Thursday, January 28, 2016

Small Humans, Big Difference

When I was in college at Sewanee I often got stressed out over tests and papers and plays.  Adding the angst of relationships, sorority drama, and the general difficulties of being a young adult, I could get quite overwhelmed.  One of my strategies for dealing with the stress was to walk out to the dairy.  It sat on a hill near a couple of trees, and at that time there were no lights around it at all.  I would stand in the road listening to the snuffling of the horses in the field nearby and stare up at the sky.  So. Many. Stars.  I could see the Milky Way clearly and pick out the stars and planets I had learned to name in my Astronomy class.  I have heard people say that when they look up at the vast expanse of space they feel insignificant and disoriented.  That's what I loved about it.  Feeling insignificant.  I would remind myself that I was one small human on one small world in one small galaxy in the whole universe, and suddenly whatever I was worried about just didn't seem quite as overwhelming.  I would spin around in circles while looking at the stars until I got dizzy and fell down laughing.  It was almost as if the spinning shook up my brain and reorganized it so that worry was no longer at the forefront.  Recognizing my insignificance has always been good for my ego and my compulsive worrying.  I'm just not that important in the scheme of the universe.  And that's okay. 

On the other hand, sometimes we can get to feeling so insignificant and powerless to have any affect on the principalities and powers and systems of the world that we can lose hope and give up trying to make a change.  On those days we may need a sign that even as insignificant as one individual is, our presence on the planet makes ripples that extend far beyond the tiny ponds we inhabit.

Today I sat inside the rotunda of the student union at the prayer station.  At one point I got up to take a picture from across the floor.  The sign and chairs looked so small in the rotunda area.  A little spot of peace and comfort on the edge of a room on the first floor of a building in the middle of a campus.  What difference could it possibly make?  And yet it has.  I get credit for showing up.  But God gets credit for making a difference.  Several new people walked by the station today, read the sign, paused, and then came back to ask for prayers.  Probably 50 people walked by and smiled or waved.  More walked by and read the sign and kept moving, but I could see something clicking inside their brains.  Regulars stopped by to check in and share a hug.  I even got to see the Humans of CNU guy again! 

There are many religious groups on this campus, most of them more extroverted and evangelical than we are.  One of them is called Thrive, started by a young friend of mine named Luke.  He has a vision of unity among Christians.  One of the main purposes of Thrive is to gather all the Christian campus ministries at CNU to worship together once a month.  Hundreds of students attend their events, and they have made a huge impact on the campus.  That's one way.  How I've connected with Thrive is through the prayer station.  Some of their leadership members come and sit and chat with me and ask for prayers.  Although I have been unable to attend a Thrive event so far, I have enjoyed my connection with these bold students who are on fire for the Gospel, and I'm looking forward to their event tomorrow night.  The prayer station is a much quieter expression of the Gospel than Thrive, but it has also had an impact on hundreds of students.  One by one.

How grateful I am for the body of Christ, infinite in its variety, each part with its own gifts, all contributing to the whole.  How grateful I am that we, merely human beings, can make a big difference with small acts.  How grateful I am that even a tiny prayer station can offer something that strengthens, encourages, and uplifts those who stop by.  God loves all God has created, small and large, in incredible diversity, each one of us and all that is around us.  Thanks be to God!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Morning Prayer - Finding the Way

Church happened at St. Stephen's today because the rector can walk from his house.  He told me not to come, though, and I was fine with that.  I'm from south of Atlanta.  I am a southerner.  I do not know how to drive in the snow.  Three years in Chicago didn't teach me because the roads are plowed there, so I still didn't learn how.  When they tell me to stay off the roads, I obey.  I don't want to be a hazard.  So many people online reported reading Morning Prayer in place of going to church this morning, so I joined in.  Sitting snug in my house with the welcome sunlight streaming in. I prayed through the office, read a bit of Diana Butler Bass' Grounded, and then headed out for outdoor worship in the Creation. 

