Watching the funeral service for George H.W. Bush on Wednesday, I had an odd sense of being out of sync with many of the people I have the most political affinity with. I too appreciated the genuine grace and old-school seemliness of the funeral’s tone, and the Bush family whose character conferred those qualities on it. I appreciated the balm of kind-spirited humor from President Bush 41’s friends and eulogists. I felt sympathy with a comment my mother sent, that it seems like the only time we get to sing along now with the beautiful hymns she and I have loved for so many years is when there’s a state funeral. Things that are praiseworthy, things that are better than much of what we obsess over today, seem to be disappearing. George H.W. Bush embodied those things, as did his beloved Barbara, with whom he is now reunited.
Naturally, pundits have been unable to leave well enough alone and let us all take a moment to simply honor Bush 41 and the time he represents in our lives. The drumbeat of reproachful refrains about “Trump” didn’t delay even a second; they started before the funeral began, and intensified on social media during the service at an interval of every three to four minutes.
Whatever. That’s not the focus of the syncing phenomenon I refer to.
What I found, rather, is that I began making my farewells to that older time – the time of Bush 41 and the sunset it heralded – years ago. I have seen for so long that we’re already on a new road that it seems the blood of letting go has all been drawn now.
Without devaluing in any way the goodness of the heritage Bush 41 represented, I’ve been walking in recent years into a new reality: a sense of sunrise over the horizon, and possibility, and hope. And it’s precisely because the framework of our modern-era expectations is collapsing.
I urge you to understand that that is not because I think we’ve been needing a sea change in underlying values and principles.
It’s because our expectations have become too much about the framework, and not enough about the values and principles.
It’s not the fault of high exemplars of the framework, like George H.W. Bush and his family, that this has happened. They have modeled true grace for us, and we need that.
But between their model and public perception there exists now a whole retail industry, in which a captive market – dominated by the media and our other most influential institutions – sees form enforced over substance. The industry purports to be a sort of freelance grace police, a paid service that alerts us not to grace, but to “violations” of it that have been quietly defining grace out from under us for decades.
Where grace genuinely forgives and overlooks human lapses, the retail industry relentlessly highlights and punishes them, to the third and fourth iteration. No “sin” is ever forgiven, and where there was no sin, sin is manufactured – but all under the framework of supposed “grace,” weighed and measured, price-tagged, and dragged along just out of reach like a moving goalpost.
Operating government on this basis, which we Americans have been at work on in slow increments for about 100 years now, has turned out terribly for us. Government operating on this basis is an unconscionable, inexcusable burden on the people – irrespective of the people’s state of grace, individual by individual.
Yet our most admirable exemplars of grace have had no answer for that. They haven’t known, and they still don’t know, how to roll back the burden of perverted, governmental grace-policing on the people.
This is a situation Western civilization, including America, has basically talked itself into over the last several hundred years. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong would envy the astonishing corporate voluntarism of it: how people have been sitting still for it, chanting its refrains, without having to be starved, incarcerated, and shot into mass grave-pits.
Genuine personal grace – genuine family grace – genuine grace in a social class, including in America, where anyone of grace can belong to it: all have been compatible with this destructive outcome for the people as a whole. It’s not the grace that needs to go. But the old framework isn’t working for us anymore.
In 2017, there was a small flurry of opinion posts in which NeverTrumpers or near-NeverTrumpers suggested that Christians should vigorously repudiate Trump – even if that meant one-sided, open-ended political losses to punitive collectivism – and trust God for the outcome.
As someone who agrees in principle, I would counter with this. Trust God with where we are today, and trust Him for the outcome from the ongoing breakup: a breakup of the framework in which our eyes have been trained to perceive grace. Grace itself, the real thing, can’t be defeated. But God is letting the outer framework we prize crumble around us.
Grace is in His hands. It’s not in ours. We can’t enforce it by assigning everyone a task and a position.
Even though I didn’t vote for Trump, I can see that God has used him to send grace on us, in things that our conventional “grace” framework was paralyzed and impotent to address. Our business should be to learn from that, rather than accusing each other over failures of faith and morality.
Should it be our priority to learn about Trump? No; it should be our priority to learn about God. He isn’t bound or obliged to work the way we would, or the way we think He should. But He is still who he says He is.
Trump does show grace, in some things and at some times, and I am grateful for that.
But don’t be like me. That’s not the point. I’m just one person bearing witness.
Now is the time: one road is crumbling behind us, and we can’t see our way down the next. It’s scary, but this is where the mightiest opportunities come from in the world of men. We are responsible for who we will be; not Trump, not Bush 41, and not our framework. Grace doesn’t come from a framework. It’s a gift to the human spirit, and we carry it within us.
It’s not down we need to be looking, and certainly not sideways at each other, like an army of the self-righteous, thankful that we’re not like the sinners to our left and to our right. The direction we should be looking now is up. Dare to believe that God is sufficient to our mess. If our age should teach us anything, it is that we have an awesome privilege before us: of looking beyond the preconditions of our humanly-adapted framework, and of not handicapping too certainly, when we look up, what we will see.