This is how I said it on Sunday:
“Whenever there is a death in the church family, we are saddened by the loss, but the loss of Jackson Ramsey is especially tragic because he was so young, because he lost his battle with despair, because he died at his own hand.”
That’s what we’ve been dealing with at Richmond’s First Baptist Church in the last few days–the suicide of a 16-year-old boy so full of life and joy we could hardly believe it. I’ve just come from his memorial service, where more than a thousand people gathered, most of them young people who had come to remember their friend and classmate Jackson.
Some wonderful stories were shared, stories that made us laugh out loud and remember this “jolly giant” (as his sister called him), stories about his big smile, and strong hugs, and crazy dancing. Some powerful words were shared, words that helped us find God’s presence in the midst of our grief, and offer back to God the gift that Jackson was.
As Jesus once said about John the Baptist, “He was a bright and shining light” (John 5:35).
In the end I said, “Before we leave this place let’s make a solemn promise to weep all the tears we have in us to weep, because that’s how you get the grief out; to give and receive all the hugs we can, because that’s how broken hearts are mended; to give away all the love we have to give, because that’s the only way we’ll get it back again; and to pray all the prayers we have in us to pray, because that’s how hope is restored. Finally, to put the matters of life and death into God’s hands and to leave them there, because that’s where they belong.” And although I didn’t say it out loud I was thinking it as I left the pulpit:
“So that we never again have to gather for this reason.”
Just before 11:00 this morning Mary Hiteman, Director of the Weekday Early Education ministry at First Baptist Church, asked me if I had “two minutes.”
“Sure,” I said.
She led me down the hall to one of the children’s classrooms, and introduced me to a two-year-old girl who was wearing a T-shirt with Barack Obama’s picture on the front.
“Who’s that?” Mary asked, pointing at the shirt.
“Obama!” said the girl.
I had squatted down to her level to say hello and told her, “I like your shirt.”
“I’m glad you do!” said one of the teachers, making it obvious that Mr. Obama had not been her first choice for president.
“Well,” I said, “this is one of those days when we come together as a country, regardless of who we voted for. On November 4th you vote your conscience—and I’m glad you did—but on January 20th we support our president.”
As I watched coverage of the inauguration later I marveled at how well we seemed to be doing that. This orderly transfer of power, almost unique among the nations of the world, was carried off with a generosity that made me proud to be an American. Mr. Bush was extraordinarily gracious in handing over the reins of leadership, and Mr. Obama was equally gracious about receiving them. There were no overtly partisan remarks; very few boos from the crowd. On the whole we seemed to understand that there were larger issues at stake, and that if we were going to prosper as a nation it would take all of us working together.
So, three cheers for Mr. Obama and three cheers for Mr. Bush and all the cheers in the world for the way power was passed from one president to another on this day. Just before Bush boarded the helicopter that would carry him away to his new civilian life he and Obama not only shook hands, they hugged.
Where else but America?