It was almost too bright to see, but I didn't want to head back in for sunglasses.  I walked around my house and then headed out into the neighborhood.  There is a pond in the back of the Mews, and I wanted to see if it was frozen.  Half way.  I was making new tracks on the path that goes around the pond - though I felt a little guilty at disturbing the smooth blanket of white.  I was surprised at how few people were out and how few birds I saw.  It looked like someone had been out walking a dog on parts of the path, but other than that, I was the pioneer.  The surface of the snow glittered in the sun, and ice cracked under my feet as I went.  Sometimes I was light enough not to break through the layer of ice, but in other places I crashed through, and my boots sunk inches deeper into slush.  Snow, sleet, freezing rain, rain, sleet, snow.  That's what had happened in the past 48 hours, and I could feel each of the layers as I walked.

When I got to the front of my neighborhood, I decided to head for the labyrinth.  Again I was surprised that no one had been out on the sidewalk I take to Eastern State Hospital.  With the sun reflecting off the snow and the wind at my back, it wasn't long before I pulled my hood down, unzipped my coat, and removed my gloves.  Though it was only 27 degrees, I was hot!  The road was reasonably clear, though slushy at intersections.  On the hospital grounds the road was wet with no slush at all.  Someone had plowed well.

The labyrinth looked very different than it had when I was there at the beginning of the storm.  I could barely see the path at all. Animal tracks cris-crossed diagonally over sections of the labyrinth.  I thought maybe they were from deer, but closer inspection looked more like paw than hoof tracks.  Dog?  Raccoon?  Fox?  I have no idea.  Whoever it was didn't feel a need to stay on the path but scampered across to the other side.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to step out onto the smooth surface, but once I was there, I couldn't resist. 

With the first step I heard the ice under my feet.  I was surprised that my boots didn't sink any further into the snow but there seemed to be a thick layer of ice that cracked with almost every step on my way to the center.  Felt kind of like walking across a frozen lake, only fortunately I didn't fall in.  After the first turn, I froze.  I couldn't see the path, and I didn't know where to go.  I took a guess, but I found myself stopping regularly on the way.  When I looked at the labyrinth facing north, I could just distinguish the path, but when I looked into the sun, I couldn't see any markings in the snow.  If I hadn't walked that labyrinth so many times, I wouldn't have stood a chance.  I guess that's why they call it a spiritual practice.  By doing it over and over, we learn the way.

Still, there were many times when I had to stop and observe for awhile.  At one point I felt like I could hear Obi Wan saying, "Use the force, Luke!"  It was very different to be forging a new path and having trouble finding the way when usually a labyrinth is so clear.  It would have been very easy to get lost.  At one point the snow was so smooth that I went a little too far and walked up on top of one of the bricks, but I realized my mistake and turned back to the path.  When I got to the center I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had made it all the way in without having to backtrack.  I turned slowly in the center, feeling a pull to the west.  "I am going to the west..."  The haunting notes of one of the songs from my Faire Celts CD ran through my head.  It was hard to look south because the sun was so bright. When I turned east, I said a prayer of blessing over the Eastern State buildings, as I often do. 
Heading back out, I walked in my own footsteps.  Much easier to find the way.  No cracking of the ice this direction, though.  Instead, stepping in my boot tracks, I went much deeper into the snow, often down into wet slushiness.  I guess the sun was melting the places where I had walked. It was a much faster trip out since I no longer had to pause at each turn and discern the way forward.  I smiled at the end.  I did it!  If anyone else wants to walk it in the snow, they will know the way now.  These footsteps will not disappear as quickly as the last, though in time the snow will melt and the concrete and paving bricks will emerge once more.

Friday's walk was about letting go.  Today's walk was about new beginnings.  Forging a path.  Finding a way.  We don't always know which direction to turn, but we wait and watch and listen, asking God to point us forward.  Sometimes we just stand for a bit, being faithful, until the way gets clear or until we take that step and see - is this the way?  We may need to double back or retrace steps, but we will eventually find the way.  It can be slow going, and it's hard not to panic when you cannot see the way, even harder to step out in faith when you're not certain, but each step leads you closer to the center until you find yourself resting in the presence of God.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Footsteps in the Snow

