Sunday, January 25, 2009
Sermon preached at The United Methodist Church in Green Village, NJ on Sunday, January 25, 2009
I felt I had to be there. And I’m glad my family went too. Even though we had to sleep on the floor of a church, get up at 6am and walk 2 miles toward the Capital. Even though we had to stand up all day on the Washington Mall in 27 degree temperature (18 degrees in the wind) and due without food or bathrooms. It was an extraordinary, once-in-a-life time experience to stand shoulder to shoulder, and back to front, with 2 million Americans breathing the same air (the huddled masses yearning to breathe free).
There was a super positive spirit, festive mood and high energy in the crowd. No one pushed too much or became aggressive in their behavior. No one said “get out of my space!” There was lots of laughter and good will. Strangers talked to each other and treated each other as friends. We met visitors from Texas, Florida, Virginia and Iowa. It was fun to feel patriotic again, and so connected to other Americans.
Giant TV screens—jumbotrons—were set up throughout the Mall so everyone could see and hear. We were near the MSNBC broadcast unit at 10th street and the Smithsonian Castle a few blocks from the Capital. There was a mass of humanity as far back as the eyes could see. You saw the spectacle on television: Two million flags waving in the air. People dancing, singing and chanting with delight—O-Ba-Ma… O-Ba-Ma.
A roar of joy and jubilation erupted when Obama finally appeared on the screen, greeted the crowd and delivered his Inaugural Address. It felt like the ‘ground had shifted beneath our feet’ when Obama said in his speech:
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…As for our common defense; we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency.”
My question then and today is this: Is Barack Hussein Obama ‘the One’ in whom to put my hope and trust in for the next 4 years? Can this 46 year old family man, community organizer, law professor, junior senator from Illinois, and now President of the United States deliver on his promises? Is he the One who can fix the economy, restore 2.6 million jobs, end the war in Iraq, prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, wage peace in the middle east, make our government more transparent and responsible to the people, restore America’s honor and leadership in the world, defeat the terrorists, keep America safe, and steer the ship of State with liberty and justice for all? [I have pretty high expectations of the One]
One of my favorite movies is the Matrix—a strange story about Man vs. Machines, in which the terrifying Machines created a technological matrix of virtual, alternative reality that enslaves humanity by keeping them plugged into the Matrix. The computer programs comprising the Matrix provide the satisfying illusion of life on earth as a garden of delights. But there a remnant headquartered in Zion, among those who have been unplugged from the Matrix and can face the harsh realities of life the way it is. As a resistance force, they try to survive the continued assaults from the Machines and their Matrix-generated programs, there is one among them who name is Neo, a super hero who may be the One called to liberate humanity from the great illusion. The story revolves around the question—is he the One destined to defeat the power of the Matrix. The One who can and will unplug those with eyes to see and ears to hear the true Reality of their situation. During the first and second movies of the trilogy, we are made to thing that Neo is the One. In the third movie, we are made to doubt that Neo is the One after all. But who can say that he is not the One chosen for such a time as this?
For the last two years of the Presidential campaign, and especially this week, in roasts and toasts and in popular sentiment and rhetoric, Barack Obama often has been referred to as “the One.”
The reference to “the One” (to Neo in the Matrix, to Frodo as the One in Lord of the Rings, or to Obama as the One to save America) is an allusion to the Messiah in the Bible as the anointed one to redeem Israel from oppression. Two gospel texts about “the one” may serve as a way to frame the question—Is he the one—and provide a perspective for hope at this moment in our nation’s history?
I. “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2-6)
Why were they looking for the One? Because it was a moment in Israel’s history when Jews were under Roman bondage. During this time of oppression many had hoped that John the Baptist was the One to free Israel. He never claimed to be Messiah, but still they had hoped. Finally he was thrown into prison and let to die.
“But when John in prison heard what Jesus was doing, he sent his disciples to ask the question: ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we go on expecting another?’”
Jesus answers the question this way: “Go back and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is brought to the poor.”
