buddy, I believe it’s like this right here. Runnin’ and fightin’ ain’t no good. If you try to put the love of God on ’em, it may not do’em no good, but at least you know you was tryin’ to do the right thing.”
“Are you just making this up?” I had to ask, I’d never heard anything like what we was saying before.
“Hell no, I ain’t makin’ it up. It’s all in the Book. . . .”
“So when somebody’s being mean to me, you’re saying I ought to love him?
“That’s what Jesus told his friends they ‘spose to do, ain’t it? . . .
“Puttin’ the love of God on the alligators” may be the most difficult lesson of love, ’cause “they still goin’ to try to bite off your damn hand!”
What experiences have you had trying to put the love of God on the alligators? Do you think it works? What do you think was the relationship between “puttin’ the love of God on ’em,” and Martin Luther King’s non-violent direct action campaigns. Where have you faced the alligators in your life?
Page 104: The reason I did not want to come to your graduation is really two reasons. The first is that I did not want to meet your parents, I did not want to know in my heart that you had a daddy that was not me. I know that in my head but my heart wanted to have room to pretend. I wanted to leave it just like that. I thought you would think that was something a silly old man might think so I did not want to tell you.
The second is that my real son Joseph did not ever graduate from high school. Because I took him away from his mother and then he went to war. I carry some considerable guilt because of that. Going to your graduation would have put me where I would have to face up to that and I was too selfish to do that.
And there is another reason too so that makes three. I did not want you to graduate and leave me down here all by myself. It was not lonesome before I met you or I did not notice it. But now you been here and is gone and I ain’t never felt so alone. I reckon I just did not want you to grow up.
How do you think Jake’s three reasons for missing Buddy’s graduation relate to love? When are the times when love is difficult? Are there ever selfish feelings mixed up in love?
Page 111: And the mens in here, they need somebody to listen to them. I used to think being a preacher was mostly talking but most peoples need somebody to listen to them. I reckon listening is likely more useful than talking most of the time. The mens up in here need somebody to bring them some way to hope, like you done me. And I am glad to be needed.
How have you experienced the relationship between love and listening? For you what is the hardest part of listening? Can you think of a time when someone has really listened to you and it helped you?
Page 129: Every once in a while, you get the sense that you’re home. It comes in a smell, in a memory, in something so deep down inside that it’s hard to know what’s going on. There in that prison kitchen, surrounded by some of the more dangerous thieves and felons in the great state of Mississippi, I had that feeling: being with Jake was coming home.
“Buddy,” Jake said, I want you to meet my kitchen brothers.”
For you what is the relationship between “home” and love? Have you ever experienced the feeling of “home” in an unusual place? What do you think might be the relationship between “home” and the love of God?
Page 167: Only the peoples you love can hurt you. I ain’t saying you ought not to love somebody. I ain’t saying they ain’t no woman (or man) you can trust. I am just saying you got to be careful who you is naked with. It don’t matter how pretty a girl (or boy) is. If you can’t trust (her) with being who you are you best keep on walking.
What do you think Jake means by “being naked” with someone? Do you have any people with whom you can be naked? For you what is the most difficult part of nakedness?
Page 245: If Jake was correct in saying that religion is largely trying to explain what we cannot understand, then this had to be a religious moment for me. It’s not every day when something happens that you know beyond any question to be thoroughly impossible. I felt like a kid who’d given up on Santa Clause being waked up on Christmas morning by the real Santa. I starred in dumb shock, trying to force it to make sense, without even a sliver of success.
“Hey, Buddy,” Jake said. “It sure is good to see you, sure is.” . . .
I stepped into his hug and melted into tears. He held me tight, putting one hand behind my head and guiding my face to his shoulder. I don’t know how long I stood there and cried; when I looked up, Scott was gone. . . . Then I cried, when there was somebody there to love through it. That’s how it was that night with Jake. . .
Have you ever had a religious moment in the form of someone showing up for you? Do you think you might have ever been a religious moment for someone else when you “showed up?” Have you ever had someone love you through a crisis?
Page 260: Just so long as you don’t forget what’s important in all this: that the love of God comes to us from a lot of different directions. It comes from the Book, from the history and tradition of the Church, and we’re grateful for that. I never did know much about none of that, and I wish I had. The love of God also comes from the people who sit in the pews and pay the bills; from folks you don’t even know, old drunks at the county jail, people with no education at all, maybe even Doctors of Philosophy or Theology. . .
. . . But I believe that if you want to, you can see the light of God in almost anybody. Maybe you could see the light of God in me, if you were looking. It may be I could see it shine in you, through all your books and degrees. And if you could, and I could, we might just see that you and I are brothers and sisters, all chillun of the same Father in heaven.
Some of you will likely go on to be mighty preachers. Some of you won’t ever do much good for anybody but yourselves. Some of you might become scholars of some sort or another, whatever good that may do. But none of you will be worth a damn if you forget how to love, if you let yourself pretend that ministry is about what you know, and not about the love of God.
“The love of God comes to us from a lot of different directions.” What is the most unusual direction that the love of God has come to you? In what direction do you usually experience the love of God? Do you think academic preparation and training is important for spiritual leadership? What were the strengths of Jake’s ministry?
Another recurring theme of Jabbok is forgiveness. Where does our responsibility begin and end? How do we find our way home to God when we mess up? We all do mess up. Jake certainly messed up his life. So how do we find our way home? Our first quotation is from Jake after Buddy experiences guilt after his friend Andy managed to get himself killed trying to ride the rails.
Page 89 – 92: “It’s a damn shame, that’s for sure. But it ain’t your fault, you understand me? You can’t take this blame, it ain’t yours.”
“Look here, Buddy, peoples goin’ to do what they want to do. You ain’t never goin’ to stop peoples from doin’ foolishness. I don’t know why young peoples got to die before they time, I sure don’t. But they do, sure as the world, and there ain’t nothin’ you and me can do ’bout it.”
. . . . “Could we just choose the good stuff” Y’know, always choose the right thing?”
“If we was choosin’ between one good thing and another good thing, it wouldn’t really be no choice, you think? . . .
“That’s what I think, too. But listen: if we is free, peoples is goin’ to do things that hurts other peoples. Peoples is goin’ to do things that hurts they selfs. You understand what I’m sayin’?” . . .
“All right, then. That’s why God lets things like this happen. He don’t choose it, but He lets us choose it. He done told us what we ought to do, but we goin’ to do as we choose. God loves us enough to let us do what we choose to do, even then it’s wrong.”
“Even if it kills us.”
Jake points out that Andy’s death was the result of Andy exercising his free will. Are you ever tempted to blame yourself for things that are actually beyond your control? How do we know where our responsibility begins and ends? Do you believe we have free will? Do you ever wish we did not have free will?
Page 161 – 162: I hope you will tell your friend Eleanor that they ain’t nothing she could have ever done and nothing she is ever going to do that will put her outside the love of God. They is times when people give up on God but I do not believe God will ever give up on us. You do not need to know what all she might have done. She could not have done nothing God will not forgive.
Then the problem is will she forgive herself? I think many Christians and their preachers do not really believe this. They just cannot believe that God could really love us whether we deserve it or not. So they make up rules and laws and try to keep God under their control. . .
I believe that is mostly what a lot of religious talk is, just peoples trying to explain things they do not understand. Many peoples like to have somebody to believe they is better than. Many white peoples think they is better than colored peoples but they ain’t. Many rich peoples think they is better than poor peoples but they ain’t. Peoples in New York or Chicago might think they is better than peoples in Mississippi but they is wrong about that too. . . .
I believe that sin is when somebody chooses to do what they know ain’t right or ain’t what God wants them to do. Sin is when somebody puts what they want to do in front of what they thinks God wants them to do. . . .
Tell Eleanor we is all sinners most of the time and that God loves us all anyways. All the time and forever. That is all that really matters when it comes right down to it. Ain’t none of us ever good enough to earn the love of God. And tell her that shame will eat her up if she lets it. It will suck all the joy out of her life if she is ashamed of her own self. We all got to be who God made us to be, as much as we can. We all god to play the cards we was dealt. If somebody lives his life trying to be somebody else he is just natural bound to fail. Buddy what you and me have to offer is the love of God.
Jake makes sweeping claims that there is nothing we have done or nothing we can ever do that will put us outside the love of God. Do you believe this? “Sin is when somebody chooses to do what they know ain’t right or ain’t what God wants them to do. For you is this an adequate definition of sin? What do you think is sin? Jake points out that the real challenge of forgiveness is forgiving ourselves. Do you ever have trouble forgiving yourself? Do you ever have trouble forgiving other people?
Page 168: This is where you keeps all the memories of things you done that cause you shame now. This is where you keep the memories of your darkest day. It smells bad in there Buddy. It stinks like shame. Most of us keep the door closed and locked on that room most of the time. . But that is where we meet our Lord in the dark smelly room of our soul. I believe He is sitting in the middle of all that junk. And when you takes a peek into that room He says it sure stinks up in here. You need to go ahead and get rid of all this stuff. He says I already forgave all this junk. It’s just pure arrogant to hold on to something that Jesus has let go.
Do you agree with Jake that refusing to forgive ourselves is arrogant?
Page 196: “Mais yeh. Things heal, sure. Jus’ don’ pick at it, it gonna got some better pretty quick.”
“Captain Jimmy, I’m sorry about the beer. I shouldn’t have–”
“Aw rat, Hoss. We ain’t gonna said nothin’ ’bout this one more time. Things heal. Jus’ don’ pick at it. it gonna got better. Aw rat?”
“Yes sir.” We watched the river for a moment and I continued, “It’s gonna leave a scar, though.”
He laughed, and I saw the twinkle in his eye. “Hoo, sure, podnah, you gonna got you self a lot of more scars before you all done, dot’s for dam’ sure.”
How do you feel about Captain Jimmy’s wisdom not to pick at the scabs of sin? Do you have any favorite scabs you pick at? What are some of your scars? Are your scars ever a source of wisdom?
I was especially impressed as I began the book by the theme of bullying, and Kee Sloan certainly follows this theme all the way through the book. Bullying has become such an important subject in the media and on social media this might provoke a wide ranging discussion.
Page 24 – 26: So we were careful that no grownups heard us use the word, but after that it had even more power. For boys like us back then, the word didn’t have as much to do with race or color as the fact that it was the ultimate insult, the thing our parents didn’t want us to call each other. I guess most of us used it as a weapon, all the more injurious since it was a word forbidden to us. Still, we all knew it was talking about colored people in a mean way, and I was both surprised and alarmed to hear Purvis say it right there in front of a nigrah. He spoke it with venom, like an accusation.
Again Purvis had the answer. “Nigger!” He spat out the cruelest word with furious vehemence. “He don’t like to be called a nigger, that that’s all he is. He’s just an old nigger.”
The man kept looking down at the ground, as if he saw something interesting there. Lee tried to regain control of the situation. “Hey, c’mon, y’all let’s go.”
Purvis was yelling now, even though we hadn’t gotten far at all, “Wait! It ain’t our fault he’s a nigger! Y’all come on back; he ain’t a gonna hurt you! Hey Lee — you ain’t ascared, are you?”
“Ascared” was a carefully chosen word. . . We all recognized it for what it was: Purvis was challenging Lee’s leadership.
The predictability of Lee’s response made it no less sad for me. As he clambered back down the muddy bank, he announced with a great show of manliness, “Hell, no, I ain’t afraid of this ol’ nigger. I just got more important things to do, that’s all.”
Lewis and I stayed on the top of the creek bank. Nobody was questioning our manhood: Lewis was a sissy and I was just a kid. The Gray Man looked right at me, and I knew he knew who I was, but he didn’t say anything. I was grateful to him — the secret we shared was safe.
