Life is like a flag at half-staff. Half-staff is a place of mourning, not a place of rest. From half-staff, the flag can go either up or down. Up is triumph. Down is a place of honor after a day well-served. Up is where we all want to be. Down at least means we’re tucked away safely out of the weather. Isn’t life like that?
I remember Ronald Reagan. I remember when he ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980, thinking those two men were running an actual foot race for president. I remember the 1984 election and Reagan’s sound defeat of Walter Mondale. I remember how popular and how visible Reagan was. I remember the sound of his voice on television and his smile.
I don’t remember much about George H.W. Bush during his administration. I was a self-absorbed teenager at the time. I do remember the Dana Carvey parodies on Saturday Night Live, “read my lips” and the first Gulf War. I remember being up all night working on a school project with my friend Gil on election night 1992. We had the TV on so we could keep tabs on the election results. Bill Clinton won.
For George H.W. Bush, the flag flew at full-staff much of the time. He was born into a wealthy family, attended prestigious schools, and enjoyed the first lucrative oil boom in West Texas before relocating to Houston. He then went on to serve throughout our government and garnered much respect. He is best known as the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd president, certainly flag-at-full-staff kinds of things.
As life would have it, though, full-staff is not a place of rest, either. From full-staff, the only place for the flag to go is down, and there were down times in the elder George Bush’s life. He and Barbara lost a young daughter to leukemia. He lost more than one election. He fought vascular Parkinsonism late in life that slowly robbed him of his own body. Most recently, he lost his largely untarnished image when he was accused of sexual harassment by several women. These are definitely not flag-at-full-staff kinds of things. Even half-staff might be too much.
A flag at half-staff is not a flag at rest, at least not in my mind. Every time I see a flag at half-staff, my mind is restless over what it means. This week, my mind is restless over all the ups and downs, the positives and negatives I remember about George H.W. Bush.
How do we make sense of his mixed legacy? The same way we make sense of our own mixed legacy, I suppose.
In the mix, one phrase I’ve heard repeated again and again the last few days is that the elder President Bush put service before self. In other words, it wasn’t about him.
I watched as President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump entered the Capitol Rotunda and approached the casket where former President Bush lay in state.
At a certain point, I was struck by the thought, “What must it be like to stand there as president of the United States with the whole world watching you pay your respects to one of your predecessors?” More pointedly, “That will be you someday.”
It was a stark moment. Maybe it was the camera angle. Maybe it was the silence of the video. Maybe it was how the camera stayed on Trump’s face so long. Whatever it was, I thought I saw a moment of awareness of the prophet’s words: “All flesh is like the grass. The grass withers and fades away” (Isaiah 40:6-7).
Or in the metaphor of the week: One day, the flag that flies for you will drape your own coffin.
The moment is so stark to me because of all the ways Donald Trump tries to fight off the appearance of death with his brashness, bragging and flashiness. Through his unashamed self-promotion, we all know the name, the fame, the gold, the money, the resorts, the deals. We’ve all heard how certain Trump is that he’s the best president this country’s ever had. These are not things I’m making up or picking out. These are Trump’s stock in trade, captured on video and in his own tweets. It always seems to be about him, even when it’s not.
In light of the Trump brand and how it came to be what it is, the few moments he stood in front of George H.W. Bush’s casket were stark, indeed.
That’s not all I saw.
The truth that every president will lie in state somewhere someday is not the complete truth about the prophet’s words.
I’ve done enough funerals to know all the pomp and circumstance of life, all the ups and downs, positives and negatives come to the same end—for all of us. Death really is the great equalizer—regardless of where and how we’re buried.
The truth is I will die someday. My body—or what is left of it—will be placed in a container much smaller than everything for which I’ve grasped. I, too, am like the grass. I, too, will wither and fade away because “all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field, but … (1 Peter 1:24)”
But it’s not about me, either. It’s about someone and something else entirely.
“But the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25).
And the word of the Lord, the only word in which any of us have hope of glory beyond the ups and downs of this life, is:
In his great mercy [God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. … In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:25, 3-7).
This life is like a flag at half-staff. There are high moments when we soar in triumph and low moments when we mourn the pain and struggle of life. We do not always fly gloriously.
But there is another life beyond the decay and demise of this one, a life we are called to proclaim through our words and behavior even now, a life whose banner we are to raise and hold high in this life for the rejoicing of the world.
May it be so.