I have been thinking about what President Obama said near the end of his farewell address.
He said that the most important person in the country is still the citizen.
As President-elect Trump assumes office, it will be a great challenge for our leaders on all sides to move the country forward.
It has been a strange juxtaposition of weeks, from the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to the Inauguration Day of President-elect Trump.
The last 18 months have, if anything, highlighted that our differences and pain with one another are more complex and deep than we might have led ourselves to think.
The wounds of racial, class and other divisions are stubborn in their resistance to healing.
Churches might see an opportunity to involve themselves more deeply than ever in the ministry of reconciliation.
Reconciliation in the gospel is the work Jesus did on the cross, embodied in Ephesians 2 where Paul points out both that the grace of God bridged the gap between humanity and God and also made possible for those who were once hopelessly divided enemies to be made into a community of love.
Inauguration Day invites us to pray for our nation, the new president and Congress, and also the American people. Leaders alone can fix nothing. Only an active and engaged citizenry can create a healthy nation.
King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” contained two sentences worth pondering: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
This moment requires both civility and bluntness from us toward one another. But how on earth can we do both without deepening the divide?
It is intriguing that political power is often at the core of our debates – who has it, who doesn’t and how can it be wrested from others for my group?
That is one way forward – to let the ruthless competition of groups play out into winners and losers.
The other, though, is to sacrificially build a third and better way across divides. Might we, citizen Christians, help by standing in the divide to embody empathy and compassion across the divide?
Empathy is neither passivity nor weakness. At its heart, it is not only the ability to feel, comprehend and care about the pain of the other but also the willingness to do it.
The third verse of the hymn, “Ties That Bind,” captures this well: “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear / And often for each other flows a sympathizing tear.”
Faith must become works; word must become flesh.
A healthy prayer life is not just about “me and mine.” It sends us out. It enlarges our world.
Perhaps, in this frustrated, angry, unhappy time, we might resist the temptation to withdraw and move deeper into the pain of this moment.
We might extend ourselves to a place of discomfort to understand and build deeper ties that will really build a better world, even to work with those with whom we profoundly disagree.
This is the challenge of our own gospel in this time of change.
It is not merely that the new president will need it. It is that we ourselves need it.
To sink into partisanship without a larger spirit is to forsake our very faith. “We have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Being a good citizen means finally putting the welfare of others and our nation above ourselves.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of articles about the inauguration of President-elect Trump, focused on the importance of praying for the new president (and all elected officials), honoring their election and engaging respectfully our representatives.
Previous articles in the series are:
Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.