Friday morning we met as staff to coordinate the details of worship for the weekend. The senior pastor would preach the upcoming Sunday, called in the old one-year lectionary Judgment Sunday. I would lead the service as the intern pastor, including framing prayers for the day.
We went home intending to continue after lunch with review of the week and assignments for next week. That was the routine. But life changed over that lunch hour. People ran off the street into the church office: “Did you hear the news? President Kennedy was shot in Dallas!” So began a roller coaster of events and emotions, each more tangled than the last. Our minds grew hazy with incredulity. People said and did things they would never say or do in ordinary time. But this was time out of joint, extraordinary time. News accounts were sloppy, disconnected, and disoriented until later when national news people like Walter Cronkite and Edwin Newman regained a semblance of calm. Nothing seemed to fit together properly. Everything was in slow motion, as if the entire country had one of those auto accidents you hear about.
No one who was a conscious adult or teenager on November 22, 1963, has ever forgotten the assassination. We know exactly where we were when we first heard the news. We remember that the next days were essentially a write-off not only for us but also for the entire nation. Political affiliation dissolved just for a moment, melted down in a cauldron of grief.
The roller coaster continued: Malcolm X and Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and finally Bobby Kennedy. So much loss, so much senseless killing. What we grieve at the assassin’s bullet is the sudden curtailing of a projected path of hopes and dreams and plans. In a second we lose what might have been.
The vast majority of people alive today were not born when these tragic events occurred.
Those of us who lived through that time should admit that we have never quite overcome it. Like Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day we always repeat it in some way. The feeling reminds me of a line from a contemporary hymn in use then: “The peace of God it is no peace but strife closed in the sod.” Indeed.
The loss is like scar tissue in our hearts. Many fell from youthful idealism into a sewer of cynicism. Some of us found a way to put our hearts and minds to new causes, whether or not justified. Some sank into drugs or alcohol fueled in part, I’m sure, by the heartbreak that washed over us like a tidal wave. The decade that began with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and button-down collars and stingy-brimmed hats and glamour ended with The Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa and jeans, the mud of Woodstock and the jungles of Vietnam. The death knell rang the changes.
Fifty years on, along with my fellow citizens from that era, I can get this out of neither my head nor my heart. Every November 22nd I must take time to clear my throat, step outside in the air and wipe one more unbidden tear from my cheek for the collective tragedy of the sixties focused in that death of the president. Time collapses like a telescope and I am there once again.
This is neither sentimentality nor nostalgia; it is grief never fully purged.
“My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing…”