 I knew yesterday would be a snow day.  They've been predicting it for a week.  I allowed myself to sleep in, and then puttered around the house.  When I saw the first snowflakes, I threw on some clothes and headed to the grocery store to pick up a few items.  I was happy to see plenty of milk and bread, although I didn't need them.  By the time I started home, the snow was really coming down and starting to stick on the roads.  My neighborhood streets still had snow on them from last Sunday, so they were rapidly disappearing under a white blanket.  With the prediction of sleet and rain to follow the snowfall, I knew that getting out later on would probably be unpleasant, so I decided to walk over to the labyrinth before the snow got too bad.  I like walking in the snow, if it's not too windy.  The snow muffles everything and brings a sense of peace.  Bundled up in my down jacket with purple scarf wrapped around my neck and mouth, a fleece headband covering my ears. and my hood pulled up to protect my head, I felt cocooned in warmth, at least until the snow started melting on my scarf dampening it with cold moisture.  The tiny, light snowflakes easily brushed off my coat and gloves, though they were accumulating quickly on grass and sidewalk alike. 

When I got to the labyrinth, I saw a light coating of snow on the path and paving stones.  I hesitated to mar the pristine surface with my footsteps.  Pausing at the entrance I said a prayer for CNU, for discernment, for guidance.  And then I began walking.  It was hard to tell which direction the snow was coming from, but at times I turned right into it and got a face full of cold wetness.  I was glad I wore my hiking boots because my steps were sure, and I did not slip at all.  Plus, my feet were warm in a way that they wouldn't have been in my running shoes that are intentionally designed to allow my feet to breathe.  Good in summer but the feature that allows the heat out also allows the cold and damp in. 

Once in the center I could see that my footsteps closer to the entrance were already fading under the falling snow.  I didn't spend as much time as usual in the center though I did turn to face each of the four directions as is my custom.  On my journey back out, I walked in my own footsteps so as not to disturb any of the rest of the snow.  By the time I reached the opening, my earlier footsteps had completely disappeared both from the path and from the sidewalk leading to the labyrinth.  We leave our mark, and then it fades away.  How ephemeral our lives are. 
Psalm 103 says,
   "Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field;
   When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more."  (15-16)
So too with our footsteps in the snow.  On my way back home, the snow was already much deeper.  More people had been out walking and even bicycling in the snow, but my tracks had been obliterated.

I know, though, that I was there.   And now, others do, too.  My footsteps may be buried beneath the snow, but they are there, marking my path to the center and back.  I wonder if part of my yearning to write is about leaving footsteps that will remain.  All this snow makes me reflective. Perhaps watching my footsteps disappear in the snow is a good lesson in letting go.  One that has always been hard for me.  I could have sung Elsa's theme song from Frozen when I was in the center.  "Let it go, let it go."  Please help me in the letting go, God.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Free Stuff on a Cold Day

Brrr!  It's a high of 36 in Newport News today, and I knew it was too cold to sit outside.  But I have to say, at least there was sun outside.  I went to my usual indoor spot in the Student Union and tables were set up for other groups, so I sat inside the rotunda doors.  Each time the doors opened, frigid air blasted in, numbing my ears and feet and hands.  Fortunately a steady stream of students visited the prayer station, so the cold was much more easy to endure.  Though my location was unfortunate in terms of personal physical warmth, it was the perfect place for encountering students.  About 12:15 students get out of class and head for lunch.  I didn't realize that the line for lunch reaches to the doors of the rotunda, but there I sat with the lunch line filing right past me.  "Bless the lunch line.  Bless the lunch line."  I prayed blessings over the students as they waited for lunch.  Some spoke.  Many smiled.  Others were clearly focused on lunch.  If you feed them, they will come!  It was great to see so many young people walking by.

One of the ECM students brought his roommate and a new hallmate by the station.  Turns out the hallmate was raised Episcopalian and wants to start coming to church.  I love when the students evangelize.  She was wearing a light sweatshirt and no coat, shivering as we chatted, and we all commented that it might be good to wear a coat. She said that the sweatshirt was a gift from a boyfriend and a friend and that it smells like them.  I suggested she was receiving emotional warmth if not physical warmth from the shirt.  She said yes, that it was emotional comfort for her.  We all agreed maybe she could wear a heavier coat over the sweatshirt as a way to provide both for both physical and emotional needs.

