"Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."
To Kill a Mockingbird fans will recognize that line from the end of the courtroom scene in chapter 21. Reverend Sykes directs those words to Scout, encouraging her to show proper respect to her father, Atticus.
Anyone who has watched the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee's novel surely hears that line in the gentle voice of Bill Walker, the man who played Reverend Sykes.
To Kill a Mockingbird cast a spell over me when I read it in 9th grade English in my southern Ohio high school. I already knew the story, though, because my brother Michael and I had watched the movie together several years earlier. Michael, eight years my senior, loved the story too, and wanted to share it with me. He drew up a playbill and designed my own little movie ticket on construction paper.
That was in the early 1980s, when a TV was just a TV. Michael and I had to make a special date to watch the film together (as indicated on my ticket), because a local television channel was playing the movie at a specific time. Remember those days, before home video systems and pause buttons, when a commercial break meant a furious dash to the restroom?
Watching the movie in grade school, I didn't fully understand everything that happened in the Maycomb County courtroom. But I knew that Tom Robinson had done nothing wrong, and that Atticus Finch had proved it beyond all doubt. Like Jem does at the beginning of the next chapter, I cried "with angry tears" to see the justice system betray an innocent and compassionate man.
For all our hopes and prayers, the justice system fails. Atticus Finch fails. He promises Tom Robinson they can appeal the decision, of course, but even as a ten-year-old I knew that was useless.
When Reverend Sykes asks "Miss Jean Louise" (Scout) to rise out of respect, he asks us all to lift our hearts and minds. Amid failure and injustice, Reverend Sykes speaks as a prophet. He reminds the community to stand in dignity, to revere truth and those who witness to the truth: "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."
When societal structures designed to protect the innocent come crashing down, we need prophets. We need messengers who remind us that, despite all desperate appearances, God has a plan of goodness in mind for us, to give us "a future of hope" (Jeremiah 29:11).
Parents can be the prophets their children need. We point them to truth, unity, goodness, and beauty; we lead them to God. We teach them how to pray, so they can develop their very own relationship with the infinite God who created them out of love.
We need strength for all this prophet-work. We will find it in God, and in each other. We will find it in scripture, and in a particular way in church.
It was at church on Sunday, in fact, that Reverend Sykes' words popped into my head unexpectedly. How delightful to be reminded of this climactic scene at the height of my own day, worshipping God with my community. Coming from wildly different places, all the people in my church were standing up, showing by their very presence that God is great and deserving of all praise.
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Some of us struggle with the idea of communal prayer in church. Many of us feel isolated, marginalized, or unwelcome. Lots of parents have practical concerns: it's just plain grueling to wrestle toddlers in a pew for an hour. Others find it irritating to listen to those toddlers. But, as Pope Francis said in a general audience last June, “There are those who believe you can have a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside of the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations.”
In short, we need God, and we need each other. The Acts of the Apostles shows how Christians, from the very beginning, have cherished community:
The church . . . was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers. (Acts 9:31)Harper Lee's courtroom scene conclusion moves me because every last person in the packed balcony, including little Scout, joins together to show respect. Thus To Kill a Mockingbird offers an experience of reverence so powerful that it came to my mind during a church service. Reverend Sykes' words are still prophetic; they helped me pray Sunday. As I stood in communion with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I could hear Reverend Sykes tell me to pay attention! Our heavenly Father was there in our midst. Stand up. Your father's passin'.