Sunday, December 31, 2006
Three Men and a Baby
I have been reflecting on the deaths of three famous men over the past few days: James Brown, Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein.
My grandmother always said, "Death comes in three's," and we always held our breath until that third person had died.
I once asked her why this was so, and why this was important. I thought she might say something scary, like "Well, you never know if YOUR life will be next."
Her answer was nothing like that. Perhaps that is why it has always haunted me.
She said that within this phenomenon of three deaths in a row there is always an important message about life. The challenge God gives us is to try and make the connection between those three lives in search of that message.
"There are no coincidences," she would say.
And so, ever since, I have always carefully considered the deaths that come in three's in search of that important message about life.
These three deaths have not been an exception - especially in terms of a message it might have about the Incarnation.
Gerald Ford was a former Vice President and President who was not elected to either office, and yet his record shows that he was able to accomplish a great deal in the short period of time while in office. He helped to heal a nation that had been deeply torn by the corruption of his predecessor and ended the American involvement in the Viet Nam War. His record, however, is not without controversy. His pardon of Richard Nixon undoubtedly cost him his bid for a second term in office.
Saddam Hussein was, without a doubt, among the worst of the worst tyrants in modern history, including Ugandan Idi Amin, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, Chairman Mao Zedong of China, Russia's Iosif Stalin, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Adolph Hitler of Germany, to name just a few.
Hussein's record of terror and torture and mass murder cause even the emotionally callous to shudder. And yet, he went to the gallows with the Koran, the scripture that is holy to his religious tradition, singing the praises of God and praying for death to America and prosperity to the Muslims in Palestine.
When James Brown died on Christmas morning, the man who was known as The Godfather of Soul left a record of his life that was complicated by domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. Born in poverty in rural South Carolina, his family moved to Georgia when he was a young child, where he had to leave school at the age of 16 to pick cotton and shine shoes in order to help his family.
Music was the tool he used to dig himself out of abject poverty made even worse by racism. He was a singer, songwriter, musician and dancer. His musical style has been cited as planting the seeds of rhythm and blues, soul, funk, hip-hop and rap and launched an entire new branch of the musical industry.
I have discovered that you can hurt yourself trying to find a thread that connects the lives of these three vastly different men. And yet, I believe my grandmother was absolutely right: there is an important message for us in the deaths of these three men, and the birth of a Baby.
In this Season of the Incarnation, we are able to pause and reflect, in the lives of these three men, about the gift of our humanity.
In the life of Gerald Ford, we consider again the age-old chicken-and-egg theory and ask: Is it history that makes the person, or does the person make history?
Saddam Hussein provides us with the opportunity to consider how it is we use that which we know to be holy, especially Holy Scripture, for good or for evil, and how our faith is lived out in the world with authenticity and integrity.
Finally, in the life of James Brown, we pause to consider how it is we use the gifts God has given us to overcome the adversity of the world, and live fully into the life which God has given us.
These three men - their lives and their deaths - offer powerful lessons about the gift of being human.
In these last few days of Christmastide, the cosmos has provided three very important messages about the human enterprise.
We would do well to consider these messages as we approach the Epiphany - the various ways in which God is made manifest in our lives.
There are no coincidences.