Purvis’s resolve was strengthened by Lee’s support, and he took up his cause anew. “Well, nigger, what have you got to say?
The man stood up. “You boys best move on now, I mean it.”
I should have said or done something, shown some courage, but I didn’t know what to say. Lewis beseeched him, “Leave him alone, Purvis. Let’s go.” I was proud of Lewis, even while it added to my shame for saying nothing.
The “N” word has certainly been a part of racism and bullying. What other “words” have been important in your experience of bullying? What guesses do you have about what lies at the heart of Purvis’ need to bully? Buddy finds himself shamed by not speaking up against the bullying. Have you ever found yourself unable or unwilling to protest when people were bullying around you?
Page 27 – 29: The man looked sad and tired. “If you is goin’ to hit me, boy, go on and doit.” That took a little of the wind out of Purvis’s sails. The man continued with what I thought was a remarkably calming voice. “I been hit before, by bigger and meaner than you. Mostly its the waitin’ and wonderin’ that’s hard on a man. If you goin’ to hit me, go ahead and do it, just go ahead.”
Purvis didn’t know what to do. Even he couldn’t hit a man who was just going to stand there and let him, not even a colored man. . .
Purvis taunted, “Go on nigger. Ain’t you gonna run for it? I’ll count to ten ‘fore I throw again.”
But the old man replied, “I’ve run before, too. I’m all done runnin’. If you want to throw dirt on me, that’s somethin’ you got to live with. But I ain’t goin’ to run. That’s something I ain’t willin’ to live with.” And he continued to pick up his fishing gear, in no apparent hurry. . .
It was more than I could stand. “Stop it! Leave him alone! Purvis laughed at me. “What’s the matter Buddy, ascared?” Purvis threw again and then Durant.
The man watched me mud all over his face and clothes. As our eyes met, I was sure that he was something different from any other man I’d ever seen. “Stop it!” I screamed, crying, but they ignored me. . .
. . . Purvis was starting to feel the pain of the noble wound that he now believed he suffered for all white people everywhere, and he told us the story of how he had “put that nigger in his place” twice before he remembered me.
“Hey, Durant,” mocked Purvis as he rubbed some of the mud off his hands. “You know what I think little Buddy is?”
Durant had years of practice with his part of the tag-team bullying. “No, Purvis, what?”
Purvis sneered the punchline: “I believe ol’ Buddy is a nigger-lover.”
Purvis even resorts to attempts at physical intimidation by throwing mud at Jake. Have you ever experienced or been present in the face of physical intimidation? What do you think of Jake’s response to the physical intimidation? When Buddy refuses to join in throwing mud at Jake, Purvis calls him a “nigger lover.” Have you ever been accused of being some kind of lover? What is the point of this kind of collateral bullying?
Page 32: Clayton played it cool. “Hell, no. It might scare you, but it don’t scare me.” It was a recurring theme of being a boy, one we could never seem to resist: a challenge to our manhood, which continually had to be determined, defined, and defended.
If you are male, can you identify with the observation: ” a challenge to our manhood, which continually had to be determined, defined, and defended?” If you are female, did you experience any parallel challenges to your femininity growing up? What do you think is the basic emotional component of this kind of challenge?
Page 214: “Your sermon this morning. I enjoyed your act.”
I didn’t know whether to thank him or take offense. He watched me, enjoying my confusion with no intention of helping me out of it.
I replied cautiously, not know what to say. “I hope it made sense.”
He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. It occurred to me that I could probably get up and leave his office before he knew I was gone. But then he said, “I couldn’t tell if you were trying for Will Rogers or Huckleberry Finn. Or is it Huckleberry Finn only for stories on the Mississippi River? Can you do Jerry Lewis, too?”
Since I was still there, I felt like I needed to say something. “Dr. Sprague, I’m afraid I’m no following you. I just talk the way I talk.”
“The persona you’d like to project is simple, uncomplicated, innocent. But of course it’s all a fabrication.”
“No sir. I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but there’s no fabrication.”
He opened his eyes, put his glasses back on, and looked at me for a long moment. “Mr. Hinton, no one is as untainted and virtuous as you pretend to be. For your own good, I will find the chink in your spotless armor before you leave this school.”
Bullying can take many different forms. How was D. Sprague’s bullying different from the bullying Buddy’s of childhood experience? How was it different? What do you think is the relationship between sarcasm and bullying?
Page 217: My blood chilled. “Hinton — Dr. Sprague. Thurs. 4:00 p.m.
I asked one of the hot dogs standing nearby how the faculty assignments were made, and he said, “I think the faculty just chooses the students they want to work with. Why? Who’d you get?”
He groaned, “Oh, that’s rich! I bet he’ll love that.”
“Why? What’s the deal with Sprague?”
“Oh you know. Every few years some seminarian comes along that just really gets under his skin. It’s like he needs someone to be angry with sometimes. A few years ago it was a guy from my diocese in Atlanta, and he wound up withdrawing from school. He’s a Methodist minister now. And now you’re it, Buddy. Surely you knew that!”
Have you ever encountered bullying in an institutional setting? Did you ever experience bullying in your education? Have you ever seen bullying in the church? How do you think we should confront bullying in institutional settings? It is sometimes said that angry people and people who are willing to be mean have power. Do you agree with that assessment? What do you think is our responsibility for confronting bullying in institutional settings?
Page 266: “But I do wonder: have you ever had a class stand up and clap like this when you finished your talkin’?”
Dr. Sprague was incensed. “I will not be spoken to like that!” he screeched. “And especially not by someone like you! You will apologize to me.”
Jake laughed at this. “No sir. I ain’t goin’ to apologize. You ain’t got no power over me. Oh, I know you a big alligator in this swamp, and all these peoples, they’s all under your power. But now you talkin’ to somebody ain’t in your swamp. You got no power over me, and I can say what these people can’t. I can say whatever I damn well please. You is a lot more educated than me, Dr. Sprague, but I think it may be you ain’t really that bright.”
What do you think of Jake’s response to Dr. Spragues’s attempt to bully him? Have you ever realized that someone who was trying to intimidate you didn’t really have any power over you? Do you think Jake needed to add: “You is a lot more educated than me, Dr. Sprague, but I think it may be you ain’t really that bright?” Have you ever run across people who were less bright than they were educated?
Page 267: . . . Suddenly I was surreally calm, as if this was happening to someone else. I asked, “Who am I, Dr. Sprague?”
“You’re a fake! You’re not so sweet and noble as they all think you are. I told you I would find the chink in your armor, and I have. You’re jealous — jealous and petty. Just look at the trap you set for me!. . .
“I have been afraid of you, that much is true. You have power over me. But I’m not jealous of you, and I’m not a fake. Jake come here of his own free will, and he did and said as he pleased.”
. . . “Well be that as it may. I will have an apology.”
“Oh, no, my conniving friend, it’s not that easy. You will apologize for your friend, but not here, not now. Tomorrow, at the seminary luncheon, you will apologize to me and to the seminary. You will tell us how embarrassed you are by your friend’s behavior, and you will promise to make him go back to wherever he came from. Do you understand that, Mr. Hinton?”
“I understand your demands. And if I don’t do as you say?”
“Then I will feel it necessary, as acting dean, to have you dismissed from school, for conduct unbecoming of a seminarian.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Ah, but I can. And you know I will.”
Page 273: “But I am not a fake Dr. Sprague, and I will not lie. I will not apologize for my friend Jake. I am not embarrassed by him. He is the best friend I’ve ever had, the best friend I ever will have. Jake did nothing but tell the truth in class yesterday. I’m here to follow the truth, and if the truth takes me away from here, then I’ll follow it somewhere else.”
There were cheers, and some applause, but it died down quickly as we all realized it was Sprague’s turn. He took a sip of his water and said, “Are you quite finished young man?”
“Yes sir, I believe I am.”
Perhaps in more ways than one, I thought.
What do you think was the source of the calm that came over Buddy in this situation? Have you ever experienced such a calm in a similar situation? Have you ever known someone who overreached in a similar way that Dr. Sprague overreached? What did you think of the behavior of the other faculty? Do you think they should have been more forceful in confronting Dr. Sprague?
Human beings are social animals. We live in groups. Despite the fantasies of some anarchists, all human communities have leadership or hierarchies. Jabbok explores the phenomenon of hierarchy in childhood peer group, school, church, and even prison.
Page 17: I was the youngest of the boys, three years younger than my brother Lee, who was, by mostly mutual consent, the leader of the group. He came about as close as any of us to being liked by most of us most of the time. I never liked him much, of course, but that was expected since I was his little brother.
The main challenge to Lee’s authority came from Purvis Calhoun. he was smaller than Lee, but scrappier. He was the best spitter in the group and the most proficient cusser, always ready for a fight, never one to miss an opportunity to prove how tough he was. Hardly a week went by that we didn’t hear about some fight he’d been in, most of which we knew he’d started himself. Eager to take offense, Purvis was determined not to take anything off anybody and never forgot a grudge.
Buddy is definitely describing a young male peer group. Age, strength, physical ability and likability were all part of determining leadership and hierarchy. Do these observations fit your own experience of your own childhood? If you are female, what differences do you remember in female peer groups?
Page 17-18: Last, and usually least, was Lewis. .. He didn’t like football; he wasn’t athletic; his mother put a Band-Aid in this pants pocket every day in case he got hurt. We all called him a sissy, even though we knew it wasn’t really his fault. He was three years older than I — Lee’s age — but I was a little taller and outweighed him by at least ten pounds.
These were the boys of my childhood. None of us particularly liked any of the others, but we were the only kids any of us knew in depth. Actually, Lewis and I generally enjoyed being together, but neither wanted the others to know, both of us figuring our stock would go down within the group if the information got out.
Our favorite activities were aggressive and combative. We especially enjoyed playing football, or dodge ball, or Wiffle ball. And we had wars: dirt-clod wars, acorn wars, sweet gum ball wars — anything that was competitive, involved throwing things at each other, and had the potential to produce pain. Lewis and I were often one team or army or side, and everybody else was the other. Lewis and I figured we were lucky to be included, so we just played along as best we could, tried not to get hurt, and tried not to cry when we did.
When we got tired of hurting each other, or when Lewis and I were no longer a sufficient challenge, sometimes we would all go exploring. These were some of my favorite times as a kid, when we were all working together, cooperating rather than competing.
Lewis and Buddy were sort of the low folks on the totem pole. Did you ever have that experience as a child? What are some of the factors that determine high and low status in groups? In general do you feel like you fit in? How was Buddy different because his favorite times were when everyone was working together, cooperating rather than competing? In our modern world do you think cooperation or competition is more important?
Page 34: There was a long pause while I considered my options. I knew that if I told them I would, they wouldn’t be satisfied until I did. I knew that I would eventually be pressured into doing it, but that somehow it wouldn’t be enough, and they wouldn’t let it drop. Again I missed Lewis: without him I was the group’s only target. If I was going to give in, I needed to do it quickly. If on the other hand, I decided to hold my ground, I knew it would be a long and difficult night.
Have you ever experienced yourself as the “target” of a group? How did you react? Can you think of any other animal species that target members of the group? What function do you think that serves in group life?
Page 74: . . . I liked Chip well enough when Ricky wasn’t around; we were friends then. But he tried so hard to earn Ricky’s favor, that when he was around, Chip wasn’t my friend. We both understood; it’s just the way it was. Sometimes Chip was my friend and sometimes he wasn’t. It wasn’t determined by either of us but by where Ricky was.
