A prayer for Paris

… and for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Yemen, Pakistan, and Palestine — who have also endured evil, violence, and loss of life this week.

From Psalm 10, a prayer of deliverance from enemies:

1    Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3    For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD.
4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

5    Their ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”

7    Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

10    They stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall by their might.
11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12    Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God,
and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?

14    But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

15    Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.
16 The LORD is king forever and ever;
the nations shall perish from his land.

17    O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

[image by @jean_jullien]

Prayer, the Kingdom of God, and Desperation

[Adapted from my sermon at The District Church: “How to Pray.”]

Georgia, in the 1940s. A young woman sits down at her kitchen table, opens up a notebook, and begins to write. Her hand moves slowly, hesitantly, across the page; you can tell she’s thinking as she’s writing, that her thoughts are running far faster than her hand can keep up, that she’s correcting herself in her head even before the words make it to the page. Eventually, she lets out a soft sigh and puts down her pen; she stares at the last words she’s written:

Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?

That young woman was the author Flannery O’Connor, and her question is one that, in some form or fashion, has been asked by millions of people in our time and for hundreds of years before us. It’s a question Jesus’ disciples directed to him as well—as we heard in our passage—and my hope and prayer is that this morning we’ll take a step toward answering that question.

Jesus prayed. He prayed after he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him; when crowds came looking for him, they often found him in deserted places, praying; he spent nights on mountains praying; he prayed on his own and he prayed in the presence of his disciples. Prayer was important—indispensable, in fact—to Jesus. It was at the core of his being; it was the source of his connection with God and his power.

But what is prayer?

There are two parts to the way I want us to think about prayer: Dallas Willard puts it this way—“Prayer is simply [1] talking to God about [2] what we’re doing together.” Tim Keller breaks it down into “[1] conversation and [2] encounter with God.”

Prayer is (1) asking things of God for our lives and (2) aligning our lives in the ways God asks of us.

See, the goal of prayer—this is John Ortberg, and this is key—“is not to get good at prayer, not to see who can spend the longest time in prayer. … The goal is not to pray with greater feelings of certainty, or greater eloquence, or even greater frequency. The goal of prayer is to live all my life and to do all my ministry [or work] in the joyful awareness that God is present, right here, right now.” The goal is to see more of God’s kingdom come on earth, to see more of what God wants to happen happening, to see more of up there come down here.

Kingdom Come Series

The way I like to define “the kingdom of God” is God’s rule and reign in every life and every sphere of life. God’s rule refers to the new way of living that God brings about and makes possible in every person’s life, and God’s reign refers to the realm where God is in charge, where what God wants to happen actually happens, where God’s will is done. It’s personal, it’s social, and it’s systemic; God’s kingdom is about all-encompassing transformation—God-filled, Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered transformation.

God’s been laying on my heart recently the necessity of desperation in the spiritual life. You may be pretty competent, pretty capable; you may have gotten where you are because you’ve worked hard or applied yourself or leveraged your abilities. And you should be thankful for the things God has given us. But let’s never allow those things to fool us into thinking we don’t need God. Jesus said, in John 15:5:

Apart from me, you can do nothing.

I heard a story recently about a boy who was watching a holy man praying by a river. When the man finished praying, the boy wandered over to him and said, “Will you teach me how to pray?” The holy man looked him deep in the eyes, then took his head, plunged it under water and held it there. When he let him back up, the boy was indignant. “What did you do that for?” he sputtered. The holy man shook the water from his hands and said, “I’ve just taught you the first lesson of prayer. When you want to pray as badly as you wanted to breathe when your head was under water, only then will I be able to teach you.

How desperate are you for the kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven—the kingdom that Jesus said was so good and so desirable and so awesome that a person would sell everything he or she owned to have it?

Because here’s the thing: our ability to make space for God to move in the world and in our lives is directly proportional to our desperation for God. When I look back on the times in my life when I was most aware of God or felt most close to God or saw God’s power most tangibly, it was usually when I was broken, hurting, and helpless—after a break-up or when I had heart problems for no apparent reason or when my best friend from college was dying of cancer or when I realized I had absolutely no control over a particular person or situation in my life.

