Dear Mr. President

 

Exodus 3: 7-14

7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“

1 Kings 3:5-12

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” 10It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I write this letter on the heels of having watched your inauguration, a national ceremony enacted 17 times since my birth. The proceedings were elaborate and impressive, filled with pomp and circumstance, sacred prayers and secular rhetoric. But what is most impressive is that these proceedings mark a peaceful transfer of leadership – an expectation unheard of in much of the world!  Your predecessor stepped down, and you assumed the mantle of leadership.  And, barring protests and demonstrations, the ship of state remained afloat. But I can only imagine that one man slept well last night, and one did not.  Shakespeare’s King Henry IV said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  For on assuming the mantle –the presidential robes, if you will– you assumed far more responsibility that you have yet to comprehend. The presidential “crown,” will be very heavy, indeed.  

To presume to offer advice to the president of the United States is audacious, but one of your inaugural promises was that “the government was now being transferred back to the American people,” and I am one of its citizens.  As president, you will make critical decisions that will impact not only my children and my grandson but billions of people in America and around the world.

And so it is my hope and prayer, Mr. President, that this is a time when you will call on your faith to help you govern.  In one of your campaign tweets, you stated that “People are always amazed to find out that I am a Protestant Presbyterian.”  [That being said], “you are in good company. Seven other presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, including Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many people do not know that Presbyterians provided the very framework for modern democracy. In fact, King George III referred to the American Revolution as “that Presbyterian rebellion.” [Meisel]

As it turns out, I am a Presbyterian too, now pastoring a church in a denominationthat prioritizes mission and holds education in the highest esteem. Presbyterian churches focus on the poor and marginalized in our local communities and around the world. “Our mission and beliefs are the reason why so many communities have a ‘Presbyterian Hospital,’” explains the Reverend Wayne Meisel.  And I would add, why so many NPO’s were founded by or linked to the Presbyterian Church. According to Meisel, “It is also why so many schools, colleges and universities have been started and are supported by Presbyterian churches in the United States and globally ― including schools and universities for girls in Africa and the Middle East.”

For decades, the Presbyterian Church in America has supported the resettlement of refugees, and assisted in their resettlement. “We seek to live out the words of the prophet Micah by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.” [Meisel]

And, above all else, we study the scriptures with our hearts and minds, and rely upon representative councils to interpret God’s will for the church in our world. We are shaped by our Judeo-Christian history, the stories of our faith and the patriarchs and matriarchs who have shown us how to live.  This, Mr. President, brings me to what I want to share with you.  

I am sure you know the story of Moses.  Moses was the Israelite baby hidden in the bull rushes of the Nile but found and adopted by the Pharoah’s daughter.  He grew up and was educated in the palace, enjoyed unimaginable wealth and privilege, but found himself unable to look away from the persecution of his enslaved people.  At the burning bush, God called Moses to serve. ”Go, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  

Well, I don’t imagine Moses slept well that night.  He thought God had the wrong man.  You see, Moses, was a humble man.  “Numbers tells us that he was more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” says Adam Hamilton.  “I am not eloquent,” he told Yahweh, “I am slow of speech and tongue.  On top of that I am not very convincing.  If I go to the Israelites and say the God of their ancestors has sent me, they will not know who I am talking about.” But God didn’t back down because he uses men and women whose personal objectives do not get in the way of God’s purpose.  And he chose Moses.  

“In her Magnificat, Young Mary, the mother of Christ, says the same thing: God ‘scatters the proud and the thoughts of their hearts but lifts up the lowly.’  And to his disciples, who argue about which one is the greatest, Christ himself says, ‘You don’t understand, that’s how the kings of the world operate but that’s not how you operate.’ He said, ‘The first among you, the one who would be great, will be your servant.’” [Hamilton]

So, this great and moral leader, Moses, was a very humble man.  This is not to be confused with low self-esteem.  Moses knew his accomplishments; but he also knew his limitations.  Moses expected to make mistakes and need help.  He was human. He knew that only reliance on God – day by day, hour by hour — could take him beyond those limitations. Despite your generous inaugural promise to “never ever let the American people down,” you will, Sir. You are human. And I would suggest you own those mistakes, acknowledge them, apologize for them.  That’s the kind of genuine humility that engenders respect and good will.  

So, armed with the words and signs of God, Moses assembled all the elders and spoke the words of the Lord, and the people “believed” this humble speaker.  But that wasn’t all.  Moses also had a second trait:  Compassion.  So moved was he at the sight of a Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, that Moses intervened and killed the Egyptian. He was forced to flee the palace, his wealth, his position, and leave Egypt. His compassion cost him dearly.  Even through 40 years of wandering, 40 years of his people grumbling, 40 years of them rejecting Gods’ direction, Moses had compassion on them and interceded for them.  So much did he love his people.

Mr. President, humility and courageous compassion were central to the heart and character of Moses.  What God most seeks in a leader is someone who will take seriously the call “to justice, to do kindness, to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.”  [Hamilton]

In the Epistle of James, we read that “True religion that is undefiled before God is to care for the widows and the orphans.” This is America at her best:  a country that understands that, though we are all equal in the eyes of our maker, there are yet huge differences in advantage, opportunity, and ability.  It is our charge to care for those who cannot fully care for themselves.

