What I learned from praying at the White House

Easter Prayer BreakfastI got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone–and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at The District Church (more on this later)–was, Who, me? I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice-President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Easter Prayer Breakfast table pic

Eight years ago, 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this, and–please don’t get me wrong–I was excited. (That may also be an understatement.) There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President–“Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church; we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?” But all that came out was a “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

President Obama at Easter Prayer BreakfastThe breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of too. From Vice-President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections–and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!–to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday–just as The District Church community had come together on Sunday as family to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with joy and hope, this was the same kind of thing with an equally diverse family–from different traditions and backgrounds and ethnicities and political affiliations–only with people who were in the news a little more.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.

Every one of us has sin in our lives that separates us from God–addictions, hidden failings, anger problems; and every one of us needs the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to redeem and restore us.

Every one of us faces struggles that threaten to derail our faith–despair, doubt, disappointment; and every one of us needs to be reminded of the hope that we have in Christ in the midst of those trials.

Every one of us is a walking paradox, to whom we may say both, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” (as we did seven weeks ago today on Ash Wednesday), and also, “You are a child of God, an image-bearer of the Most High, a friend of Jesus, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Almighty’s chosen vessel–together with his church–to bring restoration and renewal to a hurting world.”

Young or old, rich or poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian or mixed, Republican, Democrat or independent, pastor or president–we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. 

I think that’s part of the wonder and the mystery of the gospel: none of us has reason to boast, and all of us have reason to rejoice. In the kingdom of God, degrees, titles, connections, and positions are not what define us; it is the grace of God alone. In the kingdom of God, all of us have cause to say both “Who me?” and also to joyfully and courageously step into the opportunities God places before us.

One last anecdote: I had to write a draft of the prayer last week so that the White House could get a copy and make sure I wasn’t praying anything way out there. And for the first half hour or so, I just couldn’t get anything out–I was worried about what to say and how to say it and what the President might think. I remember thinking, This is weird; I pray all the time!

And then God reminded me it wasn’t about the people I was praying in front of; it was about the One to whom I was praying. After that, the words came easy.

Here’s the video and text (below) of the prayer.

Heavenly Father, gracious God, Almighty Maker of heaven and earth,

We thank you for this morning, for the words that were shared, for the truths that we were reminded of, for the fellowship we enjoyed.

And thank you for that day, that first Easter Sunday, two thousand years ago. Thank you for the resurrection miracle—the event that changed the world, that changed history, that changed everything.

Thank you for the abundant love you demonstrated by going to the cross, a love that is stronger than the grave, a love that is more powerful than sin and death.

Thank you for the amazing grace you showed us, forgiving our sins, making us new, welcoming us back into right relationship with you.

Thank you for the mercies you shower anew upon us every morning, the breath and the life you give us to sing out and shout out and live out the good news, the gospel.

Thank you for President Obama, for his hospitality in having us here. We continue to pray strength and wisdom and protection for him and for his family and for his administration.

And as we go from here, to the people and to the places you have called us, to those you have called us to serve and to love, may we all be bold and courageous bearers of the good news of Easter, of the gospel of grace and life and joy and peace and justice and reconciliation and love through Jesus Christ—in everything we say and in everything we do. And may you accomplish in us and through us more than we could ever ask or imagine, for your glory and for the sake of your kingdom. 

We pray this all in Jesus’ name … amen.

Your invitation to Easter Weekend

In case you’re looking for a place to celebrate Easter in DC this weekend, know that there’s a standing offer to join us at The District Church.

Tomorrow, April 3rd, we’ll commemorate Good Friday:

  • in Columbia Heights at Next Step Public Charter School (3047 15th St NW) at 6pm and 7:30pm;
  • on the East Side together with The Table Church and Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church at Douglas (800 11th St NE) at 7pm.

And then on Easter Sunday, April 5th, we invite you to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with us:

  • in Columbia Heights at CHEC (3101 16th St NW) at 9:30am and 11am;
  • on the East Side at Miner Elementary (601 15th St NE) at 10:30am.

Easter 2015

Making space to be reminded of grace

A couple weeks ago, I went on a silent retreat. It had been many years since I’d spent several hours in silent prayer, so I decided to aim for a shorter, four-hour retreat this time. Mid-morning, I headed to St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Washington, DC, a place that my counselor had recommended to me. On arriving, I was given a quick tour of the monastery by Brother Isaiah, the guestmaster, before being shown to my room.

Over the course of the hours that followed, I engaged in times of stillness and listening, practicing lectio divina, praying and journaling. I walked around the monastery grounds, joined the monks for noon prayer, and even enjoyed a brief nap. It was tremendously refreshing; I felt reconnected with God in a way I hadn’t in quite a while, and it was so soul-restoring and life-giving that I’m going to make it a monthly part of my sabbath rhythms.

One of the things I appreciated from the retreat was the opportunity to practice just listening to God—something I’ve wanted to do more consistently and build into my life rhythms. The questions I felt God asking me, the things I was told, the truths that were reaffirmed were all immensely germane, and I felt refreshed in my whole being, specifically in my calling to be more like Jesus.