In other words, the proof is in the fruit of action, and only time will tell. Better to judge a person by the fruit of their deeds and actions, rather than by their words and claims. “By their fruit you will know them,” said Jesus.
So, is Barack Obama the Messiah for our time?
Who do people say that he is?
• Oprah boldly proclaimed “he’s the One” and many people believed her.
• John McCain got a good laugh by calling him “That One!”
• Some New Agers wonder if he’s the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln (given his near obsession with the other President from Illinois. After all, obama began his journey to Washington from Philadelphia, with stops in Wilmington and Baltimore on a vintage train, just as Lincoln did. He’s read everything honest Abe ever wrote, makes allusions to him in his speeches, and put his hand on Lincoln’s bible as he took the oath of office.)
• Many African Americans think Obama is the new Martin Luther King, whose dream for equality and justice was realized in the election of the first African American President. I'm tempted to believe this myself, though its too early to tell. But what an emotional experience is was for me to be there on the Mall, shoulder to shoulder, in a sea of 2 million multli-cultural Americans, the majority of whom were mostly Africans who identified with Obama’s great achievement. I felt their energy and demonstrative delight in realizing, perhaps for the first time, that a young black kid in the neighborhood could become President of the United States. I saw tears of joy on faces as disbelief turned into reality when Barack took the oath of his high office. I was eye-witness to a historic moment when the earth shifted and the world changed. As Barack Obama stood on the steps of the nation’s capital, built by slaves, and beheld the sea of humanity packed on the Mall which was once a slave market, he must have recognized the kairos of the present moment. He must have felt the gravity of the moment when he referred in his speech to the phenomenon how “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Later today, an all-American Black family would take up residence in the White House, also built by slaves, backed the bricks and laid the foundation.
• Unfortunately, there are also those among us who were unable to enter into the joy of the moment because of their fears and suspicions. Some fear that he is a socialist who will destroy free markets, or a Muslim who is a secret terrorist, or 'the abortion president' bent on destroying human life. I know some religious Fundamentalists who suspect that Obama is the “Evil One” or Anti-Christ spoken of in biblical prophecy. The one who is to come, who will set up a ‘one world’ government during the Great Tribulation, and require the 'mark of the beast' on all our foreheads.
• Rather than compare Obama to Abraham, Martin or Jesus, why not compare him to Queen Esther of Persia--a beautiful Jewish woman who caught the eye of the King and was added to his harem as a favored wife. A woman of deep faith and courage, she was willing to risk her life for her family and fellow Jews. A woman raised up as an instrument in the hand of God to avert the destruction of the Jewish people, and to afford them protection and peace in their captivity. As the ultimate result of her intervention and influence with the King, Jews were able to live in the Persian Empire for 2400 years thereafter. Esther's husband, the King, showed mercy to the Jews of Persia effectively ending the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Imagine Queen Esther, in bed with a pagan King (in comprising ways some would say) chosen by God for her time and place to protect her own people. In the words of Mordecai to his adopted daughter Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
Throughout sacred history, God sometimes raises up individuals at crucial times and places for a special mission and divine purpose. Such persons make a decisive difference in moments of opportunity and change.
Moses, for example, was such a chosen leader and vehicle of change in the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
King David was anointed by the Prophet Samuel for divine purpose in establishing a new monarchy in Israel.
Queen Esther was the One for her time.
Jesus was the one and only anointed One to save his people and the world from sin.
St Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, and John Wesley were among the chosen ones by God to rebuild and renew the church of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther King is recognized today as a prophet in his time to be the one major instigator in the civil rights movement.
And Barack Obama? Is he the One we need in our time?
Time will tell. In the meantime, we can only hope.
Beyond the popular sentiments and powerful rhetoric, we know the Truth—that Obama is neither the Messiah nor the Anti-Christ. He is not Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King. Or Queen Esther. It is way too early for anyone to see the fruit of his actions or with whom to rightly compare him. Let us wait and see, and hope for the best, before we go back to John in prison to tell him what we have seen and heard about ‘this One’ in whom so many have dared to hope.
II. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:13-21)
But what happens when we put too much faith and hope in a charismatic leader like Barack only to be disappointed?
