In Blessed Memory: Rev. Dr. L. T. Archer Summers

15 05 2011

Rev. L. T. Archer Summers

My friend, Rev. Dr. Landon Tracy Archer Summers, passed away today.

Archer was a pastor at the Burlingame United Methodist Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for over two decades before moving to Israel.  More than that, he was a beloved husband to Rev. Dr. Boyung Lee and a loving father to his two teenage children Jack and Clara.  May God grant them comfort at this difficult time.

He was far too young at 51.  He never told me he was a diabetic, and I’m not surprised by that because Archer was never one to complain.  He had a strong athletic body and looked like he would live well into old age.  But, on Saturday May 7, something went terribly wrong.  His brain was deprived of glucose, and he was found at home alone unconscious and unresponsive.  He was brought to the hospital, where his family held vigil.  This report reached us Wednesday last week, along with the grievous news that there was little to no hope for any kind of recovery.

One of Archer’s long time friends, who studied Hebrew with him in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, wrote in an email of Archer’s amazing accomplishments.  He graduated from Georgetown with a BA in Classical Studies and later returned to complete a law degree, he graduated from Harvard with two masters and a doctorate in divinity and education, traveled to all seven continents by the age of 24, was the greatest dad to two extraordinary children, served as a minister to churches in Maine, Connecticut and California.  He spoke Hebrew, Russian, Greek, Latin and some Korean to impress his in-laws, was Program Manager of the USDA Graduate School (America’s largest continuing education program), received a Congressional award for his inspired work to promote peace in the Middle East, served on the Washington State Board of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education, was given the Unsung Hero award from the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, was extremely proud of his West Virginia heritage and was a lifelong fan of Monty Python and bluegrass music.

Archer with Boyung

I met Archer in July 2007 in my capacity as director of the San Francisco JCRC’s Middle East Project.  At the time he was senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto and was also on the Executive Committee of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East a mainline Christian group that seeks a balanced approach to Christian involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He had been to Israel four times since his initial visit in 1978 when he studied Hebrew at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  When I walked into his office on that beautiful Bay Area summer’s day, I took notice of his many books on his bookshelf on Judaism, Hebrew (modern and biblical), Israel and the Kabala.  I also noticed a photo of his son Jack wearing a Red Sox cap.  Already two reasons to like this guy!

At this first meeting Archer described his pain at the direction his denomination was taking regarding Israel.  Archer was clearly disturbed that a small group of activists within the denomination were promoting a clearly anti-Israel agenda that wasn’t merely critical of Israel, but in fact demonized the Jewish state, painting Israelis as being entirely in the wrong, and Palestinians and other Arabs as being entirely in the right.  Archer was a nuanced thinker, he saw the world in many shades of gray, and could not accept a narrative that painted an entire group of people in such black and white terms.

From that time on, our personal relationship grew.  I met his remarkable wife Boyung, a power in her own right, and his son Jack whom Archer brought to a meeting with other Christian clergy under JCRC auspices.  In 2008, JCRC recognized Archer as an unsung hero honoring him for his tireless work to bring a more balanced discussion of the Middle East into his denomination, and for working hard for the betterment of Jewish-Christian relations.  (If you wish to see a video of Archer you may view it here on JCRC’s YouTube page.  We also honored Rev. Doug Huneke, another wonderful friend, who appears first on the video.)

Last year in 2010, Archer and Boyung were our guests of honor at our last Passover Seder in California. It was such a joy to have them over and share our traditions with them.  I will always remember that seder as being something very special.

This past Friday at sundown, just before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, I received an email from a family friend who wrote the following:

Archer, in his own unique and irreverent way, has made it clear that he doesn’t want any life sustaining measures taken to support him if a full recovery were not likely. We have reached the stage of being able to honor those wishes and a short time ago permitted the medical staff here to remove respiratory, hydration and insulin support. Thankfully, he is resting comfortably and breathing on his own. Church friends will be pleased to know that he is now wearing his favorite pastoral stole. Sitting here with him, we also feel confident that he is engaged in lively debate with God.

