Conspiring Prayer

A few years ago, our oldest child had become an adult and was living away from home for the first time. And I was struggling with how to not worry about her all the time. You can never fully protect another person, you can certainly never fully control another person, which is good, but the loss of control and the loss of proximity with your own kid – it’s a big change in the life of a parent. It’s been the biggest change in my life the past few years. 

So a few years ago, when this was first happening, I was wondering – when you’re far away from someone else, how do you best love them?

I was talking to one of my mentors about this when I was just getting to know him at the time, and he’s famously a very spiritually wise, insightful person, so I asked him:

Tom, do you think I love my daughter more by praying for her, or just sending her $100? 

And at first, he was like:

probably send her the $100. 

And I was surprised. I thought: this is a religious man. I look up to him spiritually. He’s supposed to pick the “pray for your daughter” option and help me better understand why, like how that was going to help her.

I asked this question, after all, because I had been shifting in some of my own experiences of prayer, and starting to wonder,

  • when you pray for someone else from afar, how can that influence them?
  • Does it do them any good?
  • Does it show them love? 

And I guess I’d hoped my mentor would have an answer for those questions while commending me to pray for her more. 

But Tom, at least at first, was like, hey, won’t sending her the $100 really show her that you love her? 

I thought: sure, it would. 

And if you pray for God to do good things in her life, will that make God love her any more? 

And I thought: I hope not. I hope God loves her entirely already, that God’s already doing everything God can for her. I certainly hope God is like that. 

I thought of my mentor’s definition of love. Tom’s a theologian. He publishes a lot. 

And he’s defined love like this. He writes, 

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic or empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being.

So my emotional attunement and care for my kiddo – sympathy, empathy – that was already there. Now how could I act intentionally to promote her overall well-being?

And at least that day, Tom lobbied for the $100. Which surprised me.

I tell you this little story because today in our winter series on prayer, I want to talk a little bit about praying for others. Not so much praying for people face to face when they’re with you, like our prayer team does every Sunday for whoever wants that. 

I want to talk about praying that God will do things for people or other creatures that aren’t there with you. 

How does praying for others work? What’s the value? 

And it’s just one sermon, it won’t be all the truth on this topic, won’t even be all my truth, all my perspective.

But I want to introduce you to a way of praying for others that might be different from what you’ve tried before and has been helpful for me. 

It’s a phrase that a therapist and theologian named Mark Karris has coined. It’s called conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer engages us as partners with God when we pray for others, or when we pray for anyone or anything in all of creation.

Let’s read a scripture to get us going on this.

It’s from a little letter in the Bible, one called James. I’ll actually read two bits from James and go from there. 

Here’s the first bit, from the fifth chapter.

James 5:13-16 (Common English Bible)

13 If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing.

14 If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 

So at first, it seems to side more on the: pray for that person you love who’s far away. There’s no mention of sending them $100. Tom.

After all, it says:

Prayer can help heal. James encourages us to pray for one another.  

 But let’s unpack a little what this seems to say and not say about prayer.

One, it’s like prayer can be good for you. If you’re suffering, try – it might help. Just like if you’re happy, sing. It’ll feel good. 

I think that’s great advice by the way, the second part. As someone that whistles, hums, sings out loud a fair bit, I’m shocked by how few people do this stuff, in public at least. Me, sometimes I sing little songs I make up while skipping down the street with my dog. Keep your eye out for it, yeah. But I guess I’m like: if you’re happy and you know it… 

Why keep it in? This city, we’re a little too cool – in the wrong way, like a little too locked inside sometimes, I think. So: if any of you are happy, they should sing. You heard it here.

But back to prayer. It can be a comfort, a solace if you know how to be close to God, to go there when you’re suffering. That’s good advice too. 

After that, there’s a lot about going to other people and asking for prayer. 

When you’re sick. Also, when you’ve sinned. You’ve shown up to some part of your life as not your best self, or not the child of God you are deep down. That can leave a mark, on others sure, but on ourselves too. So James is like, confess that, share it, and the prayer you can give one another there – God loves you, you’re forgiven, God give my friend strength to forgive themselves, to let it go, to make amends, to make things right if that’s called for or possible. That can be freeing and encouraging. 

Pray for one another. There’s healing there.

There is a caveat to that, I suppose. James talks about “elders” you look to for prayer. And talks about the prayers of righteous people.

I don’t think he means only old people can pray effectively, or only official church leaders – like pastors. I also don’t think he means that self-righteous people, super-religious people are the only ones whose prayers God hears either. (I hope not!) I just think there’s an acknowledgement that there are people we can trust with our vulnerabilities, and there are people we can’t.

Confess your sins, but not to anyone. Be discerning. Confess to someone you can trust and who won’t give you back toxic shame or anything else unhelpful. 

And people who are living with integrity, that seem to be in good relationships with others, that seem to have an authentic way of praying with God themselves, their prayers are going to be more useful to you. So ask them. People who seem at ease with faith.

You know what James doesn’t talk about though. He doesn’t say much of anything about praying for people who aren’t there with you. He has face to face prayer in mind. You can’t touch people you’re not with. You can’t anoint them with oil, touch with some oil, as a symbol of the Spirit of God, you can’t do that if you’re not there.

I’m not saying James has anything against praying for people when you’re not with them, it’s just he doesn’t really emphasize that so much. I think he’s aware that praying for someone when you’re with them seems to have more power. 

For what it’s worth, the little bit of modern research on prayer agrees. Face to face prayer, with a safe, empathetic listener who can pray for your healing, who can offer safe touch while praying – with or without oil – that has had measurable impact on people’s well being.

The few attempts, though, to measure the impact of prayer offered for someone from afar, have not been successfully measured to have had impact.

That doesn’t mean they don’t. I think it can be great to pray for who and what you care about from afar, but the impact of that we’ve not been able to measure like prayer in person. 

So maybe that’s part of what Tom had in mind when he was like, Steve, go ahead and send the cash to your kid. You know that will have an effect. Maybe.

Or maybe he had this other bit from James in mind. This is from chapter two:

James 2:14-17 (Common English Bible)

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?

15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.

16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?

17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

So James here is the original BIG NO to the whole “thoughts and prayer” strategy regarding people’s suffering.

You know, what politicians say after every mass shooting. I have not intention on making these events less frequent. But: our thoughts and prayers are with them. 

