What the Kennedy Funeral Taught Me

A friend called the other day asking my impression of Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral.

I praised it: the priest's sermon, the Scripture readings, the moving remarks of the senator's sons, the magnificent music, and the beauty of the sanctuary. The caller concurred with my assessment and then said, "I was surprised by the service because when I was young, I was taught not to like him."

"Taught not to like him." The comment bothered me for several days. Exactly how is that done? I wondered. Certainly Kennedy, like all of us, was flawed. But how are we taught to dislike particular flawed people and not others? Perhaps part of the answer lies in words shaped into gossip, slander, and reflexive opinions expressed without regard to the damage they cause.

I grew up a pastor's son. My father's church, located next to our home, was often used for meetings of pastors belonging to a certain denomination that was passing through considerable theological controversy. Often I would sneak into the church and listen to these pastors vent their frustrations and plot their strategies for upcoming denominational conferences.

The name of one denominational leader was frequently mentioned, and when his name was spoken, it seemed to me, a small boy, as if the devil himself was being described. Over time that name became associated with all forms of ecclesiastical evil. In my mind he became the anti-Christ, a heretic, and persecutor of all good people (meaning all those who agreed with these pastors and my father).

Years passed, and the boy who overheard those passionate, often hateful, exchanges became a man and a pastor. Occasionally memories of those pastoral meetings and the name of the man who was so often vilified would pop up on the screen of my memory. One thing was sure: I had been taught not to like him.

Then one day when I was in my mid-thirties, I was given a powerful lesson. It happened in my office one afternoon when a full-fledged nor-easter storm was raging outside.

My assistant came to my office door and said, "Gordon, there is a man out here who would like to meet you. His name is … "

I was startled. It was the name I'd heard so often in those meetings when I played the eavesdropper.

Finding it hard to believe we talking about the same man, I asked, "What does he look like? Old or young?"

"Quite old," my assistant answered. "He's aware that you're busy, and he'd only like a minute or two of your time."

Now wildly curious, I followed my assistant down the hall to the reception area. Standing, waiting, was a man wearing a rain-soaked tan trench coat. When he removed his equally drenched hat, I saw silvery-grey hair.

I introduced myself and he responded offering his hand and his name … that well-remembered name.

"Mr. MacDonald," he said, "I'm from the West Coast, but I'm in Lexington today visiting relatives. For the last few years I've been reading your articles and now your books. I determined that if I ever got back here, I'd try to meet you and tell you how much your writing means to me."

I was stunned, wordless. This old man whose name had been chiseled into my boyhood soul as being liberal in theology, conniving in church politics, power-hungry in leadership: here he stands telling me that he has come to express appreciation for some things I'd written.

I asked for his wet coat, offered him some coffee and led him to my office. Our conversation went far beyond a minute or two. An hour perhaps. We spoke of our parallel lives as pastors, our appreciation for the privilege of being a spiritual resource to people, the joys of preaching the Bible. We talked about Jesus and how one grows in older years to reverence him more and more.

And then, once again, my visitor spoke of my writing and how he wanted to encourage me to keep on developing what he believed to be a gift from the Holy Spirit.

How did this man have know that, on that very day, I was going through a mini-crisis of confidence? How could he have intuited that I was an inch away from dropping the writing component out of my life completely? What moved him to make his way through a furious storm betting on the chance to meet with a kid who needed to hear from someone older and wiser that he was capable of making a difference?

How odd of God (as they like to say) to send someone I'd been taught not to like to offer this word of courage.

When our conversation reached its end, he asked if he could give me a blessing. Gladly, I assented.

Much like a priest he put his hands on my shoulders and with profound intercessory words lifted me to God. When he finished he gave me his blessing.

After his amen, I said, "Dr. -----, before you go there is one thing I must tell you." And I related my experience from the past in much the same way as I have written it here. And when I finished, I said, "I can't tell you how much it means to meet you and appreciate the kind of man you really are."

"Who was your father, and what was the group that met at your home?" he asked.

I told him.

"Ah," he smiled and said gently, "I remember them. They didn't like me very much, I'm afraid." And with no further word of defense or explanation he made his exit.

I never saw him again although we corresponded for several years until he died. Usually, his letters abounded with affirmation for something I'd written and what it meant to him. And always, as he'd done on that stormy afternoon, he would urge me to keep on writing, keep on expressing my thoughts, keep on speaking to things that I thought were important. And I have.

This rich, invaluable experience: brought to me by a man I'd been taught not to like.

When I think of him I do it with much gratitude. But I also ask myself if ever I use my little soapbox of influence to purposely or inadvertently teach someone not to like or respect a person upon whom God just might be smiling.

There's an interesting line in Job, chapter two. When Job's wife encouraged him to curse God (in a sense not to like him), Job refused. And the writer adds, "In all this, Job did not sin in what he said."

Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and lives in New Hampshire.

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