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The LivingTradition of God by George C. Anderson

Psalm 1 says,“Happy are those who do not fol- low the advice of the wicked… but are like trees planted by streams of water.”

The psalmist is referring to those who are so immersed in the study of the Torah, the living tradition of God, that they can stand strong against the strong winds that blow others away. They had all been so immersed in the teachings and practices of their faith that it has become their thinking, their seeing and feeling; their living and their dying.

I am not happy with the translations that use the word,“Happy,” however. In our culture “Happy” is not a sturdy enough word to bear the weight of sorrow, obligation, or disappointment while still bearing some sense of joy. “Happy” is a decorative word used to describe those in love, on vacation, or finding their children to be delightful. “Happy” is lottery winner or the football fan whose team just won.

“Happy” is not an adjective I would use to de- scribe the voice I hear in the Beatitude Psalm. That voice is wise, experienced, healed and reconciled. It is a voice of someone who has had to surrender false hopes and give up on shallow dreams. It is a voice of one who has come to appreciate what is a gift and not a right, and what comes to us only by grace.

I recognize the Psalmist’s voice in a memory of Welford Hobbie. Welford grew up in Roanoke, served as a pastor, and then became the much beloved professor of preaching at Union Seminary. I remember the last course on preaching I took from him. He was thin and weak because of the treatments. The treatments were to buy time, but Welford knew that while this cancer could be delayed, it could not be beaten.

He didn’t have to teach that course. He didn’t need the money, and on the days he taught he had little energy for anything else. Yet, he did teach. When he couldn’t stand in class, he sat on a stool. He taught with his usual humor, keeping us laugh- ing while we were learning. And he gave careful attention when we preached our sermons, so he could give the feedback we needed. He was dy- ing and knew it, yet he was laughing, listening and teaching.

What was he? Happy? I suppose so, but that’s too light a word for me. He was something.

I can hear the voice of the psalm in Lou Emma Allen’s voice. Lou Emma was our maid and nanny in Greenwood, Mississippi back in the early 1960s. We couldn’t afford a maid, but my parents and two other families hired her because she needed the work. She resigned her job at the church because she didn’t want to be a cause of dissention. The session had voted not to fire her, so she could have kept her job. But the minority that voted to fire her was sizable, and so were the number of mem- bers in the church who wished to do the same. The reasons stated were manufactured. She was demonized, small faults exaggerated into something big (church politics can be just like national politics). The real reason was that it had been discovered she was an officer in the local chapter of the NAACP and had worked to register other blacks to vote.

So, here was an older woman, with an invalid husband, having to clean houses to make a living. She was a woman who had to face segregation on a daily basis. To maintain her sense of dignity was a spiritual fight. But she did it. And she was a woman who, even though she knew how to take a courageous stand, never stopped being a woman full of fun. Bitterness and anger were not for her.

She was… happy? She was something. She was something I want to be when I have to take a stand.

I hear the voice of the psalm in the true story Greg Jones tells in his book Embodying Forgiveness. He tells of an Armenian nurse taking care of a Turkish officer in the early 1900s. In those years, as through the centuries, Armenians often were brutalized by the dominant Turks.

The Armenian nurse took exceptional care of this enemy of her people, this Turkish officer. She took special care of him even though he was too sick to take special note of her. He almost died, several times. But then he got better. And one day, a doctor was in the room and he told the patient that if it had not been for that nurse, the officer

would have died. And so the officer looked- that is, really looked- at the nurse who had been tending to him.

“I know you, don’t I?” “Yes,” she said,“you do.” And he did. Years before, on a raid, after killing

her parents, he gave her sisters to his soldiers and he took this nurse, then a young girl, for himself.

“Why didn’t you let me die?” he asked.

She answered, “I am the follower of him who said,‘Love your enemies.’”

She stood there like the tree of our psalm standing strong against the wind of revenge. I don’t know how I would have responded, but I do know I want what she had. I would rather be her when she looked in the mirror at night than the officer who allowed himself to be the chaff so easily blown by base needs and fears. I don’t know what you would call what she was, but I don’t think “happy” is the word. But I do want more of it.

Whatever it is three people are, I want to be it. Do you? I think it takes immersion in a Living tradition that speaks to us, and then, by God’s grace, penetrates us… and then even make us part of itself: the Living Tradition of God.

George Anderson is the Senior Minister at Second Presbyterian Church.
You may contact him at: [email protected] or visit them on the web at www.spres.org

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