The Judeo-Christian Heritage
Good People; this world needs more of them. We all know that. Good people, I mean. The showy people get the headlines. The smart people get the contracts. The popular performers get the gigs. The rich people get the breaks. The bad people get off scot-free, it seems. But what this world needs more of is good people.
- People who show up on time prepared for the task at hand.
- People who hang in there until the work is done.
- People who don’t care who gets the credit for the job well done.
- People with skills in their hands and brains in their heads and hearts you can count on.
- People who can be trusted, depended on, and are pleasant to be around.
- People who love their families and care for them.
Good people. Lord, send us more of them.
In the year of our Lord, 2023, the world lost two exceptionally good people, the brothers, Burk and Warren Woolf, my wife’s brothers. These two good men became my brothers-in-law when I came into the family, being blessed to marry their little sister. I gained two brothers who were really, really good men.
I came into this world the younger brother of James Phifer and I always knew what an advantage I had in my big brother. A truly good man, he was my pathfinder. Though struck from the same mold, our gifts were complimentary. His was a calling to preach, lead churches, and counsel people in their times of pain. My calling was in the arts, so I made music, did theatre, and wrote poems as I led Christian artists and counseled people in the disciplines of the worship arts. When my training branched out from music education to theology, James was my first and my primary instructor in these things.
Almost 10 years ago now, James made his surprise exit from this world into the next one, joining the growing band of good people from our family who were there waiting. Suddenly my supply of big brothers was reduced to two, Burk and Warren, but they were always there for me.
This year, both of these good men took that final flight to worlds unknown, Burk in the spring and Warren in the fall. This demanded two trips home to Arkansas; one in the spring as the new leaves on the many trees decorated the fields and hills and the other in the fall to see so many of those leaves turned to gold and crimson.
At Burk’s life celebration service in his church, the one he and his wife, Betty, had served in leadership for several decades, I observed a sanctuary full of good people. People who paid their bills and provided for their families and, when they made mistakes, as all people do, repented of their sins, and tried to repair the damage. Many sat beneath piles of gray hair or others made do with no hair at all. They walked stiffly down the aisles to peer into the casket and then retreated to their seats as they sang Burk’s favorite songs as if he could still hear them. Good people. People not to be feared because they believe in Jesus but also not to be hated because of this either. They have found a way to live that works. It worked when they were young, in their middle years, and it still works in these stiff, painful, later years while they count down the number of years they may have left before good people gather in the church house to sing their favorite songs.
Last week I saw another group of these good people when Warren occupied the place of honor. His record was as complete and functional as his body was weak and dysfunctional in his last few years. His children and grandchildren were there, good people all. His sister, my wife, played the piano as she had done for years when they were children and now as an artist in the Lord’s beautiful ensemble of skillful anointed ones. I had the joy of singing the songs Warren wanted sung. His son, Greg, who pastors their church, preached a wonderful message. He is a good man with a good truth for all to hear. Warren’s wife, Rita, who, like me, was blessed to marry into this family of remarkably good people, sat in the place of honor a good wife, mother, grandmother, and sister-in-law deserves. Once in the Arkansas spring and again the Arkansas fall, I saw simple, beautiful houses of worship filled with good people honoring another good man, one of their own. Neither of my brothers-in-law was a charlatan or a deceiver or a fool. Each was a truly good man.
What Jews and Christians Share
The often forgotten or neglected truth is this: both Judaism and Christianity share a common ethic, the pursuit of a meaningful life, one of family, honor, craftsmanship, creativity. and a common birthplace. We strive to be problem solvers not problems. We seek to honor our Creator with our creativity, our dreams and visions, our thoughts and deeds. I have seen this my whole life.
I was blessed to grow up in a Mississippi River town on the Arkansas side. Unlike towns in the interior of a state, river towns are more multicultural than towns even just a few miles inland. This was Helena, Arkansas, a harbor town situated by a narrow channel (still one whole mile!) across Old Man River. We had two ferry systems: one for cars and another for trains. In the early 1960s a bridge was built so we boasted of having “the next bridge across the river south of Memphis.”
From the early 19th century this proximity to transportation attracted people from many cultural orientations to Helena. I have always believed that growing up there prepared me to live in cities for all these years where diversity was the norm. The Jewish community in Helena was a wonderful blessing to me. I was from a branch of Christianity that honored Jews as the covenantal People of God. We were instructed to bless them as this was pleasing to God. The Jewish community was an integral part of our town. In Helena we had our own synagogue and Rabbi. Rabbi Shillman spoke at our high school graduation in 1967! To me antisemitism was a historical anomaly my father’s generation had done away with in WWII. I have come to see a fraternal connection with my Jewish brothers and sisters. It was the most natural thing in the world. This was America, wasn’t it?—the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The truth is, we shared what I see as a Judeo-Christian mode of living, a work ethic and moral compass we each used to find our way through life. The Protestant work ethic, so important America’s progress, has its roots in Judaism. We share the fundamental values of family, virtue, hard work, honest dealings, craftsmanship, and creativity. Our Christianity and their Judaism both called for us to endeavor to be good people. The First Covenant, sometimes called “the Old Covenant,” and the “New Covenant” Jesus brought were all about honoring God by the way we lived our lives.
What is more stupid than hatred?
The liars and schemers of this world will tell you to fear those of us who follow Jesus and to hate the Jews. They say we are simpletons living lives built on ancient myths. We have been taken in by manipulators who just want to steal our money and use us as fuel for their fires of deception. Please, be smarter than that! See who the real deceivers are. Hear the hollow ring of their lies. Detect the lethal rhythms of Hitler’s oratory in each diatribe and smell the stench of Hitler’s breath in the “news” each day. See the empty images of lust and lechery in their carefully constructed works of “art.” Smell the decay in their language as they preach their deadly sermons designed to debase the listener like that golden calf did at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
It is time for reasonable people to return to the smoking summit of truth Moses found on that mountain and to seek out the one who occupied that other mountain, the one shaped like a skull. The majestic God we serve has spoken eternal truth to us. There is a good life to be lived and it works; it still works. I saw this life lived out in my family and in our church and I am also witness to it in the churches I have served in more than 50 years of ministry. Moreover, I saw it in my little river town growing up.
Good people, be they Christians or Jews—the world needs more of them to negate the tocsin of hate and beam the beacon of love.
December 2, 2023