As the work of Christ becomes more and more immersed in hostile cultural waters, as the influence of the gospel in public life wanes, our calling is not to wage a war but to bow our heads, even in small numbers, embracing the fact that God could answer an Elijah in the midst of the dynasty of Omri, and open the heavens through what could have looked like ‘improper prayer’.
It is amazing how language which begins life in the laboratory, or in the halls of the academy, can quickly filter down into everyday use – often stripped of its more technical dimensions. We have become accustomed to referencing ‘critical mass’ to express how things inevitably come to a head in our lives, and the term ‘quantum’ has become an adjective of choice for things of a large scale. The idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ has also found increasing acceptance in how we speak of behaviours and reactions, reflecting the fact that small and seemingly inconsequential actions can have huge and unseen ramifications.
In a three part series of posts appearing this week (part 2 here), I want to borrow this last term as a way of thinking through why large scale activity and grand gestures are often not the way in which God does his most vital work, and why we should embrace the incredible potential of doing small things well, with a hope that stretches beyond our present horizon. Some key areas where we can be tempted to despise the small scale of our endeavours are in prayer, giving, and evangelism, and it is these disciplines which will be my focus in each of the articles. All of the examples given of the ‘butterfly effect’ spring the ministry of one gospel venture, Grace Baptist Partnership, who are currently holding their annual month of prayer and giving.
Big prayers for a little one
Perhaps the ‘butterfly effect’ finds no better test case than in our life of prayer. Many of us struggle to pray because its main activity is insubstantial, the One we are addressing is personally invisible, and the results are not readily quantifiable. We pray in praise of God’s name, and for the needs of key people, and while our hearts swell in worship, they sometimes shrivel in terms of expectation at what God can and will do. Living in a world where everything is effectively instant, where delivery is ‘same day’, and where replies and responses are expected within seconds, prayer is counter-cultural, counterintuitive, and (among our enriched and pressing schedules) seems counter-productive. The prayers of a single individual, or a small gathering of Christians can seem to be of little import or gravity, and as a consequence becomes a neglected discipline and a source of nagging guilt. If we could only see the outcome of this seemingly small endeavour our view of what we are doing might be radically altered, and we might embrace the butterfly effect of fervently seeking God for his grace.
Clint Morgan is a name which may find few memorials beyond his own family circle. He lived out his days in the rural community of Dell in North East Arkansas. On the 21st October 1964 he visited a family in his area who had just had a baby son. Standing by the hospital crib of this little one he offered a prayer unknown to everyone in the world, apart from the few people in the room. His wording was frank and unadorned, but his beating heart for the gospel was unmistakable. In words uniquely his own, he prayed,
Father, we pray for this young child. Some of us are getting too old to do very much. Father, we dedicate this young child to take up the reins and help spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The only record of the prayer lived unread in the personal diary of the baby’s mother, Sue King, who with wisdom and grace did not disclose it to her family. It was only many years later that her son, Barry, read what Clint had prayed by his crib those years before.