Have you ever experienced transitory friendships, where you were somebody’s friend depending upon who else was around? Do those kind of friendships last? Have you attended a High School Class reunion in the last ten years. How are relationships different as we grow older? How are they the same?
Page 81: “Look here, boy. Don’t let them two snooty boys bother you, not one tiny bit. These is the peoples you’ll have to struggle with all your life: peoples that believe they better than ever’body else, that convince the rest of us we’re somehow less because we don’t know the right peoples, wear the right clothes, talk the right talk.
“Needin’ to be better than somebody else is an ailment we all catch. It ain’t nothin’ but bein’ selfish, what the preacher calls sin. You ain’t never no better than nobody else Buddy, but nobody else ain’t never no better than you, neither.
Do you agree with Jake that the problem of hierarchy boils down to people wanting to feel better than somebody else? Like Jake do you think we all suffer from the “ailment?”
Page 99: Ain’t your fault. I don’t ‘spect nothin’ more than that. Peoples always glad to have somebody they can feel better than. And I’m just the man for the job!” He laughed.
I was relieved. “You don’t mind?”
A sudden storm on his face betrayed the emotion buried deep below the surface. “Mind?” Would you mind if peoples treated you like you wasn’t a person? If they treated you like you was less than a dog? If they just ‘spected you to be stupid, and no-count, and lazy and worthless, just ’cause you look different from them? And if you wasn’t all that, if you didn’t fit in that box they put you in, then they call you uppity? Mind? Hell, yeah, I mind, boy. ‘Course I do. Anybody would. I didn’t say I didn’t mind. I just ‘spect it, that’s all.” . . .
“Some white folks think a colored man goin’ to a white church is colorin’ outside the lines, see? Like it’s they church, ’cause they pays the preacher. But it ain’t they church is it? Hell no!”
“It’s not their church?” I said.
He laughed a little, but I thought it was sad for a laugh. “If the church makes any sense at all, and that’s a pretty big consideration, it’s ’cause it belongs to God. Who the hell are they, to say somebody can come into they church, and somebody else can’t? Like it’s they church. Hell, no!”
Racism is a form of hierarchy an institutionalized form of feelin’ better than somebody else. Would you mind if people treated you like you wasn’t person? Are there other ways besides race, that people use to feel better than others? Have you ever found yourself “coloring outside the lines?” Jake is especially upset by this kind of behavior in church, why? Do you ever see or experience this kind of behavior in church?
Page 281: “You ain’t a preacher ’cause the Bishop puts his hands on you. He ain’t the damn Wizard of Oz, is he? . . .
“Buddy,” he said, “you’s a preacher ’cause God put the words in your mouth. You go the gift. Ain’t no professor or bishop can take that away from you. Hell, we’ll start our own damn church, call it the Church of Buddy.”
Offices like “Bishop” are certainly part of a social hierarchy. To what extent do you think we need hierarchies to order our lives in social situations? If the Bishop isn’t the Wizard of Oz what is he/she? Should churches have some process for “authorizing ministry,” or if someone thinks they have been “called,” should that be sufficient?
Page 286: I was surprised by the question. I figured everybody knew how to swim, that everybody took swimming lessons when they were kids. Then I thought about when I’d learned to swim, at the public pool in Vicksburg. In the early sixties, when I was taking swimming lessons, it was the all-white public pool. It seems incredibly dim-witted now, when I see it written down, but I don’t think it had ever registered in me that “all-white” and “public” didn’t make much sense together.
I remembered asking Harry at camp why the black campers didn’t usually swim. Where would they have learned? And for the first time, I started to understand a little about being black. Not much, but I got a glimpse.
When I was a senior in high school, a friend and I put together an urban immersion experience for United Church of Christ young people in Nebraska around the issue of race. One of my Sunday School teachers who was the President of the Omaha Grain Exchange, Jerry Vanice, arranged for us to have dinner at the Omaha Club on top of the Peter Keawit building. (Incidentally Warren Buffet had his offices in the Keawit building.) At that time in 1967 “Black Power” was a big issue. After dining at the Omaha club one of the young people in the elevator going down was heard to say, “I don’t know if I understand what “Black Power” is, but I think now I do know what “White Power” is. What did Buddy discover about swimming? Have you ever had a glimpse into the oppression of others?
Bullying, and hierarchy lead naturally into a discussion of fear, another important theme in Jabbok. One of my favorite questions is: what would we do if we weren’t afraid?
Page 76: In class, Father Simmons was strict on us all but especially tough on Andy. . . Ricky wadde3d up a piece of paper and threw it at me, knowing Father Simmons wouldn’t know who’d thrown it. . .
“Andy!” he bellowed. “Get out of this room right now!”
Before I could think about it much I heard myself say, “Father Simmons, Andy didn’t throw that piece of paper.”
“Who did then?”
Ricky glared at me, Chip stared menacingly; Hope looked into her Prayer Book. Mary Edward smiled, and I found new courage. “I did, sir” I lied. . .
. . . After we were through, and I was waiting for my mother to come get me, Andy came up to me.
“Thanks, man.” He was the first person I ever heard say “man” like that, and I thought it was cool. “Did you really throw it?”
“Uh no. Ricky threw it at me.”
“So why did you take the rap?”
“Why did you take the blame for throwing the paper if you didn’t throw it?”
“Oh. ‘Cause I didn’t think you ought to get it trouble for it. And if I ratted on Ricky, I’d have to fight Chip and sometimes he’s my friend.”
What do you think motivated Buddy to “take the rap?” Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation that might have required courage?
Page 78 – 79: “Hey Buddy, ever ride the rails?”
My reaction to this intrigues me still. I knew that I would never do such a thing, but it sounded exciting, scary, thrilling. “No, I’ve never done that.”
“Aw man, you got to do it! . . . You up for it?”
. . . To ride hanging on to something underneath a train car was crazy. Suddenly I was not so comfortable with my friend.
“Whatsamatter, man? Scared?”
“Sure I’m scared, Andy. That’s the kind of thing we’re supposed to be scared of.”
Do you think there are things we are supposed to be scared of? What are some of your top fears?
Page 127 – 128: Freddie chuckled and Miss Mabel shook her head. She told him, “This is their first visit to prison. They’re a little nervous, I ‘spect.” Then she assured us, “You’re all right, boys, Freddie’s a friend of mine,”
I felt the red in m face and decided I would have to do something. I held out my hand to the convict before me. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Jackson.”
The old man looked surprised, but he took my hand and cut his eyes toward Miss Mabel.
Still shaking her head but smiling broadly now, she said to Freddie, “They got a lot to learn, but they goin’ to be all right.” . . .
Freddie looked at me again, and his eyes went wide, as if he were seeing me for the first time. “You Buddy! You Preacher Jake’s Buddy, ain’t you? Buddy Hinton.”
Have you ever visited a prison? Did you experience any fear in your visit? If you did, what scared you the most?
Page 139: I stood up then, stunned and bewildered at the turn of our conversation, and made my way for the kitchen door. Then an odd thing happened: I was filled with an unreal sense of serenity. It was as if I was willing to accept whatever punishment he might dish out. I turned and said with deliberate calm, “Brother Swayze, you don’t know me at all. You certainly don’t know what I think about life or anything else. But I’ll tell you a little of what I believe: I believe the gospel is about love.” I paused, wondering if I had the courage to say what I wanted to say next. Then figuring I couldn’t make things much worse, I concluded, “It’s not about control.”
What was scary about Brother Swayze? What do you think was the source of Buddy’s serenity in that kitchen? How do you feel about Buddy’s statement that the Gospel is about love and not control?
Page 142 -145: . . . .when the Reverend noticing that the room was almost empty, turned his raptor glare on me. He looked at me for a moment, as if expecting me to look away.
But that odd sense of tranquility from the night before returned; I didn’t look away at all. . . .
I was remembering what Jake had told me about the givers and the takers, and I realized that the Reverend had been a taker for most or all of his life. I saw that Trey and his mother had no choice but to be givers. And it occurred to me that I was leaving that afternoon, that I didn’t ever have to see this jerk again, and that I didn’t have to give him anything. . . .
“And what did you think of the service, Buddy? Different from what you’re accustomed to, I imagine.”
”Yes sir.” I wasn’t going to back down, but I’d take a way out if it were presented to me.
Of course, Brother Swayze didn’t let it go so easily. “How did you like the sermon?” H was clearly enjoying the moment.
“Well, like you said, it was different from what I’m used to.”
“And what are you used to?”
Obviously impatient now, the Reverend pressed on. “How is what you accustomed to different from this morning’s service?” . . .
But I knew I had nothing to lose. And that I figured, made me dangerous. Brother Swayze, on the other hand, was somewhat vulnerable. I damned the torpedoes and plunged in where angels fear to tread: arguing with a Southern Baptist preacher over his apple pie at Sunday lunch.
I thought for a moment and then said, “My experience is that the church ought to encourage people to think for themselves, to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul wrote.”
“Philippians, chapter two and verse twelve,” cited Mrs. Swayze quietly, to the amazement of the rest of us.
Brother Swayze was furious, fuming, and frustrated. . . .
“Are you quoting Scripture to me?”
And since a response came quickly to mind, I eased back in my chair and said it. “I hadn’t realized it was exclusively yours to quote.”
“Of all the nerve!” he sputtered. He looked to his wife as if to see her sharing his shock. But her face betrayed no shock. It was more like satisfaction. . .
The I realized I could use this realization to my advantage. “Of course, I could be wrong.” I offered. . .
The Reverend was momentarily confused, and then he agreed, with justification dripping in his voice, “Yes, I believe you are.” Clearly he thought that would be an appropriate place for the conversation to end.
But I wasn’t done. “I didn’t say I was wrong. I said I could be. I certainly don’t pretend to know everything about God, or Christianity or faith. It’s not for mortals to know everything there is to know. And that means, Brother Swayze, that you could be wrong, too.” . . .
“You have to admit,” I pressed, ‘that there is at least a possibility.”
The Reverend tried to rally. “No, I am not wrong. I could not be wrong, because what I say is based in Holy Scripture, written for our edification by the Lord God Himself. ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
“Does that include all the Bible?”
“Of course it does!”
“The Old Testament too?”
“How many animals did Noah take on the ark?” I was abrupt and seemed completely out of the blue. But I knew where it came from, and I silently thanked my dear friend Andy for asking it.
I could tell the Reverend thought it was a trick question. Cautiously, he ventured, “Two of every kind of animal, according to the book of Genesis. I would have thought even an Episcopalian would have known that.”
I had him and I knew it. He didn’t even know what was coming. “What chapter and verse is that, Reverend?”
“Why I’d have to look it up. It’s early in Genesis, of course, chapter five or six, I suppose.”
“Do you have a Bible with you, sir?”
“Of course I do. I always carry the Word of God with me.”
“Could you look it up for me?”
“Well, the Bible I carry with me only has the New Testament and the Book of Psalms. Where are you going with all this?”
“It’s just that I think the Bible was inspired, but not like you say. The Holy Ghost didn’t dictate the words to somebody to write down.”
“Is this the kind of drivel they teach you in Episcopal Sunday school?”
“No sir. A friend of mine told me that.”
“Well, yes sir.”
“And what did this liberal preacher tell you?”
“I don’t think he’s particularly liberal, sir. He believes the Bible is stories written by a lot of different people over a long period of time. He told me that some of the contradictions in the Bible are just two different people telling the same story in two different ways.”
I could tell that the Reverend was enraged. “There are. . . no contradictions. . . in the Bible, young man.”
“But in another place it says that Noah took seven pairs of animals on the ark. If God wrote the whole thing, He’d have gotten his facts straight, don’t you think?”. . . .
