Go to the House of Mourning: What We Can Learn From Bush 41’s Funeral

The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a military honor guard during a State Funeral at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Washington.

By Alex Chediak Published on December 12, 2018

Like much of America, I found myself glued to the state funeral of President Bush. In watching it, America shared a cultural moment, a rarity in our day. It put a pause on the left-right alternative realities of our fractured republic. It was a time to reflect not just on the 41st President, but on our own lives.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 reads “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” It’s normal to mourn the loss of another. But the experience should make us better people. Because a funeral is not just about someone else’s death. It’s a sober reminder of our own mortality.

It’s only a matter of time. Bodily demise is “the destiny of everyone.” It’s wise to delay it through wise living (Ecclesiastes 7:17). But death is unavoidable. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable topic. We’d prefer to ignore it — though most of us have many warnings along the way. Graying hair, new aches and pains, declining faculties. All reminders that this world, in its present form, is not our ultimate home.

But funerals make things loud and clear: Death is real. Horrible, but real. The last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). But, for now, the final vocation for which God will call each of us. “The living should take this to heart.”

What can we learn from President Bush’s funeral?

Money and Morality

One of the themes of Bush’s funeral was the balance between money and morality, between prosperity and propriety, between career and family. Consider these remarks from Bush’s inaugural address in 1988, recalled in his son’s eulogy:

“We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account, we must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it. What do we want the men and women who work with us to say? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?”

Helping the nation prosper was important, but decency and virtue mattered more. Famously, Bush wanted “a kinder and gentler nation.” In the fast pace of our modern day, where fewer adults report having close friends and loneliness and depression are on the rise, Bush’s admonition is timely.

Years after his 1992 defeat someone asked the President what his greatest accomplishment was. He replied, “My children still want to come home for Thanksgiving.” This was a man whose deepest values were oriented around the things that matter. His values served as an anchor. They enabled him to sustain the ups and downs of political life.

Expediency and Loyalty

The elder Bush’s values were passed on to his children. John Stonestreet recalled a gathering of influential conservatives pressing then-Governor George W. Bush, a presidential candidate, on whether his ideology was more closely aligned with that of Reagan or that of his father. Bush’s reply conveyed his affinity for Reagan, but his tactful language wasn’t strong enough for one of the leaders assembled. This leader pressed the Governor, hoping for a stronger critique of his father. George W. stopped and said, “I will never disrespect my father.”

Here was a man whose intelligence would be openly questioned. In the privacy of a closed-door meeting, he could have thrown his dad under the bus in the name of political expediency. But he didn’t. George W. would display independence from his father and unwavering loyalty to his father.

The 1992 loss was painful for father and son. The elder Bush had considered stepping down after one term. George W. encouraged him to run for reelection. It didn’t work out — who could predict Perot? — but just two years later George W. would overcome long odds to win the Governor’s race in Texas. The intensity of their loyalty to one another, regardless of the politics in the moment, is a lasting testament to the character of both men.

Freedom and Fidelity

The modern definition of freedom is “doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want.” The older definition is “the power to do what is right, even when it hurts.” The former is enshrined in the sexual norms of our day. But the latter is much closer to the biblical understanding. That’s why it was great to see the media praise the Bush’s 70+ year marriage.

Freedom for George and Barbara was the power to put one another’s interests above their own for seven decades. No marriage can last that long without considerable self-denial. But that self-denial fuels a greater romance. It brings a pervasive happiness that’s increasingly rare — yet incredibly winsome. In our rootless and promiscuous culture, we can be thankful that an institution so valued by God was portrayed so positively before so many people.

 

Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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