Listening and Praying Our Way into the City

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

July 9, 2000

(Part I of V in the Series "The Nehemiah Project: Ten Keys for Rebuilding the Future")

Keys #1 and #2:

1. We Listen to Friends who speak the truth about the place we love. (Nehemiah 1:2-3).

2. We Pray Continuously for God's Strength and Leadership (Nehemiah 1:4-11).

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Nehemiah was the Cupbearer for the King of Persia. The Cupbearer for the King was responsible for tasting all the foods and drinks prepared for the King to determine if they were poisoned or poorly prepared. Although his life was held in the balance by the dangers engendered by his job, Nehemiah was influential and secure in his position, and successful and trusted by King Artaxerxes. Raised by exiled Jewish parents in Persia, Nehemiah was a common man among the ruling elite, who was deeply prayerful and who possessed an enlightened and heartfelt compassion for his homeland and the fate of Jerusalem.

In the year 445 B.C., a group of exiles who had escaped captivity in Jerusalem, arrived in Susa, the capital city of Persia. They came to speak with Nehemiah and their conversation with him changed his life and the future fate of Jerusalem. They reported that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and the gates of the city had been destroyed by fire. The inhabitants of the city and the Holy Temple (rebuilt only 70 years before) were vulnerable to attack and ruinous destruction. The men had come to ask Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to help rebuild the city walls and gates in what could best be described as a difficult and seemingly impossible task. For Nehemiah to do this meant that he would need to be released by the King from his position as Cupbearer, and quite frankly, "Cupbearer" was a lifetime assignment - one that no one left except by death. Simply to ask to be released was a death defying request.

Nevertheless, Nehemiah listened to his friends (1:3). He sat down and wept (1:4), and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of Heaven (1:4). He prayed, "O God, of heaven, who keeps covenant with your people and loves with steadfast love, please listen to my prayers (1:5-6). I confess my sins, the sins of my family, and the sins of Israel, acknowledging the ways all of us have failed to keep our covenant with you. (1:6-7). In your mercy O God, I plead with you to have the King show mercy on me and allow me to return to Jerusalem (1:11)." Like this, his prayers continued for four months before he had enough courage to go before King Artaxerxes and ask for mercy and release from his service. Four months....continuous prayer.

On the day he went to the King to ask his release and return, the King looked at him and began the conversation asking why he looked so sad. In prayerful and careful response he told the King of the destruction of his homeland. The king asked what he could do. At this point, Nehemiah risked being honest. He told the king he needed to be released from his responsibilities, he needed a letter for safe passage to Jerusalem, and he needed lumber from the King's forests for the timber needed to rebuild the city walls and gates. Graciously, the King grants all his requests- and goes beyond merely granting the minimum, offering an escort for Nehemiah all the way to Jerusalem and the best timber he has in his forests!

Thus, we have the first three keys needed to rebuild the future: 1) We listen to beloved friends who speak the truth about the place we love (Nehemiah 1:2-3); 2) We Pray continuously for God's Strength and Leadership (1:4-11); 3) (which we will return to next week) We Risk Being Honest and Live With the Results (2:1-10).

1. We listen to beloved friends who speak the truth about the place that we love (Nehemiah 1:2-3). This week, I have read the first 80 One-on-One Summary sheets that have been returned from our Listening Team who've been out conversing with you in your homes, here at church and in many public places at all hours of the day and night. Forty-five people in this congregation have been trained and commissioned to hear your stories, your heartfelt passions, your joys and concerns about First Church, Columbus, and our future together. I am expecting to read over 450 more such sheets. As an aside, Listeners, please make your remaining calls (and pick up some more if you are able!) and those on the receiving end, please answer your phones and phone messages and meet with people - we need to hear from you. If you have yet to be contacted, either the Listener is me (because I'm way behind on my calls) or perhaps your card is still waiting to be picked up. So, please call the office if you'd like a One-on-One, we'll try to make connections.

