The hour I first believed: thoughts on a Tuesday morning

Technically, that’s not true, but it’s what crossed my mind as I entered the room to watch the Inauguration of President Obama, and I thought it would make a good title. I’ve believed for quite a few months now, probably since last spring or early summer. I believe something amazing happened last November, and I believe it’s going to take an amazing amount of work, patience – and yes, grace – for genuine change to take root. I believe it can, though.

I watched the Inauguration on Tuesday morning (well, it was morning in California) in the “multipurpose room” in the administrative building of the social-services agency where I work, surrounded by co-workers and clients. One of our major programs is a non-public high school for adolescent girls, and it seemed very important to give them the opportunity to witness this historic event. Seeing the reaction among our African-American students in particular made it look like setting up the TV feed was a very good decision.

The room was about three-fourths full when I came in, but I was still able to get a decent seat. Just a few minutes later, my state’s own senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, called the ceremonies to order.

There was a lot of controversy over the selection of Pastor (and best-selling author) Rick Warren to deliver the invocation because of some of his deeply conservative positions, but I thought he started out fine. However, it bears repeating that this is not officially a “Christian” nation – it is not officially of any religious persuasion – and the emphasis in Pastor Warren’s closing was clearly on those believers. The agency I work for has had strong ties to the Jewish community for almost a hundred years. The silence in the room at the end of the invocation was pretty loud.

But I didn’t notice any adverse reaction when the Queen of Soul took the stage. Aretha Franklin and her church-lady hat brought her gospel roots to the patriotic song we share with Great Britain (our words, their melody), and I loved it. Truthfully, for me, the two musical interludes – hers and the instrumental rendition of “Simple Gifts” (one of my favorite hymns anyway) by Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Gabriela Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet – were the most moving parts of the ceremony.

The swearings-in should have been uneventful, but there was a word fumble at the beginning of the Presidential oath (the fault of the Chief Justice, according to what I read later). When the oath ended, though, the room I was in broke into applause and cheers, just as the crowd in Washington did.

Discussing the Inaugural speech with my son later, he said he thought it was “effective,” and I think that summed it up well. It wasn’t heavy on fancy rhetoric, but our new President said what needed to be said.  He both tempered expectations and established them; he cautioned and he inspired. He recognized strength in diversity and responsibility, and the need for hard work and hard choices. He emphasized the basic, classic values that this country needs to return to in order to move forward – not “values” in the sense we’ve grown used to hearing them talked about by social conservatives, but as attributes of character:

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true.”

His tone was appropriately serious, even somber, in light of the times in which he assumes office. However, as he has done so well for so many months, President Obama continued to stress that we’re all facing these challenges together, and that we can face them and overcome them – and he continues to make me believe it.

Our little audience cheered, and I think some of us would have gotten to our feet if we hadn’t been afraid we’d look silly giving a standing ovation to a projection TV screen. But Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction did indeed get some “Amens” out of our crowd, especially from the students.

We’ve met the new boss, and as far as we can tell, he’s nothing like the old boss. Change has come to America, and has now moved into the White House. But genuine, fundamental change won’t – and can’t, and shouldn’t – happen in a day, or a month, or maybe even a year or two. We will need time, and patience, and work. Time will tell how much we, and our country, truly believe in change, and truly can be changed.

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  1. Bridget – And arranged very nicely, too, although when they announced that, I was a little nervous that there might be a touch of “Star Wars” in there…

  2. I heard the invocation and the first part of Aretha Franklin singing before I had to get out of my car and go into the training room. I had hoped maybe that we could watch a bit of the inaguration in the training, but no such luck. Many of us admitted we were recording it at home to watch later, which is what I did.

    I liked the President’s speech, and agree with both you and your son. It was effective.

    I don’t envy President Obama, and I definitely don’t think it will be an easy job for him to do, but I am hopeful that maybe he can help spark the change that is needed to get our country back on track.

  3. I watched it all at home on my own and was hopeful, so very hopeful. My 12-year-old son said he was inspired and enthusiastic about Obama following his speech. I was so glad all my kids — even the first grader — watched at least the oath of office at school.

  4. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I’m with you. I wouldn’t want the job either, but I guess in a way we do; everyone needs to be part of the solution. I think he’s got a very good handle on what needs to be done, and obviously he can’t do it all himself. But as the Chief Executive, I hope he’s able to make it happen.

