Posts Tagged With: obama

Into the fire …

President Obama, the First Lady and the Bidens began inauguration day at St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House (and literally across the street from the Hay Adams hotel where the Obama family stayed for a time in run-up to the inauguration before moving into Blair House.)

During the 70-minute service, Bishop TD Jakes preached on a passage from the Book of Daniel:

“Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with wrath, and his facial expression was altered toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. He answered by giving orders to heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated.”

It’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego — three righteous Hebrew young men who angered the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to worship a golden image he had created. So he tossed them in the fire – a really really hot fire. But God preserved them.

An interesting choice of scripture for the incoming president to hear before taking his oath of office.

Here’s what the official pool report from inside St. John’s had to say about the worship service at what has become known as “Church of the Presidents” since President James Madison first attended (the 54th pew is reserved for the president):

After a brief reading from Rabbi David N. Saperstein and a solo singing performance by Yolanda Adams, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell – Pres. George Bush’s spiritual advisor – introduced the speaker: Bishop T.D. Jakes

Jakes read from Daniel 3:19 and used the scripture to offer Obama a series of four lessons for his administration.

1 – “In time of crisis, good men must stand up. God always sends the best men into the worst times.”

2 – “You cannot change what you will not confront. This is a moment of confrontation in this country. There’s no way around it…This is not a time for politeness or correctness, this is a time for people to confront issues and bring about change.”

3 – “You cannot enjoy the light without enduring the heat. The reality is the more brilliant, the more glorious, the more essential the light, the more intense the heat. We cannot separate one from the other.”

4 – “Extraordinary times require extraordinary methods. This is a historical moment for us and our nation and our country, and though we enjoy it and are inspired by it and motivated by it.”

After his four lessons, Jakes turned from the crowd and looked directly at Obama.

“The problems are mighty and the solutions are not simple,” Jakes said, “and everywhere you turn there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make. But you are all fired up, Sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you.

“I say to you as my son who is here today, my 14-year-old son – he probably would not quote scripture. He probably would use Star Trek instead, and so I say, ‘May the force be with you.”

Monsignor William A. Kerr delivered a brief prayer for Biden and then the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. delivered a blessing for Obama.

Moss Jr. [whose son, Otis Moss III, is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Obama’s former church home] said: “Give to president Obama a double measure of faith and hope, and the strength to do justice…Give him the sight to see all that needs to be seen and the insight to look beyond the clouds and chaos of the moment and see great joys and possibilities. Let the house where he lives and serves be a house of hope for the nation, a house of joy and affection for his family, and the house of friendship for all nations. We thank you eternal god, for our new president, president elect Obama.”

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A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

Loved the gown.

The First Lady’s full-length gown was of ivory silk chiffon embellished with organza and Swarovski crystal rhinestones and silver thread embroidery, CNN reports.

It’s a one-of-a-kind by the 26-year-old designer Jason Wu, a native of Taipei who moved with his family to Vancouver, Canada when he was 9, according to his web site. Wu studied sculpture in Tokyo at the age of 14 and spent his senior year of high school studying design in Paris, where he decided to become a clothing designer. He enrolled in the Parsons School of Design and interned with designer Narcisco Rodriguez. (Mrs. Obama wore a black-and-red Rodriguez dress on Election Night.)

Wu debuted his first collection in 2006 and Michelle Obama reportedly wore one of his designs in a recent interview with Barbara Walters.

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How far we’ve come, huh?

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The first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

The first female president of the Disciples of Christ.

The president of the Islamic Society of North America (who also happens to be a woman).

Three rabbis.


And one Hawaiian shirt-wearing mega-church pastor.

What do they have in common, besides taking part in the official festivities surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States?

They’re all praying.

All of them.

Sure, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, whose sartorial sense leans more toward Jimmy Buffett than Billy Graham, is giving the official invocation at the inauguration Tuesday. But Obama has invited a number of other prominent religious leaders — from his own Christian tradition and others — to provide spiritual support.

Much was made of Warren’s being chosen to fill the role so often played by Graham in inaugurals past. (Graham, 90, is not in good health and no longer travels far from his home in the mountains above Asheville, N.C.)

A lot of people call Warren a homophobe. Granted, he did support Proposition 8 in California, to outlaw gay marriage, a move I thought was both thoroughly wrongheaded and out of character for him. Homosexuality and gay issues have hardly been the hallmark of Warren’s ministry at Saddleback and his uber-bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.

Like many traditional religious people, Warren believes homosexual acts — if not homosexuality itself — are sinful, per Scripture. But does that make him a homophobe?

I’m still on the semantic fence about that one. Plenty of people saw Warren’s invitation to pray over the newly sworn-in president as a slap in the face of the gay community.

Some of that outrage was tempered when word got out earlier this week that Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church — and the man whose ordination sparked so much tumult in the American church and within the worldwide Anglican community — will lead prayers Sunday at the official kickoff of the inauguration festivities at the Lincoln Memorial.