After six months of my own listening and from these excellent reports of others listening, many words and feelings have appeared when members and friends of First Church speak of this community of faith. They include: longevity, delight in certain pastors and preachers (and struggles with some others!), dedication, a high degree of activity (and inactivity), love and family connections, love of the mission of First Church, the music, and the sanctuary. You believe the church to be open and tolerant, loving and accepting of others. You have chosen First Church most often because of it's central location, its mission, its beauty, its openness, its preaching and worship and its music. Clearly Music and the Arts are most often spoken of when people are referring to their own personal passions. And the music that people are passionate about is wide ranging - contemporary, jazz, blues, and rock, as well as variations of classical music.

As I listen, like Nehemiah before me, I also hear that all is not well in First Church as people speak the truth about the place that they love! I hear people speaking of their loneliness, their sense of isolation in times of need, of grief and personal hurting. I hear people speaking of their feelings that we need to increase our outreach in mission to not only the community outside us, but to the community within us. I hear them saying we need to develop more relational and fellowship groups at First Church. In addition, the concerns for continued growth and excellence for programs for our children and youth have been constant themes lifted up in conversation. We have to be more and more children and youth "friendly."

I hear many people speaking of our need to increase our diversity in all ages, ethnic groups, economic stratifications, races, and sexual orientations of persons. I hear people speaking most clearly of our need to care more fully for our older members and our need to attract, gain, serve, and hold on to younger members. I also hear that we are lacking in our opportunities for mission and ministry for people between the ages of 18-35 and that these persons are not looking at other churches, but can't look to their own church to meet their needs at this time. I hear people speaking of our need to increase diversity in worship experience and diversity in style and selections of music in worship, while honoring what we have already.

Finally, I hear people saying that the perception of others in Columbus outside of First Church about us is that they have no particular view of First Church. Whereas in the past we may have been seen as a leading church in the community, that's not the perception now. Now, outside of our community Concert Series, people are saying the only perceptions they may have are negative. But, there is also a clear feeling that this perception has begun to change in the last year or so!

I hear people's tremendous excitement and enthusiasm about developing our Arts Campus concept in relation to the Columbus College of Art and Design and the Columbus Art Museum. But, there is a sense that we need to bring our Christ-centered commitment to social justice and serving the poor, plus our interests in the musical arts to this mix of the Arts Campus. People are wanting to bring their insights, wisdom, savvy and creativity to bear on this unfolding and exciting development. I feel this strongly and will continue to encourage this strongly! I must say that it is important to have people of all ages involved with this piece as it develops.

Now some of you may not appreciate hearing what I am saying about what we are hearing in relation to First Church. But, bear in mind, all these words are being spoken by people who are: falling in love with First Church, who have loved this church for a long time, or who once loved this church and have struggled in their times of falling out of love. Therefore, although this important key of listening has yet to be fully turned to open the door to an entire picture of our rebuilding future, (and again - your input is needed and treasured, so please share it!), people are speaking the truth about this place that they love.

In addition to listening to you, our 45 member Listening Team is really excited about the relationships that are developing. These relationships may be the greatest key to our Listening this summer as we become ever more connected to one another. In her groundbreaking book Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organizations from an Orderly Universe, Margaret Wheatley studies Quantum Physics, Chaos Theory and Biology to reshape a vision for organizational management. She writes this of elemental relationships and connectedness: "In the world in which we live relationship is the key determiner of what is observed and of how particles manifest themselves. Particles come into being and are observed only in relationship to something else. They do not and cannot exist as independent "things" . . . These unseen connections between what were previously thought to be separate entities are the fundamental elements of all creation." (M. Wheatley, Berrett-Kohler, San Francisco, CA, 1994, pp 9-10). We need each other. We are all here for a variety of reasons, but we are not independent particles of God's Universe. It is our unseen connections which will fundamentally shape the new creation which is becoming First Church.

