By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
When a work colleague mentioned to David Dawson Jr. about a 90-day, men’s spiritual exercise program called Exodus 90, the sales pitch he heard had the immediate appeal of a hermit wearing sackcloth and ashes, dining every night on cardboard, medium rare, and cutting the cords powering his TV, smart phone, computer and social media.
“I basically told him I would pray about it and blame it on God when he told me no – because I was already working my tail off for God,” said Dawson, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the father of seven children, the oldest of whom is 10.
Since Superdad had promised to pray about it (including, of course, prayers for Supermom Kate), Dawson did.
“God made it clear to me that he would make this fruitful, so I went with it,” Dawson said, laughing.
And so, in mid-October, Dawson took a full-body plunge into the men’s spirituality program centered on prayer, small-group fraternity and accountability, and ascetic practices such as cold showers, drastically limited TV and no sweets and no eating between meals.
Such a radical response to a world of cacophony and excess has produced an amazing wellspring of intentionality, peace and time for the important things in life, such as his wife and seven kids. Dawson is stunned at what God has done in his life after allowing God the time to show up.
His prayer life has “doubled.” He went from spending an average of 2 1/2 hours a day on his smart phone to a little more than an hour, which he uses exclusively to function at work or to answer critical family calls.
“I realize now how often I looked to my phone for comfort,” Dawson said. “One of the biggest changes is that I am not as addicted to it, and I’m able to function without thinking about picking it up. I’ve been able to be present to my kids and my family without thinking about what’s going on on my phone.”
Dawson’s Marriage and Family Life office is spreading the word about Exodus 90 in the hopes other men who feel harried and distracted by the whirlwind of life will consider making the intentional step to lean on the church’s centuries-old tradition of prayer and fasting to become more alive, spiritually and emotionally, to their families.
The 90-day program will start in the archdiocese Jan. 21 – designed to climax on Easter Sunday.
James Baxter, a former seminarian from Minnesota who cofounded the national Exodus 90 program, said more than 7,000 men have embarked on the three-month exercise over the last two years.
Baxter said many men come to the program because they realize their life might be off track. Maybe they are attracted or addicted to pornography, “wasting their lives away on technology” or over-eating.
“Everybody has their idol,” Baxter said. “The fundamental premise of this spiritual exercise is that our idols prevent us from intimacy with Jesus Christ and what he’s capable of doing with us when we’re supposed to respond to his call.”
Baxter believes this is coming at a timely moment in the church’s history.
“So many are looking at Exodus 90 as one of the few concrete road maps forward through this difficult time we are in as a church regarding the sexual abuse crisis and the manifold failures to deal with that situation from a leadership standpoint,” Baxter said. “Many men are viewing this as a spiritual exercise to make reparation for the sins of the church. Why would you want to do something that demands so much of you? Well, we’re kind of in a crisis, and it’s time not to be angry or apathetic but to do something and employ the tried and true fundamentals of Christianity – prayer, asceticism and community.”
Baxter, 27, realizes few men have the luxury of “casting away smart phones and e-mail,” and he acknowledges how much he needs those communication tools in his own ministry.
“It’s not the time to just throw it away, because that’s not going to work,” Baxter said. “But the idea is to use it as a tool and don’t act like it’s a means of leisure, because it’s not renewing you, it’s not refreshing. But it’s a tool, and we have to use it in the right way.”
Baxter said recent studies indicate people spend an average of 10 1/2 hours a day on their phones or computers, and he believes the average is actually much higher.
“How much time is robbed from our family, our friends and also from the Lord?” Baxter asked. “We’re not saying you have to throw everything away and move to a monastery. For the guys who are in the throes of addictions, if they maintain that period of sobriety, their lives will be altered in a clinical way. All the research shows that. The goal is just to become more available to Christ, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Rather than decry the common picture – hundreds of people robotically walking through a shopping mall searching their phones while they are walking into each other – Baxter says the obsession with devices at the expense of interpersonal communication is an indication of a fundamental truth.
“Rather than be negative and say ‘we’re all addicted,’ it’s more like maybe we’re looking for something,” Baxter said.
The program works best when a group of men – ideally five to seven – do it together as a way of accountability, Baxter said.
About 70 percent of the men who try the program are in their 20s and 30s, Baxter said, “and that really excites me a lot.”
Baxter was speaking recently to thousands at a conference in Indianapolis, and his hope was to get a few in the audience to give brief video testimonies about how Exodus 90 had influenced their lives.
“We had a line for four hours of men who wanted to give their testimony,” Baxter said. “I met a priest who lost 100 pounds, and it changed his life. He relates to food now in a way he never has in his life. I met another young priest who was so discouraged by the crisis and what he considered the failures of church leadership, and he said he felt he needed a renewal of his priesthood. Another young man was in the throes of addiction in college and he wanted to be a FOCUS missionary, and he knew he couldn’t. He did Exodus and he broke his addictions, and he’s now a missionary.”
For Dawson, the changes in his own life have been amazing.
“I’m reading books I’ve always wanted to read, spending time with the kids that I’ve always wanted to do,” Dawson said. “I just assumed it wasn’t possible. It’s amazing how much time I spend with the kids and in prayer. I’ve had more quality conversations with family members. I don’t feel rushed. This has been such an amazing jump start in my prayer life. It got me over the hump.”
For more information, go to exodus90.com/nola-exodus90.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.