James is like:

those are the kind of thoughts and prayers you can keep to yourself, thank you. They are useless. 

Faith is no good if it doesn’t result in faithful activity. 

And while James doesn’t say this explicitly, he kind of implies that saying a prayer for someone – God, can you give them some food and clothes tonight, just not from me – he kind of implies that doesn’t count as faithful activity. 

Quick prayers like that from afar are easy, for the person saying the prayer, but James at least says: this is not what faith looks like. It is certainly not what love looks like. 

How do we put this together with what James is saying?

1.Prayer is really good for us when we’re down.

2. People we can trust, and people who are in relationship with God, we should have them pray for us when our body or our inner self has lost its way. Those prayers will help. 

And also….

3. Don’t pretend a quick prayer from afar is what faith looks like, or what love looks like, if that’s all you’re willing to do.

We can’t save everyone, that’s for sure, we can’t even try to love everyone. No shame in that. But I think James is implying: faking it doesn’t do anyone any good. 

How do we put all this together when we think about prayer? 

After all, there are so many questions when it comes to praying that God will change things in the world or love or help others. 

Can I list just a bunch of the questions that I hear you have as your pastor, or that I have sometimes. 

Questions like:

-Does God need our prayers to do things? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

-Is God not already doing what God can to help people?

Questions like:

-Can we make God do more of anything?

-Is our prayer for others for our sake? For their sake? For God’s sake?

Questions like:

-Does prayer for God to do things in the world even work?

What are we doing? What is God doing in all this?

One way of praying that doesn’t answer all these questions but I think leans into them faithfully is what Mark Karris calls conspiring prayer.

Conspire means to agree together. 

These days we usually use it for conspiracies, like people agreeing together to do bad things, or bad things in our imagination that aren’t likely even true. Conspiracy theories.

But the first meaning of this word, where it comes from, is to agree together because you breathe together.

Con- meaning “with” and “spire” meaning breath. 

And so to conspire with God is to seek to breathe together with God and to agree together on something like an action plan. 

Here’s what that looks like, with the example of my kid first leaving home.

My kid’s not close by. My heart is still with them. But it’s smothering, it’s creepy to text and call my kid all the time. So I don’t.

Instead, I say to God:

My God, my heart is aching for my kid. I want so much for them. And to the degree I worry about them, it’s because I love them so much, more love that fits inside here. 

What should I do with this?

And maybe I can pause for a moment and breathe with God.

Maybe I notice that God loves my kid just like I do – so much heart, so much good intention, such big feelings.

I say I notice – how do I notice this about God? Maybe I feel it. Maybe I hope it. Maybe I believe it. Faith, hope, and love, after all – that’s the way of Christ, the Bible says. If God’s a good parent, if God is love, of course God has all this love for this one person in particular. 

And maybe just that moment of breathing with God, that God has all this love too, maybe that calms me a little. Maybe there’s some hope there.

One of our kids used to get anxious sometimes, and sometimes I’d try this thing I first saw on a TV show, where I’d hold their face in my hands – gently, with permission, or I’d offer a hug, and we’d just stay there for a moment, and breathe together, while I say:

it’s OK. It’s OK. We’re here.

And I feel like prayer is partly this. It’s faith that God is breathing with us, offering a hug, or hand on the face, or an arm around the shoulder, breathing with us, saying:

I’ve got you.

And when I remember this in prayer, I realize: God has room for all my thoughts. God has time to listen. 

So maybe I tell God all that I want for my kid, all that I wish for them.

I’ve heard people in small group settings when we pray, say: God, I wish this and I wish that. And I used to think that was a sign they hadn’t learned to pray. Like come one, you’re just making three wishes. 

But now. I feel like: that’s not a bad way to pray, honestly telling God what we wish for. We don’t know if that’s what God wants, we may not be sure that God can make it happen, at least single handedly. But we believe God’s listening, and that’s a start.

So I tell God some of what I wish for. 

So I feel like God has room to listen

And if I’m breathing with God, con-spring, maybe I get curious about what God wishes for my kid, and maybe I wonder if that’s exactly what I’m wishing for, or maybe I wonder if God has a different picture of what’s best for them.

No way of knowing for sure, but that gets me curious, and that’s good for me. We love better when we’re curious, when we don’t have a tight grip, but open hearts, open minds. 

And then conspiring prayer takes a third step – beyond breathing with God, beyond wishing together, conspiring prayer says to God: what can we do about this? 

What can we do about this?

And it’s a we? Like God and me. 

Because maybe God can do things I can’t. Like God can inspire good people to come into my kid’s life, or God can inspire my kid themselves to turn toward hope, or to try something hard that might really be good for them. Maybe God’s already doing this.

  • Or who knows?
  • Maybe my wishes even inspire God a little? 

Not because God needs us for good ideas exactly? Probably not. But God’s a really good listener and what we have to say has an effect on God. That’s the way the Bible stories go, at least. 

But maybe I can do things no one else can too. Or maybe other people can do them, but they won’t. Or maybe there are things lots and lots of people need to do, and I’m one of them.

So I pray for my kid, and I remember: they really need some encouragement. I have some unique capacity to encourage them – to remind them of their best qualities or to let them know I believe in them. So I think: ah, it is time to send a text or make a call, not to give advice or nag them, but just to tell them how much I believe in them.

Or maybe I write a letter, or put a little care package together.

Or maybe I remember my kid seemed worried about money, and I don’t think money will solve any of their problems, but I do know that if they see $100 in their Venmo from me, out of nowhere, for no reason, that’s really going to surprise them, and in really good surprise kind of way.

And they could use a good surprise today, can’t they?

Do you get the idea?

Conspiring prayer is more work than just saying: God bless so and so. Or God help so and so in this kind of way.

But that’s what faith looks like. That’s what love looks like. It takes some work.

And whether it’s praying for your oldest kid who just left home, or praying for your pastor, or heck, praying for peace in Palestine and Israel, and praying for justice for terrorized and the dispossessed, and the body and soul-sick and hungry in that land, conspiring prayer acknowledges that there is so much we can not do, but there is also always something, something we can do. And conspiring prayer is taking a quiet, reflective moment and wondering with the unseen God of the Universe what that might be today, or tomorrow, or this year.

Conspiring prayer on this front got me in a room with a few Palestinian and Muslim leaders and one of our senators this month.

And conspiring prayer has got me sending cash and letters to my kid too. 

