Editor’s Note: At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, 2004, when I was the religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, I met then-State Sen. Barack Obama at Café Baci, a small coffee shop at 330 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, for an interview about his faith. Our conversation took place a few days after he’d clinched the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that he eventually won, and four months before he’d be formally introduced to the rest of the nation during his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Conventio.
We spoke for more than an hour. He came alone. He answered everything I asked without notes or hesitation. The profile of Obama that grew from the interview at Cafe Baci became the first in a series in the Sun-Times called “The God Factor,” which would eventually became my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, in which Obama and 31 other high-profile “culture shapers” — including Bono of U2, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the author Anne Rice and President George W. Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson — are profiled.
Because of the seemingly evergreen interest in President Obama’s faith and spiritual predilections, and because that 2004 interview remains the longest and most in-depth he’s granted publicly about his faith, I thought it might be helpful to share the transcript of our conversation — uncut and in its entirety — here on God’s Politics.
~ Cathleen Falsani
Usually when I hear people talk about finding the good in the midst of a difficult situation, my cynical radar goes up. I picture the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian and the two thieves are being crucified while whistling and singing “Always look on the bright side of life.”
I reminds me a girl named Cathy that I knew in high school who already lived on her own before she had even graduated. At school she was the perpetual ray of sunshine, always offering warm smiles and hugs, but hardly concealing a deeper undercurrent of sadness that you could nearly taste.
But once in a while, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of grace in the middle of the worst humanity has to offer. And it’s in those moments that I tend to recognize God in our midst.
"You and I have the power to change someone’s day. And so I am going to challenge you, on this Valentine’s Day, to not only tell family members you love them, but also others whom you care for.
"In a world where people are beat up and put down, God gives us the ability to completely turn negativity, criticism and rude opinions around. “Encourage one another and build each other up,” says 1 Thessalonians 5;11. That is one of the most significant verses in all the Bible because when we do this it sets off a chain reaction of blessing.” You become the voice of God’s mercy and grace in the lives of others."
The Bible teaches us: “A good name is better than precious ointment and the day of death, than the day of birth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1)
On this day, as the world morns the unexpected passing of legendary singer Whitney Houston, this wisdom reminds us that when we grieve death, we grieve our own loss.
Ms. Houston has passed from time into eternity, from this veil of tears to a place where there is no more pain and no more tears, where the only relevant judgment is the judgment of God Almighty.
As a girl, Ms. Houston sang in church, and in her last public performance she sang, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” In the time and space between, she lived a life of wealth and fame, of joy and pain.
When our parents teach us at a very young age to say the magic words — please and thank you — they give us our first lessons in morality. Manners are the first step to morality. Etiquette is the first gesture of ethics. Manner and morals derive from the mores of a society. Etiquette derives from the ethos and ethics of a society.
When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer wagged her finger in President Obama’s face upon his arrival in her state, she demonstrated not only a disregard for the Office of the President, but she simply displayed bad manners.
In the United States, we do not have a monarch that embodies the state in his or her person. In the United States, that person is the president of the United States. He and the vice president are the only two elected officials who are elected nationwide. Thus, the president is not only the head of the executive branch of government, but he is the representative of the entire country.
Governor Brewer’s demeanor toward the president was inappropriate. However, the deeper question is why would this woman think it is appropriate to put her finger in anyone’s face, president or not?
Everybody needs forgiveness.
But it’s hard to face that. It feels threatening, like an accusation. So we tend to get defensive and start justifying ourselves, rather than seeing the one we’ve hurt.
If we’re honest, though, we all know that we’ve done things that have hurt others. Probably lots of things.
At the center of the nativity picture is that baby in the manger.
That baby Jesus will be many more things as his life, death, resurrection and eternity continues but here in the straw, and central to everything he will do and be, he is a symbol of grace.
This is what Christianity boils down to. This is it at its most naked. Shed the tragedies of Christian history, the boredom of what you’ve experienced in Church (how was that possible!), the legalism that has oppressed your youth or whatever else has damaged your perspective of God and you are left with this amazing concept of grace.
Put most simply, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.
It is with death that Dickens begins his story and it is with death that Scrooge completes his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Scrooge hears other businessman saying that they wouldn’t attend the funeral unless there was sure to be lunch served. Men for whom he had great business esteem gave no more thought to his death than they did the weather. There were thieves who stripped the clothes off his dead body and the curtains from around his bed.
He begged the Spirit to show him a scene in which some person, any person, was moved to emotion at his death. The Spirit brought him to the house of a debtor who rejoiced with his wife at the death of Scrooge because now they might have time enough to pay back their loan. When he was shown the Cratchit household there was no mention of Scrooge at all, only mourning for the passing of Tiny Tim.