Unlike Nehemiah, the news I hear about our walls (and windows) and gates is that they are beautiful, strong and secure. The building is in excellent shape for a 70 year old cathedral! For that I say a huge "thank you!" to all of you who have worked so hard to beautify, secure and strengthen this church over 70 and more years - particularly through the $1.5 million dollar renovation! However, the building we are being called upon by people to do is within our walls. Such building is relational and missional. We are being called upon to strengthen our ministries with people of all ages. And outside our walls, we are being called to stretch out into the arts community close by and into the streets of need less than a mile from our doors to touch people of all ages in these places. In fact, someone from the Columbus Public Schools called me this past week to see if First Church could adopt a public school this Fall or sometime soon. I am listening and will continue to listen to people who speak with love about the church as we begin to grow into a future which is bright with possibilities of bridge building and community building and mission building well into the 21st Century.

The second key is: We pray continuously for God's Strength and Leadership.(1:4-11). This key is crucial to the healthy development of our vision for rebuilding the future. At the center of all we say and all we do must be prayer. Continuous prayer. Remember, Nehemiah prayed for four continuous months before leaving his head and following his heart. Remember the nature of his prayers, as well. After weeping and fasting, he prayed to the God of Heaven to be attentive to his needs. He prayed to the God who keeps covenant, the God of steadfast love to listen to him in his time of need. He confessed his own sins. He confessed the sins of his family and the sins of Israel unto God. He pleaded to God to show mercy upon him. He pleaded to God to have the King show mercy as well. His prayers were humble in nature. Basic, almost primal. They were not high and mighty prayers with lofty intentions. He begged God to help him. He pleaded with God for God's vision, for God's Strength and for God's Leadership.

This key of continuous prayer is both essential and humbling. Like Nehemiah, you and I must confess our sins and humble ourselves before God if we are to be about the project of rebuilding this Church community. You and I must ask: How have I fallen short of the glory of God in relation to my family. How could I be a better mother or father, a better husband or wife, a better son or daughter? How have I sinned against God and other people in thought, in word, or in deed? There is not a day that has passed since my ordination or since my marriage or since becoming a father that I have not confessed my sins before God. I have asked God's forgiveness and know in all things that I have been and daily am mercifully forgiven and eternally loved by God.

My friends, the prospects for rebuilding the future of such a glorious church as First Church and this city of Columbus are daunting. I am aware of that. I feel that. Recently I heard a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. He recalled a story in his sermon dating back to the 1950's. After Sunday night services one week, One wise and faithful woman of the his congregation spoke to him after all the others were gone. Now this is the woman some of you may know, who at 80+ years during the Montgomery Bus Boycott would walk miles each day to go to the store. She was kindly offered a ride one day and declined saying with a smile, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." This woman asked Dr. King following his sermon, "Dr. King, something was missing tonight. You didn't have the fire of the Spirit in you tonight. Are you okay?" Although he denied it several times, she pursued and finally she said to him, "Dr. King we let you down and we abandon you too often. I am sorry for that. Although we may leave you and fail you, just remember, God will not fail you. He will never abandon you."

There are days sitting in the solitude of this sanctuary and nights sitting in my office, I cherish these words. I promise I will and I ask you to: pray continuously for God's Strength and God's Leadership. God will never fail us. God will never leave us alone. Although we may let each other down some days in any number of ways, we should not fear, for God is giving us strength and leadership for this journey.

Wherever and whenever you have resisted God's leadership and walked away from God's strength in your life, I ask you, like Nehemiah, to plead for God's mercy and healing. As we begin to rebuild the organizational structures of this church and the missional and ministry vision for the future, we need to trust God and allow God's Spirit to lead us. Physicist, Erich Jantsch puts this way in The Self Organized Universe, "In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness. I want to move into a universe I trust so much that I give up playing God. I want to stop holding things together. . . . I want to surrender my care of the universe and become a participating member, with everyone I work with, in an organization that moves gracefully with its environment, trusting in the unfolding dance of order." (Jantsch, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1980, p. 196). Come then, join the unfolding dance!

Next week we risk being honest and believe in God's plans as simple, specific, and impossible. Come join us as Nehemiah enters Jerusalem and we enter our city with renewed eyes to see the future. Amen.

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