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An Old Testament professor was leading an adult discussion group. The conversation turned to the depth and beauty of the Hebrew notion of “blessing.” Surprisingly, the prof never introduced the actual Hebrew word, prone as we are to share important biblical words—hesed, shalom, koinonia, agape.
After the group dismissed, I asked, “What is that word and why didn’t you mention it?” Somewhat chagrined, he whispered, “Barak! But I thought the entire discussion might go off the rails if I brought that up.”
In these final days of his administration, you can find lots of tributes and expressions of gratitude to Barack Obama. Similar themes and words appear again and again—dignity, integrity, decency, even elegance; earnest, winsome, intelligent, gracious, cool, and more. I’ll second those motions.
If you’re not a fan of Obama, I’m not likely to change your mind. My intention is not to highlight his accomplishments (though I think they are many) or his politics. As a preacher, it’s probably not surprising that I have been especially impressed by his use of the bully pulpit, his almost-pastoral gifts in times of crisis, his ability to unite and inspire. Even the maligned and misunderstood, “leading from behind”—I appreciate as a leader of a congregation.
Here are three memories, times when I was amazed and moved by Barack Obama.
January 3, 2008
was a cold night in Pella, Iowa. I gathered with local Democrats for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. I wasn’t there to support Obama. I was a little slow to warm up to him. At that point, he struck me as tepid and timid. I was sitting among the members of various labor unions, supporting a philandering populist with $400 haircuts. In another corner was a small group of somber, older women supporting Hillary (might we have learned or foreseen something already then?).
Into the classroom kept streaming more and more people, political newbies, especially young people, collegians. Just when you thought the room was full and no more would come, another fifteen would squeeze in. The rush, the energy, the astonishment in the room was incredible. We all kept looking around at each other and wondering, “Is this really happening?” It was how I imagine the first chapter in the Gospel of Mark, “astounded…amazed, they kept on asking one another ‘What is this?’…at once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region.”
Afterward, I headed home still disbelieving. Certainly, Pella, a college town, was anomalous. Lily-white, rural Iowa wasn’t going to go solidly for a young, black man. I was wrong. Something was afoot in our land.
November 4, 2008
Election Day—it really wasn’t a big surprise that Obama beat John McCain that day, although until it actually happened it was hard to believe. What I remember most is when the entire Obama family appeared before the massive crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park. There was this beautiful African American family, waving and smiling. The girls were still so young. It was a pinch-yourself moment, something I was certain I would never see. It was joyful, hopeful, and unbelievable. But it was also solemn. It felt like gigantic blocks of granite—deep, part of the foundation of America, always considered immovable—were shifting right before of our eyes.
Here’s where you cue the nay-sayers and cynics. Here’s where you snarkily ask, “How’d that change work out for you? Still have hope?” Yes, I do. Even if Obama hadn’t accomplished all that he did, simply being who he is was enough. For eight years, when I saw him I still had to pinch myself and tell myself, “He’s our president!” For eight years, even when I was disappointed or didn’t agree with him, I respected him and trusted him. For eight years, when I was abroad, I felt my friends’ nodding approval. There was no mocking “Where do you come up with these guys?” I was proud that he was my president.
June 26, 2015
the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama always handled tragedy well. He should teach a seminary course “Pastoral Care and Presence in Times of Trauma.” The care, the time, the personal touches he gave to each individual who lost someone in the Sandy Hook shooting was awe-inspiring and heartrending—and private.
I enjoy seeing Obama among African-Americans. Of course he knows that the rest of us are peering in too. He seems more at ease, smiling, accepted. His entire eulogy was beautiful. I know that anyone can say anything, that faith is more than words. But how you could hear Obama’s words and still think “He’s not a Christian. He’s not a man of faith” is beyond me.
The pinnacle was when the President broke into “Amazing Grace.” Personally, it is probably the holiest moment I can recall in the last ten or fifteen years. It seemed pure and transcendent, things that politics can never be. It still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and brings tears to my eyes. Beautiful. Powerful. Thank you, Jesus!
Thank you, Mr. President. You are blessed. You are a blessing.
*Friends whose Hebrew is much better than mine suggest Barack mevorach might be more accurate.
Some other time, I’ll humblebrag about my brushes with fame and the Obamas.