The roommate is an ROTC student, and so I learned all about the officer training program and what is involved.  It was a really cool conversation.  I also learned that Cards Against Humanity ("adult Apples to Apples") can keep college students up until the wee hours of the morning and that as a priest I would not be invited to play what they described as an "irreverent, offensive" game.  I doubt it could be more irreverent or offensive than some games played when I was in college, but I wouldn't have wanted my priest around for those either.  ;)  They chatted for about half an hour before heading off to Spanish, English, and Economics classes.

Today was like old home day at the station.  I saw so many of the students who have come to talk or pray with me.  The Humans of CNU guy greeted me and said he was going to come back to chat when he has more time on another Thursday.  Another person invited me to come to CNU Tonight in a couple of weeks.  One girl in a sorority jersey stopped by to tell me she was glad I had moved inside, that she knew it was Thursday and had been worried I would be sitting out in the cold.  Another student stopped by and said he wasn't religious but that he's a religious studies major and he wanted to thank me for being there, that it was meaningful to him to see me sitting there even though he didn't have a prayer request.  Interested in the Abrahamic religions that he described as "beautiful," he wants to be a religious studies professor.  Two other students I know are graduating this semester and are planning to start their own clothing company together.  I learned today that they want to design men's blazers and coats and trousers.  They're so excited!  I told one of them that I would pray for the start of their business.

I shared the rotunda area with members from the student assembly.  They were passing out free cups and frisbees with information about student assembly.  I went up and asked what the free cups were for.  The student said, "You have to give them free stuff, and then they get interested."

You have to give them free stuff.  I reflected on whether I should be handing out something at the prayer station.  But in truth, they do get free stuff.  It might not be a cup or frisbee, but I hope what they receive gets them interested.  A listening ear, a prayer or blessing, a smile, eye contact, a wave.  I hope that, at least for a moment. they feel the warmth of being loved and that it comforts them on a cold day. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

New Semester

New year.  New semester.  Today was the first day of the Plaza Prayer Station for 2016.  I was delighted to be able to sit outside since it was 50 degrees and sunny.  A little chilly, so I needed my coat and scarf and a blanket for my lap, but I managed not to wear gloves.  Each new semester the students' schedules change, so a whole new batch of them are walking by me at my appointed time.  Clearly there were some who had never seen the station before.  My favorite was a young man who stopped and read the sign, said, "Hmm.." while scratching his chin, and then went on his way without looking at me.  I didn't get the feeling that he approved.  I chuckled to myself and said a prayer for him anyway.  Several students waved as they went by, and a few regulars checked in on their way to lunch.  For the first time, one of the students who came by for a prayer asked when ECM meets and then actually came to our meeting!  He's part of a different campus ministry but wanted to get to know his brothers and sisters and Christ from other traditions.  What a blessing to us, and I hope to him!

One of the Canterbury students, Sam, is studying abroad in Scotland this semester.  She usually stops by the prayer station, so I missed her presence today, but she is keeping a blog about her travels, so I am able to follow where she is and what she's doing.  A very cool thing to be able to view Scotland through her eyes. 

After the prayer station, I went over to a local elementary school to help St. Stephen's with a new
food pantry project.  Local churches are working together with the food bank to offer food, including fresh produce, to families of students at the school.  Each family received a grocery cart full of food, including fresh pineapple, pears, potatoes, onions, greens, and sweet potatoes.  There was also meat, canned goods, juice, and cereal.  My job was to walk with a family around the room "shopping" for food and then to go with them to help load up their car and then return the grocery cart so the next family could shop.  The first lady I helped asked me if I would take a tip.  I told her no I wouldn't, that my gift was that I got to meet her.  She gave me a big hug.  She works at the school and said she had never needed to do this before.  We had so much extra food at the end that we were able to offer it to teachers at the school as well, and several of them took food to their rooms to be able to give out to their students.  We're going to be doing this once a month so I'm hoping some of the CNU students will join me.

Helping with the food pantry project and sitting at the prayer station today made me think about feeding people.  How many stories do we read about food in the Bible?  Jesus was all the time feeding people, both with food for their bellies and spiritual food.  What a blessing it is to be able to participate with him in that work.  There are a lot of hungry people in the world.  I know we need to address the issue of how they have come to be hungry in the first place, both physically and spiritually, but in the meantime, it feels good to be helping to provide the sustenance.  May God continue to bless these ministries and to bring the people to us who need them.