I decided this would be an appropriate time to go, that I ought to get out while the getting was good. . . “Mrs. Swayze, I thank you for your gracious hospitality, and I apologize for causing any trouble. Trey I think it is time for us to go.”
Do you think Rev. Swayze is a taker? Do you think he was always a taker, or do you think something may have pushed him in that direction? Again how do you see the relationship between sarcasm and bullying in this scene? What do you think is the attraction of fundamentalism? Have you ever found yourself in a similar conversation? How did you do?
Page 203 – 204: It was a nerve wracking process, a determining factor on our grades that semester, and it affected our standing among classmates. The hot dogs went first, of course, and delivered extensively researched and painstakingly written treatises on the Scripture passages assigned for that week in the Lectionary. I was the last to sign up, and I got the last assignment, which gave me more time to dread it. Preaching was the thing in seminary that scared me the most.
When my time came, the Scriptures included the Gospel passage on the story of the Prodigal Son. I told them the story of Captain Jimmy and the beer, and finished with Jake’s admonition that we ought to forgive ourselves if we want to honor Christ’s gift of penance on the cross.
I sat down and waited for the sniping to begin. There was only stunned silence, Eventually, our faculty advisor, the homiletics instructor, broke in.
“Buddy,” she said, “that’s the finest sermon I’ve heard in seventeen years here.” My classmates were much more stunned by what she’d said than what I’d said, and she continued, “From any student or member of the faculty.”
“Well, all right!” my friend Scott exclaimed.
It was the best thing that could possibly have happened to me. After that I wasn’t afraid of preaching, and I started to talk a little more in class. The dean asked me for a copy of my sermon at our weekly seminary lunch, in front of the whole school.. .
Have you ever faced a similar challenge to Buddy delivering his first sermon? What was the result? What was the source of your fear in confronting the challenge? Did you come through the experience feeling more confident and less afraid?
Page 232 – 233: When we got back to Becket, I found my middler project returned and graded. The professor I had asked to grade the paper gave me an “A” and attached a sheet of paper praising my work and commending my honest, no-nonsense approach. Dr. Sprague gave me a “D” and wrote in red on m cover sheet, “Insufficient, minimal work. I begin to wonder if you are truly called to the priesthood. Cute story though.” . . .
In truth, I didn’t care that much about the grade. But to question my call to the ministry or to reduce the great, painful mystery of Paul’s retardation to a “cute story” made me furious, and it hurt me deeply. The real truth was that I was too scared to do anything about it. I was afraid I’d get kicked out of seminary, that I’d never become a priest.
What do you think might have happened, if Buddy had confronted Dr. Sprague at this point? Have you ever had to confront someone who was judging you or denigrating you? Were you scared? What was the result?
Page 279: Well of course I knew I couldn’t do it. I was about to tell them that I wasn’t ordained, that I couldn’t marry anyone, that it wouldn’t be legal, that it wouldn’t be ethical. But before I got all the words lined up in my head, I saw Miss Mabel looking at me, and remembered her saying just one minute before how much it would mean to her. They’d lived together for years, long enough to have son off in college; surely the state recognized their common-law marriage. It wasn’t as if I could get into any more trouble with the church. I’d never have to worry about that again.
So, feeling un-customarily reckless, I said, “Miss Mabel, Mr. Cornelius, I’d be honored to perform your wedding ceremony.”
Have you ever experienced a feeling of uncustomary recklessness? What was the situation? What quieted your fear or caution?
The theme of death runs through Jabbok. It is one of the mysteries that is always before us according to Jake. On several occasions Jake will insist that death is not necessarily a bad thing. The Doe is Buddies first experience of death, and brings him into contact with Jake. Buddy’s friend Andy will be his second encounter with death, and finally at the end of the book, Buddy just be with Jake as he dies.
Page 14-15: It wasn’t until I tried to say something that I realized I’d been crying. “Mister, what are you gonna do?
He looked at me again, but glanced back at the doe before he spoke. “You need to go on boy, get on home. You don’t want to see what I got to do here.”
. . . Quicker that it takes to write it down, he took the doe by the ear and slit her throat with his pitiless knife, one quick, strong stroke. She gave out a sickening gasping cough. . . and then she was dead.
. . . With all the rage an eight-year-old can muster, I stood up, my muddy legs all wobbly, to perform some heroic though yet unspecified act. But in fact, all I managed to do was to throw up.
When I finished, I realized the man was holding me in his lap, talking to me as he had to the deer. He had a filthy rag wet with water from the creek and was wiping my forehead. His touch was gentle. . .
He sat there, an odd mix of peace and death, and looked at me with his penetrating eyes. They were the kind of eyes that always smiled, but they held a deep sadness, too. “I didn’t shoot here, boy,” he murmured. “Some other fool done that. Now he done lost her, let her go off to die by herself. We all got to die, all of us. I was just helpin’ her pass more easy, just helpin’ her pass.”
I was crying again, for the deer, for my helplessness, because we all have to die. I didn’t know what to say, and I stood transfixed, looking at him with tears cutting through the mud on my face. . .
Do you remember your first encounter with death? About how old were you? What were the circumstances? How did you feel? How do you feel about Jake’s observation that we all gotta die?
Page 45: I never worked so hard as that to preach a sermon, as hard as I did to find what to say as when I went to preach his funeral. All that religious what not is different when it’s your own peoples dyin’ and getting’ buried and such as that. Still, we did it up right, the way I used to think a funeral ought to be preached: we went into all sad and cryin’, and came out with love and joy and hope.
When Jake talks about trying to preach his father’s funeral he notes that dealing with the death of someone near and dear to you is different than the death’s of folks that aren’t as close. How do you experience the deaths of casual acquaintances? How is it different when a close friend of family member dies?
Page 86: “Yeah, but I killed the poor little thing. And you’re the one that believes in God, man.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one that wants a funeral for a chipmunk!”
“Just say something, Buddy. Please.”
I looked at my friend and saw him in a new light. Andy was actually a sweet, compassionate kid, in spite of himself. He couldn’t say anything without compromising his nonreligious principles, so that left it to me. It was my first time to officiate at worship service.
“All right, Andy, I’ll say something. But don’t make fun of it, okay?”
“I don’t actually remember what I said, but I’m pretty sure I asked the Lord of Heaven and Earth to provide plenty of acorns in the chipmunk’s afterlife. . .
A tear had blazed a muddy trail down Andy’s dirty cheek and fell from his chin. He wiped his face on the back of his arm and looked at me unashamedly. “Thanks Buddy.”
Mama always said that for some people, it takes death to realize the importance of religion. Maybe even the death of a pesky chipmunk, I thought that day.
Buddy’s mother notes that sometimes it takes a death to realize the importance of religion. How did the death of the chipmunk seem change Andy? Why do you think Andy wants Buddy to conduct a funeral for the chipmunk? Have you ever buried animals or pets? What have been your feelings about the deaths of your pets?
Page 247 – 249: “Jake, what’s wrong with you?”
He smiled that incredible smile, his essential joy shinning through all his pains and problems. “Nothin’. I’m just dyin’, is all.”
I guess I looked like I was about to start crying again; I know I felt like it. He leaned toward me and said, “Buddy, you remember that doe, long time ago, when you was a kid? She was dyin’, she’d been shot, remember? That’s the day I met you, buddy, the day my faith started to heal. I just came along to help her die. They ain’t nothin’ wrong with dyin’, it’s just another part of livin’. It ain’t my favorite part, but it’s a part of livin’ just the same. Sometimes all we can do is to help a body die.”. . .
“Would you preach my funeral, at the grave? I hear you’re a fine preacher.”. . .
Agreeing to preach his funeral felt like consenting to his death. But it didn’t seem like I had much choice either. “I will.”
“And do it right, now, like a funeral ought to be preached. It ought to be ’bout joy, and hope, and givin’ thanks for a good life, not moanin’ and cryin’ and whatnot. Send me on my way happy, all right, Buddy? Send me on happy.”
When you read, “they ain’t nothin’ wrong with dyin’, it’s just another part of livin’,” what feelings does that provoke in you? How do you feel about dying? How do you feel about Jake’s idea of a good funeral: “And do it right, now, like a funeral ought to be preached. It ought to be ’bout joy, and hope, and givin’ thanks for a good life?”
Page 312: It was a peaceful, holy death, as if Jake had just stepped out of his body and left it behind to go somewhere nearby. He’d done what he’d wanted to do: he’d come home to the Resting Place to die. He was with his father and his son now, and as sad as it was for me, I couldn’t help but feel happy for him.
For you what would a peaceful, holy death be like? Have you ever been witness to a peaceful death? What kinds of preparations might make your own death more peaceful?
Page 313 – 314: Then I went to the hut and picked him up. He’d never been a large man, but I was surprised that he was so much lighter than I thought he’d be; it was as if his soul had lent him some weight that was now gone. I carried him to the graveyard and lowered him down into his grave under the big sweet gum, putting his feet down first, and laying him out gently.
A few days before, I’d thought about wrapping him in garbage bags when the time came, but I remembered he’d told me one time that he didn’t feel bad about using worms to fish with, because some day “them worms’ll be feastin’ on me.” I let the worms have his blanket too.
Throwing dirt on his feet and legs didn’t bother me, but when I got to the point when it looked like the next shovel of dirt was going to cover his head, I had to stop and cry. It seemed so final; I would never hear his voice or see his smile again. I put all the dirt back in the hole, leaving a small mound over the grave. . .
I promised myself I’d get a grave marker when I could. I already knew what would ask them to carve into the headstone:
The Rev. Jacob J. Jefferson
January 23, 1905 – April17, 1981
Evangelist, Elder and Prophet
A Sinner, A Saint, and An Honest Man
Do you think there is a qualitative difference between a live body and a dead body? Do you want to be buried, cremated or disposed of in some other fashion? Do you have burial plots? If so is the grave located somewhere that is special to you? If you want to be cremated how do you want the disposition of your ashes handled?
Page 45: Peoples would still come to the preachin’; they just didn’t have much money to put into the collection plate. But that was fine with me. They’d give me a meal and a place in they house to sleep, and the next day I’d get up and go on, I was preachin’ hope back then, and hopin’ it too. And the peoples was eatin’ it up, too, boy, just eatin’ it right on up.
Page 51: The war had started in nineteen and forty-one, and people’s was lookin’ for a little hope, and the fields was ripe for harvest. Oh, yes sir, Buddy, we dreamed us some big dreams that day, some real big dreams.
How important is hope? What gives you hope? Are there any religious or spiritual images or practices that give you hope?
Page 131: “Jake are you okay in here? This place. .. it’s rough. Aren’t you scared?”
. . . . “No, Buddy, I ain’t scared. I’m fine. These mens is my friends. They all got troubles, they all done things they wish they hadn’t, but that’s how it is. . . Up in here, I’m somebody important. They call me Preacher Jake, they listen to what I got to say. They need to hear what I got to say. It’s all about hope, Buddy. That’s what I got to give, and that’s what they needs to hear. I got hope to share, thanks to you, you understand that Buddy? You brought me hope, now I got hope to share.
What kind of hopes do you think people in prison have? Do you ever share hope with other people? Is there someone you know who needs some hope? How do you think Buddy brought hope to Jake?
Humility is one of the difficult of all the virtues. The moment you think maybe you are humble you are not. Religious folks may have more problems with humility than most.
Page 47: “Those was good times, busy times. Seemed like the peoples knowed me wherever I went. When it came my time to talk, them peoples would listen, yes sir, they was listenin’ hard. It’s a terrible thing to have peoples believe ever’ thing you say, you start to thinkin’ you’re somethin’ special, like nothin’ you say ain’t goin’ to be wrong. It’s a terrible thing, like somethin’ callin’ out to you to take yourself more serious than a body ought to.
