After the disastrous eight years of the Bush presidency, I knew that I wanted to be in Washington to witness Obama’s historic inauguration and the beginning of a new political era. The only reservations I could get had me flying out on Monday night via Chicago, arriving at National Airport at 8:45 Tuesday morning—cutting things a little close on timing, perhaps, but the only thing I could do given other commitments on this coast. With the swearing-in scheduled to begin at noon, I’d have several hours to get downtown.

InaugurationSign.jpg As it happened, things did not run quite so smoothly. The plane from San Francisco was delayed more than an hour with a problem they ended up not bothering to fix, which caused us to miss the connection in Chicago. The next flight was due to arrive at 10:49, but that plane also experienced delays. In the end, we touched down at National around 11:15, which was definitely a bit scary to those of us on the plane (at least a third) who were in Washington to see the inauguration. Some of the passengers talked about staying at the airport and watching it on the television monitors, but I convinced several people that we ought to be able to make it in time. We ran to the Metro (which was relatively quiet by this time), took the train to L’Enfant Plaza, and made our way though the crowds toward the Mall. Amazingly, we managed to get to our vantage point at Independence Avenue and 8th Street SW almost exactly at noon.

OnTheMall.jpg I didn’t have a view of the stage, but did have a reasonably clear line of sight to one of the Jumbotrons set up on the Mall, which you can see in the photo on the left. When I arrived, Joe Biden was being sworn in as Vice President. That was followed by a beautiful instrumental rendition of “Simple Gifts” (particularly moving to me because it was one of the songs at our wedding) performed by a quartet that included Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. The sound system was excellent, and we could hear everything well, even when the crowd began to get more vocal when Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States and began his inaugural address. I thought it was very good, even though I was expecting to hear more in the way of memorable quotations, along the lines of Kennedy’s inaugural. In retrospect, I’ve decided I agree with Frank Rich, who described in his weekly column in this Sunday’s New York Times why this was “no time for poetry” and why Obama’s address had to strike a different tone.

Monuments.jpg As soon as Obama finished his address, the crowds on the Mall began to clear out. I stayed for the rest of the program, including the poem by Elizabeth Alexander and the wonderful benediction by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. By the end of the speeches, however, I figured I was already behind a million people or so trying to get on to the Metro, so I decided to walk the three miles back to National Airport. I took the picture on the right of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial from the Rochambeau Bridge across the mostly frozen Potomac. I made it back to the airport in plenty of time for my flight back to California, feeling proud to be an American for the first time in many years.

On the Sunday after the inauguration, my memories of the events of that day and Barack Obama’s address led me to offer some reflective ministry at Palo Alto Quaker Meeting. Several people at Meeting asked if I could write down what I said and share it more widely. Although it’s always difficult to recapture exactly what was in my mind at Meeting for Worship, the following is reasonably close:

In Meeting today, I’ve been thinking back over the historic events of the past week, and I wanted to share a thought that I had when I was standing on the Mall in Washington listening to our new president deliver his inaugural address. I remember one point in the speech when I was taken somewhat aback and needed to reflect a bit on the meaning of the words. Early in his remarks, the president noted that although we are still a young nation, that “the time has come to set aside childish things.”

I think I understand what he intended to imply in those words: that we need to grow up and accept the responsibilities that come with maturity as we seek to solve the many problems that we face. But I’ve always had trouble with that passage from 1st Corinthians, if for no other reason than that it seems to undervalue children. Children have very little to do with the problems that we see in the world. The violence and hatred that inflame the globe come from adults who act just as too many adults have acted throughout history. There are warlords who recruit children to fight as their proxies, but the responsibility remains firmly in adult hands. And not even the most self-absorbed child could comprehend the greed of the financial wizards who have brought the world economy to the brink of collapse. That takes an adult mind.

Somewhat later in his address, President Obama encouraged us all to “pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off.” In my experience, children do that better than anyone else. Some tears may come immediately after the fall, but a child quickly gets back up and goes running off with undiminished excitement about the world and what it offers. I’ve long believed that there is a big difference between the word childish and the word childlike. It seems to me as if the world needs more of that childlike joy and wonder.

In his first inaugural, President Roosevelt, speaking to a country mired in the Great Depression, told his audience that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Setting aside for the moment that this claim was not entirely true then (if nothing else, fascism was already on the rise in Italy and Germany, leading to the Holocaust about which our friend spoke earlier), we do face a world today that has profound similarities to the one of 1933. We stand on the brink of what may well become the second Great Depression, and we again have need to be afraid of the fear that strangles our economy and keeps us from, as Obama encouraged us to do during the campaign, becoming the change we seek. But there are other things we need to fear as well, most notably that sense of cynicism and hopelessness that have been part of our lives for too long. That cynicism is an adult quality, which young children do not ordinarily possess. We need to banish it from our lives.

As I stood there on the Mall and thought about how we can best “begin again the work of remaking America” and as I think about that question again today, I couldn’t help but think about the words with which John F. Kennedy ended his own inaugural: “with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”