Monday, December 22, 2014

Darkest Night

In the middle of a conversation with my parents yesterday during which we had talked quite a bit about triaging various expenses and repairs, my dad suddenly piped up and said, "I have some good news!"  His voice was so bright and cheery.  I said, "You do?  Let's have it."  He said, "The days start getting longer tomorrow."  The glee in his voice was a delight for me to hear.  Both my dad and I struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Basically we get the blues in the winter, and though we both dislike the cold, what really makes us droop is the lack of sunlight.  The days are so short and it's so hard to get outside, especially when it rains.  We both would prefer to hibernate inside by the fire and emerge when the crocuses and daffodils start poking their little heads up, heralding the coming of spring.

I have struggled this Advent, not just with the cold and darkness, but also with the barrage of images of death, violence, disease, and just downright meanness in the world.  And then, when the report about the torture done in this country in our name came out, I felt like a knife had been stuck in my back.  I don't usually write about political issues because I haven't figured out how to do enough research to be informed enough to articulate something that would be helpful.  Mostly I just listen and try to learn.  It doesn't seem like all the online hostility furthers the conversation anyway.  One thing I do know, though.  Torture is wrong.  I am a follower of Jesus, who suffered torture before being crucified.  I may be naive, but as a follower of the one who told us to love our enemies, I believe that torture is wrong.  Period.  And the fact that my fellow countrymen committed such atrocities fills me with shame.  This torture was committed on my behalf.  And for that I want to put on sackcloth and ashes.  I am grateful that I live in a country where I have great privilege and much more security than many living in other places, but I am ashamed that security has become the idol to which we have sold our souls.  The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures cried out, "Repent."  Indeed.  Repent.  We are a country in need of repentance.

The words of the Confession from Enriching Our Worship keep returning to my mind, especially these:
"We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf."

The evil done on our behalf.  I repent of the evil done on my behalf.  Please forgive me, God.  Please forgive the United States of America, Jesus, for doing to others what was done to you.  Please forgive us for the evil we have done.

It feels like the darkest night will not end.  It looks like injustice will triumph.  At times it even feels like hope is lost in a country where we can't even find a way to have civil conversation with one another.  It is a dark, dark time.  And yet, what we know is that Jesus was born into a dark time as well.  The people had walked in darkness a long time before his birth restored the light.  When he came he brought hope that all would be redeemed.  I do not know how all this hatred and violence will be redeemed, but I do know that "nothing will be impossible with God."

My friends, I have some good news.  The days are getting longer.  The people who have walked in darkness will see a great light.  
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

This Christmas I pray for all who have suffered torture and for their tormentors, for all who have suffered violence and for those who are violent, for all who are victims of disease, despair, and destruction.  I pray for the establishment of justice and righteousness in this and in every land, hoping that we one day we will no longer be walking in darkness but will be the people who walk in light.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Blessings

A few years ago at the conclusion of a gathering of my colleague group, John Kerr said good-bye to me at the door of his house and spontaneously reached out to give me a blessing as I left.  He said, "We don't do that enough, do we?"  Bless each other.  Ever since he and I have been exchanging blessings, and I have found it to be such a lovely way of praying for each other.  Recently I began reading Russ Parker's book, Rediscovering the Ministry of Blessing.  It talks about the scriptural roots of blessings and the different types of blessings and how they can be used in ministry.  It's been a wonderful book to read in Advent and has inspired me to start thinking about how I can incorporate blessing prayer into my ministry more.  The Plaza Prayer Station is one place I'd like to try it.  

This past Thursday was a day full of blessings.  It started with two St. Stephen's volunteers who helped me load up an abundance of snacks that had been donated by members of the church to hand out to students during their exams.  United Campus Ministries organizes the event.  From 10-4 each day of exams churches come and hand out treats to frazzled exam takers.  Some are nervously preparing to take an exam and some approach the table bleary-eyed, scarcely able to focus because they've been writing essays for 2 1/2 hours.  Some are hyped up with the joy of an exam-gone-well or with sugar and caffeine pulsing through their systems.  We provide chips and fruit and granola bars and other sweet and salty snacks.  We always have a few home-baked items, and those are the most popular of all.  The students are sweet and appreciative, and we assure them of our prayers for them in this stressful time.  This year one student asked for prayer for her baby who is due in 3 weeks, so I was blessed to be able to pray with her.

