Like many of us, I watched the entire funeral service for Senator John McCain on Saturday. The stories, memories and music were framed by the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, all contained within the magnificent confines of the National Cathedral. And like many of us, I was proud to be an Episcopalian.
What stood out for me during the two-and-a-half-hour service was the fact that so many American leaders gathered, yes, to pay respects and to hear tributes for a remarkable, passionate and irascible statesman, warrior and patriot; but more importantly, to worship. Not to worship John McCain (he would have had none of that), but to pay homage to a reality that is greater than an individual or an ideology; and to pray to a divine love that can embrace the diversity of religious doctrines and practices – and that can receive and honor people’s grief, all the while holding out a promise for hope and new life.
It is a primordial instinct for human beings to worship. It is easiest and most tempting to worship something that is within one’s control. Even though they were strictly told not to do so, our spiritual ancestors, when given the slightest opening, reverted to worship gods they could fabricate and that they could see: graven images and golden calves. Or to pay obsequious obeisance to kings and emperors who were given the mantle of divine authority by their infantilized followers.
In recent years more and more people seem to be drawn to worship various ideologies – many of them toxic, if not downright dangerous. On a daily basis we are given the opportunity to choose from a burgeoning worship menu – the need to be right, embracing an entrenched political perspective, preserving capital, overtly or subtly advocating racial and religious superiority. And on and on and on. None of them point beyond the cohort of their immediate followers; most of them claim some sacred meaning – which invariably involves favoring one group over another. And all of them remain static and framed in a frightening certainty.
As John McCain would say, which was recounted by nearly every speaker at his funeral, we are better than that. The act of worship, of investing our souls in a practice that reminds us of the temptation to put ourselves and our cohort at the center of the universe, is critical to our souls’ health. Worship reminds us that God doesn’t do our bidding, but that we are called to discern the bidding of God. Worship reinforces the claim that there is a mystery of life and hope and blessing and peace – and to be better we need to provide spiritual and physical space in order to open our hearts and expand our horizons. That happened for a nation on Saturday.
We are surrounded by an increasing number of idols. On the surface, many of them seem compelling. Beware. The idols offer promises they can’t fulfill, and ultimately leave us with a spiritual emptiness. But the God of love continues to beckon us – to receive God’s grace – and then – and then, to witness to its power. True worship opens us up to that gift.
The bishop wrote: "...many American leaders gathered, yes, to pay respects and to hear tributes for a remarkable, passionate and irascible statesman, warrior and patriot; but more importantly, to worship. Not to worship John McCain (he would have had none of that), but to pay homage to a reality that is greater than an individual or an ideology; and to pray to a divine love that can embrace the diversity of religious doctrines and practices – and that can receive and honor people’s grief, all the while holding out a promise for hope and new life." How could he possibly discern the motives and beliefs of those who attended the funeral what led him to suppose that they were all present for the same reasons?
McCain Funeral Service
Perhaps it would have been more literarally accurate to say that "... The people gathered to attend a Service that was designed not to worship John McCain but to pay homage to a reality...." However I do think part of the value of a Worship Service is to experience the feeling (Belief) that everyone IS in the same spiritual space at that time and sharing the same experience. And I think the Bishop's remarks were speaking to that, and very effectively so.
Bishop Beckwith's comments on idolatry deserve wide attention. The Bible points to idolatry as our primordial sin.Ideology- devotion to a closed set of ideas-is a particularly good example of idolatry. The excessive value many of us place on sports often verges on idolatry.The controversy about kneeling during the National Anthem gives us example of a healthy patriotism devolving into a toxic, nationalistic ideology.
Nothing Inspiring Whatsoever
I submit vehement dissent from the fawning love-in over John McCain's funeral service in the Washington Cathedral. Yes, the Episcopal liturgy is lovely and should not be withheld from any human being, least of all from failed public servants. And that is precisely what John McCain was.
I quote from a most insightful article by Bob Hennelly in Salon:
"First, the White House lowered its flag to half-mast with word that Sen. John McCain had died on Sunday night. By Monday morning it was back flying full mast until late in the afternoon, when it was lowered again, where it will stay until he is buried.
"These bipolar flag gyrations were used by the media as just more evidence of the Trump administration's incompetence. But for me it was a subconscious signal from the universe of a disoriented superpower lost in the fog of its own histrionic narcissism and military worship.
"We do war-hero death with Hollywood-scale hagiography, and John McCain’s passing is no exception. We worship our war heroes in a kind of trance that reinforces itself one generation after another. It’s a past that freeze-frames the future because we are not permitted to imagine anything else."
To honor a man who never saw a war or a prospect of war he didn't support? I am far from feeling honored to be an Episcopalian hailing such a one. Shame is more accurate a description of my feeling.
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