Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Stories Behind the Numbers

A few weeks ago Jan Brown asked me how many people pass by the prayer station each week.  I had no idea.  A bunch.  She suggested I might check with the dining hall and ask them.  So this past Thursday, I went to the counter at Regatta's toward the end of the prayer station time and asked the man who was swiping dining cards if he could tell me approximately how many students eat lunch there on a Thursday.  "1300-1900," he said instantly.  He told me that Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays were the biggest days for lunch and that there were often theme meals on Thursday which boosted attendance. I said, "So I could reasonably say that there are about 1500 each week."  He looked down at the computer in front of him and said, "Right now we're at 1510."  He said they might get a couple more hundred before they closed to get ready for the evening theme meal.  When checking in with highs and lows at ECM that night, several students reported their high was the Valentine's-themed dinner which included steak wrapped with bacon, endless crab legs, and a chocolate fountain.

About 1500 people pass by the prayer station each week.  Wow.  You see, I'm not much of a numbers person.  One of the first questions my mother always asked when I came home from an event was, "How many people were there?"  If it was more than 10, I couldn't answer.  "I don't know," I would say.  My mother would demand, "Well guess.  More than 50?" Most of the time I was stumped.  I could tell her about the people I talked to and what went on at the event and whether I had a good time, but when I started to try to count up the people, I would get confused.  No matter how many times this happened, I couldn't remember to do a head count while I was at the event.  Even when I did, I would start counting and get to about 20 before losing track and having to start over.  There's a good reason why I don't work at a bank! 

What does interest me about numbers is not the numbers themselves but the stories the numbers tell. 

So, approximately 1500 students pass by the Prayer Station on a Thursday during lunch.  I probably make eye/smile contact with at least 50-100 of them, and I would guess that many more notice me and the sign.  (When I meet students they frequently say, "I've seen you on campus but I haven't come to talk with you yet.)  Certainly many walk by completely absorbed in thoughts or conversations and don't seem to see me or the sign, much less make contact.  A few are on their phones but I've been surprised that it hasn't been more.  Probably 20-30 students/staff/faculty have a more meaningful contact with the station or me on a given day.  Meaningful contact would include a short conversation, a hug, a prayer, a shared lunch or hot chocolate.  About 6-8 people per week have an even deeper encounter where they share something personal and vulnerable, where the discussion goes on longer than a quick check-in, where we make a strong connection through prayer or conversation. 

On Thursday a friend from the SpiritWorks community surprised me by stopping by and bringing hot chocolate.  I was bundled up in three layers of clothes, two pairs of socks, coat, scarf, prayer shawl and gloves, trying to endure the blasts of cold air that swooped in each time the doors opened to the Plaza.  It was the day after Ash Wednesday.  I was so happy for that hot drink that I completely forgot that one of my Lenten disciplines was giving up chocolate.  I downed half of it before I remembered.  My young friend and I shared a prayer and conversation, and my heart warmed from the contact just as my body warmed from sipping the hot drink.  Such a treat! 

On Thursday one of the students I had met from Thrive also stopped by.  She is becoming a regular, one with whom I have a deeper connection.  This time she asked me how she could pray for me.  So I told her I was seeking clarity and asked her to pray that those who need the prayer station would find it.  She said a lovely prayer before heading off to meet someone for lunch.  One of the ECM students came by to tell me he had attended an Ash Wednesday service for the first time in a long while, and another member of ECM checked in and talked about upcoming tests. 

On Wednesday I had received an email from one of the new students to ECM this semester asking if she could still help out with the food pantry.  She met me at the prayer station, helped me carry the sign to my car, and spent the next two hours helping St. Stephen's with the Hidenwood Elementary Food Pantry, a collaboration with Hidenwood Presbyterian Church and the Food Bank.  We got to know each other better and felt blessed to be able to give food to people who needed it.  But you know, I forgot to ask how many people we fed or how many volunteers we had.  More than 10 on both counts, but I lost track after that.

Our world is a world where numbers matter.  You have to have the numbers on your side to win the elections.  You have to have sufficient numbers to get the grants or loans.  In the nonprofit world, you have to be able to prove how many you've served if you want to get paid to keep on serving.  That's why people sign in at SpiritWorks.  I get it.  The people investing need to know that they're making a wise investment.  As a collector of stories, though, I can't help wondering what it is we're counting.  People who came in the door or received a service.  Bodies that showed up.  We can spin the numbers in many ways, but what do they really mean?  How do we measure how many had their lives changed or had a meaningful experience?  How do we measure the plants that grow from seeds scattered widely? 

