Three Funerals | Sojourners

Three Funerals

What We Can Learn from a Life Well-Lived

I saw three funerals last week; I went to two and watched the other one on television. For me, they all had lessons and questions for America’s future. The best funeral services are not only about the past, but also about the future.

I attended John McCain’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral, a place where I have been many times before. This time, I sat in the north balcony, with a good view of the pulpits and speakers, and a clear view of the south transept where the senators sat together (more on that in a moment).

I must confess how hard it was for me to be there.

I spent much of my early life as a student and young person trying to stop the war in Vietnam, which devastated my generation, bitterly divided the nation, and destroyed the morality of American foreign policy. The Vietnam War was based on lies — lies about why and how we got into that war, lies about the history of Vietnam and Indochina, lies about the chances of winning the war, and lethal lies about why we kept fighting it long after our leaders knew we couldn’t win it. The cost in lives was 58,000 Americans killed, 3.3 million Vietnamese killed, 153,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese seriously wounded, and untold numbers of people traumatized for the rest of their lives. McCain fought that war and always defended it, was shot down over Hanoi while bombing the city and its people, then held for 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war. As many have testified, those years seemed to have deepened his life and values. Refusing the chance of early release to stay with his fellow prisoners, his time serving gave him a sense of purpose bigger than himself — something all need to learn.

I also spent endless days trying to stop the war in Iraq, then dealing with the consequences of it since. It was a war that John McCain also uncritically and unapologetically supported. The Iraq War was also based on lies — lies that killed so many people unnecessarily, further destabilized the whole Middle East region, and ultimately increased, not decreased, the scope and danger of terrorism in our world. The war ultimately failed — as many of us faith leaders warned that it would. Many of the tributes to John McCain at his funeral service pointed to the several times that McCain admitted and apologized for his mistakes — which is true and admirable — but he never apologized for being wrong about the two biggest mistakes in American foreign policy history.

That needing to be said, I was still moved by many of the tributes to Sen. John McCain that were made at his impressive service. They spoke of his independence, willingness to speak to moral issues he believed important, like torture, even against his own party and even presidents. McCain showed a willingness to work with other senators across the aisle to try to find solutions together — for example, giving his thumbs down against destroying the Affordable Care Act, saying it could be fixed without taking health care away from millions of people. I admired him for his ability to listen to and respect his colleagues and even political adversaries, showing humor and humility when necessary; his eagerness and capacity to learn; his willingness to stand up for principles and values; his commitment to public service even to the point of suffering; and, perhaps mostly, for wanting to put his country ahead of himself.

The dramatic power of the National Cathedral service, as many have pointed out, created a deep moral contrast made between the man Sen. John McCain was, and the man Donald J. Trump isn’t. That radical character comparison was choreographed into the service by McCain himself, and was led off dramatically by his daughter Meghan’s first tribute. President Barack Obama pitted the big ideas of America he said McCain held to against how “small” the politics of this moment are, and President George W. Bush followed by imagining John McCain whispering over all of our shoulders saying America is “better than this.”

But given where I was sitting, I couldn’t help watching the senators during that 2 ½ hour service. There they sat in a bipartisan way given the seating chart McCain had mandated. Because Trump was the unspoken name in the room, I wondered what would happen if the Cathedral audience would have voted on the impeachment of Donald Trump based on the virtues, opposed to their vices, named during the service. I think they would. But I also wondered whether two-thirds of the senators — what would be ultimately needed to convict of impeachment — would vote to do. I don’t think they would because, in the end, politics still tragically trumps all the values lifted up that day in the National Cathedral. And I fear that remains tragically true, even after more revelations this week from Bob Woodward’s new book and an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times by a “senior official” inside the administration continue to confirm that Donald Trump is morally, mentally, and emotionally unfit to be the president of the United States. Therefore, the most dangerous historical combination of Trump’s recklessness and the Congress’s repeated unwillingness to do their constitutional job has put our country and the world in great peril.

Being a Detroit boy, I had to watch the many hours of the funeral service for Aretha Franklin, remembered by the nation last week as the Queen of Soul. I grew up in Motown where our lives were shaped by so many of the young artists who began singing in their African-American churches and eventually shaped the rest of American music. In what became an extraordinary going home service in her father’s home church, everyone testified how the voice of Aretha Franklin rose above all the others of her generation (and perhaps for many to come), and how she used music to sing to our very souls emotionally, spiritually, and politically. She did it all — from gospel, soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, and even opera. Since she died, the country has learned more of her life and how the lyrics of her songs were the lyrics of a people determined to claim their place in this nation. Respect is what Aretha Franklin asked for and demanded on behalf of all African Americans and all women and all of us who believe that being an American ought to mean something.

What moved me so much throughout the day was the sense of history, a history of oppression and suffering and liberation with the voices — hers and many other historical voices that were lifted up throughout the service — of the music and oratory that has led our country to freedom, a freedom fight that is clearly still going on. The small man who was laid bare during the McCain service also made it into this service with his reaction to the news of Aretha’s death, saying she used to “work for me.” The response to Trump’s comment produced not only many gems of prophetic criticism, but his personal and presidential smallness in so many ways was powerfully contrasted by how large the voice and legacy of Aretha Franklin was and will continue to be.

I couldn’t listen to Aretha’s voice, and those of all who came to speak and sing for her, without putting it in context of the history of freedom that those who are politically in charge of America are now deliberately trying to roll back, even while a new generation of black lives are lifting their voices now with their own power and determination. “Keep singing” was a strong message, but so was “keep voting,” and “keep organizing.” And the voice of Aretha Franklin will help us keep doing all three.

The third funeral I went to last week was for a personal friend, a baseball umpire who I had worked with for 22 seasons as a Little League baseball coach. Hundreds of people showed up to celebrate the life of Andre Presser, and the stories from one person after another became the real eulogy for a man who had made countless people feel loved, protected, and cared for. I said that Andre was the umpire who loved everyone on the field and showed it. Both of my own two baseball sons remember him well (Andre always asked about them after they moved beyond Little League), and some testified that Andre was the best coach and mentor they had ever had — both on and off the field. We remembered this most loving father and friend with many not being able to hold back tears.

During this week of funerals, I felt such gratitude for a great man like Andre Presser, who wouldn’t be nationally recognized, but will be remembered by countless people as one who helped to shape and change so many lives. May we all live with that as our goal — to inspire and serve those we encounter, regardless of the scale.