During the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral on Jan. 21 — the day after the inauguration — Obama has asked the Rev. Sharon Watkins to preach. She is the first female president of the Christian Church, better known as the Disciples of Christ.

Among the artists providing the musical portion of the celebration/service at the Lincoln Memorial are Bono, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, and Garth Brooks.

So . . . I’m not sensing any kind of covert sectarian message in Obama’s ecclesiastical choices for the inauguration.

Still there is a message being conveyed, be it spiritual or political or both.

When I look at the lineup and design of the faith-infused events around Obama’s inaugural, I see a new story — one of radical inclusion that echoes the plurality of our new president’s spiritual and social formation as a child. His mother, a secular humanist for lack of a better no-size-fits-all label, exposed her children to Christianity as well as Islam and other world religions, cultures and philosophies. She was a student of the world and her children were, too.

When Obama embraced Christianity, he did it as an adult. The choice was his, and he chose the historic black church and the United Church of Christ denomination. He also lives next door to a synagogue in Kenwood and knew the rabbi there well enough to call him his own.

If the religious voices involved in celebrating his inauguration are a harbinger of his political style, they say to me that the Obama administration will be one marked by collaboration and cooperation, not coercion or mandate (divine or otherwise).

“I take this to be an indication of how he intends to govern — moving away from the polarization and bitter partisanship of the past,” said Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard University in New York and author of God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. “It’s more inclusive. He’s bringing more people around the table and allowing them to express themselves.

“He’s somebody who knows his own mind and yet is willing to entertain differing opinions and points of view, unlike the current president,” Balmer said. “I think it’s an administrative and executive style that represents a dramatic break from the past.”

His choice of Warren may have been motivated by political strategy or it may have been far more pastoral and personal. While they’ve been friendly for a number of years, as Warren and other prominent evangelical leaders began to turn their attention (at last!) to moral issues such as AIDS in Africa, global poverty and the environment, the relationship between the pastor and the president-elect has not been perfect. I’m told there were a few bumps in the road after the so-called “Civil Forum” at Saddleback, where Warren hosted Obama and John McCain. Some folks felt McCain was given an unfair advantage, while Obama was blindsided.

“It shows that he’s a big man,” Balmer said of Obama’s invitation to Warren to pray at the inaugural. “He’s a gracious person. Boy, what a welcome change that’s going to be.”

Can I get an “amen”?

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St. John the Divine in Silence/17th-century Russian icon

In the face of silence (as in the absence of proof) we are left with theories.

Since Thursday afternoon, when a group of parish leaders from St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church met privately with Cardinal Francis George at the archdiocese’s pastoral center, there has been silence.

No one is talking. Not Sabina’s embattled pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger. Not the parish’s pastoral associate and effective No. 2, Kimberly Lymore. Not the cardinal. Not the archdiocese’s official spokeswomen. Not even off the record.

Most of us can only guess what might happen next.

A hush has fallen over the five-alarm controversy that has roiled religious and political circles from Chicago to Kathmandu (or at least that’s what it’s felt like) since Pfleger let fly a snarky torrent of racially-loaded criticism of Hillary Clinton in a sermon late last month.

The cardinal placed Pfleger on a leave — for a “couple of weeks,” he’s said — so that the longtime activist/rebel-priest can reflect on what he said and did, and maybe achieve some new perspective. Pfleger and his loyal parishioners balked, as did many of us who admire Pfleger for his tireless work on behalf of the least of those among us even if his bombastic style sometimes makes us cringe.

But maybe the cardinal was on to something after all. Maybe we all needed to take a few deep breaths.

I don’t know what transpired at that meeting Thursday between St. Sabina leadership and the cardinal, but whatever it was must have been monumental. (Parish leaders have said they would not speak publicly again until a statement is read to the “parish family” at mass this morning.)

Cardinal George and Mike Pfleger have a long, acrimonious history. They clearly rub each other the wrong way, in much the same way as they both rub a lot of other folks the wrong way.

Both men of God can come across as arrogant and stubborn. And both have had their share of rhetorical missteps.

I wonder whether the cardinal wasn’t in some way acting from his own difficult experiences when he told Pfleger to step away from the parish and let things cool down.

In April 2002, I was standing on an outcropping overlooking Vatican City with George, who was waiting to be interviewed by a TV reporter, when his cell phone rang. It was one of his press people in Chicago calling to inform him that comments he’d made earlier in the day at a press conference with other American bishops about the clergy sex abuse scandal had caused a near riot at home.

“There is a difference between a moral monster like [John] Geoghan, who preys upon little children, and does so in a serial fashion, and to someone who, perhaps, under the influence of alcohol, engages in an action with a 17 or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affection,” George had said.

