Where Even to Start?

It’s the first step that sets the tone. Fifteen years ago, I was serving as a youth pastor in Chicago when we took a summer mission trip down to the Mexican border town of Reynosa. Right on the edge of the city dump was a coloñia, a haphazard collection of shacks and lean-tos populated by families who had come from the interior of Mexico, lured by the hope of a factory job near the border with Texas. We worked with the Methodist church that was in the middle of it all, building 8 by 8 foot wooden homes. These were upgrades from the ones they were currently living in, made out of old metal signs and usable scraps of garbage taken from the dump.

My team spent the first two days building and thought we had done a great job. Our floor was finished – not a perfect square, mind you, but pretty close. And frankly, looking at the surroundings, “pretty close” seemed like a major improvement. One of the supervisors came by to examine our progress and broke the news to us: we were going to have to start over. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “How bad can it be if you’re only off by a little? Well, you’re off by a little at the foundation; by the time you get to the roof, you’re going to have some serious problems. It’s better to start over and get it right than to build it wrong from the beginning.”

It’s that first step that sets the tone.

This morning, we read the start of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. And it is in those few verses that Paul sets his tone. Along with his co-author Sosthenes, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their shared history and the remarkable grace they have all received in Christ. All of this, he says, is meant to strengthen their faith and witness as they wait for the day that their faith will be made perfect.

As we read more of the letter in the coming weeks, it will become clear why Paul bergan the letter this way. He had planted this church in Corinth, and is planning to come for a visit. Unfortunately, things have gone downhill since he saw them last: reports of fighting and division have emerged, and before he comes, he wants to lay the groundwork for tackling them. In order to do so, he needs to refocus the Corinthians. If they have any hope of moving forward from these bumps in the road, they need to remember where they have come from. And so Paul sets down that first step, the foundation to his letter, setting the tone for everything that will follow.

Do we do that in our life of faith? I mean, do we think about that first step we take, and how it will set the tone for everything that follows? You can’t build a house until you first draw up the plans. You can’t play guitar until you first learn the chords. You can’t wake up early if you forget to set the alarm. Planning matters; preparation is important. That first step echoes out into the rest of the journey.

Last Sunday, we started a new worship series that will take us through the next few weeks. We have just turned the page on 2013, and I have suggested that this might be a good time to turn the page on our faith, to get a fresh start in spiritual discipline and commitment. And so, last week I invited you to commit with me to a daily practice of prayer, five minutes a day.

So now the question: how is it going? How was your first step? To be fair, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, though, so I’ll answer my own question. I think I nailed it on two, maybe three days. I had moments on a couple of others. The rest? Well, those were the days were things just seemed to sprint by at breakneck speed, and I had to hold on tightly just to keep up.

When I look back over the week, though, the honest truth is that the speed was of my own making. Nobody forced me to make back-to-back-to-back appointments. I didn’t put anyone else in charge of my schedule. It was all my own doing. As much as I would like to blame circumstances, I was the one who crowded prayer out. So if I had to give myself a grade for last week, it would be a D-minus – at best.

If it’s the first step that sets the tone, then I tripped over my own feet last week.

Speaking of stumbles, back in Mexico, it was the second afternoon when we began to undo all of the work we had started. The whole operation was on such a cautious budget that we had to straighten out the nails in order to reuse them. We began more diligently than we had the first time, making sure to square all of the corners and get the edges flush. We worked hard, and we worked fast – but we worked carefully. On the last day, other teams that had finished their homes came over to help us finish, and by the end of the week, we had a house standing. It was 64 square feet of unfinished wood for a family of five, but you would’ve thought we had built a castle. We were elated.

When we got back to Chicago, we decided to continue our success by building a small Noah’s Ark for the Kindergarten Sunday School. We started with the template we got in Mexico and modified it, but this time we paid close attention to the straight lines. If it hadn’t been for the mistakes in Reynosa, and the gentle but firm correction of the supervisor, we might’ve wreaked our shoddy construction on two countries within the span of a month. But as it was, we learned from our missteps and corrected them. We had a chance to start over, and we took advantage of that opportunity to do it right.

In other words, part of the power in the first step – even when we stumble – is that we can still set the tone in a way that honors what it is that God desires.

That hope is what drives Paul in his letter. If he didn’t think the Corinthians could learn from their mistakes, he wouldn’t have bothered with them. If they couldn’t be refocused on Christ and God’s grace, then he would’ve shaken the dust from his feet and taken the gospel elsewhere. As it was, though, he knew in his own life the power of second chances. He had been a fierce opponent of the church, overseeing the persecution and martyrdom of early Christians, until his life was turned upside down and he was given a new road, a new set of footsteps to follow. Paul knew the power of resurrection, of new life, of new direction. And he wanted others to know of its promise, to live lives honoring the God they proclaimed.

I’m reminded of the story of my friend and mentor Elliott Galloway. Some of you knew him, the founder of the Galloway School. He came to be known as an innovative educator, but he was almost as well known as a model of fitness, a man for whom physical health was a crucial part of being a well-rounded human being. But that wasn’t always the case. When Mr. Galloway founded his school in the late 60’s, he was a chain smoker. He was out of shape, overweight, unhealthy, not giving much regard to his physical well-being. But that all changed, because he decided to change.

The first day, he ran from one telephone pole to the next. That was it: maybe 100, 125 feet. The second day, he ran to the second telephone pole. And so on. In the end, he ended up running 38 consecutive Peachtree Road Races, and also inspired countless others to do the same. But it had to begin somewhere, and it did: with that most important first step.

So back to our shared prayer. If you weren’t here last week, great: it’s your chance to put down a good first step. And if you were, regardless of how you might grade your prayer last week, it’s never too late to learn from our missteps.

So I want to ask you to continue to commit five minutes a day to prayer. Begin in gratitude, end in silence. Set an alarm so that you’re not constantly checking on the time. This week, I want you to add one more thing to your prayer: ask God to knock on your heart later that day. And when that happens, take a moment or two to write down a few notes so that you can begin to see the pattern that emerges. We will touch base again next week.

The point is this: when it comes to the life of faith, I don’t think it’s as important what the first step is. What is important is both that you take it and how you take it. Move your feet. Get going. And in the process, be kind to yourself. You probably won’t get it right the first time, but those stumbles can be the first step to new life, resurrection – if you’re willing to learn in the process.

And this is true not only of what we do on an individual basis, but as a community of faith. Tomorrow, our nation will set aside a day to remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a man who knew the power of faith. He knew the transformative effect it could have not just on the individual, but on the whole world. And so, as we close, I want to share a few words with you – not from Dr. King, but from the young Anne Frank. For what it’s worth, they just seem to encapsulate so well our purpose today:

She wrote:

How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment; we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway…And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!

It’s that first step that sets the tone. Are you ready to take it?