But conspiring prayer isn’t just about action. It’s about being with God, like God really is the kind and wise and beautifully loving mother and father that faith in the way of Jesus Christ says God is.

This is a God we can be with, that we can breathe with, that we can share all our wishes with. And that out of the calm, and the love that union brings, that we can imagine together just what we both can do.

This is prayer that availeth much, my friends. A partnership with the living God born out of breathing and agreeing and acting together. 

I encourage you to give it a try, or to try again, see how it goes.

Prayer: An Invitation to Sit in the Disorientation

Psalm 13[a]

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome them,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for God has been good to me.

My laundry machine broke in the middle of a wash this week. I was wondering how I was going to start my sermon this week, and see, the Lord provides! A whole load, wet, and the spin button does nothing except make a sad little “wheee” noise. I had to squeeze and individually hang the clothes on a dry rack like we were in the 1950’s! And as I did that monotonous task I prayed. I prayed why Lord, in the middle of a load? I’m busy today and I’ve got a thousand things on my mind (probably more like just 20) but still, (prayers are meant to be a space where I can exaggerate my complaints).  And God you picked today to break my machine?!? 

I don’t know if that’s faith or foolishness, thinking that God timed and controlled my washing machine, but it’s probably not a healthy theology, one which I blame God for the inconveniences of my life. I wasn’t really serious about those thoughts. I moved on quickly to what I need to do, agency of thyself. I think prayer can do that for us. A sifting of our frivolous thoughts. Morning pages of our mumbled jumbled crazy unreasonable minute details. I think those are some of the best prayers to be honest. When we simply can talk through our emotions, move through our feelings about it, no matter how small or big, taking a journey, a movement through the ebbs and flows of life, the ups and downs. 

Whenever I think about prayer, I think about the Psalms.

  • Because there was a time when I didn’t know how to pray and reading through the Psalms helped me.
  • When I didn’t know how to speak to the reality of the situation truthfully, the Psalms did it clearly and boldly.
  • When I needed to whine and complain and say crazy things to God, Psalms did it better than me.
  • When I didn’t know how to land or affirm or turn back to God because I didn’t have the courage to say, “I trust in you God”, the Psalms invited me and nudged me and said it before I could.

Walter Bruggerman, a White American Old Testament scholar, and I say White because I realize when it’s Black or Asian-American I say that – so like to be fair and not like White is the norm, like a White scholar is just a scholar and Black scholar is a Black scholar. ANYWAYS, in his book, The Message of the Psalms, he talks about the Psalms in three categories. There are Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of new orientation or reorientation. Orientation meaning, for example, Psalm 1, a prayer that is sure. That speaks about God and life in black and white.

Blessed are the righteous and the wicked perish.

Bruggerman goes on to say that

though all of life starts there, simple, clear truths about God and life, but any life lived a bit knows and faces “disorientation”. Life that is marked by quote, “disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.”

So Psalms like today’s Psalm 13, begin to lean into the disorientation of life, to ask questions,

how long, why is it that I actually see the wicked prosper? 

It was these Psalms of disorientation that gave me the honest and real invitation to prayer that made me be able to actually pray at a moment in my life. Because there was a time when prayer was taught to me to be more about the sureness. The praising of God. The thanksgiving. The assurance of faith. The trust we have in God. And only that. I was not directly taught to question God or what to do with the disorientation, the inconsistencies, the incongruences I saw and experienced in the world, except that it was all God’s will, which was more confusing.

Bruggerman critiques such tradition- yes it does reinforce sturdy faith or a way of speaking prophetically what we don’t see in the world, but that at times churches taught this way of prayer of orientation, prayer of assurance as a way of numbing, denial, ignoring the realities of our lives.

He says,

“It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened,

numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the

disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation

seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our

culture.’ Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination

for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of

lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the

world.” 

And I resonate with that. Sometimes cliche or resolution too complete with a bow on top didn’t feel quite right to me. 

So an aspect of prayer I think is an invitation to “loss of control.” It’s making wild accusations to God. Are you not listening? Are you just kind of forgetful? Or are you hiding? You’re nowhere to be found God! And these questions turn our hearts, and take us through where it needs to go through. Our faith, spirituality, and our feelings are not just magical black holes that appear in one place and reappear in a totally different place in an instant. We need the journey of praying-through. 

And only by going through that orientation and then disorientation, can we honestly and squarely land on a re-orientation. Where we can be honest about the pain and THEN say, like in verse 5

“BUT I trust in your unfailing love;”

In Psalm 73:23 it says,

“YET I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” 

It’s the BUT and YET that I find comfort in. Because without them, it just sounds like a nice throwaway statement that knows not the depth of my suffering or confusion. 

I want to stay a bit more on the disorientation though. Because as someone who feels like my negative thoughts had to be just powered through rather than held with tenderness, I think we could do more to create safer spaces of prayer for ourselves and one another. To not have to jump to conclusions, resolutions, or faith. But to be okay sitting in the grief, the anger, the questions. To REALLY trust God to be able to handle them. When I have faith, who needs help with prayer? When I’m strong, I know how to pray prayers of thanksgiving. But when I’m not, I have no words. That’s when I don’t know how to pray.

I remember one time I was complaining about something to my friend over text on Instagram messenger, I don’t know if different platforms have different vibes for me. I was angry and heartbroken about the world. I was distraught about the war that’s going on where people are being raped, enslaved, bombed, starved, and so forth. It’s weird in this day and age to be able to see the broadcasting of genocide right in my hands in the comfort of my own bed. It’s disturbing.

It felt good to tell her my rage and I took a sad selfie of me sitting on the floor crying, but it was one of those disappearing pictures of course. She replied with a picture from a book. It was a prayer. It was called Prayer of Anger and Confrontation from a book called Liturgies from Below: 462 acts of worship. Praying with People at the Ends of the World. 

I want to give you a quick background to the work so here’s what the book description says: 

It’s been said that prayer is the vocabulary of faith. This book offers a wealth of resources from forgotten places to help us create a new vocabulary for worship and prayer, one that is located amidst the poor and the major issues of violence and destruction around the world today. It is a collection of prayers, songs, rituals, rites of healing, Eucharistic and baptismal prayers, meditations and art from four continents: Asia-Pacific Islands, Africa, Americas, and Europe.