After time at the snack station I moved out into the cold, windy winter sunshine of the Plaza and set up the station.  A few regulars came by and a couple of new ones.  I prayed for a mission trip to Vietnam and for discernment and clarity for some making decisions as well as for relief from stress and anxiety.  At one point I was startled by the loud sound of three young men on skateboards zooming by.  They weren't my skateboard dudes, but they brought a smile to my face nevertheless.  Another student brought me hot chocolate, and I was grateful because it was cold!

It was my last time to sit in the Plaza this semester.  Just before I decided to pack up, one of the original members of the skateboard crowd came over to chat.  He was the very first one who had come over to me on that warm September afternoon when I began this ministry and told me he thought what I was doing was cool.  The first one to come up and the last one I spoke to before leaving.  Only God, I thought, could bookend the semester so neatly.  I invited him and the campus ministry he's a part of to participate in our "Blessing of the Semester" event that we're going to do on the first Sunday of next semester.  It will be kind of like a house blessing, only we're going to bless all the main buildings on campus.  We'll start on the chapel steps in full vestments, swinging incense and carrying a cross, and we'll make our way through the student union to the humanities, science, and business buildings, past the admin building that's under construction, through the library and back to the chapel.  I'm hoping people will see us crazy Christians and get curious about what we're doing.  Blessing the semester.  Blessing the campus.  Blessing the students, faculty, and staff.  And most of all, giving thanks for all the ways God continues to bless us.  

As for me, I deem the first semester of the Plaza Prayer Station a success beyond my imagining.  I trust that God has blessed CNU through me.  I know God has blessed me through this ministry.  And now, we rest.  Until next semester...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

View from the Plaza Prayer Station: Gratitude

I arrived today at the prayer station harried and worn out.  Yesterday I had taken my car to the shop for a coolant leak only to find that it needs a new water pump to the tune of a grand and many hours of labor.  That meant no car for today.  Fortunately Jan Brown loaned me hers, so I could get to the prayer station and to Eucharist.  For that I was grateful. 

At the same time, I have awakened the past few mornings feeling stressed and anxious and even depressed.  Turning on the news and scrolling through Facebook show me again and again that Everything Is Awful in the world right now.  From racial injustice to ebola to ISIS to political vitriol and growing rage and hate, I feel overwhelmed by dark things in our world.  And then more particular stress includes a very busy few weeks at both jobs with little time for breathing, rest or pre-holiday activities.  Add increasing costs of insurance and car repairs and other expenses, and I've had a hard time finding serenity this Advent.  I long for peace, and instead I feel simultaneously agitated and weary.

In the rooms of recovery we say that the best antidote for fear, depression, anxiety or other negative emotions is gratitude.  Today I got to witness that in abundance.  The primary theme of my conversations with students today was gratitude.  Several young women whom I've prayed with before came by to tell me that things in their lives were better and to say thank you to me for my presence and my prayers.  A number of other students whom I hadn't met came up just to say that they'd seen me previously from a distance and they wanted to thank me for me being there.  One young man saw my sign and gave me a thumbs up while I was talking with a staff member who had dropped by for conversation, and then he returned a few moments later to ask if he could take a picture of the sign. 

There were a few students clearly feeling stressed by the amount of work they yet need to do this semester, and I was able to say prayers with them, but others simply wanted to say how thankful they were that their work is almost done.  Many people walked by with a smile and a hello even when they didn't stop.  One woman clearly read the part of the sign that says, "Tell me your stories about God," and said, "God is good."  All the time. 

It was very cold at the prayer station today, but I turned on my little heater and it took the chill off of my legs.  One student asked if she could pray for me and said a prayer right then and there for people struggling with addiction and for release from stress.  Though no skateboard dudes were out today, I was able to catch up with one of them later in the coffee shop.  He's taking a class on C.S. Lewis.  Cool!  When I told him I would be there for awhile next week before I head off to do a healing service on the Eastern Shore, he said, "You have the coolest job."  I do.

Sometimes it seems like Everything is Awful.  And many things are right now.  But focusing on gratitude for what is good serves to lighten my heart.  Today at CNU I received prayers and blessings and gratitude, and it fanned the small flame of hope inside that never quite goes out, no matter how the darkness grow.  The light shines in that darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.  I am grateful today for the students and others I encounter in the CNU community and for the gift of this prayer ministry which feeds me as much as it does those for whom I pray.