The story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus may shed some light. Cleopas and an unnamed disciple had followed Jesus for three years, believing him to be Messiah. They had given up everything and put their trust in him, hoping that he would lead the resistance to free the Jews from Roman bondage. The story of Messiah did not end as they had hoped. Their leader was arrested, sentenced, and executed for treason. Clearly, Jesus was not the One they had expected him to be.
They were walking West on the road to Emmaus toward the sunset. The sun was sinking, their eyes were downcast, their grief was heavy, their dreams were shattered, and their hopes buried with Jesus. They had put their hope in the possibility that he was the One who would redeem Israel. But obviously, he was not, since he now was dead and gone.
But then a stranger appeared on the road and walked beside them. In their despair they were kept from recognizing him. The stranger opened the scriptures to them and revealed a new perspective. The stranger broke bread with them in a most familiar way—a way that allowed them to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. No sooner did they recognize him, than he disappeared. Yet, they no longer were depressed and in despair. In retrospect, they saw the truth. It was not an illusion. They had seen the risen Lord in the form of a stranger. “Did not our hearts burn within us when we talked to him on the road and broke bread with us?
Even when hope is gone, God is still at work behind the scenes. Ideas sometimes fail, leaders disappoint, life changes, time tells all. Even if Obama disappoints us, God is still in charge. Even if he turns out not to be the One we expected him to be, that is no reason to lose hope for the future.
As the Psalmist declared: “Some hope in horses, some in chariots, but our hope is in the Lord our God.”
Hope is a habit of the heart. Hope is a human choice whose alternative is cynicism and despair. ‘Hope springs eternal’, they say. You can hope against hope. This is what is sometimes called “the audacity of hope.” Hope can be cultivated, guided, guarded and grown.
There are at least four elements of HOPE:
Healthiness of Heart.
Openness of Mind.
Perseverance of Spirit.
Enthusiasm of Soul.
According to Bob Morris, Founder of the Interweave Center in Summit:
“Hope is not mere wishing; it is an ardent flame in the heart,
the fervent desire that some truly good thing is possible
in spite of difficulties and hindrances.”
Jesus instilled hope in his downcast disciples.
Barack Obama has instilled hope in more than 80% of the country, after he said in his victory speech:
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we will as a people get there.”
I think it’s okay to have a little hope in the man and in our nation’s future. To hope means that deep in our heart we are open to the possibility that our current President was elected and chosen for a special mission at this time in our nation’s history. In the words of Mordecai, “Who knows whether that he has come to power for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
Obama is NOT the Messiah who will usher in the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Neither is he the Anti-Christ who will bring about the End of Days. Rather, he is a good and gifted, wise and strong, but all too human, leader of our country.
Don’t expect signs and wonders. And don’t expect the End of Days. Be open to a new thing that God may be doing in our time.
Live in hope. For God Almighty has in times past, and may do so again, raise up a gifted leader ‘for such a time as this.’
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Bishop Gene Robinson
Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest and vocal gay rights leader, opened President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration with a prayer on Sunday's kick-off event—‘ We are One’ concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, due to technical malfunction—some say political conspiracy—the bishop’s prayer was not broadcast. It was a good prayer, worthy of preservation and reflection.
He invoked the “God of our many understandings” and asked that our communal Deity would…
• Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
• Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
• Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
• Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.
• Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.
• Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.
• Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.
He then gave thanks for God’s child Barack, that God grant him “wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.”
Bishop Robinson’s prayer to the “God of our many understandings” was decidedly not a Christian prayer. In an earlier interview, Robinson said he was "horrified" to find, in reading over inauguration prayers of the past, how “specifically and aggressively Christian they were.” And he promised “that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.“
I thought it was a sincere attempt to appeal to America’s diversity of religious (and lack of) religious faith, and also not to offend those who object to specifically Christian prayers or overt signs of religious life in the public sphere. Perhaps it succeeded. But at the heart of the prayer, it seemed to me, was a genuine and powerful invocation of the Almighty in the best tradition of public prayers for all people.