When I imagine Jesus telling his disciples, “Let the little children come to me,” I have a vision of the adults moving aside and Tiny Tim with his crutch crawling into the lap of Christ.
In the scene where Tiny Tim is introduced, his father tells this story of him:
“Somehow, he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas-day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
It is this child like faith that moves Scrooge to ask the Ghost of Christmas Present if the boy would live to see another Christmas. The spirit answers that he sees an empty chair at the next Cratchit Christmas. Scrooge begs for the future to be changed and the boy spared.
The specter of Jacob Marley entered Scrooge’s room. It had been seven years to the day since Marley died.
Before he sees them, Scrooge hears the clanking of the heavy chains his old business partner now carries with him.
Scrooge asks how it is that Marley became thus fettered.
“I wear the chain I forge in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it.”
Marley did not realize in life that he was a slave. He assumed that his wealth and the absence of external restraints meant he was free, when in fact his miserly and selfish ways were forging the means of his own bondage.
An ebenezer is a reminder. It tells the story of God’s faithfulness and our repentance. It is a marker for transformation and conversion.
Dickens, I would assume, did not give Scrooge the first name “Ebenezer” without reason. While the word has fallen out of common use (the hymn “Come Thou Fount” is often sung now with the word “altar” in replace of “ebenezer”) it is still powerful with meaning.
“Ebenezer” is the marker that commemorates the moment that everything changed. In difficult times it is the reminder that what was true at the time of the original change, namely God’s faithfulness, is still true today.
Editor's Note: Rob Bell, 41, the founding pastor of Mars Hill church in western Michigan, bid adieu to his congregation in a 5,000-word epistle about grace and peace, which he preached on Dec. 18 to thousands in the converted strip mall that has housed the "Jesus community" for a decade. He said, in part:
"this church, this place, this community, was once simply a
hunch. a dream. a vision. a picture in the mind of a new kind of church for the new world we find ourselves in. a church that was fearless in confronting the injustices and systems of oppression that lurk around every corner and at the very same time deeply committed to the personal, intimate experience of following Jesus, of experiencing the joy and peace that transcends space and time. a church that found the stale, old categories of liberal and conservative boring and irrelevant because we'd experienced resurrection, which includes and affirms anything and everything that brings liberating, new life wherever it's found irrespective of whatever labels and categories it's been given because of an abiding conviction that the
a church where the main thing was actually the main thing."
I think of Mary, the young woman whose eyes were opened to God’s messenger, whose womb was opened to God in human flesh. The Greeks call her theotokos — the God-bearer.
She is the one who welcomed Jesus to make his home in her. Blessed among women, she is a model for us.
She’s not just an inspiration for a house of hospitality. She is one.
Two years ago, Leah was very pregnant during Advent. Because of high blood pressure, she was on bed rest for most of it. So we waited.
We waited for our daughter to come, and we waited for Christmas. We waited with Mary to greet face-to-face the One whom we invite into our lives every time we whisper a prayer.
Waiting, we learned, changes your relationship to time. You stop partitioning it into blocks, and you learn to receive it.
There has been a lot of anger levied at the very wealthy since the Occupy movement began back in September. There is no doubt that much of this anger is justified – righteous indignation, if you will.
The ways that people have become extremely wealthy have often been corrupt or immoral, whether or not they are technically "legal." Part of the reason that the Occupy movement sprang up was because people felt that there were different rules for "us and them." People who lost millions of dollars in what was effectively high-stakes gambling were pardoned with little more than a slap on the wrist, while regular families lost everything in a crisis they had no hand in.
As I say, there has been, and still is, much anger. But out of that anger must come something new, something tangible and real.
Those two words bring to mind two very contrasting images from recent headline news: One is the shocking image of University of California at Davis students seated on a pathway, arms linked in peaceful protest, as they are repeatedly doused with pepper spray by a zealous campus police officer. The other is of the equally zealous shopper on Black Friday who sprayed her fellow Walmart customers so she could buy a discounted X-Box.
On the one hand we have an image of the power of nonviolent protest to expose injustice, and on the other an appalling image of consumer greed.
These are the signs of our times.
It's that time of the year again, the joyful season when Jeff, my iTunes DJ, starts spinning holiday music when I choose "random" from the play options on my keyboard.
I almost always have headphones on with music playing as I work each day, and the surprise of what Jeff, as I call him, comes up with — especially when he reaches into the way-back machine for sonic fodder — is a daily delight.
Oh joy! It's long been one of my favorite unconventional Christmas songs but I'd forgotten about its many charms until I was taking my first sip of coffee today.