Liturgies from Below is the culmination of a project organized by the Council for World Mission (CWM) during 2018-2019. Approximately 100 people from four continents worked with CWM, collaborating to create indigenous prayers and liturgies expressing their own contexts, for sharing with their communities and the rest of the world. The project was called “Re-Imagining Worship as Acts of Defiance and Alternatives in the Context of Empire.”

And I looked back at this to share with you, and honestly I can’t relate with it now, maybe I’ve had a better week without too much anger. But I had replied to her with

“Thank you for this. Now this prayer I can pray!”

It said this:

They ask us to sing songs

Is the strange land of undignified life

But we are already tired

Of waiting and waiting for unfulfilled promises

 

We will hang our harps on trees!

We will not sing anymore! No more praises!

Our worship of God will be on strike!

 

Until your justice manifests

Until we see your life’s will

Touching our pains

And healing our wounds

Embracing our forgotten soil

And restoring broken hopes

Guitars and drums will not sound

And our mouths will be silent!

 

Until the song of Mary is fulfilled

Until the Spirit of God renews creation

Until the loving power of the creative force

Fully establishes the inclusive project

From the Nazarene traveler, God, a supportive friend

Until that day, may It come!

 

We will not celebrate, we will not have services

We will not sing praises… We will strike! 

 

–From Psalm 137: 3-4; Psalm 137:2; Luke 1:51-55

Even as I read this now, I can’t say I can relate because today I do feel like dancing and singing. It was almost weird to look back at my texts with my friend of mine holding dearly to my friend’s comfort through this prayer to me at the time. Writing texts like,

“Where is this prayer from??” “I feel like a mess…”

And we both shared when we cried last and how I was reaching for a brownie and she was for a pumpkin pie. 

And maybe for many of you, this doesn’t resonate. Like we just literally sang with guitar and drums and you liked it. But in case there are any of you out there, who had trouble even having the strength to stand for our song worship prayers, or who felt like you didn’t get hit with some happy spirit for some reason, you’re not alone. You’re okay. You’re not weird. Or a bad Christian with subpar faith. You are simply going through life, that includes disorientation. And prayer for all of us is an invitation to go through our assurances, our questions, our disorientations and discomfort and hopefully back to a kind of new orientation that you never knew and never could’ve known unless you went through stuff. But I trust in your unfailing love. Yet I am always with you.

Bruggerman said this about new orientation

“new orientation: they are songs not only of social control but also of social anticipation and criticism.”

Whereas orientation sometimes felt like it was trying to control me from having negative feelings. New orientation allows me to see and accept things as is AND see through, see forward, see beyond a new way. With hope and a critical eye. Don’t you love that? The BUT, YET, and AND of prayer. 

Prayer moves you to the next. Prayer is defiance. 

My friend Rev. Dr. Peter Choi, I quote him a lot in my sermons cause I love his work. He has an online learning platform that I’m a member of. It’s like $100 a year. Called Faith and Justice Network, and MAN they have GREAT GREAT GREAT content. You should sign up. And then you’ll see where much of my content comes from inspired from. So this week Peter said this; 

Prayer is justice work. Refusing to accept the status quo. Prayer is protest. 

Prayer is justice work. Refusing to accept the status quo. Prayer is protest. 

How true. How beautiful. That our words are not mere complaints but that it’s our hearts on the picket line. Our longings at display. Prayer as protest and justice work.

  • Does that resonate with you?
  • What do you write on your prayer poster today?
  • What do you stand for?
  • What do you kneel for?

May that be a prayer for you. 

I also know that prayer hits differently for different folks. Heck, like the prayer I read earlier, apparently that really hit me that one day my friend shared with me, but it does not strike a chord this week. So let me offer another metaphor if prayer as a protest doesn’t resonate with you. 

To pray is to be sober. Many of us live our lives in a lull. In the busyness of our days. Work. Entertainment. Going from task to task. We’re constantly stimulated with ads, social media, ideas, pre-occupations, regrets. We play the past over and over or the future over and over and we don’t know how to simply be. To pray is to be sober from the world’s incessant words over us. Sobriety from what the world tells us who we are.

Who do you say I am? Not what anybody else says but in God, who am I? 

They have a saying in the AA, alcoholics anonymous world. Get yourself to a meeting. And for some, it’s a daily necessity. To go to a meeting. To be around the people that know you and get you and are on the same journey as you, that is saying the same thing you are saying about themselves. Each day, any day you slip and forget that for a moment, that’s when you know you need to get yourself to a meeting. Because you need to be reminded. You need to be spoken over whatever crazy thought that entered your mind. I think that’s what prayer is. Getting yourself to a meeting. 

AA’s powerful 12 steps take addicts through the process of becoming sober. It’s got some beautiful shifts and turns that even if you’re not an addict, although some would argue that we live in an addictive world where all of us are constantly stimulated. I think it’s a beautiful movement that could maybe apply to many of us. So I want to end our time by taking us through 12 steps as a prayer for us today. 

Maybe it’s not your powerlessness over alcohol but maybe some other parts of our lives, or our world. I personally often grieve the powerlessness I feel over our world of politics and war. 

So let me pray the 12 step prayer through. I’ll change the words from alcohol to maybe something else, or maybe you can put something else. It’s a humbling thing, prayer in 12 steps, a method from an addict’s approach. Maye we try humbling ourselves together, in solidarity with those who seek sobriety, or maybe dare I say that many of us might be seeking sobriety from alcohol, from porn, from marijuana, from pain killers, from food, from sex, from social media, from numbing ourselves, from work, from efficiency/productivity, from being complicit to violence, from laziness, whatever it is, whatever that may be good in moderation even but that has hindered your life, hurt others, may we lift it up in humility to God in prayer together as we close.

Dear God. 

  1. We admit that we were powerless— that our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. We believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
  3. We turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. 
  4. Helps us to search and do a fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admit to you God, to ourselves, and to other human beings the nature of our wrongs.
  6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Help us to make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Guide us to direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Give us the courage to continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong to promptly admit it.
  11. Keep bringing us back to prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with you God as we understand you, praying only for knowledge of Your will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. And as we experience a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, may we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

We pray

Amen. 

Thank you for praying with me. I hope that this time carries on with you and bear fruit in the ways they should, God willing. Thanks for worshiping together with us. Till next time. Peace. 

