Sunday, August 30, 2009

The last word

Memories are associative for me.  For instance, I hear songs on the radio and am instantly thrown back to a moment when such a song had particular meaning for me.  If I happen to hear the 70s song Mandy, by Barry Manilow (which I don't very often), I remember a summer spent painting curbs in my home town.  When American Pie is the background music in some store (or dentist office, where I actually did hear it), I remember the first time I heard it, riding in a car down the Lewiston Grade on the way to a football game my freshman year in high school.  And when I hear Neill Diamond's Sweet Caroline or James Taylor's Going to Carolina in My Mind, I think of college and the boys who used to sing them to me, corny as that sounds.

 So yesterday because I spend simultaneously watching the memorial service for Ted Kennedy, and working on a new quilt for E, Kennedy's life will be forever associated with E's quilt. This may seem a very odd connection, but we can't always govern where our mind goes, how it responds to stimuli.  But I'll tell you, there is plenty of time to think while quilting with only the tv and our dogs for company.  And there was a great deal to ponder as I followed that funeral processional from Boston, Massachusetts to Arlington, Virginia.  I've thought of the frailty of men--the frailty of a particular man--and the ability, the drive to live with one's failings, to live beyond them, in fact.

When I was a little girl, back in the early sixties when Teddy's older brother was president, I felt a visceral connection to JFK and his family.  See, Caroline Kennedy was exactly my age, and we shared a name.  I was six when he died, and it is one of the first non-personal memory I have.  I remember being out at recess in Ypsilanti, Michigan and having the news trickle across the playground.  After recess, when my first grade teacher told us the president had died, she cried.  When I went home from school that day, our black and white televison was on, and didn't get turned off until after the the casket was lowered into its resting place on that hill across the Potomac from Washington.  Later, my parents bought a commemorative book about the assassination and I turned its pages so often I practically memorized it. Five years later, our tv was turned on again when the next Kennedy brother was shot in a Los Angeles hotel.

But aside from how Caroline captured my imagination, and those television vigils, the Kennedys didn't mean much to me.  But I have to say that these last few days, as I've read about Teddy Kennedy, and watched the latest death coverage by our media, I've been increasingly impressed by the youngest of those brothers.  Not because of his politics but because of his character.  This is a more publicly flawed man than most.  His failings have been well-documented, and I have to admit, I allowed those flaws--those sins--to color how seriously I took him.  But here's the thing, this is a man who knew and lived with those sins.  But one who also knew he was forgiven.  He believed in the gospel, carried his crosses, and was transformed by them in the best possible way.  At the burial site yesterday, as dusk then darkness fell, just steps away from the eternal flame, a letter was read that Teddy wrote just a few weeks ago to the Pope.  In it he wrote that he lived every day determined to become a better man, to live by his faith.  To live larger than his sins.

I was hit very hard by these words.  Though we might believe in forgiveness, it's also easy to point fingers at others whose sins are writ large across the news.  Pastors who sin, politicians who fail. Neighbors who make messes out of their lives.  But the life of this scion of an American political dynasty reveals that it's possible to live better beyond such sins.  His is a Kingdom story.  It is all of our stories.  Or can be.  Though perhaps we won't fail as spectacularly as Teddy, most of us probably won't impact our country in such a profound way either.  And though this man was more liberal than I am, and far, far more liberal than most who read this blog, in these last days after his death, I have come to admire him--for all the small, unseen ways he ministered to his world.  The weekly reading he did with second-graders at an inner-city school in DC, the thousands of letters he wrote to people in his constituency who'd lost loved ones to war, terrorism, disease.  His great privileged life propelled him to care most for those who could do nothing for him other than cast a vote--or not.   

It makes me take stock of how I impact the world, or even my corner of it.  A life of service is a Kingdom-come life.  It is the Kingdom life He calls every disciple to.  This is the legacy we should all endeavor to leave.  To live our lives knowing we fail, but believing in resurrection, believing that sin is never the last word--for ourselves and for all those we come in contact with.  The last word is our very own resurrection life, the one that begins the moment we take the leap across the chasm of sin and death, to the bright life on the other side. 

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