No Place for Sexual Violence – Speak Out Sunday

On February 4, as part of our current series on sin and redemption, we will be holding a special service we’re calling “Speak Out Sunday.” This will be an opportunity for our church to speak about the very important topic of sexual violence – its prevalence in our society and in our scriptures, and our desire to heal from our own past experiences of it and have no place for it in our future.

That Sunday, I will preach on why there is no place for sexual violence in the love of God and the family of God. Before my talk, we will hear a personal story about suffering sexual violence from a trained speaker. We will respond in worship and with communion together, and our prayer ministry team will be available to pray for you. Additionally, we will share resources that Sunday for people with past or current experiences with sexual violence or domestic violence. After the service, the trained speaker will also be available for a time of Questions and Answers.

We will follow up with a free training for the afternoon of Sunday, February 18th, on how to helpfully respond to someone’s disclosure of an experience with sexual violence.

This event has been months in coming for us and is undertaken with the partnership and support of a number of other clergy and social services resources. Given my own experience of sexual abuse as a child, and given the rising waves of disclosures regarding sexual violence in this #metoo and #timesup season in our culture, I have had a desire for us to address sexual violence together for months. My wife Grace and I have also been speaking with friends and mentors Ray Hammond and Gloria White-Hammond, senior pastors of Bethel AME Church in Boston, who are planning their own version of this experience on another Sunday this month. Our own plans are influenced by the powerful work of We Will Speak Out.

In preparation, Ivy and I have spoken with staff at Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), who will partner with us in the event, providing a speaker from their trained speakers’ bureau, holding an optional 20-minute Q and A after each service, and leading the training for us that I mentioned. We also have spoken with other mental health clinicians, researchers, and experienced clergy on how our community can address sexual violence clearly and safely, working to prevent future trauma and navigate people’s past trauma with gentleness and care. All of these professionals have shaped and encouraged us in our plans and are so thankful our church is addressing this topic.

We will not be holding group conversations on Sunday on this topic and are not urging you to share whatever story you may have regarding sexual violence or domestic violence with anyone you are not absolutely comfortable and safe speaking with. In fact, if you have your own experience of sexual or domestic violence, our hope is that you will not need to experience any more disclosure than would be most helpful for you. We hope you will be empowered to seek whatever disclosure and help you need from God and appropriate professionals and trusted friends. We will give related guidance to our community group leaders in this regard.

We are compelled by the Spirit of our good God and by the times we live in, though, to speak out on this topic. We hope that you will join us on February 4th, at either our 9:30 or 11:30 AM service, and pray that God works through this service to increase safety and health and healing in our community and in our region. In addition to the resources we will share on Sunday, our pastoral staff remains available to speak with you, should that be helpful for you.

I pray that you will know Jesus close to you, born into our world to be our wonderful counselor, our prince of peace, and God with us all, and specifically with you, today.

Peace, Steve.

God-Soaked World Bible Guide – Day 9

Tuesday, March 14 – I Samuel 3:1-18

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

Points of Interest:

  • Samuel is the son born to Hannah, in answer to her prayers. As Hannah promised, she has dedicated his life to God, so much so that Hannah’s son is enrolled in an unofficial temple boarding school, apprenticed to Eli, the temple’s chief priest.
  • The narrator tells us that even folks in the temple aren’t experiencing their world as God-soaked. They don’t hear God talk to them, and God isn’t showing them anything.
  • All this changes in an instant, and it’s pretty darn funny when it happens. Eli can’t see well, and Samuel can’t hear. Well, it turns out he can hear God, but he doesn’t know that it’s God. And God doesn’t do anything to clarify things. Samuel – who’s never heard God – has to rely on Eli – who’s also probably never heard God speak – tell him what to do when God’s trying to get his attention. A not especially spiritual man uses the best of his learning and spiritual tradition to interpret Samuel’s first spiritual experience.
  • Eli’s advice is pretty good, isn’t it? When you think God might be talking to you, don’t self-edit or judge the experience. Just tell God you’re paying attention.
  • Samuel’s first sense of God’s word to him in prayer is a tough word. God tells him the juicy news that the members of Eli’s household aren’t fit to be priests and are going down. Wise people have advised that when we feel like God is showing us something bad that’s going to happen to someone else, we should keep that to ourselves and pray for the people involved. And this is exactly what Samuel does, until he’s pressured and threatened by Eli to spill the beans.
  • After Eli’s not particularly admirable pressure, he greets Samuel’s revelation with an admirable lack of defensiveness. He doesn’t dismiss Samuel and figures God’s going to do what God’s going to do, so why fight it? Whatever Eli’s faults as a parent or spiritual leader, the passage begins and ends with some admirable testimony about him as a teacher and mentor.