Jake seems to be describing an experience something akin to the motivation that drove Henri Nouwen to leave Harvard Divinity School to take up residence at “Day Break” in Toronto. He couldn’t come home to himself or to God until he left behind the accolades of the world. This is reminiscent of a story told about Robert Redford. A young woman was riding an elevator, when Robert Redford got on. The woman exclaimed, “Are you the real Robert Redford?
And Redford answered back, “Only when I am alone, only when I am alone.”
Have you ever had experiences that called to you to take yourself more serious that a body ought to? What kinds of compliments or accolades are most likely to turn your head?
Page 80: “I used to think I knowed ever’thing they was to know about God, back some time ago. But now I knows better; now I knows ain’t nobody knows ever’thing ‘bout God. We ain’t s’posed to know ever’thing ‘bout God. Some church peoples think they own God. Don’t nobody own God, ain’t nobody got Him all figured out. But that don’t mean He ain’t there.
Have you ever been tempted to think you know more than you do? Have you known church people who think they own God? What helps you keep your arrogance in check?
Page 93: “Used to be peoples would ask me who was goin’ to go to Heaven, and who was goin’ to Hell. That was back when I thought I knowed, but now I knows better. Used to be I could tell’em, yes sir, I believe I’ll let God worry ’bout the hereafter and all that.”
Page 134: They shook hands, and Jake asked, “You Preacher Swayze’s boy?”
Trey looked uncomfortable with the ease of this identification, but he nodded and replied, “Yes sir.”
Jake smiled his wonderful smile and joked, “Your daddy’s pretty full of hisself ain’t he?”
Trey smiled too, and answered, “Yes sir.”
What do you think motivates people to believe they know who is going to Heaven who is going to Hell? Are there villains of history you think are probably in hell? Do you believe there is a hereafter?
Page 153 – 154: But now I think I was most likely wrong. I imagine that no flower grows but by the warmth of the sun. I don’t think the flower has to believe in the sun to bloom. It don’t make no sense for God to make a man a Jew and then damn him to Hell because he is Jewish. I expect that goes for some of them other religions too. . .
But look here Buddy. I know God loves all His children not just us Christians. I know we all has a lot to learn about God. All of us can learn from each other even when it does not look like we can. Just look at what you and me has taught one another.
God knows we all need all the help we can get. We are all given a tiny small spark of the Light of God to shine. We need to put all them sparks together so we can make a light and see what we are doing. But instead church peoples hide they little spark to protect it so nobody else can even see it. Not even other church peoples. And they tell other peoples that if they spark is different, it ain’t no good. That ain’t right, but just foolishness and vanity. . .
. . .Do not be afraid to hear new thoughts or to think new ideas.
How do you feel about Jake’s observation that we all need all the help we can get, and we need each small spark for the light of God to shine? What are some examples of church people hiding their sparks to try to protect them? Have you ever been told that because your spark was different it wasn’t any good? Are you unafraid to hear new thoughts and think new ideas?
Page 202 – 203: On Friday afternoons we had feedback groups, in which we met with five or six of our fellow students and two members of the faculty. The idea was that these would be informal discussions to absorb the learning of the week. The informality and rate of absorption had diminished years before when, in a effort to encourage more participation, the faculty had changed feedback groups into something for which you received a grade. I decided I’d leave most of the discussing to the hot dogs, my classmates who would run over anybody or anything to make an “A” in everything; I decided I’d be content with “B” and just talk when I genuinely had something to say. I didn’t quote him, but I remembered that Jake had told me several times that listening was more important than talking. So I let them talk.
Is listening more important than talking? How can we encourage one another to speak so we have an opportunity to listen to everyone? How does putting a grade on something or judging something change the nature of the discussion?
Page 204: Do not let it go to your head. It is good that you told them a story instead of just shuffling the words in the Book around. Jesus told stories to preach, too. But please be careful that you do not become prideful. Preaching ain’t nothing to be proud of and I will tell you why. If you pay too much attention to peoples telling you how wonderful you is you might soon forget that it is God you is supposed to be pointing to and not your own self.
Preachers really do struggle with Jake’s observation about preaching. Can you think of any other pursuits, where it is important to remember that it is God you is supposed to be pointing to and not your own self?
Page 62-63: “Next night, a bigger crowd came in, and I preached again. I had all the right words, the things I knowed they was wantin’ to hear, but I didn’t feel it like I had before. I started to pay more ‘tention to what I could say in my preachin’ that would help the collection plate, and stopped payin’ much mind to what I really thought or believed. I remembered that woman at T.C.’s Lounge right then, and I knowed I was just like her; just doin’ it for the money.
. . . . He was pretty near all I had then, pretty near all I had. I was still preachin’ ‘bout hope, that’s what the peoples really needed to hear back then. But I didn’t have no hope, not much noways. All I had was Joseph.
What do you think was the nature of Jake’s struggle in this passage? Have you ever found yourself just doin’ something for the money?
Page 64: “I prayed then, sittin’ in the rain in the cab of that truck, the first real prayin’ I’d done in a good long time. I asked God to show me what I ought to do, where I ought to go. I asked Him to send me a sign. I told him I was goin’ to put my life in His hands, let Him be in charge for a while, see could He do any better with it. And after I was through prayin’, I looked up through the raindrops runnin’ down the windshield, and sure enough I saw me a sign.
“The sign was across the street from the train station, in front of a liquor store. It read ‘Stanton’s Package Store.’ It was just below another sign: George Dickel Sour Mash Whiskey.’ It was the first time I ever bought any Federal whiskey, and it was sure smooth, that sour mash. I drank the whole bottle right there in the truck, drank the whole damn thing dry, just tryin’ to fill up the emptiness left when my boy Joseph went off to war.
Have you ever prayed for a sign? With what result? What are some of the pit falls of praying for a sign?
Page 65 – 66: “Joseph was dead, kilt in a battle ‘bout a bulge, in Germany or some place over there. . . You got to understand me now, boy – I just didn’t have nothin’ to keep goin’ for, no reason to pay no ‘tention to nothin’. Joseph wasn’t never comin’ back no more.
How is grief a spiritual struggle? Have you ever experienced a death with which you have struggled? Are there any spiritual practices intended to help us through grief?
Page 66 -67 “So I sat there in that jail for thirty days. A preacher came in to talk to me, told me how drunkenness was a sin in the Bible, told me how they’s a Hell, and I was on my way to it if I didn’t repent. I told him I was already there, thinkin’ I’d tell him ‘bout Joseph. But he didn’t ask me nothin’ ‘bout myself, though, all he cared ‘bout was what he had to say. So I let him talk ‘til he stopped, and then I told him I wanted to see him again the next day. He sort of perked up some then, I guess thinkin’ he’d made a convert, he saved a poor wretched soul.
. . . I told the preacher that I was grateful for what he was tryin’ to do, more than he could know. But I told him it was too late for me. I told him either God was a cruel son of a bitch who lets chillums die thousands of miles away in wars they don’t know nothin’ ‘bout, or they wasn’t no God at all, just somethin’ preachers had made up a long time ago so they could make money tellin’ other folks what to do. I told him either way I didn’t want nothin’ to do with it, nothin’ at all.
What kinds of pastoral care have been most helpful to you? In general do you think spiritual counseling or care is helpful to people who are struggling?
Page 93: “Sometimes, not every often, we can catch a tiny small glimpse of Heaven, even when we is still alive. It don’t last long, mostly, just a little snatch of it something when the moon is full and bright, or when the sun’s comin’ up and the coffee smells good and strong, or when I remember my boy Joseph huggin’ me, or . . . or when you laugh, Buddy, sometimes I know God is there. And I get just a little peek of Heaven, ’cause I knows God is with me then. And I knows I’m with God then, even though I’m still mad at Him.
What do you think of Jake’s observation that he has peeks of Heaven, glimpses of God even when he’s mad at him? What have been some of your glimpses Heaven? When have you been most likely to be angry with God?
Page 97-98: “I guess it was the first sermon I’d ever actually felt like I needed to listen to. And somewhere in the middle of it. It seemed obvious to me that I ought to be a priest. I started thinking about that and began to cry. Mr. Nash must have figured I was crying because of Andy, and he put his arm around my shoulders and whispered kindly, “It’s all right Buddy. It’s going to be all right.” But I knew it wasn’t. Right then it seemed to me that allowing the possibility that I might have to be a priest was going to thoroughly mess up my whole life. . . .
And way behind them, way in the back of the church, I saw what looked like a dark silhouette of a ma, putting on a gray hat and getting ready to leave. I couldn’t clearly see who it was, but knew. After the service was over, I heard people talking about the man in the back of the church, using words I didn’t know, like “gall” and “audacity” and “uppity,” when I thought I ought to be hearing how glad they were to have this man with us.
I had a lot to learn.
The next afternoon, I went down into the woods to see Jake who was fishing, three cane poles stuck in the mud beside the wide place in the bayou. I asked him if he’d been in my church the morning before. He smiled his big wonderful smile. “Well, it was a big day for you. I wanted to be there, just to see it, to be part of it. Didn’t mean to make no big stir.”
How did you feel about Buddy’s statement: “Right then it seemed to me that allowing the possibility that I might have to be a priest was going to thoroughly mess up my whole life?” How did you feel about people objecting to Jake attending Buddy’s confirmation?
Page 100: “Jake, somethin’ happened to me in that service.”
“You was confirmed.”
“Yeah. But more than that. I think maybe I’m supposed to be a priest.”
I expected Jake to be surprised, to whip around from facing his tackle box and have some sort of strong reaction, to laugh, or tell me he was proud, or that I was silly. But I was the one who was surprised. Jake didn’t turn around, not right away. He slumped a little, as if some of the air was let out of him, and murmured, with his back still to me, “That’s right.”
I thought maybe I didn’t hear him clearly. “What?”
He turned around and looked into me. “I said that’s right. I think you s’posed to be a preacher, too. And I think you is a wise man, too wise to be just eleven years old.”
But Jake, is it wise for me to be a priest? I’ve never known a priest I liked, except for you, and you’re not a preacher anymore.”
“It is wise to be who you is s’pose to be.” And then, picking up the bucket of fish and motioning for me to pick up the poles, he added, “But I am glad I ain’t a preacher no more, I sure am.”
Dr. James Dittes, Professor of Pastoral Care at Yale identified a syndrome common to the childhoods of clergy he labeled, “the little adult.” Do you think Buddy might have been a little adult? (“I think you is a wise man, too wise to be just eleven years old.”) Why do you think Jake adds, “But I am glad I ain’t a preacher no more, I sure am?”
Page 134: Eugene looked at my hand as if he was making a decision. Then he looked me in the eyes and asked, “You love Preacher Jake?”
“You believe what all he say?”
I couldn’t place his expression. It was like he was trying to solve a puzzle nobody else could see. Wanting to help him, I asked, “Do you?”
Jake tightened his grip on y arm as Eugene leaned down to e and whispered, “I believes him when he talkin’ to me, but I believes Eddie when he talkin’ too. I don’t know who I believes when they ain’t nobody around.”
Eugene clearly is suffering from a spiritual struggle. What do you think were the factors in Eugene’s spiritual struggle?
Page 138: A few minutes later, I went into the Kitchen wearing my cut-off sweat pants to get a glass of water. I was surprised to find the Reverend there, his head down on the round oak table. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he’d passed out. I asked if he was okay. He looked up at me then, searching me with his red, tired eyes. He looked sad: a forlorn, lonely. vulnerable man. He was the Reverend, a great man in the eyes of many, but other than the church, other than the Bible, other than the facade of Brother Swayze, it didn’t seem like there was much more to him.