For those who have gotten to know me and the prayer station, the ministry has become a touchstone - a way for them to check in, make a connection, be reminded of God and prayer as they make their way from class to lunch.  What I wonder is whether it has also become a touchstone for many of those 1500 passing by even if they don't stop.  Maybe they see it and it reminds them that someone from the church is praying for them.  Maybe they see it and it makes them think.  Maybe they see it and say a prayer themselves.  I have no way to count how many have received something from the prayer station.  But when my mom asks, I can tell her that it's more than 10.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Some Days are Hard

Today was one of those days.  Actually, it's been one of those months.  On January 11 at SpiritWorks, the dropped ceiling in the room we call the Sober Cafe fell in, narrowly missing two people.  The silver lining is that we are getting a makeover on our space.  New ceiling, newly painted walls, and new carpet/flooring in most of the downstairs.  It's going to be great.  But it's taken almost a month, and during that time we've been operating in a construction zone.  On Tuesday the copier stopped working just when we needed to make First Fridays bulletins and copies for Annual Council.  When I got home last night, my printer had run out of ink.  This morning when I went to zip up my pants, the zipper broke.  When I got to CNU, I thought there was a weakening of the rain - so I rushed in to the chapel to get my sign, covered it with a garbage bag, and carried it to the DSU.  On my way back to the car the rain began dumping, and I was soaked.  Since the temperature had dropped, I was also freezing.  You may remember from other posts that I HATE being cold and wet. 

When I got back to my car I opened the door, climbed in, and shouted, "Seriously?!" at God.  After sitting there for awhile, contemplating driving home and going back to bed, I found my umbrella, and got out of the car.  As soon as I opened the umbrella, the wind blew it inside out.  "You are not funny," I said right out loud.  "Could something today please NOT be hard?" Getting the rest of my stuff out of the car and into the DSU was a struggle against rain and wind.  When I finally sat down in my chair, I was shivering from damp and cold, exacerbated by each opening of the rotunda doors.

I pulled out my Anglican rosary, said the Lord's prayer, and began praying for students, staff, administration, and others.  One of the guys from Thrive stopped by early on and asked me how my day was.  "A bit rough, but better now that I'm here."  It was true.  For two hours all I had to do was sit and pray.  Not that my mind didn't wander to the multiple stresses in my life right now, but each time students passed by, I got to connect with them.  I found myself blessing them as they came in soaked and wet.  One student told me he didn't really mind the rain.  Many students had on shorts.  Brrr...  One had on bright pajama pants.  My flannel shirt lined with fleece wasn't sufficient to keep me warm; I can't imagine how the ones in shorts were doing.

When I went up for my weekly visit to the Office of Student Activities, I bumped into a student whom I've talked to many times.  He has high energy and a joyful presence.  Hearing about his excellent leadership on campus brings a smile to my face.  When he started talking about his day and how so many things were challenging, I felt like God was talking through him. He spoke about how difficult it is to discern where God is calling.  "Life is hard," he said.  Yes it is, especially today.  I kept asking God for a prayer station miracle.  Something to turn the day around.  My young friend looked at me and said, "You've got it altogether."  I laughed out loud and told him that it may look like that but that one of the advantages of having lived a little longer is realizing that rarely do people "have it altogether." 

When I walked into OSA, my staff friend (whose daughter is a cheetah keeper, by the way) said, "Thanks for reminding me that it's Thursday.  You are my rock."  We had a great conversation, and she read me a meditation about "When everything is going wrong."  I told her that God probably meant for her to share it with me since I was having a hard day.  "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God."  

By the end of my prayer station time I was miserable with the cold, but at least the rain had let up a bit because while I was visiting the OSA the garbage bag I had used to protect the sign had disappeared.  As I started carrying my stuff out to the car, I bumped into another student I know, and he helped me carry the sign and then came back and helped me carry everything else.  Shortly thereafter the rain started up again with a vengeance. 

There isn't a miraculous end to this story.  It was just a hard day.  I was anxious and irritable and wet and cold.  Bright moments punctured my dark mood, mostly when I was connected with the students.  But some days are hard.  We hear about them a lot in the Psalms.  We don't have to force ourselves to be cheerful and pretend that everything is going well.  But we can allow others to minister to us and pray for us.  It's hard to say that I'm grateful for a hard day, but it's the hard days that help me appreciate the good days.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Fish Out of Water - This Kind Old Lady Embraced by Love

On Friday night I walked into the foyer of Pope Chapel to find it filled with students, none of whom I knew.  Music pulsed from behind the closed inner doors to the chapel, providing a soundtrack to the low roar of chatter and laughter filling the room.  It was all so loud.  An introvert's nightmare.  I had arrived a few minutes later than planned because I had to park further away than expected.  A lot happening at CNU on a Friday night.  I made my way to the ladies room.  After the drive down from Williamsburg, I needed a pit stop, plus it was a good place to hide for a few minutes and prepare myself to walk up to strangers.  As often as I'm up in front of people, it still surprises me how shy I am in a room full of people I don't know.

