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Pastor talks of faith, turmoil

Rick Warren touches on the inauguration controversy in his Christmas Eve sermon.

December 25, 2008|Duke Helfand and Raja Abdulrahim

President-elect Barack Obama caused an uproar this month when he picked evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Both men defended the invitation as a way to build bridges even as gay-rights activists and some of Warren's fellow evangelicals condemned the decision.

On Wednesday, as Warren ushered in Christmas Eve at his sprawling Saddleback Church in Orange County, he joked briefly about the inauguration fallout in a sermon devoted mostly to another pressing issue: the importance of faith when plans are upended.

Warren told the 3,100 people who packed the church's cavernous worship center about some plans that had not turned out as anticipated. "President-elect Obama's plans for a noncontroversial inauguration -- right out the door," he said, drawing a round of applause from the congregation.

The prominent minister also delivered a sobering message for Christmas.

"You may be going through a change in plans right now," he said. "You hadn't expected to be laid off or to be financially tight right now. And when that happens, you're asking, 'Why me, why now?'

"Jesus said you don't understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later. That's the . . . thing you have to learn when God changes your plan. You have to learn to trust him."

Saddleback Church attracted about 21,000 people to six services on Christmas Eve and an estimated 50,000 total since Saturday at its four Southern California campuses.

Warren preached at several of Wednesday's services from a pulpit surrounded by a band, a string ensemble, six Christmas trees and a giant wreath with a sign that declared: "The Christmas Connection." At times, the service had the feel of a concert.

Though Warren kept his Christmas message apolitical, he has spoken previously about the inauguration.

Addressing the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Long Beach last weekend, Warren said his decision to deliver the invocation reflected his mission as a Christian to embrace all comers, including those with whom he may disagree.

"I happen to love Democrats and Republicans," he told the gathering. "And for the media's purpose, I happen to love gays and straights. . . . Who ever came up with the idea that you have to agree with everybody on everything in order to love them?"

Warren added: "And you know what my attitude is: You don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand, and you can disagree without being disagreeable. And this is what Barack Obama and I happen to agree on."

In the same speech, Warren described the United States as a land of immigrants, telling his audience: "I think it's historic that we have a first-generation immigrant who's just been elected president."

Warren and Obama have shared a stage on more than one occasion.

In August, Obama, who was then the Democratic nominee, appeared with his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, for a candidates' forum in which Warren interviewed each man separately. Conservative Christians criticized Warren for opening his pulpit to Obama.

Warren also faced biting criticism in 2006 when he invited Obama to speak at his church for a global AIDS summit. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also appeared at the church for an AIDS conference last year.

But Warren may be evangelicals' brightest hope for gaining access to the incoming Obama administration.

One scholar who studies evangelicals called Warren's decision to appear at the inauguration a smart move. Although he remains firmly against abortion and gay marriage, Warren is viewed by many Christians as a moderate. He has spoken about the need to care for the environment and made the fight against AIDS and other problems in Africa a chief cause at his church, which attracts 22,000 attendees each weekend.

His relationship with Obama could secure a voice for evangelical Christians in the new administration.

"It would be a bad thing for evangelicals for someone like him not to accept this invitation," said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago.

"For someone as mainstream and centrist like Warren to rebuff that would be a bad sign from the evangelical side, [as if] to say, 'We aren't even going to play ball.' "

At Saddleback Church on Wednesday, several congregants dismissed the inauguration controversy as political hoopla, saying they were proud of their minister and Obama for reaching across a potential divide.

"I think it's exciting," said Lindsey Barr, 27, a processing clerk at a computer software company in nearby Aliso Viejo. "It's time for a change. This could be his [Obama's] first change."

As the 3 p.m. service drew to a close, Warren thanked his congregation and sought to put his public life into perspective.

"Some people have said, 'Are you ever going to respond to all this stuff that's on the news lately?' " he said. "Right now, you're my top priority."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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