President John F. Kennedy at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1961
Photo Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum–
This past week I was excited to get a seat at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Beginning during the Eisenhower administration, the event gathers over 3,000 people from over 130 countries to pray and break bread together. There has been some mystery surrounding it and even criticism from “who exactly puts it on” to “how to actually acquire a ticket.” Yet I have always found the week to be fascinating where people from different countries, tribes, political parties and social status come from all walks of life sit together around a table. Members of Congress and the U.S. Cabinet; Asian, African, European and Latin American politicians, students, missionaries, musicians, businessmen and aide workers are mixed together sitting elbow to elbow tightly and politely passing jam and bread.
Even the speakers have been an assortment of people from different walks of life – Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bono, Eric Metaxas, Former USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Mother Theresa and one of my all time favorites Ward Brehm, an unassuming Minnesota businessman with a strong Midwestern accent who has helped bring business and development opportunities for the poorest of the poor in Africa. This year, TV Producers Mark Barnett and Roma Downey spoke about their immigration journeys from England and Ireland to America, their successes and challenges and most significantly their faith throughout. Fittingly at such an event, they talked about the importance of building bridges despite obstacles and differences.
Downey told of her childhood growing up in a divided Ireland – her hometown with a river flowing through it dividing Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other. As a young girl as she was visiting her mother’s gravesite, when a gun fight broke out in the cemetery with a bullet singeing her jacket leaving her completely unharmed. Ireland looks much different today with a literal bridge now connecting the two sides of her hometown.
The prayer breakfast does a lot of just this – getting people to show up and sit down at the table with people they would have never imagined. Throughout the week we heard from an Albanian who developed a strong friendship with a Serbian; two Members of the Knesset one Israeli and one Arab talked about working side by side; and a prominent Muslim leader from the Middle East address a prominently Christian crowd.
This unlikely gathering of people really resonated with me as I am currently reading a book, Invitations from God by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. She talks about different kind of invitations that God calls us to, “God initiates relationship. God invited Abraham, the Hebrew people, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, prophets, fishermen, tax collectors, outcasts, women, men, crowds, enemies, betrayers, liars and children to know him and be with him. It doesn’t matter if you were on the paid staff of hell: God’s invitation goes out to you again and again. Everyone is equally yet uniquely invited into God’s world and God’s heart. Not one tribe or people group is excluded. The great Inviter says, “Come to my dinner party. Come be with me and meet my guest.” God is our great example of inviting everyone to the table without differentiation or prejudice. We are all equal at his great banquet table.
Lastly, the prayer breakfast affirms our nation’s history of reliance on God and a continual need for and reliance God. At one of the first prayer breakfasts, President Eisenhower said, “The Founding Fathers had to refer to the Creator in order to make their revolutionary experience make sense; it was because “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” that man could dare to be free. They wrote their religious faith into our founding documents, stamped their trust in God upon the faces of our coins and currency, and put it boldly at the base of our institutions.”
President Obama spoke of his own struggle with fear in tumultuous times and how “faith is the great cure for fear.”
For me, and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear. Jesus is a good cure for fear. God gives believers the power, the love, the sound mind required to conquer any fear. And what more important moment for that faith than right now? What better time than these changing, tumultuous times to have Jesus standing beside us, steadying our minds, cleansing our hearts, pointing us towards what matters.
His love gives us the power to resist fear’s temptations. He gives us the courage to reach out to others across that divide, rather than push people away. He gives us the courage to go against the conventional wisdom and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not popular. To stand up not just to our enemies but, sometimes, to stand up to our friends. He gives us the fortitude to sacrifice ourselves for a larger cause. Or to make tough decisions knowing that we can only do our best. Less of me, more of God. And then, to have the courage to admit our failings and our sins while pledging to learn from our mistakes and to try to do better….
Each day, we’re fearful that God’s purpose becomes elusive, cloudy. We try to figure out how we fit into his broader plan. They’re universal fears that we have, and my faith helps me to manage those.
And then my faiths helps me to deal with some of the unique elements of my job. As one of the great departed heroes of our age, Nelson Mandela, once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it… The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.