‘John Lewis believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity, and he believed in America.” That was former president George W. Bush, a Republican, talking about longtime Democratic congressman John Lewis, an early civil-rights activist with Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Bush continued:
He’s been called an American saint, a believer willing to give up everything, even life itself, to bear witness to the truth that drove him all his life. That we could build a world of peace and justice, harmony and dignity and love. And the first crucial step on that journey was the recognition that all people are born in the image of God and carry a spark of the divine in them.
The lesson of Lewis’s life “is that we must all keep ourselves open to hearing the call of love,” President Bush said. “The call of service. And the call to sacrifice for others.”
Acknowledging the obvious, he went on: “Listen, John and I had our disagreements of course.” Then he added, “But in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”
Obviously, too, that is not a given any more in the America of today. Differences of opinion and cancel culture, for starters, don’t mix well. Still, the funeral for Lewis was a last bit of service from the congressman and the likes of Bush, who stepped up to the plate. To remember a man with whom he had serious political differences, to remind us of some of the best of America.
And when President Bush talked about sacrifice and service and the call to love, I couldn’t help but think of Rebecca Kiessling, who is a living icon of this. She’s an adoptive mother whose heart was torn out of her chest and decimated this summer. Her two sons have died. And she had to make the call to their birth mother — they are biological bothers — to let her know that they have left us. The boys were with others, including another young girl who also died. They had been struggling with drug addiction and the behaviors that addiction can exacerbate.
Adoption is a miracle. It is just about the ultimate in love, sacrifice, and service, from just about any angle you look at it. The birth mother! Oh, my goodness, her courage! We should not talk about these women as if they have walked away from a responsibility, or as if they “gave up” something — as though were a bad habit. These women love their children so much that they in all humility acknowledge they cannot provide what they need! They carry them and give birth to them, and their very bodies, their whole existence will never be the same again — even as they will not be the one to console and counsel that beautiful child. In this case, two mothers are heartsick and are left with each other to console for what is inconsolable.
Adoptive families — they reflect the gratuitous love of God for us. Their hearts are stretched to love beyond what is naturally, obviously theirs, their responsibility. They welcome the gift of these new precious vulnerable ones into their homes. And whether a child comes to you through biology or adoption, every ounce of your love is required, and it may not always be enough. All parents who truly love are heroic. As a father friend recently described his vocation: “You can only do so much, but you still do all you can. You can’t give up on your children, but you can’t make it all better.”
18-year-old Kyler Kiessling and 20-year-old Caleb Kiessling were not given up on — not by their birth mother, not by their adoptive family. But sometimes we are strangled by the miseries of this world, as evil has its way with us. That love doesn’t die though, and we must listen to the cries of those who mourn for them.
George W. Bush used to talk about “compassionate conservatism.” That phrase must sound like an exotic fantasy to many listening to some of the political rhetoric today. Compassion involves something much beyond mere niceties. In truth, it comes from the depths of our being. We respond to the cries of the heart, the struggling, to the causes evil in the world. We are called to do so with some trembling even, recognizing the spark of the Divine in the other — especially the most vulnerable. (The Good Book says something about widows and orphans, after all.)
Kyler and Caleb’s birth mother and adoptive parents loved greatly, in the most sacred ways, seeing others as God Himself, even as they fall. Rising to all the challenges of the day requires that we all do. That’s what George W. Bush was talking about, writ large. We all have our calls in this big picture of America. And the mission is love. The rest is a distraction. Even during a pandemic in a presidential election year. Maybe especially, in fact.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.