Taking It Home:

  • Spiritual Exercise – We can assume that the greats of the Bible heard from God so much more clearly than we can. But even for them, the process required faith, patience, and learning and could be accompanied by some amount of confusion and anxiety. In this light, we give you an invitation to listen to God’s voice to you today. Take a few minutes in quiet and stillness and invite God to communicate to you. Imagine God calling you by name twice as God did with Samuel, and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” See if you feel or perceive anything unexpected. Take note of that. Tell somebody appropriate.
  • Prayer for church – Pray that your church would be an environment in which people trust God to speak to them personally and have the courage and faith to respond to God, with both humility and boldness.

 

God-Soaked World Bible Guide – Day 8

Monday, March 13 – I Samuel 1:1-20

There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

 

Points of Interest:

  • The story of Hannah’s child Samuel is a prelude to the tales of Israel’s great kings; in our Bibles it comes right after the story of Ruth we looked at yesterday. Like Ruth, Hannah faces hard times. We’ve discussed the pain of infertility for Ancient Near Eastern women. For Hannah, this is magnified by comparison to her husband’s other wife, who has children. Her culture also has the perception – maybe shared by the narrator – that if you couldn’t have babies, it was a sign you weren’t favored by God.
  • I find some comic relief in the two absolutely clueless men in this passage. Her husband Elkanah is well-meaning but obtuse – as if his extra food supply is supposed to make up for Hannah’s shame or her rival’s condescension. Later, when Hannah is praying in the temple, the priest Eli accuses her of drunkenness and almost throws her out. He’s apparently not used to seeing emotional passion or silent, extemporaneous prayer.
  • The men in Hannah’s life tell her to behave and to be happy. Hannah’s dissatisfaction is viewed as inconvenient or unnecessary. Hannah doesn’t hear anything different directly from God. But the spiritual leader of Hannah’s community – after moving past his initial dismissal – wishes Hannah favor with God. Hannah chooses to trust this imperfect spiritual leader’s words as a hopeful message from God. She goes home in peace and is able to worship God – express her love and gratitude – before she sees any results.
  • The narrator tells us that Hannah and that God had not forgotten her. In Hannah’s case, she doesn’t experience God speaking this to her in prayer or through an angel. She experiences God in the expression of her deepest desire in prayer, in the assuring words of the priest, in her worship, and in the answer to her prayer she experiences weeks later.
  • While Hannah was praying, you may have noticed her bargaining with God. Her promise is that she will make her son a Nazirite, a person who is particularly dedicated to God. The background to this practice can be found in the biblical law code in Numbers 6. The lack of haircuts and abstention from alcohol are both signs of the period of dedication. In Numbers, this looks like a temporary and voluntary practice, but Hannah implies that she’ll dedicate Samuel to God’s service when he is very young, either for all of his youth or all of his life.

Taking It Home:

  • Spiritual Exercise – God speaks through the deepest desires of our heart, where we long for growth, change, connection, and a fuller life. We’ve invited you during the 40 Days to name one of these desires and pray for it every day. Today as you do so, ask God to speak to you about what aspects of your desire God shares with you and wants to fulfill. Like Hannah, are there ways you can find peace and worship God even when you’re not yet sure how God will respond to your prayers?
  • Prayer for your six – Pray that your six will have freedom to speak their desires to God as prayer, and pray that they will experience God responding to their prayer with love, attention, and change.

Be Patient, Oh Tortoise

At Reservoir’s fall retreat, I read this poem on Saturday morning to introduce a time of reflection and prayer. I shared that at first, it seemed to be a funny poem about a stupid animal. Then over time, I realized that it is also a funny poem about a stupid me. I am so slow to learn, and God is so eager to forgive me and to be with me and enjoy my slow learning.

Scott Cairns: On Slow Learning

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how difficult paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the the value of achieving the paper
there remains one obstacle –
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell,
utterly ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

–Scott Cairns, “Slow Learner” in Compass of Affection: New and Selected Poems (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 5.

However you are slow or challenged today, take it easy on yourself.
Jesus is eager to take it easy on you.

Roots and Branches: Praying for “Our Six”

When I was becoming a member at Reservoir about ten years ago, I remember hearing a pastor talk about a commitment the church asked of every member. He asked us all to always have six people in mind who were local and who – best as we could tell – were not churchgoers and maybe not experiencing much connection to God. And he asked us to pray for them every day.

I thought that was an interesting habit to prioritize. It seemed a little quirky – why the number six, I wondered? And it didn’t sound especially strategic – weren’t there more significant things we could do that would grow the church or benefit the world more dramatically?

Despite my questions, I liked the church enough and figured I’d give it a shot.

One of the first six I chose was a student where I taught in the Boston Public Schools. I had him for high school English, but had met him several years earlier as a quiet seventh grader who seemed more interested in computers and construction than he did in his schoolwork. We had gotten to know each other over the years, and I had even hired him a couple of times to help me do some work on my home with me, and I thought I’d enjoy praying for him every day as he tried to graduate from high school and find his way forward.

We had our ups and downs that year in our teacher-student relationship, he moved out of town, and I replaced him on my prayer list. It was a rather undramatic end of story.

Until it wasn’t.