The song, which appears on David's 2006 album Vista, is a take on the Natvity story seen through David's remarkably creative, often childlike sensibilities. Here's a taste of the lyrics:
Few will chose to follow
Out of all the star invites
Most will hide safe inside
With the lantern turned up bright
Waiting for a miracle
To me, "unexpected" is at the heart of how I understand grace. It is the unearnable gift, the divine reversal and sacred surprise, the still small voice that drowns out the din of the maddening crowd, the little bit extra that my Cajun friends call lagniappe, the very thing we "deserve" the least but get anyway. From God. From the One who created the world and the audacious, indescribably power of love.
Taking a cue from Nell, here are just a few of the unexpected blessings I am grateful for today:
For God's fingerprints that cover every inch of our world, seen and unseen. And for the moments where I can almost make out the holy whirls imprinted in the sky, the ocean, the sunlight, and on the faces and stories of each of us.
For the generosity and selflessness I see so vividly — all around me, all the time — even in these lean, nervous days. I saw it in Zuccotti Park, where strangers prepared and served food to other strangers. I saw it in the sober faces and strong arms of the men who helped 84-year-old Dorli Rainey to safety after she was pepper-sprayed at an Occupy rally in Seattle. I heard it in the prayers lifted at the White House, at North Park University in Chicago, and in the basement of a church in Spanish Harlem where kind, mighty souls formed Human Circles of Protection last week and stood in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, and the least of those among us. I watched it on display at border crossings, immigration rallies, refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, and at a glass blower's studio in my hometown of Laguna Beach where strangers arrived with shovels and wheelbarrows to help dig out an artist and his artwork from the muddy ravages of a flash flood. I saw it in the fresh coat of paint on the front steps of my elderly parents' home in Connecticut that my cousins had applied for them with great care and kindness when my brother and I couldn't be there to do it.
Late Friday afternoon, UC Davis campus minister, the Rev. Kristin Stoneking, was in the car driving with her family from Davis to the American Academy of Religion gathering in San Francisco when she received a phone call from a campus administrator. Katehi was "trapped" inside her office at the university administration building, where a large crowd of protesters had gathered outside, flanking both sides of the sidewalk in front of the building's entrance. The chancellor was afraid to leave on her own and asked Stoneking to come mediate her exit with students.
Stoneking was running late, having missed a few of the AAR's sessions already, and was reluctant to heed the call. She called one of the students involved in organizing the Occupy protests on campus and learned that, "students were surrounding the building but had committed to a peaceful, silent exit for those inside and had created a clear walkway to the street." So she turned the car around and drove back to the university.
"Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car? Because I believe in the humanity of all persons," Stoneking writes. "Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek. I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that 'just means lead to just ends' and my actions offered dignity not harm."
What was most telling about the disagreement between the two men was their discussion of Luke 4. Mohler argued the passage should be understood in light of how he interpreted the preaching and teaching of Paul and the other apostles. This means that when Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor that good news was personal salvation.
Wallis argued that yes, personal salvation is one part of that good news, but that the other part is the Kingdom of God breaking into the world and transforming societal relationships as well. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it is good news for a poor person's entire being, community and world -- not just his or her soul.
First, it was encouraging to hear Mohler spend a lot of time emphasizing that working for justice is essential to fulfillment of the Great Commission. Throughout the night he repeated his concern that a lot of Churches are REALLY bad at making disciples who actually do the things Jesus told us to do. As the president of one of the largest seminaries in the world, it will be interesting to see if he is able to train a generation of pastors who will do things differently. My concern is that he is missing the connection between his theology and the failure of Christians to actually do justice.
One of my most vivid childhood memories of Halloween 1977, the year my family moved to a new town in Connecticut right after the school year had begun. I don't recall what my costume was, but I do remember going door-to-door with my father, meeting new neighbors and collecting a heavy bag of candy, as the suburban warren of Cape Cods and manicured lawns morphed into an other-worldly fairyland.
I was 7 years old and the new kid on the block, so when the cover of darkness fell at sunset, I hadn't a clue where I was. As my father deftly navigated our way home in the crisp autumn night, it felt like he had performed a magic trick. When the morning came, I couldn't believe that our adventure the night before had been on these same streets. To my young imagination (and heart) it felt as if we had been walking through Narnia or Rivendell rather than a sleepy New England suburb.
A few years after that, my family stopped celebrating Halloween. We had become born-again Christians and our Southern Baptist church frowned on the practice. Halloween, I was taught, was an occult holiday (or maybe even Satanic!) and good Christians should have nothing to do with it.