Published June 26, 2012
Editor's note: FoxNews.com is pleased to present an excerpt from Eric Metaxas' new book: "Jesus Hates Dead Religion: Bonhoeffer, Wilberforce and the Power of Living Faith." (Thomas Nelson 2012)
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE NATIONAL PRAYER BREAKFAST
I don’t know about you, but in my life thus far, I haven’t often had the opportunity to speak in front of the president of the United States. Or to chit-chat with the vice president or to publicly pretend the former Speaker of the House is my wife or to lead thirty-five hundred people in singing “Amazing Grace.” A capella. But unless I dreamed it, I did have the opportunity to do all these things once. It was at something called the National Prayer Breakfast. It was an extraordinary experience and I’d love to tell you about it. But maybe I should back up a bit.
The first time I ever got a hint that I might be involved in the National Prayer Breakfast was in a barbershop in Manhattan.
I was waiting for my barber—yes, his name is Angelo— to finish with the person ahead of me when my cell phone rang. It was Foncie Bullard, a friend of mine from Fairhope, Alabama.
Foncie told me that she had just spoken with Alabama senator Jeff Sessions about the possibility of my appearing at a prayer breakfast. At least that’s what I heard. I had spoken at the Louisiana Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in 2008, as the guest of Governor Bobby Jindal, so the prospect of speaking at the Alabama Prayer Breakfast seemed perfectly plausible. I do a lot of public speaking, and I hoped that eventually someone in another state would contact me about speaking at another prayer breakfast. I would love to go back to Alabama to see my friends there. I’d spoken in Mobile, Alabama, several times and in Birmingham, Alabama, twice. I’d even spoken in Marion, Alabama, at Judson College.
But Foncie didn’t seem to think that I was as impressed as I should be. “You don’t seem that excited,” she said.
I didn’t know what she expected. I said, “I’m excited and grateful to be asked, of course! I guess I’m just not as surprised as I would be if I had never spoken at a prayer breakfast before.”
Foncie paused. “But this is the National Prayer Breakfast,” she said.
The National Prayer Breakfast? Had I heard that right? I had. Well, naturally that was something else entirely. “Oh,” I said, feeling not a little stupid for having missed this. The noise in the barbershop was part of the reason. But what I understood still wasn’t all that clear. I thought Foncie was saying that in the next few days I might be invited by Alabama senator Jeff Sessions to be a part of the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. In some capacity. I knew that I would not be asked to be the keynote speaker. That was out of the question, and it never even crossed my mind. But perhaps I would be asked to read a Scripture or something.
The keynote speaking slot was a position reserved for heads of state, or for someone like a head of state, someone like Mother Teresa, like Tony Blair, or Bono. At least those were the three big names that came to mind whenever I thought of the National Prayer Breakfast. They had been keynote speakers, as had many other luminaries. So I knew I wasn’t being asked to be the keynote speaker. But the very idea that I might be invited to take part in any capacity was a huge honor, and I looked forward to hearing from Senator Sessions.
I wondered what role they might ask me to play. Perhaps I would be invited to give a short speech, like the one my New York firefighter friend Joe Finley had given in 2002. Joe had been one of the firefighters at the World Trade Center the day the towers came down. My dear friend B. J. Weber—who actually was connected with the Fellowship, the folks who put on the prayer breakfast—had befriended Joe and suggested that he speak at the breakfast. So at the breakfast in 2002, Joe gave a short speech of five or six minutes, recounting his experiences on that terrible and memorable day.
Whatever role I would play, the thought of being involved in any way was humbling and exciting. I might even get to meet the president. Not to mention the keynote speaker! Whoever that might be. Wait— maybe it would be Tim Tebow! The previous year it had been the film director Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed Secretariat. They never told you who the keynote speaker was ahead of time. But it really could be anyone.
Still, I tried not to get too excited about any of it, because these inquiries—Foncie’s phone call, for example—were usually just tentative feelers and might actually mean nothing. I recalled that when George Pataki was governor, I had been told over the phone that I was chosen to speak at the New York State Prayer Breakfast in Albany, only to have the invitation mysteriously rescinded a few weeks later. I’d rather not get my hopes up to have them dashed. So I took on a stoic attitude.
Later that day, I thought more about the National Prayer Breakfast. The first time I had ever heard about it was through B. J. Weber, whom I mentioned, and my friend Jim Lane. I came to know Jim in 1994, when I was living in New Canaan, Connecticut. He and I started a men’s Bible study that met in his living room that year, which in the years since has grown and grown into something called the New Canaan Society. Jim and B. J. would go to the National Prayer Breakfast almost every year, but I hardly knew what it was. Then, in 1997, thanks to the two of them, I went too.
And who could forget that prayer breakfast?
It took place just two weeks after the Lewinsky scandal broke—like a rotten egg—all over the culture. Of course that hadn’t been planned. On the contrary, it must have been a nightmare for the president and for the people putting on the prayer breakfast. The tradition was that the president always appeared at this event and spoke. So I remember think¬ing that the very idea of President Clinton walking into a room filled with Christian conservatives was the proverbial nonstarter. I refused to believe he would show up. Somehow he just had to find a way to wriggle out of this extremely awkward obligation. I had a seat near the very back of the room, which is so vast that the people on the dais in the distance seem like ants. But then in walked Bill Clinton—or at least that’s who I assumed it was, since everyone stood and the band played “Hail to the Chief ” as a tiny figure crossed the stage and took its position near the center of the long dais.
As he strode into the vast room there was an odd—indeed a unique— sound, like thousands of tinkling glasses. Technically it was applause, since it consisted of people putting their hands together again and again. But it was only technically applause, because it was very different from actual applause. It had to be the most restrained applause in the history of clap¬ping. It was a homeopathic tincture of applause, an applause that flirted with the very definition of the word—that seemed to tease it and make sport of it.