Just for a moment in this scene Buddy seems to have caught Brother Swayze with his guard down. What do you think were Brother Swayze’s struggles?
Page 173 – 177: You say Paul asked Phil why did God make him a retard. That is a worrisome question, all tangled up with itself. . .
It may be that part of the problem is that we think God is in control in a way that he is not really. Paul might be thinking he is like he is because it is something God did to him. He figures God must have done this to him cause he thinks God is in control. . . I ain’t so sure God is in control, not like we mean it, anyways, It may be He don’t need to be in control like us peoples do. . .
Why is they evil in the world if God made it, if God is in control, and God is good? If God loved me why did He let my boy get killed? . . .
You have to have bitter so you know something else is sweet. You have to have darkness so that you can know what the light is. If it was all light, or all sweet, we would not know it. I believe we have to have evil so we can treasure good. . . .
I suppose if I kept on walking down this same path of thinking, that I could have told that woman that her son was not normal so we could know what normal is. I could have told myself that Joseph died so we would treasure life. But them grand thoughts seem to ring all hollow when a person is hurting or wondering why. I do not know why they is evil in the world. . .
These is good questions to ask, Buddy. I expect that being faithful has more to do with asking questions than having answers. Some peoples can not stand to have questions without answers, so they either do not ask the questions or make up some answers for them and play like they is true. And it does not seem to matter to them that they answers is foolish. Just having an answer is enough for them. I think these peoples is more interested in being in control that looking for the Truth. I ain’t sure what we mean when we say God is in control, but I am sure what we mean when we say God is in control, but I am sure that we ain’t in control.
I believe being faithful is looking for the Truth. We have to remember that God is a mystery without no limits.
Why do you think God made Paul a retard? Is God responsible for everything that happens in the Universe? What do you think Jake was saying when he pointed out: “But them grand thoughts seem to ring all hollow when a person is hurting or wondering why.”? What might it mean to you that God is a mystery without no limits?
Page 221: Somewhere in there, I remembered the camper Paul asking his poker-playing friend Phil why God had make him a retard. That was the question I wanted to ask. I wrote down that story as an introduction to my paper, and started over, trying to fit the answers of St. Thomas Aquinas into it. This approach felt much better, suited my soul, fit my karmic requirements if not the requirements of the seminary. I typed it on my mother’s old Blackwood manual typewriter: twenty-nine pages.
Do you think there are any adequate academic or philosophical answers to why is there evil in the world?
Page 225: We assured him that Dr. Sprague was very much in evidence, and Jenny broke into the conversation. “He’s taken a special interest in our friend Buddy,” she told them. . .
. . . “Well, Buddy, you’re gonna have to confront him, stare him down. That’s the only way he’s gonna get off your back.”
Pat answered for me. “But Buddy’s not going to. He’s gentle, meek and mild.” . . .
“That’s why Sprague has him in his sights. He’s a bully. He’s not going to pick on somebody who fights back. Buddy’s going to have to be a little more confrontational.”
Why do you think Buddy struggled with confronting a Bully? Do you ever struggle with standing up to angry or mean people?
Page 258: But I lost my wife to a banker, then I lost son to a war, and then I lost my way. I struggled with pain and despair, and for a long time I just stopped preaching. I just couldn’t preach no more. First I stopped believing, then I stopped hoping, then I stopped praying, and finally I stopped preaching. I figured God had given up on me, so I gave up on Him, too, and went off to live by myself.
And I would have stayed to myself, hugging my pain to me tight like it was my treasure, but God had not given up on me, and He sent somebody to find me. Buddy was just a little boy then, playing with sticks in the mud, but the love of God was shining so bright in this boy that I couldn’t help but see it. When his friends called me names and threw things at me, he did not join them. When they disgraced the graves of my family, he told them to stop. In Buddy I saw something I had not seen since y daddy and my son died. I saw decency, respect, and hope. I saw the love of God.
Of all the things Jake lost in his struggle what do you think was most devastating? Have you ever experienced the loss of hope or the inability to pray? How important to his healing do you think was Jake’s decision to go off and live by himself? How did Buddy help bring Jake back to God?
Page 311: “You know I been havin’ a misunderstandin’ with the Lord for a long while, but we’s about to work it all out now. I’m about to leave my ol’ body for real this time.” . . .
“Here’s what I got to tell you. It’s better to struggle honest than to settle for a lie. The mysteries is ever before us. That’s my gift to you, Buddy. I give you the struggle of bein’ a faithful man. I’m ’bout done with it now, so I best leave it to you. All right?”
“Yes sir.” My throat was so full of emotion I could hardly talk. But I had to say this next, or I knew I’d always regret it. “I love you, Jake.”
“I know it, Buddy, I know. I love you, too. I always will. I’ll see you in the morning, all right?”
“Yes sir. I’ll see you again.”
Would you be willing to receive the gift of the struggle to be a faithful person? Do you think Jake’s struggle was healed in death? Do you have any loved ones you think you might see again?
Page 9: One of the things Jake taught me about stories is that it’s hard to find where they start: each story presupposes the listener knows something that involves a previous story. Jake told me once that I ought to start every story I ever tell with “I was born on a Sunday” and go from there. And of course stories never truly end.
How would you begin your own story? Does it begin before you were born? Who are some of the other characters? And how would you end your story? Does your story reach beyond your own death?
Page 15 – 16: So it became an experience I kept inside. It became my story, something special to me, not to be shared with anyone. At first, as I relived the events in my mind, I tried to make the Gray Man into the villain. But as I rehearsed the story, I had to admit that he was the one who helped the deer while I sat helplessly in the mud. . .
. . . The story got better every time I told it to myself. As I remembered and re-remembered the death of the deer, the Gray Man increasingly played his role as hero. I gradually improved on the facts a little, and where memory meets fantasy, I continued the story so that the Gray Man and I helped the deer together. . .
Do you have any stories that have gotten better with the remembering and telling? Why do you think stories change over time? How are stories different that we keep to ourselves as opposed to the stories we share with others?
Page 44: “For a while me and Daddy was on the road together. They was happy, hard-workin’ days, when I knowed we was doin’ the work of God. Daddy taught me how to read, so’s I could read the Bible. I believed all that stuff and whatnot back then”
“What book?” I asked. “All that stuff?”
“I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Bible, ‘bout God and Jesus, and such as that.”
I was amazed. Was he saying he didn’t believe it now? I’d heard about people who didn’t believe in God, but they were Godless Heathens, people to avoid. And here I was with a real live Godless Heathen; he seemed to be a pleasant and sensible man. And there was a certain reverence in his voice when he talked about the Book, a reverence that had never left him.
How do you feel about the stories in the Book? Do you think we are ever justified in challenging or changing any of those stories?
Page 70: Then, like the rain, that had blown through earlier that night, Jake’s story was done, and there wasn’t much else to say. As we got ready to go to sleep, I remember thinking that I knew this man much better than I knew any other person I’d ever met. I still think it’s a privilege to be trusted with someone else’s story.
Have you been entrusted with other people’s stories? How does that feel. Have you entrusted any other people with any of your stories? What’s your best story? Which of your stories speaks most truthfully about you as a person?
Page 72: He told the most wonderful stories. Some were about his life, some were from the Bible, and some he’d heard his father or someone else tell. Some were strictly true, he claimed, and some I suspect he improved a little. More than once, when I told him that I’d liked a story, he would say, “In the end, our stories is all we is.”
How do you feel about the statement: “In the end, our stories is all we is?” If our stories are all we is how important is it to share our stories?
Page 80: “Ah,” he said, nodding. “Now you is on to somethin’ sure ‘nough important. Peoples messup thinkin’ the Book was all wrote by God. That’s what you hear preachers and they peoples sayin’ sometimes, but it ain’t true. The Book was wrote by a whole lot of peoples, peoples writin’ down stories they had passed along for a long, long time. The Bible ain’t nothin’ but stories, just like the stories you and me tell. And just like our stories, some of ’em is better than others. Some is truer than others.
Where do you think the truth lies in the stories of the Bible? Do you think the stories of the Bible are any more important than our own stories? How do you think we can best help people understand that God didn’t write the whole book?
Page 235: I believe God spoke to me that night, through unlikely sources. I hope He spoke to them through me, unlikely as I must have seemed to them.
God speaks to us all in very different ways, because we hear Him in different ways. You and I are part of each other’s stories now, part of each of us being called to serve God and His people.
It might be that someone could question whether I am called to be a priest, because I don’t speak or write in big fancy words, or because I’m not confrontational. There’s nothing I can do about that. People may question your calling, for whatever reason. But God speaks to all of us, faculty, and students, and through us, as unlikely as we all are, to share His love, to call each other into His service, to help us all find our ministries and support each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Do you think God ever speaks to people through you? Have you ever heard God speak to you through other people? How important is the community of faith to the process of God speaking to us?
Page 240: Oz was not a Wizard, he didn’t give any of them anything that they didn’t already have, he didn’t do anything magic — he just made the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion aware of what they already had but didn’t recognize.
When a child is baptized, it’s not as if the priest makes that kid a child of God. The priest is not a Wizard, just a man or just a woman. In the water and the words we just realize it together, and allow it be more real.
If there is no Wizard of Oz, where should we look for spiritual leadership? What spiritual gifts would you like to receive?
Page 259: The light in the darkness is the life of Jesus, and the life He gives us, not just long time gone and far away; the light is here with us still, shining in our lives, in our stories, in the love of God that we give and receive among ourselves. That light, that precious light shines on, and shines most brightly in our darkest hours. Not just in a book, not just in the church, not just when we’re all fancied up and smellin’ good– in my life, in your life, in what we’s proud of and in what makes us ashamed. The light of Christ shines on, shines on in our darkness. The love of God touched this old black man with the muddy hands of a little white boy, and that same love holds me up in front of you this morning.
The light of Christ is not a long time ago and far away, the light of Christ is to be found in our stories. How has God’s light shown in your life? What unlikely people have been spiritual light for your life?
Page 77: “Buddy, do you believe in God?
“What do you mean?”
“Y’know, do you think there really is a God, and that He’s up there watchin’ us?
“Yeah, I guess. Do you?’
“Naw, man. I think it’s all just a trick to make us do what they want us to do, like Santa Claus. It’s just a bunch of crap.”
Do you believe in God, or do you think it’s all just a trick or a bunch of crap?
Page 79 – 80: “Jake, do you believe in God?” . . .
“Listen, Buddy. You listen to what I tell you, and try to remember it. God is up there, sure is. For a while I thought He may not be, but now I knows He’s there.
“How else you think we got here? You think peoples made the world? If we was in charge, you think they’d be anything beautiful, anything perfect? . . .
“Look here, boy, look at” – he looked around – “Look at this leaf.” He pulled a new spring leaf from the fallen sweet gum we were sitting on. I was soft, bright green, with five points like a star. “You think this leaf could be any better than this? No. You think we could make a tree with this one ,that kept livin’ even after it got blowed down? If they ain’t no God, how did birds get to be so pretty, and sing so sweet? . . . No sir. God must be up there, ‘cause it had to be God made the world.
“Now listen. Me and God ain’t been on speakin’ terms for a few years now. I think He done me wrong, and I ‘magine I done him some, too. I don’t understand God, but I knows He up there.
“I used to think I knowed ever’thing they was to know about God, back some time ago. But now I knows better; now I knows ain’t nobody knows ever’thing ‘bout God. We ain’t s’posed to know ever’thing ‘bout God. Some church peoples think they own God. Don’t nobody own God, ain’t nobody got Him all figured out. But that don’t mean He ain’t there.
