Taking It Slowly

We are halfway through February now, so I’d like to know: how’s your daily prayer going? Since the turn of the new year, I’ve been encouraging us to pray five minutes a day. And almost every Sunday, I’ve been checking in with you to see how it’s going and to let you know how I’ve been doing with my own commitment. With my friend Paul preaching last Sunday, I didn’t get the chance to follow up with you. I was looking forward to it, too, because that week was awesome! I think I even managed to go seven for seven. And man, was I riding high on my diligence and discipline…

…until this week. Like many of you, I found my plans for thrown off by our familiar new friend, the polar vortex. And I don’t know about you, but in our household, snow days do not exactly provide ample opportunity for peace and quiet. So if I had to give myself a grade for the two weeks combined, somewhere around a C+ would be about right.

How would you grade yourself? A+? F-? Somewhere in between?

If we’re honest, the truth is that we only make time for the things we want to make time for. If there’s a movie we are dying to watch, we will stay up late. If there’s a restaurant we want to try out, we can squeeze a few extra dollars out of the budget. But…prayer? Church? Community? If we are really honest, how many of us make those things a priority? And how many of us treat those things luxuries by reserving them for moments after we have already made time for everything else?

That reality leads me to our text from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. We have been reading parts of his letter for a few weeks now, and we have already seen how frustrated Paul is with the divisions and bickering in this early church. This morning’s lesson is no exception. He is frustrated that he can’t give them the “meat” of the gospel yet, because they’re too busy arguing. They fight over which of their various teachers has been the best, and they end up picking sides.

But Paul is having none of that nonsense: Who are these teachers? Who am I, even? OK – so we had a role in helping you believe, but that’s not the most important thing. It’s the God who was working through us to make it all possible! I planted the seeds of your faith. Then Apollos came along and watered those seedlings. But it was God who made it all possible. It was God who gave the light, who made the water, who even created the seeds that made this growth happen in the first place!

It’s as though Paul is saying to them, “Until you understand this simple truth, that God is all that matters, you are not ready to digest the bigger picture of the gospel. Until you take hold of God and God alone, I will be forced to spoon-feed you, you babies. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, but I don’t even think you can do that!”

No one can dish out a rebuke like Paul.

Yet, somehow, I can’t help but find comfort in his words. On those days where I don’t carve out time for God, those are the times when I feel very much like a baby Christian. And even though Paul intends it as a reprimand, I am grateful to be reminded by his words that the gospel also comes in infant formula. I continue to look forward to the time when prayer is as much a part of my day as that first cup of coffee. I also know that if I am able to take sodas out of my daily diet, I can add prayer in. I will get there, and there will be fits and starts along the way. Until then, I want to be grateful for the missteps and what they remind me of. In short: I live in constant need of God’s abiding grace. As much as I would like to race ahead to the finish line, even I need to admit that there is something in the wisdom of taking things slowly. There are times when we even need to double-back and retrace our steps.

Six months ago, we formed an Invitation Team here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, which we have been calling the I-Team. You see, in the 21st century, if you can use the name I-Something, you are legally required to do so. This Team grew out of a couple of things that were happening at once. First was our Capital Campaign, where we set aside funds for Outreach and Evangelism.

I want to go on a little tangent here: we have been deconstructing that word “Evangelism” for several years now here at Oglethorpe. I won’t spend much time doing so today, except to say that we know how emotionally loaded a term it can be. At the same time, there really is no better word to encapsulate what it means to invite people to meet and journey with God. So, for better or worse, I’m going to use the word today, and hope that you will hear it with the grace with which it is intended.

The challenge with Evangelism is that it is unlike the rest of the items on our Campaign list. The doors and roof and HVAC and bathroom and kitchen upgrades, all of these come with clear proposals, of detailed drawings of how we start with what we have and end up with what we want. Evangelism, it turns out, isn’t really a civil engineering issue.

That’s where the second piece came in. Through our Presbytery, our community of 100-plus churches in the Atlanta area, I was looped into a clergy group focused on Evangelism. And through that group, I was introduced to a book called Missional Worship. It’s a sort of “how to” book on Evangelism, but not in the way you’d expect. Even so, the faint outlines of a plan started to come into focus.

It was not long after that that we formed the I-Team. Since then, we have been meeting monthly, reading Missional Worship as a group, and have started following the various exercises outlined in the book. And here’s is what we have discovered so far:

Evangelism, first and foremost, is not a program. I would even go far as to say that it is a mistake to center Evangelism efforts on events designed to attract people. Evangelism, before anything else, begins with prayer…daily prayer…daily prayer in the lives of the people, in the lives of the whole church.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that prayer is a substitute for work – the two need to go hand in hand, in fact. Nor do I think that churches should stop having events. That said, I do think that a Field of Dreams model for Evangelism, built on the principle that “if you build it, they will come”, in 2014, in Brookhaven, is simply naïve. The world just doesn’t work that way. Instead, Evangelism is about nurturing a community of prayer – and a particular kind of prayer at that. This is the prayer I’ve been inviting you to, and will do so again today.

Five minutes. That’s it. Begin with simple gratitude and thanks. Ask God to stir you some time that day. Then finish your prayer in silence until that five-minute alarm goes off. That’s as fancy as it gets. As you practice this prayer, I promise you that you see the world around you differently. A couple of weeks ago, I described it as a way to tune into God’s wavelength. You will begin to notice the world around you as a place where God-moments happen with regular frequency. You will recognize the reality of life, replete with multiple opportunities for you to be an agent of grace for those around you.

A daily prayer like this – a community of prayer like this – is one where we begin to see ourselves as those who act on God’s behalf. Or to use Paul’s image of the church as a body, we end up as Christ’s hands and feet in the world. We are transformed into those that Paul wants the Corinthians to be, united in purpose, moving in the same direction, and loving the world for the sake of God.

A quick story in that regard: a few weeks ago, I visited the hospital room of one of our members, which was full with other visitors. She introduced me, and then made a special point of introducing me to one friend in particular. “She’s a musician, too, Marthame. Tell her what you’re doing this summer!” I talked about my plans in Chicago, among them taking classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

“Oh! Well, you must know Frank Hamilton, then!” I didn’t. “Frank Hamilton? He was in the Weavers? Anyway, he’s one of the founders of the Old Town School of Folk Music. He lives in Decatur now. Here’s his email and phone number. You need to meet him. Tell him that I told you about him!”

Coincidences like this surround us; it’s only when our eyes are fully open that we can see God’s fingerprints upon them, crafting and shaping them for us to take hold of them.

Friends, in two and a half weeks, Lent begins. And with that in mind, I want to make two quick plugs, both of which offer ways for us to take things slowly as we build a life of prayer:

  1. On Sunday mornings, we will be offering a class called “Christianity: A Field Guide”. For those of you who feel like beginners to this thing called “church”, for those of you who feel like you need a refresher, or for those of us who are in need of a little bit of that spoon-fed faith now and again, we will be meeting at 9:45am starting on March 9.
  2. The I-Team will be offering a multitude of opportunities for prayer. This will happen within worship and beyond, and will occur throughout the season of Lent. From prayers in the sanctuary before worship to personal reflections in worship to journals to carry with you wherever you go, they will be extending invitations to prayer for each one of us. You will be hearing more about this in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, I encourage you to pray, and to continue to aim for that daily prayer. Because no matter what your grade might be right now, what is important is being kind to yourself and gracious enough to take things slowly. Just five minutes at a time. What will come, what it is that God will grow, will end up being something far beyond our wildest dreams!