Monday, November 24, 2014

Sabbath Sunset

Today in spiritual direction we talked about Sabbath and what it is for me.  I smiled sheepishly because this is a topic I often discuss with others, encouraging them to observe Sabbath.  But I'm not always so good about observing Sabbath in my own life.  I do have a day off from my jobs every week, and I'm good about taking it about 98% of the time.  But that day often gets packed full of errands and appointments and to-do lists.  My spiritual director suggested that Sabbath time might include a variety of activities as long as they are things that I want to do.  Then he asked, "What restores you?"  A few things came to mind quickly - reading fiction, spending time outside in nature, listening to music, movies, rest.  I try to take time for some of these things each week, but the trick for me is not to feel guilty about all the things that aren't getting done while I'm doing the things that restore me.  I can never be reminded enough to be gentle with myself.

When I got home I decided to take a walk.  Of late my walks have been mostly about exercise, trying to get steps and get them quickly.  But tonight I didn't set the Nike app to tell me how fast and how far I walked.  I just put on my headphones and headed out to enjoy being outside.  As I walked past the rec center and up the hill through the trees, I noticed a golden light illuminating the beech leaves that are still clinging to branches in their various shades of yellow and brown.  I suspected the sunset might be a good one.  Coming out of the trees, I saw the clouds all pink and gold above me, and I quickly walked up the hill that is across from Eastern State Hospital.  I stopped to let the walkers behind me go by, and I stepped off the path so that I could gaze at the brilliant sky.

I decided to sit down on a small hill and just watch.  As I sat down I remembered how I used to walk by the river three blocks from my house in Norfolk and watch the sunset.  I did it every night that I was home and the weather was good.  I didn't realize how much I have missed watching sunsets.  "This," I thought.  "This is what restores me."  Watching God's glorious artwork.  I never tire of watching them.  As much as I love living in Williamsburg, there are not many good places for watching sunsets.  I'm so glad that I happened upon a place where I could get a good view. 

At first I didn't take any pictures.  I told myself that we've become obsessed with with trying to capture moments on film rather than just being present to them.  So for awhile I simply sat on the ground under the trees and watched. And then I took some pictures, not because I wanted to capture the moment, but because I wanted to share it.  Walkers and joggers passed by, and they smiled, but they didn't turn their heads to look at the beauty around them.  Maybe they could see it anyway.  I hope so.  But I was there.  And I saw.  .  I was reminded of what restores my soul.  That is what Sabbath is.  Taking time to sit still and enjoy the sunset and say, "Wow, God.  Thank you."  Later as I continued my walk, the wind that had blown all day seemed particularly intense, and I remembered my spiritual director's final question to me, "Where is God in all of this?"

Here.  Right here with me.  In the wind, in the sunset, in the walking.  I had a blessed evening walking and being close with God.  I pray that those in Ferguson may feel God's presence, too, though their evening has been quite different from mine and it will take much more than a sunset to restore their souls.   

Thursday, November 20, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Observing the Proper Rites

One of my favorite books is The Little Prince, and one of my favorite scenes from the book is the one in which the little prince meets the fox and learns what it means to be tamed - to establish ties.  The fox instructs him to sit a little distance away and to wait patiently and then to sit a little closer each day.

"The next day the little prince came back.
'It would have been better to come back at the same hour,' said the fox.  'If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy.  I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances.  At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am!  But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . .'"

Today I was not able to come at the same hour to the Plaza Prayer Station.  I was not able to observe the proper rites.  Sometimes we have to choose between two goods.  It was one of those days where I wished I could clone myself.   For months I have been scheduled to go to the Dean's meeting for our Diocese in order to do a short presentation about the Addictions and Recovery Commission that I am helping to restart with Jan Brown.   Our appointed time was 11:40 at Bruton Parish in Williamsburg.  CNU is about 40 minutes away in Newport News.  I knew I would be late for my usual noon arrival in the Plaza. But there was nothing I could do.  The presentation was very important.  I'm glad I went.  And I'm sad that I arrived over an hour late.