“Amen” An End & A Beginning

Today we are continuing in our new sermon series,  it’s called “How to Pray.” This series certainly offers us some mechanics of ‘how to pray’  specific prayer practices, like the Examen that Steve offered us last week, and a whole lot of “how-to’s” if you pop into one of the “prayer workshops” right after service. But today I want to ask us to consider “how to” regard prayer as a way to not give up on the kin-dom of God. 

How can prayer aid us in imagining and creating the world now, and as we dream it can be?

Prayer can help us step deeper into our lives with God. Prayer helps us intertwine the love of God – with the motion of our days, our schedules, the realness – the hardness …So that we notice it, recognize it, and we PRACTICE it wherever we go. 

Spiritual practices invite us into living our life more fully and wholly as possible.   

Spiritual practices – help us put our spirituality into practice, in the real world around us. 

A spirituality that pleads with us to not give up on the kin-dom of God.  To not give up on the deep love of Jesus that moves us and undoes us. And to see that our actions, our voices, our footsteps carry and communicate that love – that kin-dom of God here and now. 

It’s how we grow our capacity to love.

It’s how we grow stronger to love. 

It’s how we grow more tender to love. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book Strength to Love said,

“God has two outstretched arms, one is strong enough to surround us with justice and  [and move us toward justice], and one is gentle enough to embrace us with [tenderness] and grace.” (8)

This is the beauty and the expanse of prayer.  And why practice is necessary. Like life and like love it always encompasses “both/and”  never “either/or.”  

  • Prayer helps us be strong and tender.
  • Prayer is listening and being listened to.
  • Prayer is asking and prayer is sitting.
  • Prayer helps us endure and prayer is rest. 
  • Prayer is change and steadiness.
  • Prayer brings us to our knees and girds us against collapse.
  • Prayer is weeping and prayer is laughing. (Cussing & silence.)
  • Prayer is beyond us and prayer IS us.
  • Prayer flourishes with faith and with doubt. (PO’T)
  • Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposurer.

Prayer encompasses multitudes.. . . and so do we.

Prayer, whatever form, for whatever reason, in whatever circumstances – promises to rearrange us- unto love.  And in times of despair and nightmare – it promises to bring us back to the faith already inscribed in our bodies by the practices we keep.  

We practice prayer because it helps us not give up – on ourselves or each other. 

  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God.
  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God to come.
  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God here and now.

Today – I want to look at a familiar story in the gospel of Luke, the characters in the story. And wonder together in imaginative and informed ways, what we notice about prayer.

Let me pray for us.

“Oh God, Divine parent of us all – *in whom is heaven*.

Holy, Loving, Merciful one is what we call you. 

May your love be enacted in this world,
and be our guide to dream, to hope, and create the world now and as we imagine it to be.

Give us the morsels of your filling love that we need, in this wilderness.
Feed and fuel us for the work of our days. To love ourselves and neighbors well.
May we showcase your love, in mercy and kindness and humbleness, as you have shown it to us. 

And lead us into your big heart – that expands our own, for the greater good, the common good, and the stranger. 
Lead us not into self-isolation, scarcity, and new lines of division.

Lead us into your presence, apparent in every part of our days, 

where the glory of the power that is love, restores us all – now and forever.
AMEN. ( Adapted from the Lord’s Prayer)

My Prayer Life

That was a little riff on the Lord’s Prayer, if you heard some familiarity there… Ending with “amen, amen, amen.”

This word, “Amen” was the favorite part of prayer for me as a kid. Because it meant that the long, recap-style-prayer of whatever service, sermon, or meeting, or event I was at – was finally over.

These days “Amen” is often still my favorite part of prayer – because it signals the beginning of where I get to pick up the end of the spoken prayer – where I get to find my place in living prayer.  

 The trick is that sometimes the situation I’m praying for, or walking into looks bereft of ‘life’- like the story has already played out, the ending is clear.  And yet – this is precisely where the practice of prayer should show up, right? It’s not only for the ‘feel-good’ times, it’s so that the practice will keep working on us in times of despair — in bad times — when we don’t know what to do. 

 And that’s why I want to look at this scripture this morning – and see how a similar dynamic plays out at the scene after the crucifixion, how the character Joseph, the women of Galilee, and the crowds all engage in prayer.

 Scripture

Luke 23: 48 – 56

48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow. 

49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph. He was a member of the Jewish high council,

51 but he had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other religious leaders. He was from the town of Arimathea in Judea, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.

52 He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.

53 Then he took the body down from the cross and wrapped it in a long sheet of linen cloth and laid it in a new tomb that had been carved out of rock.

54 This was done late on Friday afternoon, the day of preparation, as the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 As his body was taken away, the women from Galilee followed and saw the tomb where his body was placed.

56 Then they went home and prepared spices and ointments to anoint his body. But by the time they were finished the Sabbath had begun, so they rested as required by the law.

**This is an intense scripture and one that is a lot to delve into a few weeks after Christmas. But even his birth was shrouded in violence and fear at the hands and killing of many innocents of King Herod. 

And here in this scene wailing, and mourning, and silence fill the landscape.  Maybe you could imagine voices echoing in disbelief asking, 

“Is Jesus really gone? Or Jesus are you here? Jesus!?” Show up! Come back – the way we once knew you. Where are you?” 

It wouldn’t be surprising, right? It is in fact Jesus’s own cry on the cross,

“God have you left me?”

Horror and violence appear to have had the last word. 

Death,

Despair, 

And Absence fills the space of where their friend, their hope, their Jesus just was.  

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that;

Death has won.
The empire has won.
The oppressor has won.

That this is the end. There is no new beginning.

There’s a song I’ve been listening to on repeat (much to my family’s displeasure) – and one of the lines says, “Don’t think the battle’s over just ’cause you say “amen”” 

And it is a battle.
To not give up on the kin-dom.

It is a battle to believe that Jesus is still here…. In our fragmented broken landscapes.

When so much blocks and challenges our view of Jesus.

When so much appears void of goodness & love.  

This resonates as true. In just my small sphere this week I’ve heard of a new cancer diagnosis, multiple people suffering in unbearable/untreatable physical pain, abandonment, addiction, kids in inpatient programs, legal battles, heart-breaking divorce, a sense of ‘nothing-ness’… 200 immigrants seeking at least one day a week, where they can find shelter, warmth, a meal – their human rights. 

It is hard to not give up. To not say, “the story is already written and it seems pretty depressing, pretty bleak.”

But prayer rearranges us – helps us sift the lies, sift the loud voices,  so that love reappears – surfaces in our hearts.

