Grace and Peace to you.
Don’t you hate it when you call customer service and you get a recording? I imagine many people feel that way about the church. They come with real questions, real hopes— and they get some pre-recorded platitudes, but not real engagement. They sit next to people who sing and talk, but who don’t actually converse with them. So they leave.
I think to some degree we all feel like that: we have deep questions, needs, wounds, hopes and dreams, but we don’t talk about them at church. Because we suspect that no one will really listen, really receive who we are and what we mean, without their own pre-recorded opinions or fixes.
Once upon a time a traveler was driving through a strange city, trying to get to an important meeting. He had a GPS in his car, and it was talking to him the whole time, but he wasn’t listening. He wanted to find his own way. He wandered from street to street, and saw some lovely things, but missed the meeting.
Many congregations wander from program to program, but they’re trying to find their own way, not listening to guidance along the way. They don’t necessarily know why they exist. They have no shared vision of their purpose, no sense of what it is they’re all in together. They may have some goals, but not necessarily a calling. That’s because they’re not listening to God. They might be obedient to some very noble values, but so are the Boy Scouts.
What sets the church apart is that we are actively listening to God. God is moving among us, and the way we thrive as a church is to listen to what God is doing and where God is going. A thriving church is a praying church.
Ooh, that touches some nerves, doesn’t it? People are skittish about prayer. Some people think it means being pious or eloquent about one’s beliefs—essentially running off at the mouth to God—and they don’t know what to say. Some people think it means some esoteric technique they haven’t mastered. Some people think prayer is strictly personal, and don’t like the idea of sharing prayer in community. Some people think it means “having God on speed dial,” hearing from God a lot like a talkative friend. People imagine talking to a God they don’t actually, deep down in their bones, believe in. So they feel silly talking to the air.
Well, that’s not what prayer is. Prayer is paying attention to the divine energy of love in and around us. It turns out God is not a pre-recorded message but a real presence. To pray you don’t have to say anything, believe anything or feel anything. You just have to listen. Of course, sometimes we do have stuff to say to God. (You know God gets an earful, don’t you?) But even then prayer is listening, even if it’s just to ourselves, to really hear what we’re saying deep down. (Sometimes we don’t know what we think till we say it to God.) Since God’s primary language is silence, we have to learn some new ways of listening. All our forms and practices of prayer are ways to quiet our minds and open our hearts and practice listening at a deeper level.
Many of us at St. Matthews hunger for deeper prayer life, both individually and together. And we hunger for a church that’s a praying church, a church that’s listening to God—in our individual lives, in our worship and even in our meetings. We believe God is at work among us, and we will thrive when we listen to God’s guidance. We will experience better worship, more fruitful ministries, deeper relationships and a stronger mission if we actually listen to the GPS— listen prayerfully to hear how and where God is leading us.
I believe a church that doesn’t listen will wander from street to street, and perhaps never achieve its potential; but a listening church will attract new people, form active followers of Jesus, achieve God’s purpose, accomplish great things, and thrive into the next generation. To do that we need to be prayerful in all we do.
This Lenten season we’re sharing many ways to be in prayer—in worship, at home, by email, with the prayer wall, and so on. You’ll even encounter them in Council meetings. I hope you’ll help us create a culture of prayer and make St. Matthew’s a listening church.
And I hope you’ll share with me your vision for St. Matthew’s. I want to hear. I’m listening.