Monday, January 19, 2009

i thank you God for most this amazing day

These words from one of my favorite e. e. cummings' poem, describe yesterday. It goes on, in part

"and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?"

Monday was a VERY long day (hence, my not writing until this morning; and because I had trouble getting this posted, it is now Tuesday night before I'm getting it online. With apologies!] Here are a few of the day's amazing moments:

Arriving, getting through security (which was, as you can imagine, thorough!). Being shown to my "dressing room," a trailer with heat (thank God), and the announcement that I would be sharing a dressing room with Tiger Woods. Not a problem, I say. There was a sound check and walk through on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- but I couldn't keep from looking over my shoulder at the marble figure of Lincoln from inside the Memorial, watching over this gathering, with the kind of calm presence I experience in the new president.

Then lots of time to gather with others in the "Green Room." It was hard not to be a bit starstruck and bedazzled by those gathered, each and every one feeling overwhelmed at the honor of being asked to speak or perform. NO ONE was a "star" today, just fellow Americans, exuberant and joyful to be asked to participate at this historic moment. Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, director Ron Howard, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, a ninety-year-old Pete Seeger, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Correll, Forest Whitaker, Bon Jovi, Josh Groban, Stevie Wonder. I spent a lot of time chatting with Tom Hanks, his wife and kids.

I learned fairly early on that the live broadcast of the event would begin just AFTER I concluded my invocation. A decision made by HBO? Who knows? But I couldn't help but wonder if the HBO-powers-that-be could not imagine that the nation would be interested in a religious prayer. For whatever reason, it was not to be broadcast. I learned a long time ago not to worry about those things over which I have no control! I was honored to be invited to give the invocation, and that's what I intended to do.

Then it came time for me to be taken to the special "Green Room," set up in the bowels of the Lincoln Memorial, in preparation for going onstage. Denzel Washington and I were both there, rehearsing our lines. It was nice to see that he was as nervous as I was! All around us there were photos of the civil rights movement of the '60's, and a lone video monitor played excerpts of the "I have a dream" speech, Marian Anderson singing, and other great events that have taken place at the Memorial. As if I needed any reminders that this memorial is holy ground!

Then my introduction, and walking onto the steps of that magnificent shrine to freedom, and looking out at a crowd of around a million people, which flowed all the way back to and beyond the Washington monument. A teeming crowd of people, gathered to hail this new day in our common life as a nation.

You can see some pictures on Susan Russell's Inch at a Time blog:

When I got to the second petition of my invocation, the one where I ask God to "bless us with anger," those million people got very quiet. It's an unnerving experience to have a million people go silent as a result of what you are saying. It was then that the import of the moment hit me. I wanted it to be a moment for God, and of course, I will never know who or how many were touched by what was said. What I do know is that it was an indescribable honor to be asked to address God at this amazing occasion.

I then got to join Mark and Ella in our seventh row center seats. Two seats over was Toni Morrison. In the next row was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, new Attorney General Holder, and most of the new cabinet. Sitting within our full view was the new First Family, behind bullet proof glass (a constant reminder of the risk they are taking on behalf of all of us). I cannot imagine how, but they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves -- a brief respite from the overwhelming roles that await them.

Since all of the presenters/performers were asked to come back out on stage for the finale singing of America the Beautiful, I left Mark and Ella to go backstage again. There, I encountered Bono, who wanted to talk about my invocation. I was amazed that after hearing it once, he was quoting back to me things I had said. We chatted, and then he asked if I would pray with him and his band (U2) before they went onstage to perform. We gathered in a close huddle, I prayed, and off they went to play to a screaming, cheering, joyful crowd. (We saw him later that night at a private party -- and he picked up our conversation right where we had left off.)

After the closing song, the Obamas and Bidens moved down the line of presenters/performers, greeting each of us. Each of them spoke of their appreciation for the words of my prayer, and their families seemed to appreciate especially my prayers for their safety. After the event, Mark, Ella and I were invited, along with the other performers, to a small reception with Barack and Michelle Obama in a small tent just behind the Lincoln Memorial. We got a chance to chat with Michelle, and then later with the Man himself. He was unbelievably gracious, posing with me and Ella for a picture (Mark sacrificially offered to take the picture) -- which I will post once we retrieve it from Ella's camera. As he left us, he said, "Thanks, Gene. We'll be in touch." I have no idea what he meant, or IF he meant it, but it sure sounded nice!

A day filled with the nearness of God, the joy of hope and expectation, and the most remarkable sense of community I've ever experienced on such a large scale. As e. e. cummings said, "how should any human merely being doubt unimaginable You?" Indeed.