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.

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]

Dealing with differences in relationships

Holding handsA couple weeks ago, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area, John Ortberg and clinical psychologist Rick Blackmon sat down to have a conversation about relationships — marriage in particular.

I found it immensely helpful, not just for marriage but for relationships in general. Pastoring in a church that’s over 70 percent single means that there’s a lot swirling around in the dating/relationship/engaged sphere, and learning how to be in relationship in a healthy way is an important part of … well, being human!

John began by asking, “What’s the biggest obstacle to having a great marriage?” To which, Rick replied:

The biggest obstacle to having a great marriage [and, I’d say, to having a healthy relationship, period – JF], one that continues to be life-giving and close and healthy, is dealing with differences.

 

I can attest to that with my friends, both in the context of married life as well as in the context of interacting with others in the political realm here in DC. Because it’s not a question of whether we’ll have differences — as my counselor put it, “As long as you’re dealing with someone who isn’t you, you’ll have differences.” Instead, it’s a matter of how we deal with those differences.

“In any relationship,” said John, “sin is always inevitable but grace is always available.

Sin is always inevitable because human beings are sinful, selfish, prideful, self-righteous, unaware, and oblivious, and we hurt one another, both intentionally and unintentionally, even just by assuming that we’re always right and that the other person must therefore be wrong.

But grace is always available — the grace of God, first and foremost, and then as Christians, the grace we are called to show one another. “Forgive us what we owe, just as we have already forgiven what others owe to us,” is a paraphrase of a line from the Lord’s Prayer. We have been shown grace; and so we are called to show grace and empowered to do so by the Spirit of God living within us.

Rick also suggests a helpful tool for dealing with conflict, using the acronym CRAFT. See below for my notes (or listen to the podcast here):

  • Get back to a Conversational level
    • When we get reactive, our response moves from the cortex (calm, rational) to amygdala (bird brain, 100% self-protective, fight or flight, limited capabilities), so we often see either fast, loud, outlandish responses (fight) or complete shut down (flight).
    • Prov 29:11: “A rebel shouts in anger; a wise man holds his temper in and cools it.”
    • It can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to calm down enough to talk, so make sure you create that space.
  • Recall what happened
    • The goal of this exercise is not to unify views on what took place, but to learn how the other person experienced that, to develop a curiosity for the other’s perspective, to cultivate empathy.
    • James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”
    • The first example of marital discord in the Bible was Genesis, where Adam throws Eve under the bus.
    • The sinful self always wants to blame the other; the redeemed self aims to speak the truth in love (Ephesians).
  • Apologize
    • Say “I’m sorry.” James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another.”
    • “It’s not possible to be in a relationship for a long time and not to wound them and be wounded by them.” – Rick
    • There are two forms of apology:
      • “Oops” or apology for impact: “I can tell that what I did hurt you so I’m sorry for that, but I’m still not sure I did anything wrong.” The more serious the offense, the less appropriate this response is, but this kind of apology is still better than nothing.
      • More heartfelt and genuine: actually owning intent, e.g. “I did this because …”, e.g. the prodigal son.
  • Forgive
    • There are two responses to being hurt and wounded by somebody:
      • Get even (the normal, natural response, certainly a bird brain response).
      • Forgive (asking for forgiveness or extending forgiveness)
        • Look one another in the eye and say, “I forgive you.”
        • Jesus said, “Forgive one another up to seventy times seven times.”
        • Paul also said, “Forgive one another.”
    • It’s actually difficult; it takes practice.
      • Especially with Christians, it can be easier to ask for forgiveness than to extend forgiveness.
      • Understand also that it takes time.
  • Talk
    • Talk about what you wish had happened instead, what you wish you had said or what your spouse/friend had said.

Some final points:

  1. Rick emphasized that conflicts often end on the same note on which they begin; that is, if it begins with a harsh tone, it’ll probably end with a harsh tone, and if it begins with a gentle tone, it’ll probably end with a gentle tone. Be aware of how you approach differences and conflict.
  2. John reminded us that growth is always possible. The alternative is stagnation and to remain trapped in sin. (And that doesn’t sound pleasant or healthy at all, does it?!)
  3. We need wisdom in dealing with conflict, but more foundationally than that, we need Jesus and we need grace. After all, true wisdom is to properly fear and reverence God — to understand who he is, who we are, and how much we need him.

Thanks, Brennan

Brennan Manning

(1934-2013)

Brennan Manning passed away early on Friday, April 12; he was 79 years old.

I am beyond thankful for the life and writings of Brennan Manning. I know he was a flawed and sinful man; everybody did–he never tried to hide it. He was always very transparent with the depth of his failings and, more importantly, the depth of God’s love and grace.

TheRagamuffinGospelIt was through one of Brennan’s books that grace truly broke through into my life while I was in college. I’d grown up in a Christian home, going to Sunday school every week, and learning what I had to do to get into heaven (which essentially boiled down to “being good”). But I found myself, more often than not, confessing the words of Paul in Romans 7:19, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Somehow, I stumbled across The Ragamuffin Gospel, and here’s what happened (as I wrote — and preached last summer):

Years ago, I read The Ragamuffin Gospel … and it changed my life. After years of guilt and shame at not being able to live up to the standard I thought I was ‘supposed to’ live up to, falling short in failing to always treat people kindly, in losing my temper (I was an angry teenager, too!), in struggling with issues of lust and pornography, in taking for granted the many blessings I had been given rather than accepting them with gratitude and using them to bless others, and in a hundred different other ways—for the first time, through the words of this book, I began to truly understand grace—amazing grace, the grace of Jesus Christ.

I realized—not just in my head but in the very core of my being—that I didn’t have to work to earn God’s favor any more. I realized that God wasn’t keeping track of the number of times I’d failed and fallen. I realized that God loves me, accepts me, and welcomes me, as I am. I realized what it means when Paul writes, in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

Philip Yancey wrote in the foreword to Brennan’s memoir, All is Grace:

Like Christian, the everyman character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, [Brennan] progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.

Thank you, Brennan, for walking the road you did, and for inviting so many others into the wideness of God’s mercy.

Rest in peace.

A Resolution

Resolution for 2013?

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

– 2 Peter 3:18