Friday, December 07, 2018

America At Its Best

I will have to confess that I am usually a political cynic at heart. I was relieved when I moved back to Tennessee after 18 years and didn’t have to choose a political affiliation, where election primaries are open, since being a “non-affiliated” voter in Kentucky usually meant I didn’t get to vote in many election primaries. 

You can click here to read more of my ramblings about my wrestling match with American and church politics, but the short version is that I’ve never thought that we had to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The hard questions might be: 
  1. Are we willing to give up labels that are stumbling blocks to those who are already stumbling? 
  2. Are we willing to jump into the middle of the fray rather than take a side in it? 
My beef with American politics is that we tend to pick a side, and too often it rubs off on our faith and discipleship. - hence my cynicism.

I also have to confess, that at least for this week, my political cynicism was briefly put aside. I rarely watch anything on television live, relying on the news or a YouTube video to catch up on newsworthy events in the world or sports. Yesterday, I watched a few clips of President Bush’s funeral. I always liked President Bush, and I remember my parents both liked him (even though they didn’t vote for him). My mom really liked Barbara Bush. He made tough decisions, including one that probably cost him his presidency. The bottom line was that he loved his country, and he felt called to serve it. Serve it he did - with distinction. 

My admiration for him was that he seemed to “get” that life is about balance. He loved his country and fought for it… yet he wrote many, many letters to his family while in service, because his family was important to him. His service to the country not only included military and legislative service, but he also took on directing the CIA for a year after it had been rocked by scandal and poor morale, and helped get President-elect Carter properly briefed for his presidency. He put service above self… but never above family and faith. He was a life-long Episcopalian (which was reflected in his funeral service), but also had an appreciation for the “freer” side of the faith, as a little Michael W. Smith got thrown into the service for good measure. 

His balance was also reflected in his humor - he never took himself too seriously, and could put himself into a joke as well as anyone (even parodying himself on Saturday Night Live, telling Dana Carvey that his impression was nothing like him. In fact, Bush said, “It’s bad. It’s baaaad.”). 

I was so pleased to hear so many people testify to President Bush’s legacy, and so uplifted to see, amidst all the civil religion pageantry on display, that at the heart of it all was a full-on, smells-and-bells worship service that honored God and celebrated President Bush’s life. Everything about it was at the heart of what being Christian is like and should be. And with respect and kindness, I hope those of other faiths or of no faith felt that, for a couple of hours, the United States was at its best.

It has always galled me that governments, the military, and the police, fire, and EMS services usually “do” funerals better than churches do. There is so much to celebrate when we celebrate someone’s life, beyond just a few memories about the deceased.

I think I was most moved by former Senator Alan Simpson’s testimony about his friend George Bush, who put honor and friendship above appearance and politics, helping to support and lift up Sen. Simpson at a tough time in his political career. I also read in the Washington Post where a couple of years ago Sen. Simpson was in Texas having treatments for his cancer, and President Bush insisted on taking him out to a construction site where a new, magnificent sanctuary was being built at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, where the Bushes were members. Simpson told him, “This really is something.” Bush’s deadpan response: “I think they built that waiting for me to croak.” 

Senator Simpson said two things in his witness that are sage worthy: 
  1. “Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.”
  2. “Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
Those two things will preach. Anytime. Anywhere. At any church.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.

In the midst of that worship service, I forgot who the Democrats and the Republicans were. We were Americans who were mourning and celebrating the life of one of our leaders, veterans, and family men. We were, for a couple of hours, at our best. 

I had to dig to find this picture, but it was the last time I felt this same way about our country: at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center/Library in 2013. George W. was not a perfect president anymore than his dad was, and I will leave it to historians and scholars to debate that all out. But in this picture I see everything that the United States ought to be about. I see everything that people of faith should be about. I remember what is important: people. I remember what matters: Goodness. Honor. Respect. Service.

Of course the feeling won’t last. We will soon be back to partisan bickering and political oneupmanship. I will quickly become a political cynic again. And I know that on some days, I feel the very same way about the institutional church and its politics, and I find myself ashamed about my attitude and role. Wednesday gave me a glimpse of what is important and what can be lifted up - if we choose to do so. 

I have recently begun my mornings and ended my days with an old Celtic prayer, talking to God as He is. May we all find the peace that is within us, and the peace that we can CHOOSE to live out:

I awake in the name of the Father who made me.
I arise in the name of the Son who died to save me.
I rise to greet the dawn in the name of the Spirit who fills me with life.

I lay me down in the love of my Father.
I surrender my body to rest in the love of my Savior.
I trust my life in sleep to the Spirit who fills me with life.

May it be so.