Has it really been fifty years? I was in second grade at Meadowcliff Elementary School in Little Rock when I heard the news. The last bell rang. It was time to walk home like I did every day. A school crosswalk guard—a sixth-grader, I think—broke the news to the little bunch of us waiting to cross the street. “They shot the President today,” he said. “Kennedy is dead.”
“What? Huh? The President is dead?” I was in second grade. I didn’t know what to make of it. When I got home, our babysitter was glued to the TV, watching events unfold. She had been crying. It was all the discussion at supper too—a kind of deep and pervasive sadness lay across our home like winter’s heaviest blanket. And even to a second-grader, the world seemed different somehow.
Funny, isn’t it, how some things linger in our memory? So many of life’s experiences pitch a little tent in our memory, and somewhere along the way, maybe in the night, maybe when we’re sleeping, we never notice that the memory of that experience folds its tent and tiptoes away, forgotten forever. But for some reason the memory of Kennedy’s assassination didn’t pitch a tent in my memory. It put down pilings, laid a concrete foundation, and built a brick home. That memory wasn’t going anywhere. That memory was staying put.
In reflecting on this 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, I’ve visited that memory yet again. Like any 50 year old home, that memory is showing some signs of wear. The door is a bit weathered; the windows could use a good cleaning; the landscaping is a little ragged. I don’t see things quite as clearly as I once did. But in spite of its age, that old memory is not going anywhere.
And I think I know why. On November 22, 1963, the world got bigger for me. In my little second grade way, I suddenly realized that life was bigger than my family and my neighborhood and my elementary school. Life was bigger, the world was bigger, than playing army in the woods, riding bikes in the neighborhood, and watching The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound, and Captain Kangaroo on television. I was a citizen of a bigger world than all of that.
And it’s not that I was completely naïve to bigger things at that tender age of my life. I distinctly remember being home with the mumps and watching TV coverage of John Glenn’s orbit of the earth. And my own home was not a happy one: my mom and dad fought a lot—loudly and with slaps and rolling pins now and then. I remember lying in bed, having a hard time going to sleep, worried sick that when my dad got home, another fight would break out. But that was local. That was my home, my life. In a sick and twisted way, that was my “normal.”
But when Kennedy was murdered, that seemed so much bigger. Flags were at half-mast. Everybody talked about it. The TV showed long lines to view his body, and there were tears, tears, and more tears. I even saw grown men cry, and in 1962, before men were taught to “get in touch with their feelings,” that was no common sight. Gloom hung in the air like a thick autumn fog.
Of course, time didn’t stand still for long. Time marched on as it always does. And that decade would see an escalation of war in Viet Nam, two more high profile assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy), protests, and race riots. And to top off the decade, in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind” when he set foot on the moon. All of that was big stuff too. All of it made an impact on a growing boy like me.
But by the time I caught those punches, I guess I was toughened up enough to roll with them. Not that they were easy to take, but not a one of them knocked the wind out of me like the news of that crosswalk guard: “They shot the president today. Kennedy is dead.” That’s when I realized the world was a bigger, harsher, more dangerous place than I’d ever imagined. And maybe that’s why across these five decades, I’ve always had a fascination about that tragic event.
That’s when the world got bigger for me. When did it get bigger for you? Pearl Harbor? The moon landing? The Iranian hostage crisis? The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan? September 11, 2001? When you saw the pictures from the Hubble Telescope? Or maybe it was when some missionary came to your church and showed you slides of pictures you’d only seen in the National Geographic in your school library? I’m convinced this happens to us all somewhere along the way. Some crisis, some overwhelming event or image awakens us to the fact that we are small and the world is a large, wonderful, and even frightening thing.
That’s why I’m so grateful that along the line, I ran into something, uh, Someone, who is even bigger. How much bigger? Big enough to speak worlds into existence, to fling stars from His fingertips, to ride storms, and to use the earth as a footstool. Big enough to take on sin and defeat it’s penalty in Jesus Christ who became “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). Big enough to take the worst evil that can happen in the world and redeem it, reshape it, bring some good from it all, and one day, the last day, destroy evil once and for all. God is bigger all right. And while that comforts me in this big old world of danger and trial, one thing comforts me more: God is even big enough to hold a person like me in the secure and sturdy palm of His good hands. And whether you're a second-grader or 80 years old, that, my friends, is plenty big enough.