Joseph of Arimathea

If we look at this character Joseph of Arimathea.

I don’t know what Joseph’s prayer practice had been – if he had one even. But my guess is that it had something to do with, “disagreeing with religious leaders that sentenced Jesus to death – AND it had something to do with “waiting for the Kin-dom of God to come.” Both/And. Action and contemplation.

Maybe all along Joseph was the squeaky wheel in the room – saying,

“no that’s not true of Jesus.” No he’s not guilty. No, you can’t legally sentence him.”

Maybe all along Joseph didn’t know what to do to save Jesus. To fix the situation. Or the systems at play… But he showed up. He was present. 

Maybe his deep belief that there was a kin-dom of God to come – that there was a better way for everyone – a beloved community on the horizon — helped him not give up.

We don’t know for sure.

But we do know that he utilized his position, his wealth, his access to power in this moment to —- care, uphold the dignity of Jesus, and love Jesus —to put love on the surface. Going to Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body was a courageous move. Pilate does not like the group that Joseph belonged to… and under Roman law someone condemned to death had no right to burial. 

But Joseph is saying to Pilate,

“I would like to bury him anyway – lay him to rest.” 

And in doing so – as Joseph takes the body – he is openly identifying with Jesus – no longer a secret disciple.  

Even when it looks like there’s nothing left. Joseph is imbued with a deep love, boldness, a greater knowing of Jesus. 

Maybe prayer helps us see that justice is holding with reverence those that are cast aside.

The Women of Galilee

If we look at these women of Galilee – who we know have been alongside Jesus throughout much of his ministry – Mary his mother, the first to welcome him into the world – and the last to leave his body at death . . are all present. 

They have watched and waited, moved and acted, and watched and waited again.

This time of course their following Jesus and their waiting and watching unfolds as a nightmare against the backdrop of their dreams for this long awaited kin-dom.

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the iconic words of his “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963 will fill our feeds. But may we also remember that a few years later in a Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Church, 1967 –   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr says these words: 

“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. 

We have neither peace within nor peace without. 

Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. 

Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. 

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. 

Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had,

and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. “

—- and he goes on to detail for multiple points the ways in which his dream has turned into nightmares, and I’m not going to read them because we are living them still… but MLK goes on to say —- 

“Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”

And his life would end with his murder – just four months later. 

Ghosts

Sometimes we can walk around feeling like ghosts-of-ourselves. When the breath of life is swept out of our belief, our faith, our dreams. When we ask,

“God are you here?”

and don’t hear anything back. I wonder if this is how the women – the friends of Jesus felt? I wonder if this is how so so many people who believed for the dream that MLK put voice to felt when he died. 

There have been times when I’ve prayed so hard, so long, in so many ways – for something to not “overtake.” For myself, the ones I love, the world…

“Please, God just please don’t let this play out like it looks like it’s going to – please don’t let this overtake.”

  • And then the cancer does
  • The division wins
  • The unjust laws passed in Congress
  • The heartbreak continues to come one after another – in ceaseless fashion.

Despair can seep deep and quick, turning us into shells of ourselves. Oooof, it knows how to set up just in the most tender spots of our heart – parts of our heart that were so open/vulnerable – that had to be because that’s part of ‘believing.” 

But prayer in all of its numerous expressions can help.
Here we see the women pray.  What do they do?

Given the danger they faced from the Jewish authorities and/or the Romans, these women could have prepared to quickly leave town. 

Instead, they linger at the site of their pain  – they honor what their bodies are feeling (a prayer in and of itself), and they honor and prepare spices for Jesus’ body.

A seemingly inconsequential, normal act. To dignify the body, to anoint the body in death it was part of the custom. Yet if we regard this movement as prayer – we can see that

“to prepare spices is a metaphor for every small act that refuses to succumb to despair.”  (thank you Dante Stewart for this).

And most days, this is what we can do. A small every day act, and regard it as prayer. “Pack the lunch for your kids, go for the walk, call or text your friend, offer a ride, do a soup-swap, listen, light a candle, show up where you can.” The faith of these women teaches us this: offering to one another the basic stuff of human dignity is prayer. 

These women can not in the moment dismantle the unjust systems that impact their lives. But these acts, these prayers  – rearrange their hearts – and in that process dismantle the authority and the space that despair tries to take up. That is what gets dismantled. Prayer dismantles despair, shame, lies, the voice of the oppressor and puts it in a more right-sized spot.

Preacher Dante Stewart says,  

“The oppressor wants to rob our spirits of peace. The oppressor wants us to work tirelessly and be unkind to ourselves. The oppressor wants to distract us. The oppressor is a liar.” 

Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposer. 

These women want to love more than death can harm. They embalm, they anoint, and they stay close.  

Maybe prayer helps us to rub every ordinary act of our days, with the oil of holiness and dignity.

CROWDS

Lastly, let’s not overlook the prayer of the crowds. That first verse in this passage says,

“and the crowds, they went home in deep sorrow”

– in other translations it says they

“went home beating their breasts.”

I see myself in the crowd. The visceral physical nature of expressing such pain, and grief feels like the truest thing. And the truest thing is often prayer.
I imagine myself in the crowd, going home, saying “amen.” That’s it. And so it is. Jesus is dead. The end.

But I wonder if for some in that crowd that wasn’t the end – it was also the beginning? Perhaps they went home and talked of their grief – the reasons why they were grieved.. Perhaps they asked questions of one another, asked about

the fails of their government, the fails of their religious structures, the loss of their friend, the shattering of their hope, the uncertainty of what’s to come. 

Perhaps they show us that prayer is also to come alongside one another and to ask questions that

penetrate the times and pierce the soul, questions of social conscience and moral discernment.” (Michael Connor, sojo.net)

A way to sit in the terror of a world undone, and to still trust that the things the human spirit is moved to do in defiance of despair is prayer. Perhaps it too breaks open a way to imagine a different way forward – all the while engaged in prayer – honor, dignity, anointing, asking questions, weeping – creating and growing beloved community, as well as our resilience to not give up on the kin-dom of God.  

The crowds, the women of Galilee, and Joseph all play their part. They all do what is truest to them in the spheres of their life. With the love of God anchoring them – and disrupting them unto greater vision, unto a greater world they can not yet see – and they pray, they pray, they pray their way into seeing a living, real, good, and loving Jesus in their midst again and enlivening this faith. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr ends his famous Christmas sermon where he talks more about nightmares  than dreams by saying these words that I’ll close with as prayer,

“I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the children of God will shout for joy.”