How do you think Jake knew there is a God? Do you believe entirely mechanical and material forces are responsible for the creation of the Universe? Do you know any folks who act like they own God?
Page 82: “Look here: ain’t but two kinds of people: takers and givers. The takers jus take whatever they can get, and keep on takin’ ’til somebody tells ’em no. The givers just give never ‘pectin’ nothin’ back. Most peoples think the takers is the winners in the world, but they ain’t, ’cause a taker ain’t never satisifed, a taker always wants more. You a giver, Buddy, always will be just like me.
Do you agree with Jake that there are only two kinds of people, takers and givers? What kind of person do you think you are?
Page 93: “Well hell — I wouldn’t believe in that God Andy talked ’bout, neither. The God I believe in is a whole lot better than me. If somebody did somethin’ to me, made me mad, hurt me, and if I was God, I’d send that person to Hell quick as I could. but God is better than us, and better than that. We all hurt God, we all mess up, every damn one of us. And God keeps on lovin’ us, no matter what. . . .”
Page 94: “I believe when it gets right down to it, when we get to them Pearly Gates, it ain’t goin’ to be a matter of what did we believe, but how did we love, and did we let somebody love us.” Here Jake lapsed into a sort of easy singsong: it was the first time I’d ever heard him preach. “It ain’t goin’ to be what church did you go to, but how did you treat your fellow man. Mmm-hmm, and it ain’t goin’ to be do we believe in God, but do God believe in us. Mmm-hmm, and it ain’t goin’ to be do God choose Heaven for us, or do God choose Hell for us, but do we choose to serve God, mmm-hmmm, or do we choose to serve our selfs.”. . .
. . . I sat quietly, saying good-bye to my friend Andy, as sure then as I am now that he is in the presence of God.
Jake looked into the late afternoon sky. “You’ll see him again, later.”
Have you ever heard God described or depicted in ways you cannot accept? Do you agree with Jake that God keeps on loving us no matter what?
Page 243: At some point, I came to the realization that things were not as bad as I had thought, and that it was good to alive. When I told Scott my discovery, he poured us all a shot and help us his glass for a toast: “Friends, I have it on indisputable and impeccable authority: It’s Good to Be Alive.”
During a low point in your life, have your ever suddenly decided that it is good to be alive? What helped you reach out for hope rather than despair?
Proverbs of Jake Page 261 – 263: When you can choose what you say carefully, words are powerful things.
Most people are going to believe what they want to believe, most of the time.
Hope is more powerful than despair, but harder to hold onto.
Love is more powerful than hate, but hate is more appealing.
The best we can do is to be who God made us to be.
If you ain’t joyful being a Christian, you ain’t doing it right.
It is not an accident that God is invisible. We have to have doubts so that we can have faith, and we have to have evil so that we can treasure good.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.
Faith is more powerful than fear, but fear is much easier to spread.
We are not supposed to know everything about God. Some people think they know about God, and have Him under their control. The Gospel is not about control, but about the love of God.
Ain’t nobody no better’n you, and you ain’t no better’n nobody else.
There are some messes that you did not make and cannot clean up.
There isn’t anything wrong with dying; it’s just the last part of living before we graduate into a larger life. We all got to die, all of us.
Unconditional live is rare and wonderful in this life, but it is the substance of life with God in the next.
In the end our stories are all we are, and all we have to give.
The Mysteries are ever before us.
It ain’t your time. You only have the time God gives you.
Which of Jakes proverbs do you like the best? Do you agree that words are powerful things?
Page 282: “If you’s a sinner, this is the place for you. If you’s a saint, this is your place just the same. If you’s rich c’mon in. If you’s poor, c’mon in. If you’s a Christian, you will find a home up here. If you ain’t, come and make yourself comfortable amongst us. If you been touched by God, come and tell us ’bout it. If you need His touch, come up in here and feel His love through us.
Ain’t nobody ain’t welcome up in here, because the First Church of Buddy is a celebration of the Loe of God Almighty, who made every one of us, and who loves us all. This Church ain’t ’bout fear, nor dread, nor guilt. We ain’t ’bout condemnation, nor judgment, nor punishment! Lord no! This Church is talkin’ ’bout the love of God. We talkin’ about the Light that shines in our darkness. We talkin’ ’bout hope, not hope in our puny efforts, but our real hope in the love and mercy of God, who loves us no matter what we do. . .
Would you attend the First Church of Buddy? How is the First Church of Buddy different from most other churches you have encountered?
Page 315: I’d imagined I’d be talking to Jake in his grave, the way people in the movies talk to their buried loved ones. But the more I thought about it, the surer I was that I’d be talking not only to Jake, but also to his father Joe and his son Joseph, whose essence permeated the Resting Place. The truth of it was that I knew I would be addressing the entire Communion of the Saints, all those who’ve gone before us and now await us in the nearer presence of God. I would be talking to my grandmother who’d died the year before, to my friend Andy Simmons, to Thomas Aquinas, and to all the saints famous and unknown who’d already welcomed Jake into the eternal realms of light.
But now, when the time for his funeral was upon me, it seemed like there ought to be somebody else there — somebody I could see. . . but now I felt like there ought to be someone there to give witness to his death, to celebrate his life with me.
Have you ever felt the need for witnesses? Might the need for witnesses be part of the reason for communities of faith?
Relationship between Jabbok and Genesis
Page 73: I’d been baptized there when I was just a few months old, and officially received the blessing and curse of my name: Judah Bennie Hinton. Actually, I’d already been baptized; my mother was concerned that her third child was puny and sickly at birth, so much so that the relatives were called in to see me before I died. So the night after I was born, just after the nurse introduced the idea of “a failure to thrive,” when Mama was nursing me late at night all alone, she dipped her finger in her little hospital water glass and baptized her baby in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
Page 270: . . . My heart gave thanks again for all the wisdom and insight he’d tried so hard to give me, my “inheritance.”
Page 293 – 294: “What you goin’ to name her? Cornelius asked.
This was all happening too fast for my mind to keep up. “I don’t know,” I said.
But Jake knew. “Jabbok.”
Cornelius and I said, at the same time, “Jabbok?”
Jake smiled. That’s the dog’s name. That’s all they is to that.” And so it was.
. . . Around Leland, I asked Jake where he’d gotten the name “Jabbok.” The word was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“I thought you was learnin’ ’bout the Book up there,” Jake said.
I thought about my concordance, tucked away in a box in the trunk, and promised myself I’d look up “Jabbok.” I figured I needed to know how my dog got her name.
Page 309: And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows and lay down in that place to sleep. . .
And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Jake looked up from his Bible, and glancing around us at the cathedral of trees overhead, repeated the patriarch’s words for our homily: “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Page 329: Title of Chapter 31: Let Me Go, for the Day Is Breaking.
Page 330 -331: If you is reading this, that means I am dead. . . I am writing you this short letter while you is at your mama’s so I can tell you how I wants my funeral. I may be prideful on my part to tell you how to do it. Here it is just the same. Please read from Genesis, Chapter 32, verses 22 to 30. That will make a fine sermon and you will know how your dog got her name.
By now I expect you know I really like the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. You is Israel now. I pass my struggle on to you. . . . Judah Bennie Hinton, I reckon you is pretty much my son all the same. God gave me back my life through you. Now you is here to celebrate as I go to my Restin Place, to be with my daddy and Joseph and Jesus. When you get here I will be waiting for you. I love you, Buddy. I always will.
Page 333: When the wrestling match was over, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” When the match was over, his name was changed from Jacob, which means Supplanter or Cheater, to Israel, which means One Who Struggles, One Who Wrestles. Jacob became Israel at the ford of Jabbok, finding God and himself in the struggle.
Now our friend Jake has died, here at the Resting Place by the side of his creek, and passed on his struggle of being honest and faithful.
All his life, Jake wrestled with God, with people, with himself. There were times when that struggle got the better of him, but he kept fighting, against God at times, against the seduction of alcohol, against people who betrayed and used him, and against his own doubts and disappointments.
Jacob comes away from his struggle blessed but also wounded limping. How do you think this applies to the life of Jake? Jake adopts Buddy as his son. What do you think his legacy is to Buddy? In your own life has your woundedness ever led to blessings?
Known and Loved
SLIDE 3: DIVINE REALITY OF INTIMACY
Psalm 139 contains some of the most beautiful poetry in the Hebrew Scriptures. “You have searched me and known me.” This is a divine reality of intimacy. “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” The divine presence is everywhere, because the divine presence is all things including us. Psalm 139 is the poetry of the mystics – those who experience themselves as part of God.
SLIDE 4: OCEAN AND THE WAVES
Perhaps the best attempt to explain the relationship between God and the mystic is the relationship between the ocean and the waves on the ocean. The waves are part of the ocean, and they can be distinguished from other waves, but the wave does not exist without the ocean. In this way the ocean is like God, and we are like the waves that while individual are part of the whole.
SLIDE 5: CLOUD OF UNKNOWING
Meister Eckhart, a great mystic of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Cloud of Unknowing tried to express the relationship between God and the mystic this way: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
SLIDE 6: AWAKE AND PRESENT HERE AND NOW
Lawrence Kushner in his book Eyes Remade for Wonder tries to express the truth of God’s presence this way. “God, the Holy One of Being, is more than everywhere; God is the Ground of the Universe’s being, the very place of Being itself. And to be awake and present ‘in this place’ is to encounter God. You already are where you need to be. You need go nowhere else. Find a point an inch or so behind your sternum, where your heart beats. That is where ‘the place’ is. Right here all along and we did not know it because we were fast asleep, here in this very place.”
SLIDE 7: NO GIFTS — JUST PRESENCE
There is a kind of mystic’s joke that goes like this: “I asked the Dalai Lama what he wanted for his birthday. He said, he didn’t want any gifts, he just wanted presence.” Presence to be here and now — fully awake.
SLIDE 8: ANOTHER WORLD RIGHT HERE WHENEVER WE PAY ATTENTION
Fully present here and now is harder than it sounds. The beginning of knowing about God is simply paying attention, being fully present where you are or waking up. Most of the time we do not even see that is happening all around us. For most of us, most of the time the lights are on but nobody’s home. We find what we seek and we seek who we are. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around us long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.
SLIDE 9: ISLAMIC MYSTICAL TRADITION — SUFISM
The great mystical tradition in Islam is called Sufism. Here is a story from the Sufi tradition. There was once a small boy who was given a drum and he loved to bang on the drum all day and loved every moment of it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone else said or did. Various people who called themselves child experts, and other well-wishers, were called in by the neighbors and asked to do something about the child.
The first so-called expert told the boy that if he continued to make so much noise, he would perforate his eardrums. This reasoning was too advanced for the child, who was neither a scientist nor a scholar. The second expert told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special occasions. But the child claimed that his love of the drum was sacred, and he went right on beating his drum. A third expert offered the neighbors plugs for their ears. A fourth expert gave the boy a book to try to distract him to no avail. A fifth expert gave the neighbors books that described a method of controlling anger through biofeedback. A sixth expert tried to give the boy meditation exercises to make him placid and explained that all reality is imagination. Like all placebos, each of these remedies worked for a short while, but none worked for very long. Eventually, a Sufi came along. He looked at the situation, handed the boy a hammer and chisel, and asked, “I wonder what is INSIDE the drum?”
SLIDE 10: WHEN I AWAKE I AM STILL WITH YOU
The beginning of knowing about God is simply paying attention, being fully present where you are or waking up. In the words of the Psalmist: “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand — when I awake, I am still with you.”