I was in the audience that day and as soon as the words left George’s mouth, I knew he was in for it. But he didn’t have a clue until hours later when his spokeswoman called from Chicago where the archdiocese’s phone bank had been flooded with calls from angry Catholics.

“But there’s a clinical difference,” I recall the cardinal stammering into the phone.

Yes, there is, but that’s not what people needed to hear at that traumatic time in church history. He should have known better than to make such a comment in public, with cameras rolling. And he caught holy hell for it.

One Sunday in Ocotber 2006, the cardinal was a guest at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the largest Catholic theological school in the nation. He delivered a homily during a special service for the heavily international student body where he made some keen observations about the way the United States is viewed abroad, remarks for which he quickly felt a lot of heat.

“The world distrusts us not because we are rich and free. Many of us are not rich and some of us aren’t especially free. They distrust us because we are deaf and blind, because too often we don’t understand and make no effort to understand,” he said.

“We have this cultural proclivity that says, ‘We know what is best and if we truly want to do something, whether in church or in society, no one has the right to tell us no.’ That cultural proclivity, which defines us in many ways, has to be surrendered, or we will never be part of God’s kingdom.”

They were unusually forceful words from George, who normally shies away from addressing anything remotely political in public. Some critics howled that he was anti-American, that he’d crossed a line.

I thought his comments were incredibly astute. I agreed with him, in the same way that I agreed with the point Pfleger was trying to make about racial entitlement in his sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ. His crucial point was lost, forever I’m afraid, in the over-the-top dramatics he used to mock the former First Lady.

“I remain hopeful that this could be a grace for [Pfleger] and for everybody,” the Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, told me Friday, referring to his force leave of absence. “This must be killing him. I mean, everywhere he turns, people are throwing brickbats and it seems endless. … Just take a deep breath. Why not? He deserves it.”

We all do.

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GODSTUFF: Is He Or Isn’t He? Obama’s Evangelical Question


While on the presidential campaign trail 30 years ago, someone asked Jimmy Carter a rather indelicate public question:

Are you born again?

Carter said he was. And the next thing he knew, various media creatures were accusing the Southern Baptist peanut farmer of implying that his political aspirations had a divine imprimatur.

“I truthfully answered, ‘Yes,’ assuming all devout Christians were born again, of the Holy Spirit,” Carter wrote in his 2005 book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis.

In 1976, most reporters didn’t know born-again from over-easy. But times have changed and so has the public conversation about politics and religion. Terms such as “fundamentalist,” “evangelical” and “born-again” are part of the media vernacular.

That doesn’t mean, however, that such terms are particularly helpful by themselves in describing, much less defining, anyone — be they politicians, presidential candidates or private citizens.

Perhaps that’s why, back when I interviewed Barack Obama about his faith in spring 2004 a few days after he’d won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, I didn’t ask him something I’ve remained curious about since:

Does he consider himself an evangelical?

Nearly three years ago, before his famous keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, before he spoke to the spiritual “progressives” at Call for Renewal or to Rick Warren’s congregation at Saddleback, before he became a household name outside of Illinois, when people who knew him still were whispering about whether — some day — the young state senator from Chicago might run for president, Obama sat with me in public at a cafe on South Michigan Avenue and talked about his faith.

He didn’t hesitate. No one coached him. He didn’t choose his words carefully or tailor his responses. He shot from the hip, giving me candid and complicated answers to my inquiries about his religious history, beliefs and doubts.

At the time, Obama said he was a Christian, that he has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that he reads the Bible regularly and prays constantly. He described his conversion experience in his mid-20s, how he walked the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ one Sunday in a public affirmation of his private change of heart. But we didn’t talk labels, I didn’t ask him for one, and he didn’t offer.

A few weeks ago, during a visit to the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, I had a chance to ask Obama that lingering question:

“Are you an evangelical?”

Surrounded by members of the editorial board, editors, our publisher, and a couple of his own aides, this was Obama’s answer:

“Gosh, I’m not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations,” the senator said. “I came to Christianity through the black church tradition where the line between evangelical and non-evangelical is completely blurred. Nobody knows exactly what it means.

“Does it mean that you feel you’ve got a personal relationship with Christ the savior? Then that’s directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you’re born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it’s understood by some other tradition? I’m not sure.”

He continued his answer: “My faith is complicated by the fact that I didn’t grow up in a particular religious tradition. And so what that means is when you come at it as an adult, your brain mediates a lot, and you ask a lot of questions.

“There are aspects of Christian tradition that I’m comfortable with and aspects that I’m not. There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go, ‘Ya know, I’m not sure about that,'” he said, shrugging and stammering slightly.

It would have been easier for the senator-cum-president to answer, simply, “Yes,” to the evangelical question.

But for Obama, as for many of us, faith is complicated, messy, a work in progress.

And, if we’re honest about it, the standard labels just don’t fit.

© Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group

Ed Note: You can hear more about what Barack has to say about his faith in my profile of him in my book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.


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