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Good Morning and Happy New Year. I’m pastor Lydia, my pronouns are she/they. I’m going to talk about prayer today. Let me read our Bible text to engage in this conversation and pray for us to start.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]
but deliver us from the evil one.[b]’
Let me pray for us.
God we humbly come into this space of worship. Some of us longing and waiting for you to show up. Some of us with great hopes and expectations for the new year. Some of us still in the middle of struggles, difficulties, hardships battling addiction, sickness, or trying to take care of loved ones in need. Wherever we are this morning, would you open up the clouds and shine through, that no one could deny the love that you have poured out to us today, lift us up with your word we pray. Amen.
The first day I started working at Reservoir Church, I came into the office, not knowing exactly what to expect. I had come here after many emails, phone calls, video calls, and a weekend visit, but that was it. I moved from California with my husband to Boston for this job to be a pastor at this church, without knowing a lot. I remember meeting Leah and Christine who worked at the office across from my office, an organization called Theology of Work that one of our members Will Messenger leads.
Leah and Christine were really sweet and kind, asking me how my first day was going. I think I probably told them about adjusting to the move, not sure how I’m going to face the Boston winter and things. And right in the middle of the conversation they quickly said, can we pray for you, and without much grandeur or movement, easily and swiftly said, “so Jesus…” and began praying for me.
Now I come from a Presbyterian background. Which, if you don’t know, it’s one of many Christian denominations, characterized by more formality and order. Literally, Presbyterians have a thing called the Book of Order which is step by step with articles and amendments to how everything should be run.
And prayers among Presbyterians are a little bit more formal too. I mean these are just broad generalizations I’m making of course, but you’d hear more like, Almighty God, or Good and Gracious God, of sorts. And I heard Leah and Christine so easily moving from a casual office hallway conversation into a prayer struck me, and I thought, “huh, they start prayers with ‘So, Jesus…’ here…”
To this day, I love this about Reservoir Church. How it really is such a diverse place, where people from all streams of faith, traditions, or even no faith tradition, come to this reservoir ;), and there is this ease and humility about it. It’s hard for me to describe because it’s like a culture thing, but I think it matters even to how we pray.
Culture is an environment that people are in. And just as a physical environment would determine how you behave and act (like if you were in a museum or a library, or if you were in a playground or a forest, or if you were in a pool or the beach), culture sets the tone for how people behave.
Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, an organization known for their positive work culture says,
“For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.”
It made me wonder, what culture do you create for people to have an honest, open, and loving relationship with God and others?
What would it look like to create a culture of safe environments to explore faith at varying paces?
Another, when-I-first-started-working-at-Reservoir story. I met a guy here who said,
“I’m actually an atheist.”
And I was like, “oh!” You know, trying to have that, not too surprised or judgment full of reaction face–I’m cool. I’m cool. And I did ask him, in like the coolest manner possible,
“Huh, that’s interesting. Why do you come to church?”
And he just said,
“I like the stories I hear in the sermons. And I like the people.”
And I thought, “wow, that’s great!” A church where atheists can come.
And over the years, you have no idea how actually comforting and impactful that’s been. A woman who’s married to someone who doesn’t practice Christianity, that her husband, though isn’t as involved, feels totally cool to come and join anytime. A person with deep love and faith in Jesus, who’s dating someone who’s not Christian doesn’t feel judged and even feels comfortable to ask for couples counseling.
Or, even someone like me, who is a pastor here, can go through seasons where I can ask, is Christianity even legit? And I do, feel like that sometimes y’all. I have many doubts. Sometimes I don’t know how to pray because it feels like no one is listening or it doesn’t matter whether I pray or not.
And I come across Bible texts like this and sometimes struggle more rather than be encouraged.
“This is how you should pray.”
And right off the bat it says, our Father. I got a problem with that. Why does God have to be a guy? Your kingdom come, oh you a king now. High and mighty above us, and what we’re your minions? I mean, in the first few sentences of this very prescriptive prayer, I’m tripping over patriarchy and hierarchy that I already struggle with so much in the world that I experience.
So yes, it’s hard to know and understand and receive teachings of the Bible sometimes because the Bible was written in its context and we’re getting a glimpse of it, OUT of context. This prayer, Jesus didn’t show it as an example to ME, an Asian-American woman living in 2022. He said it to the Jewish people set in 27AD in the Ancient Near East.
For them, this was a provocative prayer. Our Father? That was not what you called God. You called God, Lord, Adonai, you couldn’t even utter God’s name, but Jesus called God Abba! You don’t curtsy and kneel to this God, you run up and sit and cuddle on their lap!
It’s like if I were to stand here today and say, This is how you should pray. “Hey Boo~” You’d be like, hm, that’s different. And yes, I don’t have authority like Jesus. But the comparison point here is, Jesus was often saying some really strange and ridiculous things that people didn’t recognize. Usually when Jesus said something, People were like, “what did he say?” “Why is he talking like that?” “Who does he think he is?” And if that’s what you think after you hear me speak, well then I’ve done my job! I’m kidding.
