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.
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.
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!
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.
stick with me, remain, abide, and we’re going to stay connected. Like a branch to a tree. Tight.
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.
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.
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!
The Examen – a prayer of self-reflection for discovering God with us and what we have to talk about with God.
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.
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.