I was in the United Kingdom in March 2002, when the Queen Mother died at 101.
Along with the outpouring of sorrow so obvious in that nation as it faced the loss of the "Queen Mum" herself, there was a further sense of reduction and a deeper sum of assembled national sadness among the people.
Tony Parsons, a British newspaper columnist, was able to identify and describe with pathos the extent of his nation's loss. His commentary in The Mirror on April 1 speaks volumes to all nations and, I think, to Christian clergy everywhere.
Writing not only of the British Queen Mother but of her generation, he said, "A braver, better generation are dying off and we will never see their like again. A generation who had it harder than ourselves, yet who seemed happier. . .who understood the meaning of selflessness, stoicism and courage."
Parsons wrote of "the millions of men and women [of that generation] who are also dying . . . whose names will never make it to the headlines." He wrote of "that great dying generation" so very special in their self-effacing val our, their modesty, and their sense of understatement. He talked of "their resilience that masked a will of steel" and their integrity.
A sense of tragedy tinged these words: "They are saying goodbye now, the generation that lived through the war as mothers, as soldiers, as children. A mixed bunch, of course [who] share certain qualities . . . decency, humour, courage ... This generation had a sense of duty that we find hard to comprehend."
Perhaps one of the most telling negative marks of subsequent generations, mine included, is the way we have tended to devalue the qualities of this great generation, qualities that we are now just beginning to recognize again for their surpassing value. Now and again we even enjoy a deprecating chuckle at their expense. With condescension we trace for the sake of our own conversational entertainment our critique of their stoic excesses and their neurotic politeness.
And then there are their notorious notions of modesty and decency, their respect for authority and other people in general, not to mention their penchant for precise honesty and conscientiousness in arenas that actually matter. And to our generations, their unpretentious, uncompromising stand for "principle" may have seemed far too elaborate, along with their stiff, automatic dignity and their recognition of the value of things kept private and unexposed to prurient eyes and ears. But were they not irritatingly positive and usually full of good will . . . and love?
Deep down don't we all know how desperately we need more of these characteristics ourselves, here and now? Despite the serious mistakes that generation made (as did every other generation before them), did they not leave us a legacy of immense social and spiritual good?
With all the hindsight faults we critically observe in that generation and how it ran the world and the church, we cannot afford to inhibit the instinctive, sobering question that presents itself so forcefully to our hearts; the one which suggests that some of the fault lines our later generations have come to indulge are decidedly more serious than theirs were.
I sense an immense need to return to these values, which are simply, and fundamentally, Christian. They have the earmarks, or rather they are the bench marks of the genuine selfless love we all are called to seek out and exemplify. They are indeed the ways of a King who died, not recently, nor at a 101, but long ago at a much younger age. Yet One who is eternal.
I have come to wonder with a new uneasiness and urgency, if the absence of the qualities so present in my father and grandfather, both of them depart ed leaders from a bygone church era, are not exactly what I and my church now lack and need most.
Such qualities are worth something that transcends a mere spasm of inspired or inspiring thought. Characteristics and values of such worth demand, yes, demand, our most earnest prayer, application and the full force of all our grace-inspired, Spirit-assisted efforts.