And kingdom and heaven. He was using their language and spinning it on its head. They were concepts and metaphors that they were familiar with. It was like saying, God’s realm. God’s space. God’s rules, not the rules of the Romans who were ruthless and oppressive, but God’s rules. Or another metaphor that might speak more closely to some of us, God’s household, let God’s loving care and nurture be present here with us now rather than the whatever other powers that seemingly mattered the most. No, it’s not who we pay our taxes to that controls our lives, but the One who loves us and cares for us, there is a loving power far greater than rulers.
And heaven, heaven was a particular concept that they had, that’s different from what we know about our world and universe today. At the time the biblical cosmology consisted of understanding of the world called firmament, a dome like structure that was made up of upper and lower portions; heaven and earth.
So this prayer, actually, doesn’t work for us at all knowing what we know about our galaxy, except in the metaphorical way. Let your love press into our love. Let your body infuse into our bodies. Let your universe expand into our way of doing things.
Because what else do we have beside metaphors to talk about God with?
And if you say anything about God and claim it not as a metaphor but an objective truth, then you are a liar.
But what is a metaphor? Is it less true because it’s a metaphor? Sometimes metaphors, stories get at more truth captured in such a way that I could never express in literal ways. Like literature. Haven’t you ever read fiction that made you go, oh yes! They put it better than I could’ve said about exactly what I’ve felt and experienced in this world!
You know what I think about often when I think about prayer? It’s from a totally random place but I don’t know, it like matters to me. Okay, bear with me. There’s this book series, actually some Christians don’t really like them, by Dan Brown. You might’ve heard of the movie Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks. Hey I liked the books, like thrilling and adventurous. I think it was in one of the series, called The Lost Symbol.
It talked about noetic science, which apparently is a real area of study, which is, “the study of subjective experience, and to ways that consciousness may influence the physical world.” So the book had this noetic science lab, it had to be enclosed within a huge empty space because it needed to be free from all influences of the external world. And I thought, that’s kind of like prayer, influences of our hearts and thoughts onto a real material world.
Or like the movie Inception. I love this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio, such a great actor. But the premise that one word, one thought planted in your mind, in your deep deep sleep, is more powerful than any other influence. I mean that’s how marketing works for me, and yes I am very impressionable. One time Pastor Steve talked about eating McDonald’s in a sermon, and later that week I had to go to McDonald’s! Not sponsored.
Now all of these are silly, but also kind of true you know? Our words matter. Our thoughts matter. Our feelings matter. What we say to children matters. I’ve even seen different kinds of music played to water as it’s becoming ice, making different kinds of patterns. I mean of course it does, each snowflake is different, as I am reminded from a kid’s show called Daniel Tiger these days. I mean, I learned that before, but really isn’t that amazing, that each snowflake is different? That music affects water crystallization?
I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But have you heard about the Black Hole? Like what is that? It just sucks everything from matter, sound, and light into, what?!
There’s so much we don’t know. About our world, religion, and ourselves. I don’t even know myself sometimes. When someone really asks you, “how are you?” It’s like, um…
I’ve been so challegened and fascinated by the ministry approaches of our Kids Church pastors Dan and Angel. And the way they approach a child’s faith journey, it made me wonder, isn’t that what we’re all doing. Dan was talking about at a base level, what are we doing with the kids? What are we teaching them? And he said,
“It’s like this, at very young: it’s God loves you. It’s nice to be around other people. As they get older: sometimes it feels like God doesn’t love me, what does that mean.”
And I thought, isn’t that what we’re doing with adults?
Whether you’ve been a Christian for a long time, or you’re exploring faith, or maybe you were but have left the church a while and not sure how to re engage, here’s what I want us to hear. God loves you. It’s nice to be around other people.
But then (and I personally spent some time with family over the holidays) and yes it was nice to be around them for a bit …and then it was like, ugh, not so nice to be around them at some point. As time goes on, sometimes it feels like God doesn’t love me, or my family or other people don’t love me, what does that mean? What do we do with that? There is no answer, only the journey.
There is no answer to how to pray. Only the humble journey of asking questions. That is the faith journey. And church is us trying to do that together.
Christianity is not a formula, it’s a story to be invited into.
Prayer is not a formula.
It was never meant to be a formula.
More as a prompt, an example. A metaphor to be unpacked and entered into.
So I’ve said a few things about prayer today, but I really honestly don’t know how it works. I can’t convince you that it works, but just to say, it’s like going out for a walk. I don’t know what it does, but sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not, but it does do something for me.
So I wanted to give us a chance to bring it back to the basics. It’s a bit elementary and I meant it that way, because I do think that at the end of the day, a childlike faith, a childlike prayer is the best one.
I’m going to pass out a worksheet for prayer. If this is too cheesy for you, no worries, you don’t have to do it. You can just use the time to just sit and think, or be silent, be present to yourself. But I purposely made it kind of child-like. To bring us to the basics.
How to Pray: A Guide
Prayer can look many different ways.
Sometimes words. Sometimes not.
Here’s a guide you can use with some words.
Let me give you some time to give prayer a try.
How do you pray? Pray like a child.
I’ll give us a few minutes and wrap us up with a prayer.
Holy and Loving God, give us the humility to be okay not knowing everything. But just walk with us, as we walk with you in prayer. Sometimes stumbling in words, sometimes mumbling in our steps, guide us and be with us we pray, that’s all we ask for and really that’s all you ask of us, to know that you are with us. May we see and know that you are here, right here, talking with us, all the time.