Planting Lessons: Prayer and Preparation

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

A quiet morning overlooking the soccer field at Flo Valley

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia
Acts 16:13-14a

One of my least favorite memories of my time as an InterVarsity staff at SLU was the time that I was asked to lead a prayer at Greek Convocation, a service held in College Church to celebrate the beginning of the year for Greek Life. I had spent a few months trying to start a Greek ministry on campus and it was starting to take off a little bit and some of the kind folks in the Greek Life Department asked me to say a prayer over the community as the rush season began. I felt really honored.

Not honored enough though, apparently, to overcome one of my crippling weaknesses in life – time management. I was having coffee with a friend right before the service was supposed to start and underestimated the amount of time it would take to get to SLU from the coffee shop. I also underestimated the amount of time it would take to park on campus (who decided Greek Convocation Day was also a good day to host another large conference on campus that used the parking garage?).

By the time I parked, it was five minutes before convocation was supposed to start. I grabbed my suit jacket, threw on my dress shoes, and ran from the garage to the church. By the time I got there, it was my turn to pray – unbeknownst to me, I was the first thing on the agenda. Awesome. I whipped my jacket on and huffed my way up to the podium – whoops, wrong podium – I was pointed across the stage to the other podium.  Fumbling with the microphone, I quickly realized, between gasps, that I had no idea how to introduce myself nor what came after me so I just decided to jump right in.

Then, sweat rolling down my face, I also came to the harrowing awareness that the run I had just taken was much further than I thought and it was gonna take me a good couple minutes to fully catch my breath – minutes I did not have to spare.  Suffice it to say, I mouth-breathed my way through what had to have been the most awkward prayer of all time, which was also a prayer I was making up on the spot (hard to prep on the way when you’re panicking about your time). Believe it or not, that was the only time they ever asked me to do Greek Convocation.

I tell you that story to give you a snapshot of one the key ways the Lord has had to break me over my years in ministry.  Before and during much of my tenure as an InterVarsity staff, I have been able to “wing it” through much of what IV staff has put in front of me. I love building relationships with people and love investing time deeply into college campuses; meaningful preparation for that time, though, has always been the shallow end of my talent pool. After all, doesn’t prep time just take away from time with students? Shouldn’t I just trust the Spirit to prepare me for my time on campus?

This year, my talent for winging it encountered the unsubtle brick wall of planting a new ministry on a community college campus. I quickly found that my charm and charisma (at least what little the Lord saw fit to bless me with) was quickly overshadowed by my fear of new surroundings and unfamiliar students. I walked around campus and simply had no idea what to do. How do you build a ministry where you know literally no one? How do you start conversations as a 28-year-old, non-student who had to use Google Maps to find the right highways into this part of town?

Somewhere along the way, the Lord brought to mind a passage I had led students through at our Urban Project over Spring Break this year – Acts 16 – the beginning of the church at Philippi through Paul’s interactions with Lydia. I love this story for so many reasons, but mostly because Paul’s normal plans for engaging a city fell apart right from the beginning. He normally went into town and looked for a synagogue from which to preach the Gospel. When he showed up in Philippi, there weren’t enough Jewish men to even have a synagogue. What do you do as a foreigner in a new place when your previous strategies can’t get you in the door?

Luke tells us that Paul went to where he could find “a place of prayer.” From that place, a riverside gathering of faithful women (not men!), the church at Philippi came into being. Everything came out of that place of prayer. Their interaction with the slave girl that leads to the conversion of the jailer later on in Acts 16 also began as they were on their way to the place of prayer.

This story came rushing back into my mind one day while feeling helplessly uncertain of my role on campus and I remembered back to my first time at Flo Valley, when the Lord showed me this soccer field just off the edge of campus. I remember feeling a serene sense of peace and acceptance in that place, like Jesus just wanted me to linger there awhile. It was one of the evidences to me that the Lord was calling me to Flo Valley – the presence of this peaceful place where the Spirit seemed to be so tangible to me. Perhaps this could be my place of prayer. Maybe the Lord would bring me a Lydia – some insider to the campus who would be receptive to the Gospel and through whom the entire campus might be reached by Jesus.

So to the soccer fields I go, every morning before I do anything else at Flo Valley. No more running from meeting to meeting, hoping my theology and experience and “eloquent speech” can carry me through to whatever “ministry success” I hope to find that day. I am learning to stop, to listen, to wait for the Lord. I am learning that these moments of prayer and preparation are themselves part of the calling – that the Lord desires to shape me in silence, stillness, and dependence as much as he desires to reach the campus in word, deed, and power.

It is from this place that I have seen the Lord do incredible things, even small ones, this semester. It is at this place that my co-workers, alumni from SLU, local pastors, and other friends have met me to prayer-walk the campus. It is at this place that many conversations with intrigued seekers, politely uninterested skeptics, and even a few believing professors have taken shape. I’m not sure if we’ve found our Lydia yet, but I feel like I at least know how we will.