Sunday, August 12, 2018

More Than Expected

Portrait of President Barack Obama.

On Friday afternoon, I needed out of here.

Introverts need time alone to recharge and be ready to do the next extroverted thing on the agenda. And my off-the-scale introversion has been tested mightily in this new seminary environment. So I looked up the bus and Metro schedule, grabbed my SmarTrip card, and headed into Washington, DC, to the National Portrait of the items on my "to do" list for this time in Alexandria.

And I was blown away. 

It wasn't just observing the work of artists who, in some cases, did some very interesting brush strokes to create a person's likeness (the Bill Clinton portrait was a psychedelic experience!). But as I moved along the wall and took in the story of the presidents we have had in this country, I was catching glimpses of just how complicated, messy, unjust, and painful the struggle has been to keep together a country like ours. Truthfully, we invaded a land that was already occupied...not unlike some of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures...and set up camp and pushed others off into a wilderness that we would then claim another century later. And we did this on the backs of others brought here against their will. Some were not so keen on that idea of slavery, and then they met with fierce opposition that disrupted their presidencies. And then there were wars. And economic depressions. And corruption and largess. 

But then there was a video playing in an alcove. It was clips of speeches saved by the History channel. And there were the accomplishments: the ADA. The reunification of East and West Germany. And....marriage equality.

To stop and listen to Barack Obama's speech before a crowd of weeping LGBTQ+ activists and couples holding rainbow flags brought me back instantly to the rush of feelings I experienced both when the noxious Amendment Two passed in Florida...on the same night that Florida helped to elect Barack Obama as our president in the incredible sense of a weight lifted from my shoulders when we were able to get our marriage license on January 6, 2015. I wept as I contemplated how even the presidents I did not admire still managed to perform the role of leader...and for more than just their own kind.

As Reagan bellowed, "Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall!" another museum visitor looked at me and shook his head.

"And now Trump wants to build walls."

Once upon a time, we did have presidents of the United States.

There was a line to see the portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. The artwork felt so vibrant and full of life with all the green foliage surrounding the seated Obama looking out at the viewer. But even more than the portrait itself was the excitement of those lining up to have a posed picture with the portrait. All ages and mostly African-Americans wanting to be standing just at his feet...make sure to get my good side poses...young children with their parents looking wide-eyed and in awe of a man who looked more like them than I do.

"He served TWO terms?" I heard them ask. "Did anyone else get to serve two terms?"

It was sweet to watch and to listen, and even the Smithsonian worker was grinning as she kept an eye on the line.

First Lady Michelle Obama's portrait resides on the next floor up and she is in a room with artists' portraits, Broadway and pop music stars, and another Wiley portrait of Notorious B.I.G. There was no line for Mrs. Obama's portrait, and so my moment with this painting felt more private. I examined the ease of her pose, the grace of her dress, and I gave thanks for her strength and composure and her endurance of eight years of public life in the face of some extremely hateful and racist commentary on her and her husband. And I cried once again.

Once upon a time, we did have First Ladies who cared.

The rest of my tour took me past legends of classical and jazz music, sports, and movies. The bust of Chuck Jones, Warner Brothers animator, delighted me. All his characters surrounded him helping to chisel away at his features.

As I left I gave thanks not only for the opportunity to have access to such a treasure of art work, but for the experience of moving through history and realizing that we have faced and been through so much as a people...and we still press on...even when it seemed like an impossible task. And I was reminded of what I remember reading in a Henri Nouwen book that, to put it into my own words, we minister out of our own brokenness and wounded souls. Those wounds, like the wounds inflicted on Jesus' body on the cross, are our place of healing that we bring to the world we encounter.

Thanks be to God for the artists who helped me to have that learning experience.

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