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To tweak the opening sentence of the New York Times from January 21, 1861, “The day to which all have looked with so much anxiety and interest has come and passed. Joe Biden has been inaugurated, and ‘all’s well.’”
That sentence originally referred to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, an event that took place in the midst of secession by several Southern States. Fears of armed mobs disrupting the ceremony and knowledge of a plot to kill Lincoln forced him to sneak into the city early that morning. Streets were blocked off, soldiers flanked Lincoln on all sides, and the event proceeded with many holding their breath. The next morning they let that breath out again as the Times wrote, ‘all’s well.’”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Of course, all was not well on January 21, 1861. The inauguration may have gone off smoothly, but the country was still racked by division, injustice, and deep ideological animosity. The following four years bore witness to a war whose casualties outnumbered all other American-fought wars combined. Inaugurations signal change, they’re seen as new beginnings…but, like resolutions made on December 31, what really counts is what happens on the day – the days – after. Which largely depends on what has taken place the days before. So while many breathed a sigh of relief yesterday, we yet woke up, on the day after, to a world, to a country, racked by division, injustice, and deep ideological animosity.
Facebook was full of commentary and insights yesterday, and one post felt particularly resonant: the observation by some clergy that President Biden has “big Interim Pastor energy.” Many of our churches have gone through schisms and setbacks, crises and conflict. Pastors leave, members leave, councils come to loggerheads, and the church is left with a whole heap of pain, a whole lot of division, and a whole load of grief. It takes the right pastor – gentle, compassionate, wise, patient, prodding – to step into that and give congregations the room and the tools to speak to each other truthfully, to name their hurts, fears, and hopes, to rediscover their common loves, and to remember who they are in Christ.
Of course Joe Biden isn’t a pastor. He brings into office an agenda that goes beyond uniting the country, an agenda which I know many people greet with apprehension, concern, even despair. But I think, regardless of political persuasion, most of us can agree that Biden has the right temperament for this moment. His compassion, his gentle demeanor, his own struggles and loss, have equipped him to be what I hope he will be for this country – a leader who helps us speak to one another in truth, love, and humility.
And if Biden is that person – if, imperfect though he undoubtedly will be, he is able to create room for hard and healthy conversation, for reaching across aisles and over walls, then it’s up to us to take advantage of this moment and put the work in. In whatever small ways we can, wherever we can.
It’s tempting to place the burden of this moment, the hope of change, on federal employees, on laws and bills, on presidents and vice-presidents, on administrative changes. But I’m reminded today of a letter written by the American philosopher William James in 1899, in which he wrote, “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time.”*
I would counter Mr. James and say that sometimes you need bigness and greatness. Inaugurations and national movements and sweeping reform have their place. But what I hear in this quote today, on the day after, is the reminder that we cannot forget that even the smallest of actions can have a big effect. And, if I might re-route James a little, I am reminded of the great promise that we rely not on our own power, but on the power of the Spirit to take what we might deem insignificant and use it in mighty ways in the Kingdom of God.
And so, on the day after, the Church gets up and is called, as it is every day, to the work of the Kingdom. That work will look like many things. It will look like repentance, both of our individual pride and hostility and judgment and of the church’s collective complicity in promoting a gospel not our own. It will look like grief, as we lament the loss of friendships and relationships, the loss of hope, the loss of the love we once held for country or community or congregation. It will look like truth-telling, as we call out wrongs and hold fast to what is right, among those with whom we disagree, and, perhaps more importantly, among those we count as friends. It will look like vulnerability, as we speak honestly about our fears and our hopes. It will look like humility, as we seek to understand the other.
Above all, it will look messy. We are, after all, only human. We won’t achieve any great utopia, we won’t fix every problem, we won’t restore each relationship. We will not because we cannot. The people of God have been learning that lesson from the first bite of the apple.
But we can respond to the call of the Gospel to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility, however imperfect our response may be. We can trust that the Spirit is at work in us, in our communities, in our churches and our countries, and be bold to follow where it leads. We can pattern our lives after the one who inaugurated the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom so much bigger than the United States, than North America, than the Western World, than any image we might hold in our head. A Kingdom in which, one day, all will indeed be well.
And, knowing our own weakness, we can bathe our life and our labors in prayer. Prayers for peace, prayers for unity, prayers for love.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled
as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
*William James, The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 2, 1926: 90