Amen – may it be so. . . and a beginning.

 

The Value of a Daily Prayer Practice

We’re going to talk about prayer today and do some praying together for those of us who would like, but first we have some new year celebrating to do!

Last year we celebrated our church’s 25th anniversary in many ways.

Two years ago, I had my real conversation about this anniversary. It was with Ann Bakun, one of our Board members, who has a gift for celebrating people and things.

We spoke on the phone about what this anniversary year should feel like, and we both thought – let’s spend a little bit of energy celebrating where we come from and a little bit on where we are going, but a lot on who and where we are today. So many of us love and are grateful for this community – we thought how do we celebrate that?

And we thought – there should be a party and cake at some point. And one Sunday in May we had a party. We had a worship service where the mayor of Cambridge at the time, Sumbul Sidiqui, now a city councilor, spoke and thanked us on behalf of the city. Our state rep, Steve Owens, brought a proclamation from the Massachusetts State House, celebrating this community. And we had some food, I’m pretty sure a cake, afterwards. It was great. 

During that conversation with Ann, or shortly thereafter, we were thinking we should tell some stories too. So we had a 25 Stories for 25 Years Project, where 25 people or couples shared a story about good things in their lives through their time at Reservoir. Those stories are all up on our YouTube page; I think those are pretty great too!

I realized our church was turning 25, the same year I was turning 50, and celebrating 10 years with you as senior pastor, so I took a sabbatical for the summer. Going away for a little while may sound like a strange way to celebrate, but for me and my family that was great too. And then when I got back, I renewed my ordination vows last fall, which was really sacred and important to me. To commit to God to continue to serve as the pastor and person God has called me to be, and to commit to you all that I’ll keep doing that here as long as you’ll have me as well. 

One thing I remember from that first conversation with Ann, though, was that I was like: I don’t want to raise money. You know, nonprofits and churches and stuff use big anniversaries for fundraisers a lot of the time. And I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for that or didn’t see the vision or need. Or probably I just didn’t want to do the work. Whatever. But I remember saying: no fund-raiser.

Well, a few months later, our executive pastor Trecia and I were realizing – dang, a number of things are breaking around here. Like a whole bunch of pipes for instance. And we need to do something about that. And as we started pricing out some of the infrastructure work around the church and a couple of facilities projects that were just overdue for us, we brought that to our Board. And we just didn’t have enough money in reserves for it all. 

So I was like, well, I guess we’re gonna have a fundraiser after all. It was going be like $250,000, which seemed like a heck of a lot of money to me.

But then two things happened to make it much bigger. 

The second one, I’ll tell you about in a minute.

But the first was that two different Board members, each in their own way, were like – that’s too small, Steve. You’re uninspiring. Like, we can go bigger than that. One was like, hey, remember your goal of paying off all our debts and doing some new things with those funds, why aren’t we going for that?

And another one had pledged a certain amount of funds toward the whole fix up the church campaign, but when they heard we could go bigger, they were like, well, this actually inspires us. We’ll triple what we talked about giving before.

So we went in big. Just over a year ago, we launched this 25th anniversary capital campaign to raise $1.4 million dollars in giving last year and this year. And I started asking people, and then brought it to you all – let’s raise a ton of money, pay our debts, fix some stuff up, and reimagine the big things we can do together with this freed up funding.

And then, friends, all year, I went back and forth, almost every week, from like, oh my goodness, this church is so generous and committed, we’re going to do this thing. It’s going to be so great! To maybe a week later, thinking, why are we even trying to do this? It’s too much money. We’ll never make it. 

And then we got over half way there before I took the summer off, which felt great at the time, but then I got back to work at the end of the summer, and it was like, really, we have to ramp up this campaign again? What are we doing? It’s too much money. We’ll never get there.

Well, friends, I am pleased to tell you in this first week of the new year, that WE DID IT! Yeah, we did it! 

By December 31, our pledges and giving were at $1.46 million dollars. We beat our goal by more than $60,000.

Amazing!

Now there’s a lot more I could say about this campaign – it’s not technically over. Only about ⅔ of those funds are in the bank already. So we’re obviously hoping that all of you who made pledges for giving this year will fulfill those. And there’s tons to talk about in terms of what’s next – how we’ll be paying down our debt, what projects we’ll do, how we’ll be getting some new ministry goals off the ground. 

But all that is for another day. We’ll check in on that stuff a little at our members meeting on February 11th. And there will be quarterly updates for you all on what’s up and how to get involved. The first of those will probably be next month too. 

For today, two things. 

  1. Celebrate. You all are a generous, abundant community, and we dug deep together to really change this church’s financial future. And free us up to do some really cool things for our community. I’m so proud of us all. I hope you are too!
  2. But the other thing I want to mention today is that this campaign wouldn’t have happened without daily prayer practices.

I mean quite a number of you made choices about giving that you came to in your prayers for this church and your prayers about your own finances, and what to do with those. At our best, Reservoir, we are a praying church – people who ask God to be good to the people and causes we love, and people who ask God to lead us toward being people of love and faith and generosity and are open to God’s creative ideas for us in that.

But even for me. I mentioned that were two things that changed my mind about that campaign.

One is that challenge or dare from our Board – when they told me I was uninspiring to them, too cautious, too small.

But the other is what I did with it next. I didn’t feel great about how that landed for me, and one of the things I do with things that don’t sit well with me is I talk about them in prayer. 

And so I remember asking God,

  • am I lacking in boldness or courage around the church?
  • Am I thinking too small?

And in kind of a gentle way, the sense I had in me was: absolutely, yes, Steve. I felt called back to ask:

  • what do I really want for this church?
  • And what does this church want for ourselves? 

And in that prayer time, my hope, my faith, my vision and courage started to grow.

Friends, I don’t spend a ton of time in preaching talking about what happens when I pray because 1) it’s private. And 2) I don’t want anyone thinking that because I’m a pastor, I have a special connection with God you don’t have or that God is going to speak to you through me.

But I do know that it’s harder to have a sense that God is with us, and it’s harder to feel like God communicates with us or helps us day to day without some kind of daily prayer practice. 

So we’re going to talk a little bit about how to have a daily prayer practice if you want one. 

I’ve been reading a part of the gospel of John from the Bible this past week. Let me share just a few highlight verses with us. 

