Gene Robinson asks God's blessing on Barack Obama, nation

New Hampshire bishop prays with thousands at Lincoln Memorial
January 19, 2009

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial January 18, Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson asked the tens of thousands of people attending the "We Are One" concert to pray with him for God to guide "your child Barack." He also asked God to bless the country with tears, anger, discomfort, patience, humility, compassion and generosity and "freedom from mere tolerance." Robinson gave the invocation before the star-studded event that kicked off four days of inaugural events in and around Washington, D.C. In his invocation (available here and below), Robinson asked God to bless Americans with "patience -- and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be 'fixed' anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah." In his speech to the crowd, Obama later said that only a "handful of generations [of Americans] have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now," citing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy in particular. Robinson asked God to make Obama a "steady, calm captain" for the ship of state, to give him time for his wife and daughters and to "keep him safe." "We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one," Robinson said. "We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand -- that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace." One witness told Episcopal News Service that Robinson's invocation stirred the crowd. "He challenged us as a nation to move forward," said freelance writer Gaen Murphree, an Episcopal attendee from the Diocese of Vermont. "He called for God to give us tears, discomfort, and anger as part of a series of calls to action that we as a nation would work for peace, justice, and an end to poverty and discrimination both here at home and around the world, and concluded with a heartfelt plea that God would hold our new president in the palm of his hand and keep him safe." Not all of the people attending the concert heard the beginning of Robinson's prayer because of problems with the sound system. "We can't hear. We can't hear," the crowd chanted, according to the New York Times. The event was broadcast by Home Box Office and can be seen on the television station's website here. HBO's broadcast began after Robinson's invocation. However, Christianity Today's politics blogger Sarah Pulliam filmed the approximately four-minute prayer and posted it here. The concert's setting was the same steps from which Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in August 28, 1963 that he had dream of the day when all people in the United States would live in peace as equals. Robinson had told ENS that his prayer would not be "overtly Christian" so that it could be "a prayer for all people of faith." Before beginning the roughly 520-word prayer, Robinson said, "Welcome to Washington! The fun is about to begin, but first, please join me in pausing for a moment, to ask God's blessing upon our nation and our next president." Calling up the "God of our many understandings," Robinson said "we pray that you will… "Bless us with tears -- for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS. "Bless us with anger -- at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. "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 patience -- and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be 'fixed' anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah. "Bless us with humility -- open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world. "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. "And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States. "Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln's reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy's ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King's dream of a nation for all the people. "Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times. "Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead. "Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States. "Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims. "Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters' childhoods. "And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we're asking far too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand -- that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace. Amen." Murphree told ENS that "Everybody -- and I mean everybody -- said Amen." "I didn't know a political event could be so joyful," she said. "We were way out by the WWII Memorial, watching one of the video screens, and there was such a feeling of hope and togetherness in the audience. Everyone was just happy to be there and happy again, finally, to be an American." Murphree said that she had thought the event would only be a concert "but with the readings and the music, it was in fact a real celebration of America, of our shared heritage, and a real prayer for the future." "How much more joyful does it get than singing Woody Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land' with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen? And how stirring to hear 'Change Is Gonna Come' as sung by Bettye LaVette, when we're all now finally standing there together seeing that change made history," she continued. "It makes you believe in hope and in America. And when Samuel Jackson recounted Rosa Parks' story -- that was perhaps the most moving reading of all." A week before the concert, Robinson told Episcopal News Service that the inauguration committee's invitation to deliver the invocation would be "a wonderful opportunity for the Episcopal Church and certainly the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New Hampshire to be represented at this historic event and I am honored and not a little overwhelmed at the responsibility." "I just hope I can live up to it," he added. His participation in the event stands in contrast to the December 17 announcement that Obama had asked the Rev. Rick Warren, the pastor of southern California-based Saddleback Church and a leading conservative evangelical, to deliver the invocation at the January 20 swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Robinson, who is openly gay and in June entered into a legal civil union with his long-time partner Mark Andrews, was prominent among those who criticized the President-elect's choice of Warren, who has equated gay relationships to incest and child abuse. When Warren's invitation was announced, Robinson told the New York Times that "it was like a slap in the face," adding that "the God that he's praying to is not the God that I know." Robinson told ENS that he conveyed his concern to the Obama team. However, Robinson told ENS January 12 that he did not think the invitation to participate in the Lincoln Memorial event was meant to balance out Warren's participation. Instead, Robinson suggested, the invitation was based on his early support of Obama, with whom he met several times during the New Hampshire primary. Four years ago, Warren had the same slot at the Lincoln Memorial concert that started President George W. Bush's second inauguration. Pressed for his reaction to the addition of Robinson, Warren said in a statement: "President-elect Obama has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground. I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen." Robinson told a New York Times reporter that he'd be "the last person in the world to say that Rick Warren should be excluded. Frankly, I think it is a magnificent, symbolic statement that Rick Warren and I will be praying for the new president and the nation. I think that's fantastic." Robinson said that the inauguration committee had invited him and Andrews to attend a number of inaugural events during the week, including the swearing-in ceremony, the national prayer service to be held January 21 at Washington National Cathedral "and some private events with the president." He is writing about his experiences here.

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