Today, Tuesday, December 4, 2018, this nation and the world focus on the funeral of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. All eyes are now fixed on the National Cathedral, high atop Mount St. Alban.
From afar, I join with the mourners and those who celebrate his life. Also, my mind goes back to the period when George was a member of St. Columba’s parish, about a mile north of the National Cathedral. It a time when he was the CIA Director.
As the rector of St. Columba’s, I had inaugurated a six-week program for our adult class of 250 people. The program called for two members of the congregation to stand up in the class each week and tell us about what part of their lives they considered to be their ministry. By the way, these turned out to be fascinating, revealing and inspiring testimonies.
One week, I invited George to talk about what part of his life he considered to be a ministry. Being the good sport that he was, he agreed. But then, the day came. The first speaker was a Jewish psychiatrist who had had an experience of “speaking in tongues.” Her life and work were turned upside down. All were riveted.
I was sitting with George and Barbara listening to this highly unusual life story. George said, "I can’t do this. I can’t follow her. My life is undramatic. This will be awful.” But he stood up. What he said was not dramatic. But it wasn’t awful. He told about the impact his mother had had on him, giving him a mandate to serve his country and God. “To serve!”
Over the years, I have relived that moment and his words many times. It always brings to my mind the ancient prayer which says, “O God...whose service is perfect freedom.” Somehow, “service” and “freedom” are two words that seemed to be inexorably twinned. Perhaps, people in bondage long for freedom while people who have the privilege of freedom are called to serve those in bondage. In a perfect world! In the real world, the privileged mostly lust for more privilege and thus neglect those in bondage. But there are conspicuous exceptions. George H. W. Bush was an exception.
George went up the political ladder in Washington, and I went to California. Nevertheless, we stayed in touch. His great-grandfather was the Rector of Grace “Cathedral” Church in San Francisco where I served for 27 years. Mary and I spent a weekend with George and Barbara at Camp David. He used to ask me to go to the White House to give him briefings on the AIDS crisis in the early days. We played in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Sent Christmas cards. And...when he was over 90 years of age, I sent him a new book that I had written and asked if he would write a blurb. Months went by. Then one day, I received a two-page letter from George with a blurb. He said that if that wasn’t adequate, he would be glad to try again. Pure George!
He said, “….my life is undramatic.” But he stood up. To serve. “O God...whose service is perfect freedom.”