Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Healing the world, healing ourselves

The news is not good.  I don't have to go beyond my Facebook feed to be assaulted by the brokenness of our world.  A local elementary school is on lockdown due to a phoned-in threat, there are polarizing diatribes about the riots in Baltimore due to repeated racial injustices, and the death count continues to rise in Nepal.  In the school I serve (and in all of higher education), students are struggling with increased stress and mental health concerns.  Meanwhile, in our own home, we have a sick little girl, and a boy about to do battle with SOL tests.  I know our problems are small in the greater scheme, but we can't control our worries.

Sometimes it feels like too much.  I'm a highly sensitive feeler, so it's easy for me to take on others' pain as my own.  It makes me an empathetic minister, but also leaves me susceptible to my own struggles with depression and burnout.  My impulse is to turn off the news and bury myself in a cozy cocoon of oblivion.  But I know that retreating is not the answer.  I want to be engaged.  I want to make a difference.

Yet I know that to do this, I must take care of myself first.  I can not help others if I am not coming from a place of health and strength.  I often remind my students that flight attendants on airplanes tell us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.  How can we care for ourselves when things are difficult?  This looks different for everyone, but we all need to eat healthy food, get plenty of rest, and exercise.  We need to engage in activities that renew our spirit, whether that be praying or meditating, spending time alone or with others, or engaging in hobbies.  Sometimes we do need to turn off the news and go for a walk with a friend.  Sometimes the homework can wait, and sometimes we need to be productive so the weight can come off of our shoulders.  Once we are intentional about caring for ourselves, we can look to support the needs of others.

I believe that we are each called to care and serve in different ways.  I watch the news clips of the clergy marching in Baltimore and I want to be that brave.  I have clergy friends that have been arrested for protesting injustice in their own areas of ministry.  I would like to think I would have the courage to stand up and fight, but I fear my trembling legs would give out from beneath me.  I would like to speak passionately and eloquently, but my voice is not that loud and my platform is not that large.  I don't know enough to understand the issues at hand, and so I listen, and maybe that is my gift.

In the past week, I have been asked to support efforts in Nepal, to be involved in local diversity efforts, and to support the work of numerous projects and work of students, colleagues, and charities.  All of these are worthy causes.  And yet my time and resources are finite.  How do we choose?

As a minister, I try to start with prayer.  I know that this can be a way of avoiding responsibility for doing the work (just hoping God will take care of it instead of me doing my part to make the situation better), but sometimes, I need clarity about what I can and can't fix.  Last night, this was my Facebook prayer:

"Sending prayers globally (for Nepal and those who are connected to the disaster there), nationally (for racial unrest and injustice, particularly in Baltimore), for our community of scattered friends (particularly for Jeff and Becca Stables and their family in Jeff's battle with cancer), locally (for my stressed students), and for our household (and our sick girl).  So many hurts and needs that only faith and acting in faith can heal."

So how do we act in faith when it seems overwhelming and hopeless?  I believe that we are all given our concerns, gifts, and passions as a way of connecting with our world.  We can all be the change we want to see in the world when we do our part where we are.  We cannot individually fix all the world's problems, but when we reach out to work on the causes closest to our heart and build community with others who are doing the same, I believe that God empowers us to make a true difference.  

Jane Goodall recently spoke at Hollins, and it was inspiring to hear of her almost 60 years of activism.  NowI don't want to live in the jungle like she did or travel for 300 days a year at 80-years-old like she does.  But she shared advice that can work for all of us.  She talked about how we are told to think globally but act locally.  "But if you think globally, you will only end up depressed!" she retorted.  Instead, she talked about the Roots and Shoots organizations she has started all over the world, empowering young people to be agents of change for the specific issues they face in their own communities.  It was encouraging to hear of the many diverse concerns that are being met through the enthusiasm and gifts of young people.  There can be tremendous power and change when we start with ourselves, work from our heart, and reach out where we are.

I think of my friends who live and minister in Charlotte, building a ministry of hospitality in their own neighborhood through the QC Family Tree.  I see our Nepali students who are organizing fundraisers to help their family and friends back home.  I listen to our students of color who are speaking up to make our community a more welcoming and inclusive place for all.  I reflect upon my ministry, which sometimes takes place at Hollins, and sometimes in my own home.  I remember that my first duty is to see what there is to nurture and change within myself, and always try to act from love.

May we do what we can where with are with what we have.  I will continue praying as I discern how to help and serve, seeking God's grace and strength.  Will you join me?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Easter means this year

The trees are bursting into bloom, but the air still carries a chill. Spring has not yet arrived, although its calendar start date passed by over a week ago.

It's Holy Week and the stores are full of pastel Easter finery and baskets of candy.  It's incongruous.  I haven't felt it as sharply before this year.  As a minister, I've been able to bounce between the hectic pace of worship services remembering the final dark moments of Jesus' life and then return home to celebrate with family over ham and chocolate eggs.  The sadness always held space for the faith of Easter's resurrection.

It's different for me this year.

Within a span of a couple of weeks, my husband and I learned that two people dear to us received terminal cancer diagnoses.  It seems so unfair that two young people full of life, faith, and joy have been struck with such grief; and all who love them bear the pain as well.  We watch helplessly as they walk a journey that, without a miraculous intervention, will end in death.  I am angry and sad, and yet it is not truly about me.  It is not my cross to bear, except to walk the journey with them, to pray, to hope, to support, and to grieve.

I pray for a miracle.  I pray with angry words and tears to a God who I believe hears but remains frustratingly silent.  I try to have faith...I believe!
(Help my unbelief.)

There can be no Easter without Good Friday, though, and sometimes we can only find our way to hope by journeying through what seems hopeless.  The very word "compassion" means "suffering with", and we are with others in their times of pain and grief just as we are with Christ in his suffering and death.  But then we are with him, too, as he is raised to new life.

May it be so.

How many times have I shared my story of the darkest times of my life?  There were times when I wandered through the wilderness, lost, fearing that God had abandoned me.  And yet those were the times that I can look back on as the transitions when my faith was strengthened, when God rescued me as I finally found the faith to let go and trust.

I can only see those times as good in retrospect, after coming through on the other side of the valley of the shadow of death, resurrected.  When I was in the valley I couldn't hope.  I kept walking in the darkness because I knew no other way.  In the same way, we journey through a Holy Week that takes us through betrayal, fear, persecution, abandonment, pain, and cruel death.  But we know that isn't the end of the story.  Though the terrified and confused disciples couldn't foresee it, even though they had been promised it, new life was just a few days away.

 "The life was the light of the world.  
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5)

Good Friday only becomes "good" when we have seen the light and light of Easter, when we have encountered the risen Christ.  And haven't I experienced that resurrection time and time again?  Why is it so hard to believe?  But this is why we journey through this cycle again and again.  It all comes down to death and resurrection; this is the substance of our faith.

May we believe in the light that overcomes the darkness.  May we trust in the life that is stronger than death.  May we live in the love that casts out all fear.  May we shout in defiance,

"Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."  
(1 Corinthians 15:54-55, 57)

May it be so.