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.

6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics

[Disclaimer: I wrote this before I read Bryan Roberts’ “7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics.” Go read that first–it’s shorter and funnier.]

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering into election season (i.e. that time when the general public begins to pay attention).

A couple friends who pastor churches in non-DC parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking–given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church–about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.

So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more–and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.

Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.

So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.

1. Offer Grace.

As Christians, we believe that–as Brennan Manning, Dorothy Day, and numerous others have put it–all is grace. Just as God has been gracious to us in giving us so much more than we deserve, so we are also called to extend that grace to others: don’t presume that just because someone disagrees with you, they’re somehow less clever or less informed; don’t assume that just because someone’s faith doesn’t work itself out the same way as yours, they must therefore not be a Christian. God’s grace is big enough to meet all of us where we are and move us on a journey toward him–that should always be the foundation on which we build.

2. Be Humble.

With grace comes humility–the understanding that there is a God and it is not us, the recognition that there is far more that we do not know than that we do, the attitude of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3) but of thinking of others as better than us (Philippians 2:3). When we recognize that grace is a gift from God and that the God we serve is far bigger than any disagreements we might have–or even the greatest challenges we might face as a nation and as a world–we are free to work as hard as we can, speak as passionately as we can, and do as much as we can, to change the world for the better, all the while remembering that it does not all depend on us, and that God brings good out of even the most awful things. And so we may walk humbly with our God and interact humbly with one another.

3. Be Civil.

Rich Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) has written a tremendous book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (that was republished recently), and last year did an interview with NPR about “Restoring Political Civility.” He talks often about the need for civility in discourse even as we maintain our convictions–to paraphrase: believing something strongly doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk about it, nor does getting along with people mean you have to check your beliefs at the door to find the lowest common denominator.

Grace and humility necessitate civility.

4. Work with Facts.

Jon Huntsman, Jr. (one of the Republican presidential candidates this year) said in a recent interview that one of the problems is that everyone appears to have their own facts, which means we’re not even starting from the same point!

Sadly, we live in a time when we can’t just take politicians at their word–there’s just too much spin (and even outright lying). So starting with the facts is always a good thing to do. Factcheck.org and Politifact are two non-partisan groups that do a great job running political claims and statements through the Truth-o-Meter.

Also, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has a very helpful blog–“Wonkblog”–that keeps me up-to-date with summaries of the latest goings-on.

5. Read and (Carefully) Apply Scripture.

Of course, facts aren’t the whole picture and focusing on individual facets of policy–even if they’re true–can sometimes obscure the larger picture; and we must always view everything through the lens of Scripture and the larger narrative of God.

Just this morning, I was reading Jeremiah 22 and was reminded of the standard to which God called the kings of Judah (and, by implication and extrapolation, any political leader):

Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (v.3)

Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. (vv.15-16)

According to this standard, neither of the standard-bearers for the major parties matches up particularly well. The middle class has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the size and health of the middle class is one gauge of the health of our society.

But a better measure is the welfare of the those who have the least. Scripture is full of references to the poor, and how God is particularly concerned with their plight; for instance, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).

This is the standard to which we should be calling our leaders: doing justice and righteousness; protecting the oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable; and upholding the cause of the poor and needy–those whom Jesus referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.”

[Brief aside: check out “The Line,” a new documentary from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association, that highlights this very issue. Trailer below.]


6. Be Prayerful

Ultimately, it comes back to God. As the people of God, it has to.

Prayer is not simply a way for us to petition God on the things we’d like to see happen, or to try to get God on our side: “Please let (insert presidential candidate) win!” or “Please keep (insert presidential candidate) from winning!”

It is also, and more importantly, the place where we come to meet with God, and to have our thoughts, our desires, and our wills, transformed by God to be more in line with who he is and what he desires–and reading and understanding Scripture is a good step toward being able to discern those things. Prayer is where we are changed, first–before that person with whom we’re disagreeing, before the policies and structures of our country, before the ossified injustices of our world. Prayer is where we grow our roots in God in order that we may bear fruit in the world.

In prayer, we are likely to be challenged to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to lower the accusing finger, to replace the vitriolic Facebook post with a civil one, to refrain from posting that oh-so-funny-but-not-particularly-gracious tweet; to truly love our enemies–that is, any who are opposed to us–and to seek their good.

I wonder if we could truly make this “the most important election of our lifetime,” as so many are wont to say, by showing the world that, as Christians, we are beholden not to a certain political ideology or party, nor to a particular economic or social philosophy, but that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, who live out our faith with the love and graciousness and conviction and humility that are characteristic of our family.

That would be pretty awesome.

[Photo credits: Romney & Obama, Joe Raedle & Olivier Douliery / Getty Images; Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary website]

Race, a black president, and the gospel

As I read, tears came to my eyes, my heart broke a little, and a sense of (what I pray was) righteous anger began to rise.

Bill Sanderson

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “Fear of a Black President,” which looked at race, racism, and how both had thus far impacted Barack Obama’s campaign and presidency, and the pall that they continue to cast over the future of this country.

I was heartbroken and angered at being reminded that this is the world in which we live. Where racism still flourishes. Where politicians can’t speak the truth openly or address issues head-on because it will rile up a small but powerful base of people who prefer ignorance or to maintain a status quo that privileges them. Where we are reminded that sin and brokenness and evil are real, not only on an individual level but become enshrined and ossified on a structural and systemic level, that they can become a part of a nation’s history and culture. Where, despite all protestations to the contrary, despite all the declarations about liberty and freedom and equality, our actions and inactions demonstrate that our actual values fall far short of the mark. Where, though large swaths of the country declare their followership of Jesus Christ, neither he nor his prodigal love and grace and welcome are to be found in the public square: not in our policies or our politics or our practices, not in our treatment of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant, nor–to speak more broadly–of our fellow human beings.

