Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Amazing Grace: Thoughts on Obama's eulogy of Reverend Pickney

I just came across Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace in conclusion of his eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. I don't know how I missed it, it was understandably big news.

But I'm almost glad I came to it late because of the central message of his eulogy-- grace. I'm not a Christian, and the word grace does not trickle through my mind or out of my lips often. It's not a concept that I use to arrange my thinking or to organize my world. In fact, I tend to grimace at words from scripture, more from a reaction against a spiritual mindset than from the off-taste of unfamiliar terms. So, hearing President Obama, a personal pillar of reason and respectability, use the word grace over and over again captured my attention far more than his typically captivating oratory.

A particular element of his speech grabbed me:

But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual -- that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change -- that’s how we lose our way again.

Almost three months later, I came to this speech from within that comfortable silence. Donald Trump has overtaken the news cycles, and when before I was fired up about racism, I've slipped back into head-shaking complacency. 

But Obama talked about grace. 

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned.  Grace is not merited.  It’s not something we deserve.  Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God -- as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.  Grace.  As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.
I want to find and to be my best self. And that search requires breaking from the seance of today's increasingly informational world, which sometimes is caused by moments of glory, but all too often requires a tragedy.
The desire to find and be one's best self can be a desire to find a calling; in Latin- vocation, the noun form of vocare, to call. It's funny how a "calling" appeals to my secular sensibilities, but nonetheless a calling implies a caller. This again is a deeply Christian concept that struck me in the words of Frederick Buechner:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. -Wishful Thinking: a thinker's ABC
Grace is described as necessary for salvation, which in a general sense can be seen as improvement, as growth. Grace can be seen as a gift that drives people to work to better their selves and others. Grace is what feels good when you help a lost driver find their destination, or when you look in the mirror after doing something that was hard but was good.
President Obama asks that we use that particular moment of tragedy to wake up, to stir ourselves from complacency and answer that calling. I've been thinking and planning and hoping to shift, to develop focus on becoming my better self, on residing in that place where my deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. I hope that this blog truly serves as a web-based log of that shift, that focus. I hope that it is fun to read, that it is not overly serious, but that it travels the currents of my thoughts and interests, meandering around my gladness, but also penetrating into the world's hunger. 
It's so appropriate that he sang. Grace is not an intellectual concept, it is a feeling. President Obama's eulogy is captivating, but it verges on transcendence when he starts singing. It truly shook me out of complacency far more than the simple logic of his compelling words. I love the pause beforehand. It seems like he thought long and hard about whether or not to sing, and I'm guessing he left it to the moment to decide. During that pause, I imagine that he's thinking about whether or not to actually sing, like you get to see his wheels turning. Maybe it's his gladness that makes him decide to do it. It certainly made me glad to hear him do it, and to aspire to channel that gladness into my efforts at a better self.