Roots and Branches: Carl Medearis, Jesus, & Us

Around fifteen years ago, our founding pastors Dave and Grace Schmelzer were sitting in their living room, chatting with their new friend Carl Medearis about faith and culture. We’d met Carl because he was maybe this country’s most prominent voice in imagining a new way for Christians to relate to Muslims. Carl has always insisted that he has no interest in telling Muslims to become Christians. And yet, he has loved talking with Muslims (and pretty much anyone else) about Jesus. His experience has been that Jesus is fascinating, and that if Jesus is alive and has something to offer people, then Jesus can take conversations about him wherever he wants them to.

That was intriguing to us because we started our church to relate with post-Christian, pluralistic, largely secular-background Cambridge and Greater Boston in this same way. We figure that people can be as interested in Jesus as they want to, without needing to assimilate to some kind of Christian culture that’s foreign to them.

So back in that living room, Carl says, “I’m a culturally Christian person who talks with Muslims and Christians about Jesus.” And Dave says, “Ah, I’m a culturally secular person who talks with secular-background people about Jesus.” It’s a clarifying moment for us all.

Dave and Carl, a while back…

Conversations like this helped Dave and Grace develop our centered-set way of doing church. This means that our community’s life and teaching is focused on Jesus. It means that absolutely everyone, without exception, is invited to participate in the community. And it means that we’re all in the same boat, encouraged to move in the direction of faith in Jesus, no matter our culture, our beliefs, or our current mindset.

Centered-set means I can promise my Hindu friend who loves our church that we will always talk and teach about Jesus here, but he will always be welcome, whether or not he remains a Hindu for life.

Centered-set means we can all share a common vision, even while we all appreciated our varied humanity and culture.

Centered-set means there’s no us vs. them, only us. And it means I’ve never arrived, but I can always keep following Jesus, finding more hope, more life, more joy.

Carl Medearis has been a formative voice in our journey. His friendship with Dave and Grace influenced our philosophy. His relationships have shaped our partnerships in the Middle East. And his mentoring was invaluable when we had an actual team of people on the ground in the region, promoting friendship and peace in the name of Jesus.

So we’re grateful that when Carl was in town for a conference, he offered to come back and speak at our church this Sunday. And we’re grateful that Carl will lead a training for our leaders and partners on speaking naturally about Jesus, without agenda.

And even more so, we’re grateful for our community’s centered-set pursuit of Jesus, for all that we’ll find on our journey, and all the friends who’ll be able to come along with us.

One final note: this roots and branches series on the blog is an exploration of our church’s past and future by me, Steve Watson, our second senior pastor. As we approach our twentieth anniversary, in Easter, 2018, I’ll continue to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re going as a community, and on the many ways we’ve evolved as we try to stay true to our founders’ vision to be a healthy, Jesus-centered faith community, for both longtime and never-before churchgoers.

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/