I think one of the hardest parts for me was that I had no way to let anyone know.   I simply was not there at the usual hour.  So I missed my regulars, the ones who are getting out of class or lab at 12 or 12:15 and scurrying off to lunch before their next class.  I did get to see my skateboard crew who were sans skateboards but still sitting outside on this very windy day, eating lunch and filled with frivolity.  As I walked up with my chairs and sign, one of them said, "I was just saying to myself, 'Where's Lauren?' and you appeared."  It felt good to be expected.  Just like the first day I had encountered them, this group bubbled over with joy and laughter and playfulness.  It was a delight to share the Plaza with them.

As the wind blew strong and the shade kept overtaking me, I wasn't able to stay as long as I would have liked.  While I was there, though, one of the Canterbury students sat down and had lunch with me, and I did have one prayer request from someone who told me she had often seen me sitting there.

When the scene from The Little Prince came to me as I was sitting in the Plaza, I realized that my ministry in the Plaza is much like the taming of the fox.  Each time I come I get a little closer to them, and they get more used to my presence.  It is helpful if I come at the usual hour and they can look forward to me being there.  If I come at just any hour then they don't know when to find me.  I feel sad when I miss them.

Of course the other thing that the little prince learns from the fox is that we are responsible for what we have tamed and that when departure draws near we will be sad.  The sadness I experienced today is a preview of the sadness I will feel in a few weeks when the semester draws to a close.  Next semester I will be back, but schedules will be different, and I will probably get to "tame" a new batch of students, though hopefully I will also continue to build relationships with some from this semester. Or perhaps it is me who is being tamed. We'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Cold Hands, Warm Hearts

Remember that saying, "Cold hands, warm heart"?  Well, it was definitely true today at the Plaza Prayer Station.  Forecast was for low 50's, overcast and 50% chance of rain.  Reality was mid 40's with a stiff breeze and cooling over the afternoon.  Fortunately the rain didn't start till much later in the day, but I didn't think it would be possible to sit outside in the cold air with no sun.  Talking with my rector this morning I mentioned that I needed fire to warm myself and the students.  Lo and behold, he has a very portable little propane heater that is perfect for the ministry.  So with renewed courage, I set out for the Plaza, feeling confident that my little heater would do the trick and I wouldn't have to move inside. 

With my fleece-lined flannel shirt, coat, and scarf on, and after carrying all my stuff out to the Plaza, I actually felt pretty warm, so I sat down and waited, pulling out my rosary.  I only got halfway through the Lord's Prayer before my first student popped by.  He told me that he loves knowing that I'm there and that when he came out of his lab today he said to himself, "Yep, she's here." He told me he was always going to drop by to say hi.  Warmed my heart!  Not long after another student walked by, read my sign, said, "Cool!" and then called back over her shoulder, "I'll be back."  "I'll be here," I answered, and she did come back later.  There were more "popcorn prayers" today as it was too cold for lengthy conversation, though one student got his lunch and we chatted while we both ate. 

It seemed like I saw more than the usual number of people today which surprised me because of the cold.  No skateboard dudes.  Not many people hanging out in the Plaza.  But people came over with purpose, either requesting prayers or thanking me for being there.  It was an hour and a half before I realized that my hands were like ice and it was time to turn on the little heater.  Alas!  The knob that turns on the gas had fallen off in my car, so I couldn't turn it on.  Though I was disappointed, at least I know I can use it on another day. 

Toward the end of my time a member of the staff came and sat down and asked me what this was all about.  Then he asked if there was anything I wanted prayer for and he prayed with me right there, just like I do with the students.  He's Baptist, so I'm guessing that extemporaneous prayer comes a little more easily for him.  I was grateful for the prayer. 

The whole afternoon filled my heart with warmth no matter how cold my hands got.  I had woken up in a bad mood, and though I have gotten better at trusting that God is going to provide for this ministry, I had thought that today I would have to move out of the Plaza, and I just didn't want to.  At one point a student came past and asked me if I wanted some tea or hot chocolate.  I did indeed, and about 20 minutes later he returned with a steaming cup of it.  While he was inside a flash mob-esque event happened right in front of me.  A young man ran up to a young woman and started singing "You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips..." a la Tom Cruise in Top Gun.  After the first line, about 15-20 young men came running over from all corners of the Plaza and encircled the two, swaying and singing, "You've lost that Sigma feeling..."  Now I have no idea what the young woman did to lose the Sigma feeling, but it was very entertaining for me!

