Jesus at the National Prayer Breakfast

Sorry I haven’t posted recently. I’ve had lots of things I’ve wanted to write about, but frankly I’ve just been super busy and then last week I was away at The National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. And while I had good intentions to write some posts between meetings, there was so much going on, and I got a cold, and when I had downtime, I slept.

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I had no expectations of the trip. I went because our best friends asked us to go. His family had been involved with the breakfast for a long time. And while I had heard of the breakfast in the news, I didn’t really know anything about it. In fact, prior to meeting Tim and his family, I probably assumed that if politicians were involved then it was probably a generic, watered-down “Christian” type of thing that wouldn’t be of much interest to me.

But last year I sat with Tim and Peggy just hours after they got home from the 2015 breakfast and heard all the things that excited them about the event. And it piqued my interest. (And when you have friends like these who are excited about something and really, really want you to be a part of it, you just go.) (Oh, and Tim doesn’t take “no” for as answer very graciously.) So, since the second week of February last year, the 2016 prayer breakfast has been on our calendar. My parents were good to watch our kids (thanks mom!), so we went. Follow your curiosity!

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There’s a lot I could tell you. I have notes and quotable lines from nearly every speaker. And it’s pretty cool to be in the same room as the President of the United States and hear how he commands a room. And between sessions, Tim’s mom set up great meetings with all kinds of interesting people. But if I had to condense it all into three paragraphs – and let’s be honest, I do need to do that here; you don’t want a novel – here it is:

At the closing dinner on Thursday night there was a comedian named Mike Ashburn. He had us all laughing, then told a beautiful story about his fictional grandma, then finished by having us all sing “Jesus Loves Me.” And as I sang, hot tears started running down my face.  I grabbed Peggy’s dinner napkin away from her, since mine had already been cleared, and wiped my tears. I wasn’t the only one crying, but it felt kind of ridiculous to cry during such a simple song that I’ve probably sung thousands of times in my life. For me, in that moment, I cried because I was reminded that the core of my faith is so simple. It felt like the simplicity that comes after complexity.

The church sometimes is so complicated.  There are organizational issues, leadership challenges, budget constraints, differences in belief, relational conflicts…ugh! Some days it’s just really, really complicated. But the message we heard at the prayer breakfast is that following Jesus simplifies things. Jesus’ message was super simple: love God by loving everyone as we love ourselves.  Yes, that’s sometimes difficult to do, but it’s not complicated.  We only complicate it because we don’t want to do it. We’d rather judge, condemn, distance and smugly assert our “truth.”

At the heart of the prayer breakfast is this fact: in our nation’s Capitol, there are people – namely congressmen and -women, senators, generals – who are so dedicated to Jesus that they’ll lay down all their differences to unite around Jesus in prayer. No, these people don’t wear their faith on their sleeves — you probably don’t even know who they are — and yes, they have a wide range of beliefs about what it means to be followers of Jesus. But following Jesus — doing their best to love God and love people — is at the center of why they gather.

“If a lefty Chicano democrat from Southern California and a conservative judge from Alabama can do it, why can’t you?” Co-host Rep. Juan Vargas (D – California) from the opening remarks with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R- Alabama), talking about joint prayer between republicans and democrats.

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This has been brewing for awhile inside of me, but this week put some things into words for me in my own journey. There’s a simplicity that’s slowly been emerging in my own mind when it comes to my own spiritual journey. Yes, I’m capable of reading thick, complicated tomes on theological nuance. And I’m more than capable of holding my own in a philosophical or theological discussion of many issues. And yet, for the last couple of years, the simplicity of following Jesus has been calling to me. I’m more interested these days in “how do I embrace Jesus’ love and how do I love others,” than I am in, say, theories of atonement. I have a growing conviction that there are no theological exams at the pearly gates, but rather there is only one question that matters: “Are you following Jesus?”

I’m so thankful that I got this opportunity. I’ll be chewing on this for awhile.