I’d been reading Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus, and it was an important companion, particularly as I’ve been reflecting on the nature of ministry and leadership much more intentionally over the last few months. The question Nouwen asks right at the beginning—“Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?”—is one that has been at the forefront of my mind recently on two levels. First, on a personal level: one of the projects I have been tasked with this year is to help our church clarify its discipleship process, which is both exhilarating and daunting. Thinking about how I am making disciples of Jesus has also made me aware of the ways in which I am—or am not—being a disciple of Jesus. I want to be able to say, as Paul does, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Second, on the communal level: as I consider and pray through how we as a church are making disciples, Nouwen’s question is a clear, concise, and focused one, which gets to the heart of the journey of Christian faith.

It was also helpful to pray about and reflect on my responsibility as a pastor, as one of the main leaders of a Christian community. Particularly in DC, the temptations of relevance, popularity, and power are pervasive—they essentially form a kind of currency in the city, especially among the young, educated transplants who make up the majority of our congregation. In the face of these cultural values and inclinations, it is important to know how to counteract them—and what good we are building into our lives in their place: prayer, confession and forgiveness, and theological reflection.

As I mentioned, I participated with the monks in noon prayer. I didn’t know what to expect, nor even really what to do. But a kind monk showed me to my seat when I was about to go in the wrong door, and then Brother Isaiah provided me the info I needed.

St.-AnselmsAs we were waiting to begin, as I sat on the hard wooden pew, drinking in the sight of the arched ceiling of the chapel, the thick wooden rafters, the simple altar, the monks in their dark habits, and the cross of Christ suspended above the altar, I felt the warmth of sunlight on my shoulder and my face, as if God were laying a hand on me, or smiling on me. And I felt a peace, that full kind of peace where I know I have encountered God.

There was no ecstasy, no loud noises or instruments, no jumping up and down; only the simple grace that comes with every breath, and a reminding peace, the assurance that comes with the presence and hope of God. It was a reminder to me personally, as well as a reminder to me to remind others, that as Nouwen writes,

It is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I.[1]

[1] Nouwen, Henri, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company (1989), 58.

[Picture by Bill Black]

What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

Last night in small group, we were talking about Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-26, where he says:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

And the question that followed was:

What does it actually mean to “take up your cross”?

On Sunday at our East Side parish, Matthew made the really good point that “taking up one’s cross” has, in many cases, particularly in the West, become stripped of its impact and significance. People tend to use a phrase like “That’s just my cross to bear” for any inconvenience, irritation, hardship, or suffering, when that’s not what Jesus means. As Matthew said (and you can listen to the whole sermon here: “Jesus: A Disciple’s Identity”):

Jesus’ cross was a sign of resistance to established authority and an instrument of shame as one hung naked and pitiful for all to see. And the temptation is for all of us to say that any area of challenge in our lives, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear,” and in so doing … we actually cheapen the cross. … Being stuck in traffic is not a cross. A hard business statistics class is not a cross. A difficult roommate, even, is not a cross to bear. Our crosses are those places where following Jesus actually costs us something quite precious.

This reference here in Luke 9 is actually the first time that Jesus mentions the cross, the first time he mentions that he’s going to die. Here, for the disciples, there’s no notion of triumph through death; there’s only death. That’s what Jesus is saying: “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to deny your own desires and take up the means by which you yourselves will die.”

And he says that they are to do it daily. So he isn’t talking about a literal, physical death — though many of the disciples would see their faithfulness to the gospel and to their Master end that way. As one of the guys in my group said last night, “He’s talking about love. Love is the way of denying yourself and seeking the good of the other. That’s the reality that Jesus was talking about and living out.”

Every moment and every day, Jesus was denying himself so that he might obey the will of the Father and seek the good of everyone he encountered. That challenges my notions of daily quiet time. Instead of my usual fallback, “Thank you, God, for this day. Please be with me. Amen”, maybe I should be acknowledging:

God, my life is not my own; my time is not my own; my body is not my own. All of them are yours. Please help me deny myself so that your kingdom might come and your will might be done in my life and through my life on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us the answer in the first part of his sentence: to take up my cross is to deny myself, to deny my own selfish desires, to seek to love and put others first at home and at work, in my friendships and in my marriage, in conversations I have and in my thought patterns. Every. Single. Day.

To take up my cross is to bite my tongue when I want to prove myself right or to justify myself, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to give of my time and my energy and my money — even and especially when I don’t feel like it — when someone is in need, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to train myself in the ways of love and self-sacrifice, to practice the characteristics of love that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13: being patient and kind; not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude; not insisting on my own way; not being irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing but rejoicing rather in the truth; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

That’s what I think it means to deny myself and to take up my cross every day.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 5:3 this way:

Every morning

I lay out the pieces of my life

on your altar

and watch for fire to descend.

I think that’s my new daily prayer.