The people in the room had a tremendous respect for the office of the presidency, but because of this they also had a palpably negative feeling for the man entering the room, whose boisterous shenanigans had in the past weeks been ubiquitously examined and discussed. And so the superlatively strange tinkling sound that I heard that morning I surmised to be the sound of thirty-five hundred people applauding the office of the presidency. Applauding only that, and nothing more. One might listen for several lifetimes and listen in vain for that baffling, that tragic, sound.
The only other time I had attended the National Prayer Breakfast was in 2002. The president at that time was George W. Bush and, of course, only months earlier the nation had suffered the monstrous tragedy of the 9/11 attacks. Up on the dais that day was Lisa Beamer, the widow of Todd Beamer, who had used the phrase “Let’s roll” as he heroically led his fellow passengers in an attempt to take down the plane before it could hit its target, which was the US Capitol building. Todd Beamer had been a Wheaton College graduate, as was my friend Jim Lane, who had invited me that morning. Also on the dais was the Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert, another Wheaton alumnus.
And finally, there on the dais was my new friend, New York City firefighter Joe Finley, whom I’ve mentioned. Since I am a writer, B. J. Weber, who had arranged for Joe to speak, asked me if I would mind helping Joe craft his speech. Of course I was honored to do so. Whether I had a hand in helping with it or not, it was a thrill to hear Joe tell his moving story that morning in front of all those people and the president of the United States.
So these two events had been extraordinary and memorable. Nonetheless, I am not a morning person. So after the 2002 breakfast, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be returning for quite some time.
The pressure to make conversation with strangers in that loud, vast room could be a bit much. And being seated something like a quarter of a mile from the people on the dais was also not my cup of tea. So I figured that in the future I might attend some of the events surrounding the breakfast—for example, I had spoken at Cal Thomas’s Media Dinner in 2011, which is always held on the night before the Prayer Breakfast, in the same hotel— but I certainly didn’t plan on going back to the National Prayer Breakfast itself. And did I mention that it cost $175?
Of course the phone call in the barbershop would alter those plans.
In that phone call it really had sounded as if there was a decent chance that I would play some role in the upcoming National Prayer Breakfast. But as I said, I wasn’t holding my breath. Then, lo and behold, the very next morning there it was: an e-mail from someone in Senator Sessions’ office! It was from the senator’s executive assistant, who told me that she would later that day be mailing the invitation for me to be the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. But since regular mail could be slow, and because my calendar might be filling up, they had attached a scanned copy of the invitation letter with the e-mail, just so I would know right away.
But a strange thing happened when I read her e-mail. Somehow— please don’t ask me for details—my eyes glossed over the word keynote.
Perhaps we see what we want to see or what we expect to see, and I expected to read a letter inviting me to play a small role in the upcoming National Prayer Breakfast, not to be the keynote speaker.
I then opened the attachment to read the official invitation letter. It was from Senator Sessions and from Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. But in reading their letter I again glossed over the word keynote. I’m not making this up. As my addled mind read and reread the letter (you will recall that I am not a morning person), I eventually did see the word. And slowly it began to dawn on me that I may have misread the situation and that perhaps I was not being invited to be one of the speakers at the National Prayer Breakfast, but to be the speaker—to be the keynote speaker.
I wasn’t prepared to absorb this information. I simply didn’t know how to take it in. So I didn’t take it in. I sort of hovered in the space above the words, unable to allow them to penetrate my brain. I assumed there was a mistake of some kind, and that if I read the letter carefully enough, I would see there was some crucial clause I had missed. But eventually I realized that there was nothing else to it. There was no missing clause. It was a stranger-than-fiction truth: I was being invited to be the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast.
At this point I needed a witness. “Susanne!” I called to my wife, not taking my eyes off the screen, lest the magic e-mail disappear and never return. “Would you come here, please?”
Susanne came into the room and corroborated what I was reading. For some reason, it really did take time to sink in. I’m not sure what the mind is doing as something sinks in, nor what “sinks in” really means, but eventually I came to believe that this invi¬tation was real, and not just a vain imagining on my part. The invitation was from one Republican senator (Sessions) and one Democratic senator (Pryor), as all National Prayer Breakfast invitations were, because the National Prayer Breakfast is all about setting aside partisan differences and “coming together in the Spirit of Jesus,” as they invariably put it.
And so they had invited me to be the keynote speaker at the 60th Annual National Prayer Breakfast. There was only one downside to this fantastic news: I probably wouldn’t be meeting Tim Tebow.
Later that morning the phone rang, and it was Senator Sessions’ office, with the senator on the line. He called to ask me whether I would accept the invitation. Of course there was no question whether I would accept. But I couldn’t just say yes. I had to play hard to get. So I asked whether the gig included breakfast. He laughed and said that it did. And then I decided to push it: Would they throw in breakfast for my wife and daughter? They would. Well, that was all it took.
Later in the day I fielded another call, this time from Senator Pryor. I was not used to getting phone calls from United States senators. I had once chatted with Senator Joe Lieberman and had once in an airport buttonholed Al Franken, whom people have said I resemble, presumably to nettle me. But to yak on the blower in my living room with senators from Alabama and Arkansas was something new.
In any case, I was told in the course of these phone calls that I mustn’t broadcast the news of my being chosen. Certainly not to any media out¬lets. The National Prayer Breakfast had a strict policy of always keeping the keynote speaker secret. I knew I couldn’t tell the media, but I was free to tell a few friends, and at the top of that list were my friends Jim Lane and B. J. Weber, whom I called immediately.
But now that all that was settled, and I really was to be the speaker, what would I talk about?