I know I write this over and over, but I am continually amazed at how the students will come up and pour out whatever is troubling them, sometimes to the point of tears streaming down their faces.  Tests and presentations and papers are piling up, and stress is high.  I remind them to breathe and I pray that God will remove their fears and anxiety give them strength and endurance as they work.  I remember those days so well, when all the work was so overwhelming.  But to talk about their worries with a total stranger is evidence to me that God is at work in that Plaza.  It's worth cold hands and feet and nose and ears and an entire chilled body to be able to be a channel for a little spiritual warmth.  Plus, there's chai and chocolate croissants (heated) waiting in the coffee shop when I'm done.  I never thought I, who hate the cold with great passion, would feel grateful for a couple of hours of sitting out in the cold, but my heart is full of gratitude.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Don't You Fret

Today's stint at the prayer station reminded me of the line from Eponine's song in Les Mis, "Don't you fret, m'sieur Marius... a little drop of rain, can hardly hurt me now."  Also, the beginning of Psalm 37, "Fret not yourself."  I was fretting.  All week I've fretted.  Not in a losing sleep, pulling hair out kind of way, but in a "doggone it, I don't want to miss the prayer station" way.  Rain had been in the forecast all week, and I still hadn't figured out exactly where to be because I can't take the sign out in wet conditions or the ink will run.  Even taking it to another building wouldn't work.  So I was fretting and trying to figure out what I would do and where I would try to go.  I hoped that the rain would come over night, but no such luck.  90% chance.   

However, as I arrived on campus, there was no rain.  It had been raining, but it stopped.  So, I decided to take the sign over to the David Student Union where I put it in a dry spot just outside the doors.  When I got back with my chairs and bag of leftover Halloween candy and such, I discovered that it wasn't raining, so I spent the first hour just in front of the columns where I was quite visible.  When the rain started back up, I was able to tuck in between the columns under a bit of an overhang, and squeezed in another hour.  In a dry moment I carried the sign back to the chapel, and though the ink ran a bit, it wasn't too bad.  A few minutes later the rain started coming down in earnest.  I swung by my car, picked up my umbrella and headed into the coffee shop where it was warm and dry.

See, I didn't need to fret.  It all worked out.  And I'm so glad it did because I love being at the prayer station.  Today I got to have a chat with one of the Canterbury students about a cool sounding class called "Page, Stage, and Image" that will be offered next semester and involves Shakespeare.   I also enjoyed a conversation with my friend in Admissions who told me about her husband's mission trip to Uganda.  Several students who have asked for prayers before waved and smiled on their way to lunch, and one called out, "There's my favorite Reverend!"  It feels good to be recognized.  Once the rain had started, a student settled in for a good chat and left saying that his day just didn't suck so much anymore.  Sometimes that's a real bonus - having your day suck less.  He also suggested I learn to tweet, though I'm going to take a little more convincing. 

Time takes time, right, and a little drop of rain can hardly hurt me at all.  God provides.  It feels good to start being recognized on campus.  It feels good to provide a place of peace for various members of the CNU community.  It feels good to help people's days to suck a little less.  It feels good to have my own day brightened by my conversations and interactions with the students, even when it's raining.

Yesterday at SpiritWorks we learned of the death of a young man named Jason.  He was hit by a train in Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago.  Though I did not know him well, I had met him a few times.  He had a sweet spirit and a happy outlook on life despite being in and out of shelters   Addiction is a terrible and deadly disease, and it breaks my heart to see its impact, especially on young people.  I don't know how he came to be on a train track on the evening of October 23, but I do know that he will be missed, and I grieve his loss.

So today it was good for my soul to be present at the prayer station, not doing but being, listening to young people and praying for them, and being immersed in the life of a busy campus.  It was good to have time to be still and pray. 

I don't need to fret.  A little rain won't hurt the Plaza Prayer Station.  And truly, a little rain can hardly hurt Jason any more.  He doesn't feel any pain.  God's got him now. And rain will make the flowers grow.