Terra Nova
This week's portion: charge

Praise, poetry, and prayer at the inauguration

That's a YouTube video of the prayer offered by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, at the beginning of the inauguration festivities on Sunday. From his prayer on Sunday to today's inaugural poem, it's been an amazing few days for me as someone who cherishes the transformative potential of language. In this post I want to explore the poetry and prayer of the various invocations and benedictions, President Obama's inaugural address, and Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem.

Bishop Robinson began:

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will:

...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 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...

I love the way the prayer is framed, and how he uses the poetic device of repetition. And I'm struck by the variety of blessings for which Bishop Robinson humbly asks: the blessings of tears and anger and discomfort; the blessings of patience and humility; the blessings of compassion and generosity. It's significant to me that he specifically mentioned global poverty, and discrimination against immigrants and women and people of color and GLBT people. And I'm moved by his reminder that we are judged by how we care for the vulnerable in our midst. (Read Bishop Robinson's whole prayer here.)

This morning, Pastor Rick Warren gave the invocation. Here's how he began:

Almighty God, Our Father, everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of You alone. It all comes from You, it all belongs to You, it all exists for Your glory. History is your story. The Scripture tells us, 'Hear, oh Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is one' -- and You are the compassionate and merciful one; and You are loving to everyone You have made.

Pastor Warren and I have very different theologies, and I had been braced for the possibility that his prayer would feel alienating to me. I was surprised and moved that the verse from Scripture which Warren chose to quote is one which Jews recite daily, one which speaks to God's essential unity -- which I read as an important gesture on his part. His naming of God as "the compassionate and merciful" felt to me like a subtle echo of the Muslim practice of naming God by that pair of epithets.

When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us. And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes -- even when we differ.

Warren ended with the Lord's Prayer. I can imagine how some might have found that alienating, but I'm not in that number. The first time I heard that prayer davened in Hebrew I realized that every phrase in it is consonant with my Jewish understanding of God. Some of Warren's stances are deeply troubling to me, but I cannot fault the prayer he delivered this morning. (Read a transcript here.)

President Obama's inaugural address was some powerful preaching, and I heard echoes of poetry in it, especially as he delivered it aloud. "On this day," he said, "we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." Listen to how those lines ring, the rhythm and cadence of them. What a pleasure it is to have a President who can deliver those words not only believably, but beautifully.

The President spoke about those who struggled to build this country: those who built the railroads, who worked in sweatshops and settled the West, who toiled beneath the lash and plowed the hard earth. They struggled, he said, so that we could build a better life. We continue their journey today.

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

...[W]e know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

I love that he spoke not only to Americans here at home, but to audiences around the world for whom this inauguration is likewise a sign of hope and change. Because of his own history, President Obama is aware of the world and of our interconnectedness in a way I don't think any other president has ever been. And I am deeply moved by his hope that "as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself[.]" May the day come speedily and soon.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect.

This is a different voice than we have heard emanating from the White House these last years. A different voice, different priorities, a different stance toward the world. And I am endlessly grateful for it. (Read his whole speech here.)

The closing benediction was offered by civil rights pioneer The Reverend Joseph Echols Lowery, who helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested. He began with the first words of "Lift Every Voice and Sing:" "God of our weary years, God of our silent tears." His prayer, like the President's address, evoked the interconnectedness of the world: because we know You have the whole world in your hands, he said, "we pray not only for our nation but for all nations."

"Even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption," he said, "we seek forgiveness, and we come in the spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other." He drew on the prophetic words of Isaiah and Micah in evoking the day when nation will not lift up sword against nation, when justice will rush like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

And he ended his prayer with a rhyme I'd never heard before, but which the internet tells me may be familiar to black churchgoers (and may be, in part, a reference to Black, Brown, and White by Big Bill Broonzy): "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. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen." And the crowd thundered, "Amen!"

To cap the events off, Elizabeth Alexander read her inaugural poem.

Surprisingly few inaugurations have included poetry. President Kennedy's inauguration featured Robert Frost, who had planned to read a special inaugural poem called Dedication. But at 87 he found his pages illegible in the sharp winter sunlight, so he recited The Gift Outright: arguably a far more powerful piece of work. Both of President Clinton's inaugurations featured poetry; in 1993 Maya Angelou delivered an inaugural poem which you can watch on YouTube if you're so inclined -- and in 1997 Miller Williams delivered a poem called "Of History and Hope." Anyway: Alexander's poem is called "Praise song for the day."

For whatever reason, I can't seem to embed the video of her reading the poem, though you can watch it at CNN here. SB of Watermark offers the poem in prose poem format; I've seen a few different versions with line breaks, though am not sure whether they're part of the poem as written. ETA: Mark Doty has published the poem with line breaks as written.

A few lines in particular caught my ear and my heart. "Someone is stitching up a hem, darning / a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,/ repairing the things in need of repair," Alexander writes. Hearing that, I thought about how our world is in need of repair -- and how President Obama and his administration have chosen to take on the work of fixing what needs to be mended. "A woman and her son wait for the bus," Alexander writes; "A farmer considers the changing sky." What a resonant image on a day when our world is changing around us.

And "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, / anything can be made, any sentence begun." That sense of wide-open possibility has characterized the whole Obama campaign for me. It speaks to the hope I feel today as we begin a new era of American history, and to the belief that we can and will shape our lives with our own hands. The future we build is up to us. All I can say is amen and amen.

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