George Swanson Starling spent most of his adult life in Harlem, working as a train porter, but the Black American had been raised in the racially segregated South, picking fruit for pennies an hour in Florida groves. Like many of us, George had envisioned a very different life than the one he got. Isabel Wilkerson writes in her Pulitzer-prize winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration:
By the time they got old enough to work, most of the kids had dropped out of school altogether. By graduation day, there were only six seniors in the Class of 1936 at Curtright Vocational Training School, and George Swanson was valedictorian. He got accepted to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical State College in Tallahassee. His Father did not really understand why he would want to go when he could be making a little money picking in the groves. But he sent him anyway.
George came home with better than decent grades. But a year passed and then another whole six months with other people working and George just reading books. His father didn’t see the point of it. In the middle of George’s sophomore year, his father told him he had gotten enough schooling and it was time for him to go to work. Maybe he could pick it up later (66-67).
The prophet Isaiah writes, “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Is 55: 11). The mistake, made by all of us, is thinking that we that know that end, presuming that we’ve comprehended the Word of God, see where it fits into the world and into our lives. George’s father made a similar mistake when it came to education.
Big George didn’t see where it made much difference anyway, hardly anybody they knew went to college. The father had only gone to fifth grade, and he was doing alright, running the store and packing fruit at the Eichelberger Packing Company.
“With two years of college, you should be able to be president of the United States,” his father figured.
“But I’m taking a four-year college course number, and you dropping me in the middle of the stream. I am not prepared to do anything because I’m only halfway there” (67).
The mistake we so often make in education is the same one we make in our reception of Sacred Scripture. We come at both thinking that we know the end and can therefore confidently judge both the effectiveness of our reception and the value of our perseverance. More students change their college majors than retain them. They enter school with one goal and leave with another. Is that the fickleness of youth or the expansion of humanity that education effects? It makes some sense to insist that we know what to expect of primary and secondary education: namely, to move the student to the next rung, with all of the skills and confidence needed to succeed there. But when it comes to Higher Education, our preparation for life, who can say, with any real surety, what we’re preparing for? How many adults today, having crammed their course of studies with classes designed for a career goal, have either changed careers or seen the very nature of their job radically altered? How many wish that they could go back and take some of those courses that promised to be “life-changing?”
Something similar happens in our reception of sacred scripture. Haven’t we already heard what is about to be read? Will we be surprised by what we hear? Probably not, especially with that approach. But scripture isn’t ultimately a report about something that happened, which is why the Church never envisioned people “following along in their texts” to make sure the lector has it right. Listening to scripture in liturgy is more akin to watching a marvelous play. It’s supposed to engage our imaginations, move them the way wind moves wheat. A person following along in his or her book is a bit like a playgoer porting the script. Liturgy isn’t a time for study. It’s a moment to delight in the Word, to let it wash over us, perhaps to alter the very way we look at the world. We should come at the Word of God in liturgy the way a kid splashes in a fountain. You don’t count the droplets of water and calculate their trajectories. You douse and drench!
The Reformed theologian, and former Yale professor, Nicholas Wolterstorff writes of what he calls, “The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism.” It’s been reduced into something pedagogical rather than playful. It concentrates upon we think we understand God to be saying rather than finding delight in the listening. Of course, all liturgy, Catholic or Protestant, can succumb to imbalance. We simply tend to tip opposite ends of the scale. Wolterstorff warns of the Word of God being reduced to a lesson when it should be more akin to the delight of a child in the voice of a parent. He writes:
What naturally results from the diminution of the worship dimension in liturgy is the starkness that is so characteristic of much of Protestant liturgy and its setting. So little of the multifaceted richness of our humanity is here manifested! So many renunciations! Here words rule all. What also results from the suppression of the worship dimension of liturgy is a seriousness, a sobriety, an absence of joy, that is contrary to the spirit of divine rest and the people’s liberation that we are to remember in memorial. When proclamation overwhelms worship in the liturgy, we must expect joy to be diminished (37).
Back to George Swanson, who
had made valedictorian at Curtwright and, just as significant to him, was the only one from his high school to finish the first year of college without failing any subject. He thought he deserved better.
But his father had made up his mind. Lil George was his namesake, but he wasn’t his only concern. Big George had remarried since coming to Eustis. He had a wife now and two stepsons to think about. He had that little store to keep up and dreams of a little orange grove of his own for his old age. He wasn’t willing to spend what money he had to send George back to school to study Socrates and polynomials. It was an outrageous indulgence when everybody else was working the grove every day (67).
Outrageous indulgence indeed. But can one blame George, Sr., who never had the benefit of such extravagance? And higher education is just that. An outrageous indulgence. So is the Word of God. The mistake we make with both lies in thinking that we already know their value, already know what will sprout and what will wither. God is outrageous. God doesn’t “fit” into our world. Neither does the future. It never “fits” into the past, which is why it constantly undoes it. Then how does one prepare for the outrageous? By taking time, weekly, and in our lives, to be just that.
Terrance W. Klein