With this heavy news I entered Shabbat.  As the sun went below the Galilean hills, our Shabbat services began.  During Shabbat services it is customary for the 23rd Psalm to be sung toward the end.  I never really understood why, until now.  The Sabbath is described in Jewish tradition as an “oneg” or a joy.  Why, I wondered, would Psalm 23 be included in this service?  I asked one of the rabbis here at Hanaton (we have ten!) and he reminded me that Shabbat is described by our tradition as a “taste of the World to Come,”  an inkling of eternal paradise.  The 23rd Psalm, with its promise of God being our unwavering Shepherd as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, opens the curtain just a tiny, tiny bit to the Olam HaBa (the World to Come).

I believe that Archer is entering Paradise, in deep discussion with God on some fine points of theology, and is giving the Holy One, Blessed Be He, a run for his money.

Archer, I miss you.  May your name be remembered for a blessing.


5 million or 5 thousand? The difference is fundamental(ist)

10 04 2011

The Avshalom Cave - Beit Shemesh, Israel

hat’s a few zeroes?  Well, do the math.  Add a few zeroes to another few zeroes and you get zero.  The religious tensions in this holy land are just that: zero-sum.

Last week we took Tamar to spend Shabbat in Beit Shemesh where her best friend from her school in California is now living.  Her friend’s family is fairly Orthodox, while we are fairly Conservative, what they call here masorti or Traditionalist (in a Pluralist-Egalitarian bent).  Beit Shemesh, on the road to Jerusalem, is fast becoming a heredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) enclave, where religion is taken very seriously, and not a few fundamentalist attitudes exist.

From Hannaton in the Galilee to Beit Shemesh is an hour and a half drive, which we gladly took so Tamar could reconnect with her friend.  But in Israel gas is a whopping $8.50 per gallon, so every time we drive any “long” distance we multi-task the trip.

Just outside Beit Shemesh is a gorgeous stalactite cave open to the public.  Tamar is fascinated by ancient pre-history, especially the origins of the universe and what secrets can be learned by studying nature.  It seemed like a great idea to show Tamar this cave just before dropping her off at her friend’s.  Little did we know that the expedition would turn into an education about the conflict between science and literalist religion.  But, I’m glad it did.

Getting to the cave from the park entrance is a fun challenge.  There is a walk of several hundred stairs down the gully to the cave entrance.  Along the way are descriptive signs telling of the cave’s history and highlights.  Here is one sign we came across:

TRANSLATION: “Scientists know that the formation of the stalactites began some XXXXXXXXX years ago.”

Clearly someone disagreed with what “scientists know” and focused his, or her, protest by scratching out the words “5 million” before the word “years.” Fortunately, the words were still somewhat visible.  Read on to the end…

his is an old battle between modern science and fundamentalist religion.  According to Jewish tradition God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, which is the Shabbat (שבת).  Some streams of Judaism, like some Christian denominations, take this text literally and believe the world, and the entire universe, are only 5,700 +/-  years old.  Science, of course, dates the age of the earth to some 4.5 billion years, and the entire universe to about 15 billion years.  Non-literalist religions (Reform or Conservative Judaism and mainline Christian denominations) have reconciled the findings of science with the practice of their faiths: it is possible to find and worship a just, loving and compassionate God in a universe of unimaginable age.  Indeed, God’s wonders are all that much more magnificent in a 15 billion year old universe of infinite size.

Here in Israel the debate so familiar to Americans follows a very similar trajectory.  The etching out of the words “5 million” on the sign at the Beit Shemesh cave is but one example.

Oh, by the way, it is no coincidence that a family of maskilim (free-thinking enlightenment types) felt compelled to repair the fundamentalist affront to open thought, with the following result:

“5 million” returns to light

And with that, Tamar gained an important education in freedom of thought versus fundamentalist religious coercion.


Note to my readers: I apologize for my absence from blogging for several weeks.  I started ulpan, intensive Hebrew language course (what I call “Hebrew school”) in Haifa five days a week, and also the shipment of our household goods arrived two weeks ago.  We’ve been rather busy putting our house together, unpacking over 60 boxes.  We’ve come along nicely and I hope to be blogging more regularly again. Thank you!

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