A couple of years later, a local pastor I knew reached out and said she had connected to a former student of mine, who was now active in their church. It turns out that the whole year I was praying for my student, he was stopping  by church on occasion, especially when I would fill in and preach. He’d sit in the back row where no one would see him, and he’d leave before the service would end, so I wouldn’t know he was there. And that was the beginning of a circuitous journey to the faith he credits for changing his life for the better.

How about that?

I’ve been praying for my 6, more or less daily, for the last decade now. I’ve enjoyed praying for neighbors and colleagues and parents of my kids’ friends and sometimes an acquaintance I meet through a chance encounter. Usually, I let people know I’m praying for them, and sometimes they tell me how I can do that. One friend wants prayer for their child with special needs, another wants prayer to move past a recent tragedy, and another says (awkwardly) that he’d love to not get hit by a truck, or have some other accident befall him. So I pray for those things.

Sometimes I see answers to my prayers, sometimes not. Usually, though not always, the friendship or connection grows a little warmer. Nothing bad ever happens. And I like knowing that sometimes I’ve been the only person to ever pray for someone, and other times, I might be the twenty-eighth person to be praying for someone, and I almost never know.

I think this is actually one of the most important things our church ever started doing. Over the past 18 years, many, many hundreds of us have prayed for many, many thousands of folks in Greater Boston. We just pray that God would be good to our friends and acquaintances, that life would go well for them, and that they would enjoy the best possible connection they could have to themselves and their lives and their friends, and perhaps even to God.

This is one our habits I really hope to continue long into the future. By praying for our six, we take our cue from a faith community from over 2,500 years ago. Jewish exiles in Babylonia were living very different lives than we are, but they were asking questions people of faith might ask today.

-How do we relate to the majority of people around us who don’t share our faith?

-Should we withdraw from our surrounding culture, or should we try to fight and change it?

-And when the present looks bleak sometimes, do we live in a romanticized past, or a fantasized future?

To all this, these exiles are told to settle down, make themselves at home, and,  “And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Love the people around you, and seek their good. Live in the present, and make the best of the moment you’re living in. And pray for your city’s welfare, for it will determine your welfare.

Let’s pray for the people that rent us our apartments and educate our kids. Let’s pray for our bosses and colleagues, for the neighbor we love to chat with and one whose too-loud music gives us grief. One by one, or actually six by six, a church can ask God to remember and bless whole swaths of our city. And as that happens, we’ll have a win-win on our hands: good for them, good for us, and maybe even good for God as well.

 

Roots and Branches: We Love to Pray!

 

At Reservoir Church, we have always loved to pray.

Yesterday, my friend Dorothy told me a story from her early years in the church. It was sometime just after around 2000, and she was part of an all night prayer meeting we were hosting in a Cambridge church building that had loaned us their space for the night. Back then, we were renting space on Sundays in the Morse School in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston University, where Dorothy was a new student. Dorothy had seen our T ads her first year there and found some friends to come visit the church with her the following year. She’s been with us ever since.

Dorothy remembers that all night prayer meeting vividly. Not because of what she prayed for, or how many people were there, or why the meeting was even called. She remembers that during prayer, though, another participant prayed words for her that seemed so good and so true they could only be from the mind of God. She cherishes these words to this day.

Today, Dorothy co-leads our intercession team. We’ve always had a small group of church members whose job is to pray for our pastors and our church. They pray every day on their own and take turns praying during our Sunday services together. It’s not a very efficient use of people’s times. We could have them doing other, more practical jobs for the church.

But we love to pray.

Prayer calms our busy minds and gives us peace. Prayer connects us to the needs of our lives and to our neighbors and friends and enemies with compassion. It leaves us with clarity and faith. And it energizes our work. Sometimes, we think our prayers even change the world, or at least some part of it.

How this works is a mystery. Why does it seem that some prayers are answered and others not? How could a single God listen when every second, so many people are praying for so many things, all around the world? What are we to think of the many prayers said for parking spaces and football games and test scores? And why would God want us to pray in the first place, instead of just doing the things God wants to do without putting us through the bother of asking?

Beats me – again, it’s a mystery.

But it does seem that there’s something about prayer that makes us God’s children. The talking, the asking, the waiting all create a bond and a hope that seems even more powerful when we do it together and that sometimes seems to move mountains in us and the things we pray for.

So we keep praying.

And this Sunday, I’m excited to announce an upcoming 24-hour event at our church. Non-stop, for a full day, our church will pray for our current Art of Neighboring campaign. We’ll ask God to do more than we can ask or imagine as our church members know and love our neighbors as ourselves, and as our church serves our neighborhood of North Cambridge this spring. We’ll pray big and bold prayers. We’ll enjoy the quiet and beauty of our church sanctuary dome. We’ll enjoy the company of friends and the sense that God is with us.

And some of us might just even hear God talk back to us, with words we’ll be remembering fifteen years from now.

Join us later this month. Read more, and sign up at: http://www.reservoirchurch.org/event/24-hours-prayer/