The words of Emma Lazarus, etched inside the Statue of Liberty, are familiar to most of us:  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  Humility and courageous compassion for the marginalized and oppressed have been the fiber of America’s character.

Mr. President, our denomination –yours and mine– has long stood up for the marginalized and oppressed.  Grady Parsons, the stated clerk of PCUSA,  noted that Presbyterians have “consistently pushed due process at our borders and lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrantsnot widespread deportation.”  Said Parsons, “Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders.  And, we have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. //

Going back to Moses, we find a third leadership trait that means so much:  Vision – a clear and compelling picture of where we want to go.   And with that vision goes the power to motivate, to inspire people to get on board.  Moses didn’t just lead the Israelites out of somewhere; he led them to somewhere – to the destination, the vision, that God had planted in Moses.  Proverbs notes this: Without a vision – and I would add a common vision — the people perish. Pastor Adam Hamilton clarifies:  “The people don’t literally perish. They just bicker and fight and become so polarized they can’t get anything done.”  

Mr. President, I believe you won the election because of your vision and because of your ability to convey it.  Your vision resonated with enough of the electorate to put you where you are today.  But a word of caution: A vision can’t be a good thing if some benefit at the expense of others.  It must be a vision that respects the dignity and well-being of all –both here and around the globe. An isolationist policy will result in a very dangerous world, indeed.

Make no mistake:  Your arms will get tired of holding up that vision, of carrying that serpent staff.  Not many miles outside of Egypt, the Israelites began to criticize Moses. Four years in, they disliked his policies so much, a number tried to vote him out of office.  Some turned back to Egypt, willing to submit again to slavery in exchange for food. This wilderness journey was too hard!

“It was a close vote, says Hamilton, “but somehow Moses managed to keep his job. In Numbers 11, we read a wonderful, endearing story of Moses: He went out into the wilderness and he lifts up his hands and he prays, ‘God, just kill me now. I don’t want to do this anymore. It is too hard.’But this was one time that God didn’t answer Moses’s prayer.  Instead he said, in essence, ‘Get back to work. I need you.’

So Moses had to constantly remind them of the vision. He said, “We’re marching to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, where we can worship freely, where we can love, where we can practice justice, where we can live in harmony.”  It took a fierce tenacity; it took perseverance – it took that gutsy hanging on when everyone else was abandoning course.

“To be a leader is to invite criticism.”  [Hamilton] Everyone will tell you how it should be done.  Whether you teach, preach, or flip hamburgers, you will be criticized.  And the greater your responsibility, the bigger the target you become.

In his speech to President Obama’s at his second inauguration, Reverend Adam Hamilton recounted a very familiar story about Dr. Martin Luther King:  “In late January 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King received a threatening phone call. His children and his wife were asleep. This wasn’t his first threatening phone call. Since the Montgomery boycott, there had been many. But on this night, as his children and wife lay sleeping – he felt he couldn’t go on. He began to think of a way, gracefully, to bow out of leadership of the movement.  At midnight, he bowed over the kitchen table, and he began to pray, ‘I’m afraid, Lord. The people are looking to me for leadership, if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too, will falter. I’m at the end of my powers, God.  I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ And then he describes something interesting that happened next. He said, ‘I experienced the presence of the divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And God will be at your side forever.”’”

And so Dr. King did not back down, he stood up.  He stood up for righteousness. He kept going, kept marching, kept leading African-Americans to another kind of promised land.  //

What was it that kept Moses from quitting?  Surely, it was God’s reassurance and Moses’s conviction that what he was doing was right, was just, was a response to the wisdom and will of God.   Moses, with the support of the elders and judges, acted on the will of God with the wisdom of God.

Friday morning at the Capitol, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York read aloud from Solomon’s prayer to God for wisdom when he became king of Israel. Solomon is young and afraid.  He wasn’t sleeping well.  The crown that sat so easily on his father, King David, is too big for the son’s head. His father’s shoes were too big to fill, and he doubted his ability to steer such a “great people.”  So God gave Solomon the option to ask for anything and it would be granted.  What did he ask for?  Charisma? NO.  Money in the treasury? NO. A silver tongue? NO.  Power and popularity?  NO.  Solomon asked for wisdom.   “Even one who is perfect among human beings will be regarded as nothing without the wisdom that comes from you,” Solomon said.

And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for long life or riches, or for the death of your enemies, but have asked for understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” Even to this day, we rely upon the great wisdom of Solomon!

And so, Mr. President, as you begin a tenure that will require vision and tenacity, I hope that you and your advisors will not rely solely upon your own understanding but, in everything, commit your ways unto God.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that “Without God there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first – the most basic – expression of Americanism.”  I ask then, that you—our new president– will humble yourself before this Supreme Being, act with wisdom and justice, and be the agent for what is right. Millions of us have entrusted you with this task.

 

Sincerely,

Kellan Sarles, CRE,

First Presbyterian, Bluefield, WV

 

Bibliography

Hamilton, Adam.  Lessons from Moses:  2013 Inaugural Prayer Service Sermon [For President Barack Obama].  22 January 2013.

Meisel, Wayne.  A Pastoral Letter to President-Elect Trump From a Presbyterian Minister.   The Huffington Post.  2016.

Parsons, Grady, Stated Clerk.  PCUSA. 2016.