Is anyone else struck by the memorials of two generational figures within days of each other? John McCain from Arizona was about as white as white gets. And Aretha Franklin from Detroit was about as black as black gets. But swirl together the juxtaposition of their passing, and you get one of those yin and yang circles of Taoism, with a white dot on the black side, and a black dot on the white side.
I summon religious imagery because both were clearly people of faith, Christians to be precise. In an All Saints kind of way it reminds me of our juicy differences as followers of Christ. I want to celebrate that diversity because our singularity of purpose as disciples of Jesus does not enforce sameness or uniformity upon us.
Our gifts remain as varied as, well, the polarities we see in McCain and Franklin.
I listened to Senator Lindsay Graham’s 20 minute tribute to John McCain on the Senate floor. It touched me not only because of his tender resolve in choking his way through it. I’ve also cried my way through eulogies over loved ones this year. But what Graham said moved me also because of his grasp of the spiritual life.
How we act as we lose or fail is more defining of who we are than long resumes of success. Because John McCain knew God forgave him when he fell short, he was equipped to forgive others. He was a relentless fighter with legendary sharp elbows, a fierce warrior unafraid to lean into opponents. McCain achieved much. But he claimed that failure made him the man that he was because we learn little in triumph and we learn the lessons that make life most meaningful in our losses. Having been beaten regularly for over five years, McCain knew all about losing.
I mean, who has the two figures looming largest in defeating his loftiest ambition present eulogies at his memorial? John McCain does. That is because he grasps partisan politics is a mere parlor game compared to standing before the Eternal. Someone once observed that our joy can never go higher than our suffering goes deep. McCain knew suffering and his joy shone bright even in the face of death.
Aretha Franklin, daughter of the most prominent black preacher in all of Detroit, was chastised by Christians when she began her popular recording career. They called her a sell-out. But notice one thing. When Aretha sang a song she had a gift for making it sound like a hymn. Any song. Not many Christians can pull this off, suffusing the secular and the worldly with divine holiness. How does one do this? You must be clear about not taking on too much the soul of the world if you are serious about infusing the world with the soul of the church. That was her gift.
As Aretha recorded Carole King’s “Respect” it transcended the lyrics of romance gone bad. It became an anthem for respecting the integrity of all women 52 years before the Me Too movement. When Aretha belted out “Respect” with her potent, plaintive voice it became an anthem for a whole race supposedly freed a century before, but still not treated with the simple dignity you and I daily take for granted.
As a father to two daughters, as one familiar with the churches of the Motor City, both of these causes are holy to me. Aretha never sold out. She conveyed the struggles to a much broader audience, even the entire world, as a joyous warrior.
Ebony and ivory. Ivory and ebony. Beautiful symbols of hope in the spiritual life.