    We had thought we were recording it at home, but apparently we did something wrong, and – nothing. Tall Paul didn’t get the chance to watch any of it, so that was disappointing.

    Patois – I think that’s great. I’m not sure if my stepkids’ schools had viewing set up or not, but I hope they did. My son lives in DC and could have gone in person, but decided he’d rather keep warm and watch it on TV.

  5. I used to like Rick Warren quite a bit…he’s gone out on some limbs in the Christian community on certain issues and he seems to genuinely care about making a positive impact.

    But I get uncomfortable whenever pastors get too close to politics…and not for the reasons you do. I get uncomfortable because I think it taints them. Politics are poison and the power is addictive…I think Billy Graham struggled with the same thing and really got burned. So I would be sorry to see Rick Warren go that direction, and it certainly seems he is. At the same time, I would not expect that if we had a Jewish president and he had a rabbi pray, for him to say the name of Jesus. And if we had a Muslim president, I would not be offended if he had a Muslim religious leader pray and mention Mohammed. I think there is room in this country for us to to celebrate our religious freedom and still be vocal about what that religion is even in a public government forum. I will be sorry if that is ever stripped from us. President Obama has been vocal about his Christian faith. (and it led to some controversy if you remember! 😉

    President Obama also (sort of) quoted Scripture in his speech. (by sort of I mean it was way out of context) I know Bush did that quite often as well, and I wonder if this is also problematic to you?

    Anyway, sorry to go on so long, your commentary on that sparked something inside of me I guess!

  6. Amy – Thanks for your thoughtful, and thought-provoking, comment.

    It doesn’t bother me when politicians talk about their personal faith and beliefs – because they’re personal. The inclusion of Scripture in a political speech only makes me uncomfortable if it’s used in a way that comes across as preaching or evangelizing, and I didn’t think Obama’s usage did (but as you point out, it was way out of context).

    And you do make a good point; it wouldn’t make sense to expect a minister (or rabbi, or imam, or priest) to speak publicly and NOT invoke God – and the ministers at the Inauguration were there to speak during the Invocation and Benediction, which are intended to be prayerful moments anyway. I don’t feel that these moments should be cut from public ceremonies – freedom of expression, including religious expression, is one thing we can celebrate in our country.

    Another thing you’ve made me think about – I wonder now if part of the (lack of) response in the room to Rev. Warren was because of his political associations. (There didn’t seem to be an issue with Rev. Lowery.) But I also think part of it was due to his inclusion of the the Lord’s Prayer, which is so identifiably Christian. Then again, if the invocation had been led by someone else, even that might have gone over better.

    I think working for social justice and social issues is part of the clergy’s responsibility, but I do agree with you that the work should steer clear of political involvement.

    I guess you got me thinking too…thanks for sparking such a good discussion :-)!

  7. Florinda: I love John Williams…he’s most famous for star wars, but you should check out his other masterpieces…Far and Away, Born on the Fourth of July, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Memoirs of a Geisha, harry potter movies, etc. I cannot forget Schindler’s list…that score still haunts me anytime I see the movie or say the title.

    He was a brilliant conductor for the Boston Pops and I just love watching him on stage conducting.

  8. I think it’s interesting that you focus on the opening prayer and touch on the closing benediction, but overlook a pretty big deal that happened super fast: President Obama said we are a nation of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and,” he waved a finger, “nonbelievers.”

    Others, such as this blog post and the commenters on it, and lots and lots and LOTS of other people, focus so much on what they believe that they pay no attention, maybe do not even realize, that there are many of us who do not believe. Thank gawd (whatEVer that means to you, if it means anything or everything or nothing) for a president who is mindful of this fact, and willingly gave it an official moment of recognition. I love him so much!!!!!! What a breath of fresh air. Whew.

  9. Serena – Sorry if I seemed to be selling John Williams short :-). I really have liked many of his movie scores, and that was a very good arrangement of one my favorite pieces.

    Gudnuff – I figured that many other people would dissect the speech itself, and would do a better job of it than I would, so I chose not to do much of that in this post.

    I do remember the part you mention, though, and I was pleased with it. As I said in the post, “this is not officially a ‘Christian’ nation – it is not officially of any religious persuasion,” and I think it was important that the President did refer to that, although he is known to be Christian himself (except by people who still insist he’s secretly Muslim).

    As for my own beliefs, I was raised Catholic but don’t follow any religious practice now, so I personally appreciated the nod to religious diversity in all forms.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!