Saturday, August 29, 2009
"In the Meantime" Living Between Memory and Hope
St. Augustine describes our human life succinctly, "We live between memory and hope." It is hard to live "in the meantime." In fact, it often feels like the mean time. Remembering is the mood of this day. Teddy Kennedy is gone from us, and the memories are pouring forth from his sons and daughters, his family and colleagues and friends, including Boston Celtics great, Bill Russell, who was just interviewed on MSNBC. Russell and Kennedy became good friends over the years, especially in the days when Black basketball coaches and players were unwelcome in Boston (and elsewhere). We've been hearing wonderfully poignant stories of Ted's commitment to the poor and disenfranchised, the outcast and the sorrowful. Remembering remarkable stories of generosity, perserverance and heroism enriches our lives by lifting us up above self-interest, self-pity, and self-concern. It was deeply moving hearing the words of Matthew's Gospel, as Jesus says, "inasmuch as you did this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did this (good) to me." Kennedy's life was framed by these words that are suspended between memory and hope, command and fulfillment, expectation and reward. His sense of moral responsibility came straight out of the Scriptures. The meantime often feels to us like empty time, between already and not yet. I am frequently frustrated with impatience as I wait for what I trust is coming but not yet real. It can be a time of wallowing, paralysis, and distress. As the poet, T.S. Eliot, wrote, "suspended in time ... the soul's sap quivers." So, what do we do in these mean times, between starting and completion? Kennedy got busy. And his example and commitment inspire me this day. We're not there yet -- wherever we believe 'there' will be. There is so much to do. So much completing and fulfilling to be accomplished here on earth where "God's work must surely be our own." On the other side of the Atlantic, the Poles are remembering too. On any given day I can open the Polish News Agency compendium of news releases to find a list of anniversaries, and today is no different. The big anniversaries this weekend are the significant -- and epoch-changing -- agreement signed between Solidarity and the Communist government in 1980. And, also of epochal importance, the beginning of World War II, in 1939. This is the 70th Anniversary of the start of World War II and European leaders are gathering to commemorate this tragic occasion. Yesterday, the Polish President traveled to remember the anniversary of the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto in Lodz. So many anniversaries. Poles are excellent at remembering, articulating the stories of past heroics and victories along with the tales of suffering and loss. Perhaps it is some influence of the large Jewish population within the Polish nation for centuries, this penchant for remembrance, for reciting the ancient stories. Nobody does it better. Dreams of future fulfillment are legion, too. Or have been. One of the difficult realities of Poland in this modern era is the lack of articulated vision. Once the future opened up and the euphoria of victory over Communism wore off, the long, hard sog of refashioning society commenced. Unlike the urgent needs of the Post WWII period, when the country lay in ruins and housing needed to be put up quickly and basic infrastructure restored, and there was still an external enemy to contend against, these last twenty years have been tedious and tendentious. Infighting and fractured loyalties have characterized this recent period. Nevertheless, and perhaps in spite of government actions (and the lack thereof), Poland has developed a strong economic engine, strong enough to be holding its own even in the current economic crisis. It is the mean time in Poland, as it is here. Listening to the litany of legislation written and passed under Ted Kennedy's leadership, one is profoundly moved by the legion of changes: Voting Rights and other civil rights legislation, Title 9, Medicare, Cobra, the Americans With Disabilities Act -- you've seen the lists. To think that only 50 years ago, segregation was legal. Only 50 years ago. In my lifetime. A "whites only" lunch counter, in my memory. I sat there. You may have, too. Or on the other side of that same counter. "Colored only." It went on too long. That it went on at all, morally reprehensible. We have accomplished a lot, changed so much. Bill Russell was asked what one might consider an absurd question this morning, to wit, Given the great changes that have occurred since the days when you were a scandal as a Black NBA coach to this morning when an African American President of the United States offered the eulogy for Senator Kennedy, can you say Kennedy's work is completed? Of course not. Russell was tactful, "It's not complete." We still live in the mean time. As Lech Walesa leads the celebrations of Solidarity's victory in 1980, and later, the observances of the start of WWII in 1939, we will remember sacrifice and success. But, with wars ended and a nation rebuilt, with democracy established and a much higher quality of life, there is too much yet to be done. A recent poll indicates that a startling number of Poles long for the [bad] old days. I get the sense at times that many Poles don't quite know what to long for, to work for, to aim for. Not yet. Suspended between initiation and completion, Poland still lives in the mean time. Between memory and hope.