John 15:5 (Common English Bible)

5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.

John 14:26-27 (Common English Bible)

26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 

John 17:24 (Common English Bible)

24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

 

We just finished up the Christmas season. At Christmas time, we remember Jesus as Emmanuel, a name that means God with us. That’s at the center of faith in the Way of Jesus, that the teaching and life of Jesus shows God to us 

But then the gospel of John tells us about this long, late night chat Jesus had with his disciples in a stone room in Jerusalem, the night before his death. 

It was an intense, late night conversation, as you’d expect.

These verses I read capture some of Jesus’ most radical, important hopes. Jesus says,

soon I’m not going to be around anymore. But the God-with-us experience can continue, uninterrupted, long past my years on earth. 

He says

stick with me, remain, abide, and we’re going to stay connected. Like a branch to a tree. Tight. 

He says

that in that connection, you will be a resource to bear valuable fruit. You will grow, be sweet and useful. You can participate with God in things of everlasting value.

Jesus says,

you can know God has a companion, a companion that will grow peace in you.

I used to think it was an insult if people thought Jesus was my imaginary friend. Now, I’m like, you know, yes, he is. And it’s real. It’s true. The God we can’t see is my friend, and God gives me peace. 

Jesus says

that connection, that peace can be so deep, it’s like you are with God.

We can be where Jesus is. That’s very mystical, but it speaks to a connection of depth and wonder.

And Jesus says that

God can keep teaching you the truth you need. God will speak to you, communicate with you, beyond what I’ve had time to tell you.

Obviously, nowhere here does Jesus use the word prayer, but this promise of companionship and peace and friendship, even union with God, where God speaks with us, and good things grow in our lives – it’s hard to experience anything close to this without a regular prayer practice. 

Before I say more, I’m going to be honest. 

When I began learning the Way of Jesus, decades ago, daily prayer was both over-commanded and filled with over-promises. 

I was told again and again, Jesus said we should pray. 

And I was promised that if I prayed and read my Bible every day, kind of magical things would happen in my life, and fast. 

This was motivating for me at first, so great! In my mid-teens to early twenties, I read the Bible just about every day, and I asked God for things, and shared my hopes and concerns with God, told God: you’re awesome. Really, I believe it, you’re the best. Because I thought God needed me to say that a lot. 

But over time, my interest in all this kind of came and went.

It became more and more of a “have to” and less of a “want to.”

Some of this was disappointment. My prayers didn’t always change my life as fast or as deep as I wanted them to. They certainly didn’t always seem to change the world or anyone else’s life, at least not most of the time. 

And some of this honestly was boredom. The Bible wasn’t always interesting, and neither were many of my attempts at conversation with the divine. 

And you know, you disciplined people in the world, some of you have the capacity to do things for a long time, even when they’re not always interesting to you or when you believe they’ll help you in the long run but you’re not sure if they are helping you today. 

And God bless the naturally disciplined people of the world, but I am not one of them. If things are interesting or helpful to me, they usually aren’t happening. 

And I’m not alone in having had my ups and downs with prayer. I know that.

You all may be more disciplined than me but you don’t necessarily pray more. This church is full of people I know who used to pray more in the past than you do these days. I know that because you tell me that. 

And this church is also full of people for whom prayer has never consistently connected either, so you try now and then, but not a lot. 

That’s why we’re starting the new year with this series on prayer

We are not going to command you to do anything. That’s not really our way at Reservoir. We don’t shame anyone or boss anyone around. We try to create an environment where we can all walk in the way of Jesus and flourish, but we’re not going to tell you what you have to do.

We are also not going to over-promise. Be like, if you pray, you’ll be happy, healthy, powerful, and rich. Or whatever. No blowing smoke in anyone’s ears here. 

But we will explore how to pray if it’s never clicked for you and you wish it would.

Or how to pray again if you don’t so much any more and would like to try again. 

Because prayer, and a daily prayer practice in particular, isn’t magic. And it can take some time to deliver. Sometimes you’ve got to try some different approaches too, to see what works best for you, or what works best for you in this particular moment of life. 

But over time, a daily prayer practice is one of the best ways, maybe the best way, to feel closer to God. To have faith in a loving God grows good things in your life. To have a sense that God communicates with you. And to have God grow more peace in you.

For me, over the past few years, daily prayer has become a want to and a need to – like, oh, I need this – instead of a “have to,” instead of a burden.

Daily prayer centers me in what’s most important. It anchors me in what I find to be most true and beautiful. In daily prayer, I am so often reminded of all the ways God is with me. And I very often gain tremendous direction and peace.  

And I’d love that for all of us who are interested. 

So how we’re going to finish today is we’ll try something out together. There are three ways of praying that are often part of my daily prayers – all ancient modes of Christian prayer that fit well in our contemporary world, and over time, have given me huge, huge benefits. Both interesting and helpful to me!

  1. The Examen – a prayer of self-reflection for discovering God with us and what we have to talk about with God.
  2. Silent contemplation – slowing down, getting some of the crud out of our heads, including the crud we think about God, and anchoring us in peace, in the truth. 
  3. Imaginative prayer in the gospels. Reading a story from the life of Jesus and using our imagination to see where we place ourselves in the story and how it speaks to us.

EXAMEN

From https://www.reservoirchurch.org/how-and-why-to-pray-the-examen/

How to Pray the Examen

  1. Acknowledge presence and ask for God’s guidance.
  2. Review your day – 3-5 highs and lows
  3. Reflect on, talk to God about what you notice.  (Thank you, sorry, please)
  4. Look forward to the day to come, with hope, resolution, and prayer.

Why to Pray the Examen

  1. Over time, you’ll discover God in all things.
  2. It’s a powerful tool for personal growth.
  3. It can be endlessly adapted. 

SILENT CONTEMPLATION & IMAGINATIVE PRAYER IN THE GOSPELS

Alright, friends, more in the weeks to come – here in the sermons, and in the workshops Ivy will lead as well. But for now, a closing prayer. 

The great vine of Heaven and Earth, source of life and abundance and good fruit, help you stay connected.

The Great Companion – Spirit of God and friend to us all, be with you and teach you everything you need to know.

May you be open to the great peace of Christ, so you can be centered and anchored, and not so troubled or afraid. 

May you be right where Jesus is, in awareness of the glory and goodness of our loving God. 

Amen.