SLIDE 11: THE BOUNDARIES OF SELF
Being at One with the Holy One of Being is not about becoming the same as God but about forgetting the boundaries of ourselves. There are many ways we can reach for Holy One(ness.) We can attain self-transcendence through our minds in study, through our hearts in prayer, or with our hands in sacred deeds. By voluntarily setting God’s will above our own, we literally lose our selves and become One with the One who we serve. It rarely lasts for more than a moment.
The primary obstacle to becoming one is self-awareness, self-consciousness, talking to oneself. That persistent internal dialogue we sometimes experience as drunken monkeys in our heads. And for this reason, high awareness involves stopping, ignoring, forgetting the conversation we routinely carry on in our heads between different parts of our personalities. Such amnesia is another word for self-unification.
SLIDE 12: YOU REALIZE YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE DANCING
Lawrence Kushner tells a story to illustrate about dancing. “My daughter once told me that the way to know I was dancing was to dance with so much of me that I stopped worrying about what I looked like on the dance floor. I told her that if she looked the way I did when I danced, she’d worry too. (As a self-conscious introvert I can identify with Kushner’s fears, and I suspect in this congregation I am not alone.) But she only said that in order to really dance, you must give yourself to the music. ‘Let it tell you what to do; quit being so self-conscious. The only way you will ever know you have danced, is if, once the music stops you realize you didn’t know you were dancing.'”
By the way I was interested to find out that the daughter who taught her father about dancing also became a Rabbi.
SLIDE 13: YOU REALIZE YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE PRAYING
I think the same rule of thumb applies to prayer as well as dancing. The only way you will ever know you have been in God’s presence, is if, once the prayer, or the hymn, or the worship is over, your realize you didn’t know you were praying. I think that is why Psalm 139 is such beautiful poetry. The Psalmist is on such intimate terms with the Holy One of Being that when she finished the Psalm she did not know she had been praying.
SLIDE 14: LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK
Reaching for the mystic’s intimacy with God also involves learning to walk in the dark. Look at verses 11 and 12 of our Psalm. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
SLIDE 15: PARADOX
When we enter into the mystic consciousness we encounter paradox — dark and light become one. We experience the Universe as a whole not parceled out in pieces or divided into opposites. An analogy for Paradox is the phenomena of light. Light behaves like both a particle and a wave – mutually exclusive and yet it does. The particles of light that appear to be white can be broken or bent into the wave lengths of all the colors of the spectrum. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark writes about the early church mystic Gregory of Nyssa:
SLIDE 16: DAZZLING DARKNESS
“In the same way Gregory said, those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision becomes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God. If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our minds are of any help to us, we may arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness.”
Since the mystical reality of God’s presence can only be expressed in story, and song, on this note of dazzling darkness I would like to close with a new hymn by the Roman Catholic composer, Dan Schutte, who wrote the song “Here I am Lord.” The title of the song is “Holy Darkness.”
SLIDE 17: HOLY DARKNESS
Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight. As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.
- I have tried you in fires of affliction; I have taught your soul to grieve. In the barren soil of your loneliness, there I will plant my seed. 2. I have taught you the price of compassion; you have stood before the grave. Though my love can seem like a raging storm, this is the love that saves. 3. Were you there when I raised up the mountains? Can you guide the morning star? Does the hawk take flight when you give command? Why do you doubt my pow’r? 4. In your deepest hour of darkness I will give you wealth untold. When the silence stills your spirit, will my riches fill your soul. 5. As the watchman waits for morning, and the bride awaits her groom, so we wait to hear your footsteps as we rest beneath your moon.
Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight. As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.
- I have taught you the price of compassion; you have stood before the grave. Though my love can seem like a raging storm, this is the love that saves. 3. Were you there when I raised up the mountains? Can you guide the morning star? Does the hawk take flight when you give command? Why do you doubt my pow’r? 4. In your deepest hour of darkness I will give you wealth untold. When the silence stills your spirit, will my riches fill your soul. 5. As the watchman waits for morning, and the bride awaits her groom, so we wait to hear your footsteps as we rest beneath your moon.
Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight. As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.
3. Were you there when I raised up the mountains? Can you guide the morning star? Does the hawk take flight when you give command? Why do you doubt my pow’r?
4. In your deepest hour of darkness I will give you wealth untold. When the silence stills your spirit, will my riches fill your soul.
- As the watchman waits for morning, and the bride awaits her groom, so we wait to hear your footsteps as we rest beneath your moon.
SLIDE 3: TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
This morning is Epiphany Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 12th Day of Christmas. Alix Morehouse posted on Facebook, after all of the preparation for Christmas, why confine the celebration to one day? Why not stretch the Holiday and spread the cheer! I’m not sure I want twelve drummers drumming or ten Lords a Leaping, but extending the holiday of good cheer seems like a good idea.
SLIDE 4: EPIPAHY
On Epiphany we remember that the Wisemen presented their gifts to the baby Jesus, and then returned to their own country by another way. They had been warned in dream not to return to the evil Herod, who would seek the life of the divine child. In Matthew’s narrative the Holy Family was forced to flee on the road to Egypt, where they hid until news came to them of the death of Herod. Then once again Mary, Joseph and the child traveled the road back to Israel.
SLIDE 5: ANOTHER ROAD IN A NEW YEAR
In our scripture this morning Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish people in slavery in Babylon to prepare for God to lead them on the road home to Israel: “I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” We are all setting out on another road in a new year. We are all on a journey individually and collectively. So this morning I want to spend some time reflecting on the image of another road.
SLIDE 6: INTO THE WOODS
The day after Christmas Beth and I went to the movies to see the film adaptation of the play “Into the Woods.” The Play is an extended metaphor squishing together several of Grimm’s fairy tales that involve the courage of making choices and choosing paths. “Into the Woods” illustrates six truths we also find in the metaphors of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.
SLIDE 7: FIRST TRUTH – THE QUEST
The first truth is the ancient archetype of the quest. The characters set out on a journey because they have been summoned to a purpose. They cannot stay behind, and rest secure at home, instead they are called to go into the wood, a place of shadow and uncertainty. Like Abram summoned to leave the land of his ancestors and go to a promised land, where he will be transformed into something new, a nation, a symbol, a people, a faith, and have his name changed to Abraham, the characters in the woods are propelled onto quests of their own. All of us are similarly called to make faith journeys from the relative safety and security of childhood, into the uncertainty of adulthood and the quest to live out and fulfill our divine purposes. To begin the quest requires courage and faith. Abram heard God’s call and set out for a Promised Land he had never seen just as the characters in “Into the Woods” set out into the shadows of uncertainty that await them in the Wood:
Into the woods, it’s time to go, I hate to leave, I have to, though. Into the woods – it’s time, and so I must begin my journey.
Into the woods and down the dell, the path is straight, I know it well. Into the woods, and who can tell, what’s waiting on the journey?
Into the woods, without delay, but careful not to lose the way. Into the woods, who knows what may be lurking on the journey?
SLIDE 9: LOSS OF INNOCENCE
The second truth encountered in the Woods is the archetype of the loss of innocence that we also find in the story of the snake in the third chapter of Genesis. Little Red Riding Hood expresses this loss of innocence after she is rescued from the belly of the wolf:
Mother said, “Straight ahead,” Not to delay or be misled. I should have heeded her advice… But he seemed so nice. And he showed me things many beautiful things, that I hadn’t thought to explore. They were off my path, so I never had dared. I had been so careful, I never had cared. And he made me feel excited – Well, excited and scared. And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before: Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood, They will not protect you the way that they should. And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers. And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.
SLIDE 10: KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL
In Hebrew the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil means an intimate relationship with both Good and Evil. We cannot understand Good and Evil from experience and remain innocent. The loss of innocence then is part of the journey to adulthood. And in the loss of innocence we also encounter the third truth – the archetype of embracing responsibility – giving up the blame game. In Genesis when God discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten of the knowledge of Good and Evil God asks Adam, “Why did you eat from the tree I commanded you not to eat.”
And Adam replies, “Not my fault, the woman you created, she gave it to me.”
And when God asks Eve, “How come?” She blames the snake.
In the play into the Woods, when a giant climbs down a bean stalk and begins to “wreck havoc” upon the Kingdom, the residents begin to blame one another:
It’s because of you there’s a giant in our midst, and my wife is dead! But it isn’t my fault, I was given those beans! You persuaded me to trade away my cow for beans! And without those beans, there’d have been no stalk To get up to the giant in the first place! So, it’s your fault. And it isn’t mine at all.
SLIDE 12: EMBRACE RESPONSIBILITY
How often we worry about establishing blame, when all we can do is to embrace responsibility. And that leads us to the fourth truth, learning to our honor mistakes. None of us is perfect. Perhaps the Genesis metaphor does us a disservice, when Adam and Eve are projected as having fallen from grace after being created perfect and innocent. Instead maybe we can sing with the cast of “Into the Wood”:
SLIDE 13: HONOR MISTAKES
People make mistakes — Fathers, Mothers. People make mistakes, holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistakes — everybody makes. Fight for their mistakes. One another’s terrible mistakes.
Not only do we need to honor our own mistakes, but as part of becoming adults we can also honor the mistakes and short comings of our parents. Most of the time our parents were doing the best they could with what they had. After all our parents were only working with what they had been given by their parents. As much as I complained about my parenting when I was younger, when I finally matured enough to realize both of my father and mother had alcoholic and mentally ill fathers, did I appreciate what a benign childhood I had. We can change if we honor mistakes and stop blaming. When we embrace responsibility, then life can be different.
SLIDE 14: GOOD ENOUGH
And remember making life different will not make life perfect. Again one of the greatest disservices is having a metaphor that insists that perfection is our goal. Maybe perfection isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Maybe rather than perfection we can think in terms of optimal, and perhaps we’ll even settle for “good enough.” We can be kind to ourselves and kind to others by not expecting too much.
SLIDE 15: COME TO TERMS WITH GRIEF
The fifth truth we can find in the woods is our need to come to terms with grief. We are not made forever. Our bodies grow old break down and eventually we die. The people whom we love do not live forever. And so in the song “No One Is Alone,” we come to the line, “Sometimes people leave you, half-way through the wood.” Even when we choose to journey together with someone on life’s path, we are still on separate journeys. No matter how long we spend together, there are still mornings when we wake up and wonder who that stranger is lying in the bed beside us. And even though we have pledged ourselves to one another to travel together, in all probability one of us will have to grieve for the other – one of us will have to continue the journey down the path without the other.
We can moan and groan and carry on in grief, when we come to the time of parting, but go on we must even when it feels like we are leaving part of ourselves behind. Coming to terms with grief is not only a preparation for the deaths of loved ones, grief is also a preparation for the letting go of our own lives.
SLIDE 16: NO ONE IS ALONE
Mother cannot guide you. Now you’re on your own. Only me beside you. Still, you’re not alone. No one is alone. Truly. No one is alone. Sometimes people leave you. Halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you. You decide what’s good. You decide alone. But no one is alone.
As the old spiritual says, “You have to walk this lonesome valley. You have to walk it by yourself. Oh nobody else can walk it for you. You have to walk it by yourself.” Each one of us walks our own path and yet we are not alone. God is with us. In life in death in life beyond death we are not alone. Thanks be to God.
SLIDE 17: ANOTHER ROAD INTO THE WOODS AND BEYOND
Each of us has to live our own lives. Each of us has to have the courage to set out on our own path. We have to make our own decisions. We have to grow up and lose our innocence. We have to make our own mistakes — embrace our responsibility and our grief. Nobody else can live our lives for us. We have to do it for ourselves. And yet we are promised that God walks with us into the Woods and beyond. For we are not alone.