Inaugural prayers, sermons and controversies

obama-crossMy sick daughter/frozen pipes/burst pipes trifecta-of-chaos this weekend prevented me from fully enjoying the pre-inaugural festivities here in Washington. But I watched a bit of the celebrity concert that got things going (I can't get enough of Mary J.) and was sorry to see that HBO did not broadcast the opening prayer by Bishop Gene Robinson. Friends who went down to the Lincoln Memorial reported that the microphone cut out just as Robinson began his prayer and only came back on as he said "Amen."

I haven't seen any substantive media coverage of the prayer, although religion journalists made sure to mention it on their blogs. Jeffrey Weiss at the Dallas Morning News called it the Obama Prayer Controversy #1. Here's how the Boston Globe post begins:

In the invocation offered by Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire at today's inaugural welcoming ceremony, the openly gay bishop called on God to "bless us with anger -- at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people."

Not surprising for Robinson but certainly interesting. Perhaps we'll see more stories in the next day or so. Not that all the stories about, say, the pre-inaugural rush for Botox aren't important. But when the Associated Press is allocating 87 words for entire stories about pre-inaugural sermons of note, I guess I shouldn't be too hopeful.

One great religion news story was filed by Nikita Stewart and Hamil Harris at the Washington Post. They covered the Obama family's visit to a local church on Sunday:

Barack Obama and his family attended services yesterday at one of the oldest historically black churches in Washington, thrilling a congregation that honored the president-elect for advancing the legacy of such civil-rights icons as Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The story is packed with details about the church and the Obamas' visit. We learn that the church originated in 1802 as a congregation of slaves and whites who worshiped together. Later it was sold to Black Baptist ministers. It is known for its progressive politics, in which it is very active. Former attorney general John Ashcroft is one of many notables who has attended services there.

Early on we are told that the Rev. Derrick Harkins focused his sermon on how God prepares people to do incredible things in challenging times:

After learning that the Obamas were coming yesterday, Harkins said, he agonized about his sermon, which he titled "For Such a Time as This." Whatever nervousness he felt, he said, was dispelled once he met the Obamas just before the service. And, indeed, Harkins exuded a confidence, almost as if counseling Obama. From time to time, he would get fiery and loud and then speak in a hushed tone.

Obama appeared pensive, sitting with his hands folded at his chin. At least twice, he took a pen out of his pocket and jotted down a note.

In his sermon, the pastor talked of the biblical heroes Mordecai and Esther, who met the challenge and saved themselves and their fellow Jewish people. He cited another event that has dominated headlines in recent days: the heroic actions of the pilot of a faltering US Airways jet that safely landed in the Hudson River. The pilot had years of training before that moment when he had to save the plane. You never know, Harkins said, when the experiences you accumulate in daily life will be put to a test.

And so it is with Obama. "You are aware that you are here for such a time as this," Harkins said. He urged the president-elect to remember two things when times grow difficult. "First, look to your wife as an encourager," he said. And second, "God is in the transformation business."

So often these visit to church stories neglect to include any of the actual substance of the service. This story did a great job of providing some color -- they hymns, the general scene, the sermon. It's a welcome change.

And if you're looking for an upcoming prayer controversy story, the Politico reports that one of the participants at the Wednesday prayer service heads an Islamic group that federal prosecutors say is linked to Hamas. Who says the religion beat isn't exciting?

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