I was heartbroken and angered because I am complicit in this, as are we all. I am not a black man; I will never fully know or understand or experience the realities of life as a black man. I can empathize, I can learn, I can fight for equality, I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down all the barriers that humans have built to divide us–race being not the least of these–the gospel that raises valleys and topples mountains, and I can pray for change to come in the hearts and minds and lives of all people by the power of the Spirit of God. But I am who I am, and I am not who I am not.

As an Asian American, growing up in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, experiencing life in Southern California and now in Washington, DC, spending all of my life in cosmopolises, I have rarely been faced with overt racism. I suppose that in some ways, I have even benefited from it, perhaps unbeknownst to me, in the form of the myth of the model minority. I have never been told that I needed to be “twice as good” but “half as Asian.”

There is much in the Asian American experience to be mourned over too, much that remains largely hidden in the pages of history, not often brought to light, much that even I have yet to familiarize myself with. The Chinese people who came to work in gold mines and on the railroads. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But injustice is injustice, and the first step is acknowledging the reality of the world in which we live and our part in it. I’m reminded of Nehemiah, who, upon hearing of the state of Jerusalem, came before God to confess and repent on behalf of his people and their history of disobedience. He didn’t apologize simply for the sins of others–as if he were blameless–but recognized his own complicity in the situation: “we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6).

The second step was to act: Nehemiah gained permission from the king of Babylon, whom he served, to return to Jerusalem and restore the city (Nehemiah 2).

Likewise, we are not called simply to be upset by the injustices of the world–whether it is abuse, modern slavery, sexism, or racism. We are called to partner with God in proclaiming the kingdom of God, in announcing–by the words that we speak, by the actions we take, by the lives we lead–that we are under new management, and that the God of the universe, who revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is at work to make all things new.

There’s a misconception that the concept of forgiveness means that the offense doesn’t mean anything any more, that there are no consequences. But true forgiveness is acknowledging the reality of the offense and understanding the full impact of the consequences, and then restoring and renewing right relationship. And this is possible for us as Christians because Jesus took on himself the consequences of our offenses.

Saying that race doesn’t matter, or “They should just get over it,” not only misunderstands the reality of the offense and the full impact of the consequences, it not only denies complicity in the system and culture in which one lives; it prevents true reconciliation, true restoration, and true freedom.

From the day God broke my heart over issues of injustice, and over the years, as I’ve continued to learn just how big God really is, how expansive his mission, how all-encompassing his love, and how far he goes to reconcile all things to himself, until the day that I die, I have chosen to follow, to love, to serve, and to obey Jesus–whatever that means, and in this case, whatever that means for race and racism.

To be humble, cognizant of my part in a system built on injustice and oppression. To be attentive, discerning the movement of the Spirit of God to bring good out of all things, even the most heinous. To be loving, welcoming and honoring of all human beings, created as we are in the image of God. And to let my heart be broken by the things that breaks God’s; to be angered and upset by the things that anger and upset God–wherever one of his children is denigrated and oppressed and marginalized; and to be at work wherever God calls me to be at work.

And all by the grace of God.

I’ve included some excerpts from the piece below, but I’d encourage you to read it yourself. It’s worth it.

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police.

… aggregating his findings nationally, Stephens-Davidowitz has concluded that Obama lost between 3 and 5 percentage points of the popular vote [of the 2008 election] to racism.

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.

Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—­enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said in his “More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.

The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

Photos from Q DC

I got to attend my first Q Conference this week, and what an experience it was: so many great ideas, so many people doing such awesome work, so many things to ponder. For now, here are some of the pics from the last couple days:

Gabe Lyons
Obama's welcome
Jim Wallis & Richard Land
Q from the balcony
Andy Crouch
Miroslav Volf
Anthony Bradley talks Kuyper
Sandra McCracken
Bryan Stevenson talks justice

And for more on Q: Ideas for the Common Good, check out their website.

Obama and me: a common journey

[Official White House Photo: Pete Souza]

Yesterday morning, I tuned in to watch the National Prayer Breakfast online. I managed to catch the end of author Eric Metaxas’ keynote, and then the President’s address. I’ve always resonated with President Obama’s expressions of his faith, even from when he was a Senator, and before he ran for president–from his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the passages in Dreams from my Father. Yesterday, he drew upon several verses that form the foundation of my own engagement in politics, advocacy, and public life:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“To those whom much is given, much will be required.”

“Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”

He continued:

Treating others as you want to be treated.  Requiring much from those who have been given so much.  Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper.  Caring for the poor and those in need.  These values are old.  They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers.  And they are values that have always made this country great — when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year.  And they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.

They’re the ones that have defined my faith journey as well, which I shared when I graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary. I got to be one of the speakers at Commencement, and shared a little bit of my own journey:

***

Meanwhile, over at the Sojourners blog, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, shares his thoughts in a great response. Notably:

Money controls who gets elected and controls how laws and policies are made, I think, in utterly dangerous ways. More than ever, for those who gathered in prayer Thursday morning, money is power. And it’s the power of money in politics today that must be confronted — by people of faith — as a moral issue.

So I wondered (and prayed), where is the William Wilberforce of today, a leader who will take the message of the Bible to heart, rise up to confront the ways in which money enslaves our modern political life, lead a movement to end it, and then, one day, be celebrated for his or her courage and faithfulness to the gospel at a future prayer breakfast?

Even as we celebrate a common faith and shared values, we need to continue working to see these worked out in the world we inhabit.