 

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Why Pope Francis Wasted His Time in America

Well, at the time of writing, Pope Francis is flying back to the Vatican after a week visiting Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

I’ll confess, I may have gotten a little caught up in all the hoopla and, despite being a decidedly “low church” guy, who regularly wears ripped jeans and tshirts to preach, I watched the pope mobile make its way up Fifth Avenue as he waved to the faithful. And I may have also gotten caught up in some of the commentary surrounding his remarks to Congress and the U.N. I genuinely like this pope and his message. I admire how he graciously speaks truth to power.

But there was one particular conversation that I was most interested in and it’s this question: “What will be the lasting impact of the pope’s visit to America?”

My answer: none. Zero. Zip. Nada. Besides perhaps inspiring John Boehner to step down prematurely (which I admire), the news has already moved on to exploding manhole covers and Matt Damon’s new movie The Martian. (Watching The Today Show makes me sad about America. Maybe I should quit.)

The reason for my cynicism is based on a simple observation. Unless we make extraordinary effort, we humans tend to filter out what conflicts with our preexisting notions. Listening to NPR’s On the Media podcast yesterday, they talked about how Republicans can identify with the pope’s pro-life stance while Democrats can rally around his concern for the poor and the environment. Meanwhile both groups simply ignore that with which they disagree.

It happens all the time. For example, there’s been this shift in the last year or so where Republicans say, in response to new studies that at least show a strong correlation between human activity and the warming environment, “Well, I’m no scientist… but they’re wrong,” or “I have no knowledge of the specifics of said study, but it’s arrogant to come to the conclusion they came to.” In other words, “I don’t care what you say, what evidence you present, I simply refuse to acknowledge it.”

Yes, I know, I’m probably ruffling some feathers here because I’m getting “political,” but it isn’t just Republicans; it’s all of us about everything. And it’s fine, I suppose, to be stubborn and inflexible in terms of one’s beliefs and the host of social and economic views that divide America these days (although it probably makes you a not-so-pleasant conversationalist).  But it’s dangerous to have the same fortress mentality when it comes to the self.

And perhaps the self, the fragile ego, is the place where we are most resistant to new ideas. I wrote last week of owning our stories, but this is brave, difficult work. It’s much easier to simply believe what one believes about oneself and ignore all evidence to the contrary. It’s easier to believe I’m a “good guy” and ignore the wake of employees who keep quitting the organization I lead. Biographically speaking, there was a time when it was much easier to believe that I was “fit” despite the evidence of the scale that said I was obese. (“Well, you know the BMI is rigged for people with a smaller bone structure…blah, blah, blah,” I’d say. It’s amazing the bullshit we can sell ourselves to keep affirming our story, huh?)

And so we keep our walls up, keeping at bay any evidence that threatens our fragile facades. But it’s dangerous to the formation of our soul, of our psyche to have such a fortress mentality. It endangers our relationships when a spouse or friend points out a behavior or attitude and we refuse, ignore or excuse the observation. It endangers our careers when our boss or coworker points out how we continually rub people the wrong way, and we choose to ignore their insight. It endangers our social spheres when we keep finding ourselves in the same messy, dramatic situations, and we refuse to examine what part we have to play.

Until we cultivate the habit of careful listening, of curiosity about ourselves and of humility, we are doomed to be stuck as the person we are right now. No growth, no learning, no becoming. In short, we are on the pathway of George Castanza. And no one aspires to be George Castanza.

So, the next time someone says something that you disagree with, before you rush off and write a witty, dismissive response, what if you took a moment to explore the alternative idea? What if Republicans actually looked at the science of environmental warming? What if Democrats would consider the arguments of the pro-life crowd? What if I believed my wife and changed my behavior? What if I believed the BMI and changed my habits?

When I listen, it doesn’t always mean I’ll change. In fact, sometimes listening carefully reinforces what I already believe. For example, when I read a conservative blog post – which I do from time to time – I’m generally more convinced of what I believe. But I usually come away with a clearer understanding of the nuances of our disagreement. Which, frankly, just makes me a kinder, gentler, better human being.

So, yes, I’m skeptical about the impact of Pope Francis’ visit. Our current national character is not one that invites dissenting views or changing one’s mind. We’re rather stuck in our political camps and can’t seem to hear anything but the voices that affirm what we already believe. But I’m optimistic for myself, and for you, that we really can become something more, something that looks more reflective of the Imago Dei today, than I was yesterday.

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