Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Promise of Ministry IV: The Power of Prayer

Our silence broke at noon with the pealing of the chapel carillon followed by a procession of the Christ candle, me bearing a bowl of incense, and a choir of handbells. We processed from the entrance to the chapel down to the hall where we would eat lunch. As the bells played, people began to appear from all over the campus, converging on the clarion sound and the wafting incense. As people arrived I contemplated that fact that the emergence from silence had some things in common with our arising from the prostrations during the service of ordination a week prior. We arose as the congregation said, "Awake, O you who sleep, and arise from the dead." The pealing bells rang out as if calling us to arise from the dead. In both cases, it is interesting that death is a symbol of the place where we find a renewed and deeper sense of life, and in both cases that sense of life is brought forth as prayers rise up from the intercessions of the congregation symbolized by the rising smoke of the incense (see Psalm 141). Whether the prayers are silent, as at the conference, or spoken, as at the ordination, it is in prayer that we find the source of our life and being and lift our souls to God in thanksgiving (Eucharist).

Several of the returning fellows spent the afternoon baking communion bread at Laura's home. Laura is a returning fellow who goes to Austin Presbyterian and her husband is also in seminary there. I arrived late, just in time to have missed the actual baking but to participate in the fellowship we shared afterward. It was nice to be able to sit and chat about our lives beyond our preparation for and exercise of ministry. Contrary to popular opinion, ministers are human beings with diverse interests and talents beyond our vocations as servants of God and God's church.

Later in the afternoon we arrived at the chapel for rehearsal for the service Sunday morning. Becky and I had to leave before the service so we helped Gary, one of the faculty worship leaders, prepare the chapel for Taize prayer later that evening. We set up stations around the chapel with icons and candles. We also set up stations with alternative focus points to images as some segments of the church still struggle with the veneration of icons (even though the iconodules won the day at the seventh ecumenical council). For example, Becky and I spent a good half hour traipsing around campus finding branches and rocks and moss and flowers to put in a vase as a floral focus. We also found a mirror and set that up at a station. There was a footwashing station and my new four evangelists stole was draped over the processional cross at another station. It was exciting to be part of the process of conceiving the chapel space to be a place for contemplative multisensory reflection. We entered imaginatively into the experience of members of various traditions to try to create a space that would be inviting and open to all. There is a deeply gratifying feeling in helping people experience the presence of God mediated in ways that they are able to enter into fully.

Following a splendid banquet where I shared table fellowship with four extremely promising undergraduate fellows we returned to the chapel to light the hundreds of candles we had scattered about at the various stations. That process took a good twenty minutes with a dozen of us participating, including having to take the paschal candle down from its stand in order to light it because the torch had run out of wick. I had been invited to participate in the service as one of the four clergy anointing for blessing and healing. I wore my community habit and used the oil that was presented to my by the Lindisfarne Community at my ordination. As the service progressed, people approached for anointing and asked me to pray for specific concerns. The most common themes among them were openness, clarity, and reconciliation. I was struck by how deeply these budding ministers were seeking to align themselves with the will of God, trusting that their own fulfillment is somehow bound up in so doing, even as my own process of seeking was brought back to mind. God gently reminded me through the prayers of the fellows that my own journey toward living into my calling is still ongoing and I too must constantly seek God's will and then accept the grace given to do it. There is a great deal of power in the sacrament of anointing. There is a dialectical process of kenosis (self-emptying) and pleroma (filling) to it where the person being blessed makes room for God in their petition for a blessing and then God becomes present at the invocation of the Spirit in the name of the Holy Trinity. The person doing the anointing becomes a channel of that divine presence and a representation of Christ to the person being anointed. There is a great deal of responsibility inherent in the task and no little risk of abuse of the role. I was humbled that the Lindisfarne Community has regarded me equipped and capable of this task as I prayed for a steady stream of up and coming ministers in the church of Christ.

Following the service was the annual coffeehouse, a talent show of sorts, at which many fellows displayed extraordinary gifts. I presented "the Gospel According to Eddie Izzard" again to uproarious laughter even as I worried about what those I had just anointed might think now that I was spouting "heresy." Others shared talents from the profound to the ridiculous. Several talented singers and pianists shared what they considered to be meager gifts but which were really quite good. My friend Bonnie presented "700 years of the Protestant Reformation upside down," where she stood on her head and told the story of the reformation. Unfortunately, she fell over midway through. She was less than successful in getting back up, and on her third try exclaimed, "I have to tell you about Schliermacher!" which was probably the funniest bit of the whole act. Some of the acts were quite serious, and the evening ended with a presentation of a DVD clip of the work being done by an organization called NASP, a Seventh Day Adventist group, who work in areas that have been decimated by war, famine, natural disasters, etc. Many tears were shed as we observed starved children being laid in coffins and AIDS stricken families huddled together in huts. I felt a deep anger well up within me as I knew that many of these global ailments are well within our reach to address, and yet the sins of greed and selfish pride obstruct even those with the best of intentions. The "politics" of the situations imbue leaders with a fear of taking action, thus legitimating and tacitly approving continued negligence of all life as made the image of the Triune God.

The evening moved from prayer and anointing to heresy and drunkeness. Not really. The heresy of the coffeehouse was all in good fun and I do not think any of us really got drunk as the returning fellows imbibed the liquor that had been given to me by a friend in Mexico to be drunk after my ordination. It is called "Tarrasco" and is related to Tequila but not quite the same thing. A few of us returning fellows sat around late into the evening talking and sharing and imbibing the spirit. It was wonderful to share it with people who had walked with me in my journey into ministry. We promised to stay in touch and said our goodbyes as two of us had to leave at a truly obscene hour in the morning (one at 4:15 and me at 5:25AM!). If the power of prayer that I experienced over these past few days is any indication, then the promise of ministry looks to be a bright future indeed.

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