When I emerged from the bathroom, I saw that the doors to the chapel had been opened and most of the students had gone inside.  It was time to go to Thrive.  I've been invited many times, but this was the first time I've been able to attend.  Thrive seeks to unite all the campus ministries at CNU in a monthly worship service.  I went in to the chapel where a band was playing on the stage and perhaps a hundred people were singing.  Tylor was on the keyboard - he was the first student to talk to me when I started the prayer station.  Anderson was playing violin.  He's the one whom I wrote about in this post.  Violin Guy, who sometimes serenades the campus with his music from the balcony of the Administration Building.  I really enjoyed how his playing enhanced the music.  In addition to Tylor and Anderson there were people on acoustic and electric guitars, singers, and a drummer.  They were really good!  Even though I didn't know a single song, I appreciated the passion and skill with which they played.

I have to admit, I was a fish out of water.  I am a cradle Episcopalian, and I am used to hymns accompanied by an organ, prayers read out of a book, and very structured worship.  Walking into Thrive felt like I was attending a rock concert for God.  I could see the appeal.  Most of the faces I saw radiated with joy.  Students danced in the aisles.  Voices were raised in praise and worship as everyone sang with the band.  In the foyer art supplies were available for those who wanted to worship through art.  Luke, the young man who started Thrive when he felt God calling him to bring the ministries together to worship, led everyone in prayer and invited people to pray in whatever way they felt God calling them.  Occasionally I saw students sitting near each other, bent over, clearly praying for one another.  The message of the night was clearly about how much God loves us and how we do not need to fear.

One song was so upbeat and joyful that people were jumping up and down to the rhythm, and in another that talked about running into Christ's embrace, students ran around the perimeter of the chapel almost like a Conga line but faster.  It reminded me of how I used to dance around the edges of the room at fraternity parties in college, caught up in the joy of the music and the movement and the release of stress and tension. 

I stood in the back for the first half and was able to greet Luke and some others whom I've met either at the prayer station or around campus.  Several students introduced themselves and said they had seen me but hadn't come up to the prayer station yet.  At one point the band stopped playing and we were invited to find another person and pray together.  My friend from the admissions office who shines with the light of Christ came back from where she had been sitting in the front.  It was delightful to see her and to hear about the happenings at her church.  She invited me to come sit with her on the 2nd row, so I did.  Shortly after I joined her, Tylor invited us all into a time of silence.  At last, something that was familiar to me!  I thanked God for all these young people who may worship differently than I do but who are choosing to spend a Friday evening in college praising God. 

Toward the end of the evening, a little over two hours in, Luke invited me to come up on the stage.  He told the crowd that I was the Episcopal Campus Minister and that I'm the one who sits at the prayer station.  They cheered.  He said, "This kind old lady sits and prays with students on our campus."  (Ouch!  There goes my delusion of hipness.)  He expressed how much he values the prayer ministry.  He quoted Corinthians and talked about how we're all part of the body of Christ.  And then he asked them to sign some pieces of paper that were put on tables at the edges of the room to say that they wanted me to continue my ministry at CNU.  "We need her on our campus," he said.

You see, the students learned last week what I have known for a couple of months - this is my last semester as the Episcopal Chaplain to CNU.  The diocese is interested in funding new models of campus ministry, and so the money for my position will only be available through June of this year. 

When Luke invited those attending Thrive to sign the papers in support of me, everyone got up and moved into line at the tables.  Tears crept into my eyes.  92 people signed.  Luke had written "We love Lauren" at the top of two of the pages.  Humbled does not begin to express how I felt.  Students came up and hugged me, and my friend from Admissions was the first to sign on one of the sheets of paper. 

At about 10:45 I found Luke and said that the "kind old lady" was turning into a pumpkin.  He told me they were on their last song, but I found that a Thrive song is kind of like time in a basketball game.  It may say 3 minutes on the clock, but those 3 minutes can take an hour.  When the Spirit moves, you gotta keep singing!  I still needed to drive back to Williamsburg, and I wanted to absorb all that I had experienced. 

I love the way we worship in the Episcopal Church, and nothing fills me with greater joy than the great honor and privilege of celebrating the Eucharist.  But I'm glad for the opportunity to worship in a more evangelical way, to experience how another part of the body of Christ expresses their love of God.  They were singing and dancing before the Lord, like David.  Many of the songs were based on Psalms, and several Psalms were read out loud.  In Morning Prayer we say the Venite, Psalm 95:   
Come, let us sing to the Lord; *
   let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
   and raise a loud shout to him with psalms. 

That's what Thrive was doing, singing to the Lord, shouting for joy to the Rock of our salvation.

This kind old lady is grateful to Luke for inviting me and having the idea for a petition in support of my ministry, to the band for their wonderful music, to all those who embraced me and spoke to me, and to God, for another lesson that we have been created in infinite and glorious variety, and our worship reflects the diversity of our creation.