Desperation leads to honest prayer; desperation softens our hearts so that we can actually hear from God and be moved by God and be changed by God and be used by God.

And here’s the other thing: our desperation for God is directly proportional to our understanding of the reality of the condition of our lives and of our world—and to the complete inability we have to improve any of it apart from the power of God.

See, I think part of the challenge of praying for God’s kingdom to come is that we don’t know what that actually looks like—or maybe we haven’t taken the time to reflect on what that could look like. Because if we did, we’d be so captivated by what God wants to do and we’d be so cognizant of our absolute inability to make that happen, that our desperation quotient would be off the charts.

So let me start with this, from Revelation 21:1-4:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

There will be no more school shootings; there will be no more gun violence in our neighborhoods or bombs dropped on our brothers and sisters around the world; there will be no more kids losing their lives before they had a chance to grow up; there will be no more death.

There will be no more refugees without homes; there will be no more xenophobia or racism or fear-based politics; there will be no more kids waiting for families; there will be no more mourning.

There will be no more bodies ravaged by cancer; there will be no more marriages falling apart; there will be no more broken homes; there will be no more crying.

There will be no more addiction; there will be no more poverty; there will be no more hunger; there will be no more pain.

For the old order of things has passed away. I want that reality here on earth as it is in heaven.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for justice to be found in our halls of government, for the poor and sick to be cared for, for the homeless to be housed, for our schools to be places where kids can grow and learn in safety, for marriages and families to be restored, and for every single person to have a place to call home.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re also asking for our own souls to be transformed, so that the sin and selfishness in our own lives, the ways we lash out at others or hurt other people, our own addictions, our own destructive habits, our own distracted half-lives—might pass away and that we might increasingly take on the likeness and the shape and the character of Christ.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for our daily bread, trusting that God will provide not what we want but what we need.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for our sins to be forgiven just as we forgive those who sin against us, we’re asking for the things we owe to be forgiven just as we forgive what was owed to us, we’re asking for grudges to be dropped and for scores to no longer need to be settled.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re praying that when we face times of trial or temptation—whether that’s losing a loved one or losing a job or not knowing how you’re going to break an addiction or not knowing where your next rent check is going to come from or whether you’re ever going to get married or whether your marriage is ever going to get better or whether you’ll ever be reconciled to your kids—we’re praying that we wouldn’t fall away, that we would remain faithful.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for God’s grace and love and beauty and goodness to be found in every life and every sphere of life.

That’s what I want to see more of, and I don’t know about you but I can’t do any of that on my own; I need God to do that in me and through me and around me.

And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what God wants to do in me by the power of his Spirit living in me. That’s exactly what God wants to do in us by the power of his Spirit living in us.

I want to pray so that I can see the reality of things as they really are.

I want to pray so that I can catch a glimpse of God’s vision and God’s heart.

I want to pray because I have caught a glimpse of God’s vision and God’s heart.

And I want to pray because I acknowledge in absolute desperation my absolute inability to make any of that come to pass without God.

If you’re interested, you can also check out my “Prayer” blog series from 2012:

  1. Whom we’re asking
  2. What to ask
  3. How to ask
  4. What to expect

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]

Denzel Washington preaches

Denzel gave a homily (my interpretation) to young aspiring actors the other day. Another reason to love this man!

To wit:

  • The desire in our hearts for things that are good is God’s proof to us, sent beforehand, to indicate that it is ours already.
  • Dreams without goals remain dreams and ultimately fuel disappointment.
  • Goals on the road to achievement cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency.
  • Put your shoes way under the bed at night so that you’ve got to get on your knees in the morning, and while you’re down there, thank God for grace and mercy and understanding.
  • If you just start thinking about all the things you’ve got to say thank you for, that’s plenty.
  • We each have a unique gift given so that we can touch and affect people.
  • You’ll never see a uHaul behind a hearse: it’s not how much you have; it’s what you do with what you have.

Preach, brother.

[Photo: BBC, 2010]