Rev. Rick Warren
The choice of Rick Warren outraged most gay marriage advocates. They were offended that Obama would invite a high profile, outspoken, evangelical pastor to a national and international podium. Warren is a post-evangelical conservative who is actively involved in combating global warming, fighting world poverty and working for an AIDS-free world. But the current spot light is on his opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights.
Obama defended his decision saying that America is a nation of many beliefs, including: those who defend a woman’s right to choose and those who defend the rights of the unborn; those who affirm traditional marriage and those who want to expand the notion of marriage and family; and that there is a place at the table for many views on these and other subjects.
People forget that Warren was prophetic in challenging evangelicals to get involved significantly in HIV/AIDS work in Africa, and led the way lobbying the Bush administration to fund ARV drug treatment in Africa with breakthrough results. Few have done as much about calling world attention to AIDS in Africa than Rick and Kay Warren.
As Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, rose to offer the Invocation, he struck a pose and posture suggesting openness and receptivity to what I assumed was the energy of the Spirit. With open palms and outstretched hands, he began by reciting the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One." He also invoked a frequent line from the Qur’an: "You are the compassionate and merciful one."
Though he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the task, I was impressed by passion and courage to pray an explicitly Christian prayer--one in Jesus Name. I thought he chose his words carefully, and tried to minimize possible offense to those who don’t like prayer and religion mixed with politics and government. Evangelicals, especially Baptists, have to pray In the Name of Jesus. Otherwise, it would not be ‘powerful and effective’ (James 1:19). But they can do so more as a testimony than triumphalism. Warren struck the right tone, when he said: "I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life: Yeshua, Isa, Jesus (hay-SOOS), Jesus…”
I think this was as humble, inclusive, and sensitive as one could expect from a theologically conservative, evangelical, Baptist preacher who sincerely believes in a God that is "loving to everyone you have made.”
In previous Inaugurations, most ministers avoided explicitly using the “Name that is above all names” which always trigger controversy and lawsuits for explicitly Christian prayers. Then, Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, an African-American pastor of a 10,000 member church in Houston, dared to do it and offended many by praying In the Name of Jesus at President Bush’s Inauguration. I’m sure Rick Warren offended some in his more humble and sensitive use of the Name.
But why insist on a watered down public prayer from a Southern Baptist? Why prefer a generic prayer in the public sphere? Why require religious leaders to put away their particularity in an ecumenical, interfaith setting? Christians are christo-centric in praying in the Name of Jesus in the same way that Muslims are theocentric in praying to Allah as the One and Only God. I would expect a Jewish Rabbi to look like and sound like a devout Jew praying to Yahweh with hands lifted up. And I would expect a non-believer to simply invoke the people and not a Deity. Multi-religious diversity is not served by expecting devotees to deny their distinctive traditions and walk on egg shells so as not to offend the distinctive traditions of others. Let those who affirm a particularity in religion pray in the name and spirit of their distinction, with respect and tolerance for those who do not share their particularity.
Warren concluded his rather long Invocation of Christ with the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. Many around me quietly and reverently bowed and prayed the “Our Father…” led by Warren. I joined in too, feeling like I was participating in the official prayer for the new President on his first day of office.
Rev. Joseph Lowery
My favorite Inaugural prayer came at the end of the ceremony. Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist minister and respected civil rights leader, offered a Benediction in a traditional African American style.
He began by quoting the third verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing": “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.”
In praying for the 44th President of the United States, Lowery called God ‘Lord’ (a relational term of spiritual intimacy that manages to offend progressives who dislike its hierarchical meaning). And he asked the Lord to work through Barack to heal our land:
“For we know that, Lord, you are able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.”
