Pastor to Obama:”Perhaps you are where you are for such a time.”

 by James M. Wall                            

On Sunday morning, President-elect Barack Obama and his family worshipped together at the 19th Street Baptist Church.  The Obamas’ new hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, covered the event:

President-elect Barack Obama and his family attended services this morning at one of the oldest historically black churches in Washington, thrilling a congregation that sang, clapped and prayed through a 90-minute celebration of spirit and Scripture.

It was supposed to be a surprise visit at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, but it seemed anything but. Hundreds of parishioners began lining up early this morning, hoping to get a spot in the pews for what their pastor had earlier said would be a very “special” day. The pastor, Derrick Harkins, focused his sermon on how God prepares people for challenging situations.

He told Obama: ” . . . perhaps, just perhaps, you are where you are for such a time.” . . .. (To continue reading the Post report, click here.)

Pastor Harkins’ careful theological qualification is a welcome change from the triumphant style of far too many religious figures who leave the distinct impression that they are absolutely certain that their words are from God’s mouth. “Perhaps” is a qualifier too often missing in religious discourse.

Pastor Hawkins’ enthusiasm about the new president was unrestrained. But he made no claim that God had “placed” Obama in his new role. 

Drawing from the morning’s Old Testament lesson (Esther 4: 12-17) Hawkins referred to the experience of Esther who is urged by her cousin Mordecai to use her place in the king’s circle to speak up for her people, the Jews of Persia. Esther feared persecution, but was determined to speak out.

Hawkins spoke of others in history who turned away from the “flowery bed of ease” to be champions of justice (Rosa Parks, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr.). He placed Obama on that list.

If indeed, Barack Obama is where he is for reasons that transcend human understanding, then we should rejoice in this possibility. But let us never forget that modesty in claiming ultimate sanction is greatly to be desired, especially in those who hold political power.

This is no time for doctrinal certainty in our multi-cultural, multi-religious nation. It is, however, a time for calling for personal faith to move into vigorous social action.

Our nation, at this moment in its history, is a wounded nation, driven into economic despair through a myriad of sins, led by pride, greed. covetousness and selfishness.

Ours is also a wounded nation that has allowed its leaders to carry forward an empire-building project that is destructive and dangerous to the health and well being of the world.

The words of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s hymn, written in 1930, transcend parochialism as it seeks help from the “God of Grace, God of Glory”.  There is nothing parochial in these words from verse three:

Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control. Shame our wanton selfish gladness, Rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

It is a “warring madness” that drives a world that clings to the belief that war is a solution to any problem.  This is most certainly a time when we need to hear a voice that will “shame our wanton selfish gladness”, while we insist on remaining “rich in things and poor in soul.”

I believe Barack Obama knows this as well as any man who has assumed the awesome responsibility of leading this nation.  

We are the keepers of our brothers and our sisters. This Tuesday Obama will deliver an inaugural address that will speak of the need for a national value system that honors responsibility and accountability.

Barack Obama has emerged as a public figure with enormous appeal to the young. Somehow, some way, we must make sure our children and our grandchildren join with their elders in hearing and heeding Obama’s message this week.

Speaking at the Lincoln Memorial Sunday afternoon, Obama employed his usual inspiration with his caution of realism:

What gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you – Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.

It is the same thing that gave me hope from the day we began this campaign for the presidency nearly two years ago; a belief that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; Latino, Asian, and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not – then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.

We have a new leader. Let us rejoice in his presence among us, for, as Pastor Hawkins said on Sunday morning, just perhaps, he is where he is “for such a time” as this.


First Monday update:

HBO had exclusive television control of the inaugural celebration Sunday afternoon. For reasons as yet unclear, it started its coverage after the opening prayer delivered by Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, depriving its viewers of an opportunity to experience the prayer. Bishop Robinson is openly gay. Huffington Post posted a telephone video of the prayer, taken from a distance.  The sound is good. The posting also includes a full text of the Bishop’s prayer. Click here for the story and to hear and read the prayer

Second Monday Update:

As you will note in the updated Huffington Post piece referenced above, HBO initially blamed the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC) for excluding Bishop Robertson from the live broadcast. PIC  responded:

“We had always intended and planned for Rt. Rev. Robinson’s invocation to be included in the televised portion of yesterday’s program. We regret the error in executing this plan – but are gratified that hundreds of thousands of people who gathered on the mall heard his eloquent prayer for our nation that was a fitting start to our event.” — PIC communications director Josh Earnest.

Third Monday Update:

Before we move into Inaugural Day, here is a final treat. Since HBO owns the footage, this footage had to come from overseas. “No harm was done to HBO” in the making of this tape, a great sing out from the pre-Inaugural celebration on the Lincoln Memorial mall.  The clip was posted on line by the Oxdown Gazette blog. 

Pete Seegar joins Bruce Springsteen in leading the crowd in singing This Land is Your Land, Woody Guthrie’s celebration of  land and freedom.  As Tony Karon notes in his blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan, the lyrics Pete provides were once suppressed as too subversive for establishment taste.  

Listen carefully, the lyrics talk of a sign that says “Private Property” (but on the other sign the land belongs to everyone) and they sing of relief lines and hunger in this land. Springsteen describes the song as “perhaps the greatest song ever written about our home”. To which, let the people say, amen.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Religion and politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s