As the nation prepares for Monday’s inauguration* (which I will miss while traveling to Honduras), I was reminded once again of the most meaningful part of Barack Obama’s first inaugural. After the main speeches and the swearing in were over, after the crescendo was past and many (like me) were turning off the TV, an old Black preacher ambled slowly to the podium to give the closing benediction. At the time I only heard it in my car, but I’ve watched and re-read it at least a dozen times since.
Just before him came poetic stanzas that set the table from which the preacher would feed us, penned and read by Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander:
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Others by “first do no harm,” or “take no more than you need.”
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light…
I happen to think the mightiest word is love, and I applaud anyone willing to wonder so out-loud, especially on such an electric and soon-dissected occasion, where talk about love could seem sentimental at best on this occasion where the world’s mightiest power transfers that power.
Then an introduction… and a pause. An empty microphone waited as the old man of God, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, ambled toward the podium to give the benediction… a prayer which one must surely live before one could give it. Spoken by one who seemed almost a relic, a living proof-text of the holy writ he read. Spoken not with jubilation, but in the slow, lilting rhythm of a Negro Spiritual, which is the only way it should be read. A prayer bubbling up from the bottom, a recollection of the pain of the past, mixed with a cautious word to the disempowered who were eagerly anticipating becoming—finally, just maybe—empowered:
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.
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand
True to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.
The whole prayer, even the parts that made me squirm a bit, gave me a glimpse through the window onto the marginalized. Not the militant, not the triumphalist, but the preacher who is shepherd-guide to the also-rans…
We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barak Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national, and indeed the global, fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hands, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations.
Our faith does not shrink though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.
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.
His truth, his sting, even his enduring personal pain which bleeds through were wrapped in such beauty, symmetry and poetic rhythm as to disarm us, undo us, convict us all with truth while enfolding us in grace.
In the low cadence of a preacher man too old, too tired and too somber to be fooled into thinking Obama’s ascendance would change everything, yet with the trespasses of the past still in his mind, he too closed with a call for more love, more justice, more transformation…
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us now, Lord, to work for that day when nation 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.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day… 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 is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
Prayers from the bottom, glimpses from the disenfranchised poor, of a hoped-for future he’s too old to see come to fruition. I glance at them furtively, uncomfortable and somewhat afraid of the implications they might have for me and my position at the top of the heap. Yet, this week I read that there are 1,009 passages in the Bible about God’s concern for justice, with special concentration in the book of Isaiah, the book to which my Lord most closely aligns his own ministry.
The sweetness of the preacher’s verses help me to swallow their medicine. And they become a siren call, beckoning my heart where it knows it must go, over the energetic protestations of my head.
(You can see Rev. Lowery’s benediction at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Il9r-VSu9g)
* Post-script: This past Sunday evening, I was in Washington, D.C., and a colleague and I walked a few blocks to the Capitol. In the early evening darkness, the Capitol’s gleaming white dome was wrapped in fog and draped in light…ethereal and beckoning. Though it would be eight days before President Obama’s second inauguration, the thousands of chairs and the grandstands and the serpentine lines of porta-potties were already in place—poised with anticipation, it seemed, for yet another historic event in a city which has seen many. It was quite a sight. The blanket of fog, the quietude… everything shrouded in darkness save the Capitol dome, which seemed to emanate fuzzy light… one could sense that something was about to happen. Yet the scene itself, like the future, was unclear. In Les Miserables,every character passionately sings his or her various prayers and hopes and anticipations in “One Day More,” then collides their voices together in the climactic acknowledgement of Who alone holds the future in his hands: “…Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store.”