The preacher got prophetic when he prayed for forgiveness for Americans that have “sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption…”
As Isaiah and Amos before him, the prophet Lowery waxed eloquent when he invoked God’s hands of power and heart of love to help us “work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Obama smiled as the old man concluded his prayer with his vision of that Day of new beginning: “ when Black will not be asked to get in back, when Brown can stick around, when Yellow will be mellow, when the Red man can get ahead, man, and when White will embrace what’s right. Let all who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”
Barack’s spiritual understanding is that “America is a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and those with no religious faith.” There is a place at the table for a Bishop Robinson who prays to “a God of our many understandings”, and for a Rick Warren who prays in the Name of Jesus. And there is a place for an aging civil rights leader who asked the Lord for help and named the ways that he would like the Lord to challenge and deliver the ‘black man, brown man, yellow man, red man, and white man’ on that Day when justice and mercy prevail.
Barack, the community organizer, was right in choosing diverse representatives of the Christian faith to pray at his Inauguration. He would have been more right to have included Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders as well. For in Obama’s America, there is place for everyone at the table of the common good, where there is liberty, equality, peace and justice for all.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Yes we did! We not only elected America’s first African American President and watched a Black first family move into a White House built by slaves…but more importantly (and more to the point, I think), we elected a wise, bold, determined, non-anxious, self-differentiated, good and strong Leader. One who not only may be able to rise to the great challenges of this present moment, but also loom large as an effective leader on the global stage. Still too early to tell, but in the words of Mordachi about Queen Esther: “Who knows if he has not been chosen for such a time as this?” We can only hope and pray and believe that God will work through this man with common roots and clay feet in the face of pending economic doom.
Yes, I was there…in Washington, at the tail end of the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, on the Mall on Monday to celebrate MLK holiday, and experience the Inaugural festivities at the Capital on Tuesday. I did feel the ‘ground begin to move beneath my feet” as President Barack Obama (love the sound of that name) alluded to on the day the world changed. What follows is my three day journal:
Sunday from Phili to DC
I had taken Amtrak from Newark to Philadelphia on Friday to co-teach a course with Tony Campola and Shane Claiborne on Spiritual Formation and Leadership for Spring Arbor University’s Masters in Spiritual Formation program, and had enjoyed a wonderful opportunity to introduce Henri Nouwen’s approach to spiritual direction to 110 students in the 2 year program. Since I knew I would be just 2.5 hours from Washington DC on the weekend of the Inauguration, I had made plans to attend.
Plan A was for my friend, Paul Moore to rent an RV in upstate New York, drive it to New Jersey to pick me up, drive together into DC, and park it at a local church in the city, and use it as our hotel for the weekend. Logistical challenges and security restrictions during the Inaugural events cast doubt on the wisdom of this approach.
When Plan A fell apart, Plan B went into effect: My wife, Rebecca, daughter Megan, and her friend Liz, would drive down to pick me up Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, and together we would drive to Washington to stay for two nights on the floor of Foundry United Methodist Church, plus a third night in a hotel.
Plan B worked like a charm. En route to DC, we were amazed that there were no bottle necks, closed roads or security check points all the way to the church. We listened with joy to the “We are One” Inaugural concert broadcasting live from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial featuring some of my favorite performers, including: Bruce Springsteen, Bono an U2, Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Wonder.
We arrived after Barack Obama spoke to the massive crowd. We dropped off our stuff at the church and headed to the Lincoln Memorial to catch the last of the Concert. Walking back to the church, we checked into our Sunday school rooms, laid out sleeping bags on the floor (I managed to get a couch), and got ready for the church concert later tonight.
“Be the Change you want to see” weekend at Foundry UMC”
Foundry United Methodist Church is located near DuPont Circle about 2 miles from the Capital building. The congregation rolled out their rose carpet of radical hospitality to over 50 visitors to the city this weekend. Challenged by their Bishop, John Schol, to live out their identity as a church with “open hearts, open doors, open minds”, they hosted 3 youth groups and adult supervisors, and other visitors from Iowa, Ohio, Texas, and NJ, who wanted to witness the Inauguration and feel the energy of a new day.
Mark Miller and his choir from Drew as well as the Foundry Church Choir and an ensemble from Uganda performed in the New Spirit concert in the sanctuary tonight. Fellowship Hall was decorated with patriotic colors, television monitors set up, and free meals were offered to visitors. There was even an Obama cardboard figure with whom to get your picture taken.
Donations were accepted to support the church’s “Nothing But Nets Campaign” to supply simple nets to help prevent Malaria in Africa. Send a Net, Save a Life at www.nothingbutnets.net
A weekend of unique opportunities for worship, workshops, fellowship and community service was organized by Mark Schol, youth pastor at Foundry, including making sandwiches for a nearby homeless shelter, a day laborer outreach on Rhode Island Ave, a local park reclamation project, and justice learning workshops led by professors from Wesley Seminary.
The men were in a room called the Tower. One of my floor mates was Tommy from Texas and his brother. He had won two tickets from a lottery, so he flew in from Houston for the occasion. My other roommate was King from Demoines, Iowa, and Paul Moore from Andes, NY. (Paul arrived at the side door of the church about 3am and called me on my cell. I went down to let him in and set off the security alarm. Thankfully, no one was hurt.)
First night in the Foundry Hostel: warm floor (or couch)and good food. Showers were available across the street and around the corner at the Jewish Community Center. Members of the congregation cooked a good meal for 89 of us visitors. A good night’s sleep was had by most. A church with open doors and open hearts is the way should be.
Monday--the Day MLK's Joy was Complete
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s National Holiday on the Washington Mall was a rare treat. Beautiful day. Tens of thousands were walking about enjoying the positive energy and good will of anticipation of tomorrow’s celebration. I felt euphoric enough to go into a Krispy Kreme store, buy a dozen delicious warm donuts right out of the oven, and give them to strangers I ran into on the streets and on the metro. Sure enough, these random acts of kindness to strangers engendered good natured gratitude and good will.
We decided to see the relatively new National Museum of the American Indian and its featured exhibit: “Out of Many: A Multicultural Festival of Music, Dance and Story. “ An impressive display of world cultures represented by individuals from American Indian, Africans, African American, Asian and Pacific Islander traditions. We toured several tribal exhibits in the 4-story museum, especially the Black Foot tribe that Rebecca’s ancestry connects to and the Cherokee tribe of which I am a 1/32 bloodline.
After lingering at the Capital for awhile, again anticipating the big event to take place on the steps tomorrow, we walked up the Mall toward the Washington Monument through the crowds, and came upon a live broadcast by Chris Mathews on MSNBC. As their remote camera swung above the heads of the crowd, we all waved into the eye of the camera hoping to be spotted by families and friends possibly watching tonight.
Before leaving the Mall, we scoped out a good place to stand tomorrow upon our return in the morning. We wanted to be as close to the Capital as we could, and near a giant jumbotron screen.
Tuesday—the Day the Ground Shifted Under our Feet
For me, this is an auspicious day. Today the Change I had hoped for will begin to be realized in the changing of executive powers and leadership in the White House. The contrast between Bush and Obama cannot be under-stated.
‘We the People’ fortunate enough to have tickets to the Inauguration had the luxury of waiting till late morning to find the way to their reserved seats or designated area to stand near the Capital.
‘We people’ without tickets or connections had to make a strategic choice: find a place on Pennsylvania Avenue to view the parade; or find a place on the Washington Mall to view the swearing in ceremony. We were urged to get there early to find a spot the size of a folded newspaper to stand squarely on the Mall.
So my family and I decided to get up at 6:30am, forgo showers, and walk 2 miles toward the Capital via the National Mall. Paul Moore, Rebecca, Megan and her friend Liz and I arrived at the Washington Monument about 7:30am. We were joined by hordes of humanity who came by bike, bus, metro or on foot. Official volunteers greeted us with big smiles and enthusiastic words-- “Welcome to Washington” --as they handed us a small American flag to wave at the appropriate times.
Now I’ve never been a flag waving patriot, but I proudly took the red white and blue and wondered if they had enough flags to go around. What did it cost to make 2 million flags available to today’s expected visitors to the Mall?
We continued walking toward the Capital until it got too crowded to continue. We claimed our spot near a jumbotron TV screen opposite the Smithsonian Castle, just in back of the MSNBC broadcast unit at 10th Street where we were yesterday. There we stood with our flags rolled up at the ready, hands in pockets with hot packs, in 27 degree temperature (18 degrees in the wind) without access to food or bathrooms.
Megan and Liz wanted to get a little closer, in direct eye sight of the Capital. Didn’t want to but we let them venture off, as long as they were more or less within eyesight, could remember where we were standing, could remember where would be our meeting place at the close of the event, and as long as they kept their fully charged cell phones on at all times.
There was a super positive spirit, festive mood and high energy in the crowd. No one pushed too much or became aggressive in their behavior. No one said “get out of my space!” There was lots of laughter and good will. Strangers talked to each other and treated each other as friends. Some sang and others danced. I just jumped up and down to stay warm and cozzied closer to my wife. We met visitors from Texas, Florida, Virginia and Iowa. It was fun to feel patriotic again, and so connected to other Americans.
What an emotional experience is was for me to be there on the Mall, shoulder to shoulder, with 2 million, significant numbers of whom were African Americans who identified with Obama’s great achievement. I felt their energy and demonstrative delight…in realizing perhaps for the first time that a young black kid in the neighborhood could become President of the United States. You saw tears of joy on faces as disbelief turned into hope, as we all witnessed the historic moment when the earth shifted and the world changed. Barack Obama, stood on the steps of the nation’s capital, built by slaves, and beheld the mass of humanity packed on the Mall which was once a slave market. He must have recognized the kairos of the present moment when he referred in his speech to the phenomenon how “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Later today, an all-American Black family would take up residence in the White House, also built by slaves, backed the bricks and laid the foundation.
There was a mass of humanity as far back as the eyes could see. Much of the world would see the spectacle on television: Two million flags waving in the air. People dancing, singing and chanting with delight—O-Ba-Ma… O-Ba-Ma. A roar of joy and jubilation erupted when Michele and then Barack Obama finally appeared on the screen, and found his seat.
Rev. Rick Warren rose to offer the Invocation (see separate blog post) and Aretha Franklin belted out her song wearing a fabulous hat for the occasion.
Finally, Obama greeted the crowd, was sworn in as President, and delivered his long awaited Inaugural Address:
“As for our common defense; we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…” When he stated so clearly in his speech that American ideals, like personal liberties, and ethical values (like not torturing prisoners) would not be compromised because we were afraid for our safety, I thanked God for a prophet. “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency.” Amen!
When he said “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” I felt like he was trying to love America’s enemies, as Jesus taught.
When he said, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…” it felt to me like the ‘ground had shifted beneath our feet’ and the Change was afoot.
Over a million flags were waving high in the air, not by typical, conservative flag wavers, but by those who had just found they had a new stake in America’s future.
Did I mention before that we had to stand up for five hours in the cold! Yet, was an extraordinary, once-in-a-life time experience to stand shoulder to shoulder, and back to front, with 2 million Americans breathing the same air (the huddled masses yearning to breathe free).
Joanna Jackson, 63, a disabled New Yorker, according to USA Today, summarized my feelings as well when she said: “I know I’m going to feel it tomorrow, especially in my knees, but it’s worth it! I can say I was there.
Yael, me too. And I bought an “I was there” button to prove it.
The Servant Forge Humanitarian Inaugural Ball
Finally, our weekend was complete by attending an officially registered Ball—the Humanitarian Inaugural Ball at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA. Hosted by Jim and Colleen Copple, co-founders of Servant Forge, the event was a fund-raiser for several charities in Africa and the US, as well as a celebration for a “New Era of Humanitarian Service and Action” under a new administration.
The mission statement of Servant Forge is similar to that of WorldHoope Corps: “to build leaders who will transform communities and nations by practicing and promoting service and to challenge citizens to embrace service as a means to improve education, promote civic involvement, eradicate poverty, and guarantee health and safety…”
Current Projects include:
Swaziland HIV/AIDS Faith-Based Initiative
Kenya Youth Development Initiative
Methamphetamine Prevention and Treatment
City of Alexandria Gang Task Force
It was more fun to watch the dancing than to dance the night away, and simply enjoy my first Inaugural Ball--one for a good cause.