Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from Troy

Today we went Christmas caroling in North Central. There were six of us wandering the streets and singing. We picked carols that proclaimed the Gospel, and it was great fun.

My favorite times were when people flung open their doors or windows and yelled out "Merry Christmas!" to us. A number of people looked at us like we were nuts, but couldn't help smiling and feeling a bit special that they got Christmas carolers this year. One teenager yelled the first line of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at us from a window, so we obliged him with the other 11 days. Don't think that was what he was going for, but it was fun. All in all, I think this needs to happen again - spreading the Gospel and making people stop, smile, stare or just have fun.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is "O Holy Night." I love it mostly for the last verse, which most people don't know. Especially the bit about "Chains shall he break, for the slave is a brother and in his name all oppression shall cease...Christ is the Lord!" To me, it seems like the heart of the Gospel for North Troy, and it gave me great joy to proclaim it loudly in song all the way down the main street.

So, this Christmas, as you contemplate the wonder and the majesty of our God made flesh, accompanied by the praise of angel armies and the amazement of shepherds, this is my prayer for you - that the redemption and freedom described in this hymn is yours. And, if you would, please pray this for Troy.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim!
His power and glory evermore proclaim!
Merry Christmas! We love you all tons!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ordination reflection

A year ago today, I was lying face down on the stone floor of St. John's church, while this was prayed:

"Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new."

Rereading this prayer today brought tears to my eyes. It is this for which I live, this for which I fight the battle each day. It is to see the power of God raising up those who have been ground down to the dust, to see people who have been abandoned and considered hopeless find a home and hope and love in Jesus Christ. To see those who are cast down and trodden on be raised up to be sons and daughters of God, and to see the palpable feeling of anger, pride and unforgiveness be remade into something new: the kingdom of God.

And when I see how vast is this vision, how impossible to topple spiritual edifices that have been in place for generations, how hopeless it is to tell people that they are beloved of God who have come to North Troy only because nobody else wanted them and they had nowhere else to go, I begin to wonder: do I fight in vain? What weapons do I have for fighting the war against evil in this place?

This morning, I again sat in St. John's reading the words of the Song of Mary. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...he has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent away empty."

It is the Lord who casts down the works of darkness. It is the Lord who lifts up those who have been oppressed and forsaken. It is the Lord who protects and sustains the hungry child afraid of its parents. It is the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the one who makes all things new.

And it is for the Lord that I fight. This battle is not mine, it is God's. He has called me to be a foot soldier in this battle, and I will fight against the works of darkness and evil with all that I have in me. But as David said, "The battle is the Lord's." And our Lord has already won the victory. No stronghold or work of darkness can ever prevail against him, because he has broken the hold of death, the power of evil, and the gates of hell. And he has given us his authority.

Therefore, this impossible edifice against which we strive, this darkness into which we work to bring the light of Christ can be fought. The things that were cast down will be raised up, and the old is being made new even now. But this battle is the Lord's. I fight in his name and his strength and his power. Lord, have mercy on this place and on these people.

Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Need Hope"

Another great Sunday afternoon in the park today. Played a chaotic football/rugby hybrid with a bunch of boys and their mom. Sang worship songs to God with ukulele and drum box. Spun the merry-go-round and made one of the girls giggle by telling her she'd better keep the six chicken McNuggets she'd eaten inside her stomach.

Then, on the way home, we needed gas. He was sitting beside the stoplight -- bearded, ragged overalls and ball cap. A small American flag was sticking out of his backpack. A sign was resting against it that said, "Need Hope."

We parked the car and walked to meet him. He was trying to get back to Texas for the winter. Has some kids in Vermont, but he hasn't gone there since his wife died. Too many bad memories. No, he didn't need any food -- just warmed up with a cup of coffee and a slice of pizza.

I offered a pair of socks and gloves and he accepted. On the way inside the house to grab them, I prayed quickly. Should I offer a Bible? No. A little devotional? Didn't seem right. I finally settled on a beautiful olive wood cross that a friend gave me for seminary graduation. I chided the selfish voice inside of me that said, "But I didn't get to wear it" and said, "I trust you to make this make sense, Lord," and walked back outside.

The man was pleased by the gloves and thanked me. He had the look of a gentle soul who's known too much loss. I asked him if he follows Jesus. He told me his name is David and said he stopped believing in God when his wife died.

"I asked him, 'Why?' and he didn't answer," David said. Then he paused. "But I could never do wrong. I still believe in him. I'm still searching for him. I'll probably be searching my whole life. And, I want to see my wife again. The David in the Bible, he gave up on God sometimes, too."

I asked him if I could pray. "Yes ma'm."

I thanked God for letting us meet. Prayed for protection for David. For provision. For peace and healing and hope that he would see his wife. That he would continue to seek God, and that he would find him and be surprised by joy.

At the end, I handed him the cross. "I'd like to give you one more gift."

He took it and looked at it. Then he looked at me. "Mine?" he asked wonderingly.

"Yeah," I smiled. Then, this just poured out of me: "You know the story where Jesus prayed in the garden before he died? He questioned too, and he suffered. And he was surrounded by olive trees -- that's what the cross is made of. When you wear that cross, I want you to remember that Jesus went through what you're going through. God hasn't given up on you, David. He loves you."

David smiled and held up the cross. "That's a good gift."

We shook hands. I went into my house. And David kept walking.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

People of Peace

In the Mike Breen/British evangelism lingo, the phrase "person of peace" gets bandied about. A person of peace is one who receives or welcomes you into their neighborhood as a Christian and is eager to bring others to meet you. The God-appointed neighborhood networker. I'm sure there's a better definition, but that works for the purposes of blogging.

This afternoon was "person of peace" afternoon. We (Christina, myself and a college student) were in the park, and there wasn't much going on. So we went for a walk around the block. About two blocks later, we ran into a man whom we had met several weeks ago in the park. We met him by playing with his nieces and nephews in the park and then untangling the swings that other kids had flung over the swing set. I guess you form a rapport with someone after you shimmy up a pole and step on his shoulders for balance to take down swings. He is a sweet man who is very open, believes in Jesus, and doesn't know much about him beyond that but would like to. And he knows all the white people in the neighborhood well. He walked with us for several blocks, chatting with us and greeting people he knows. And we realized that he was one of the "people of peace" we had been praying for. If we started a Bible study or prayer or a coffee house, he would come - and bring many others.

Later, back in the park, we did our usual snack time with some of the kids. Normally, we feed the little kids, then the teenagers start trickling over to get snacks. We had noticed this pattern for many weeks now: one particular teenager breaks from the game, comes over alone, asks politely for a snack, stands there and eats it, and waits for 5-10 minutes and talks to us for a bit. Then the others come trickling over to eat. We talk for a few minutes and they go back to their game. Today, while he was waiting, we talked to the first kid.

He excused his friends and relatives for being shy about coming over. We understand - older people don't like handouts. "Yeah," he said, "But they're hungry. But you notice how I'm not shy? I just come over and wait til they get here. Then they don't have to go first." Having noticed this, it was good for him that we could acknowledge what he does for his friends. He takes the humiliation of asking for food on himself, and the shame of going over to the church people and kids table and talking with them so that his friends will have the courage come over. He's gotten some of them to talk with us also. And he knows we're there every Sunday and someday, he says, his family won't be so shy and they'll come out too.

People of peace. A teenage boy who plays basketball. An unemployed man helping his grandma. These are the evangelists.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Aslan is on the move

So, we had a crazy day in the park today. We prayer walked for a bit and then we went to the park and played music while we waited for the kids to show up. We were playing “We Will Dance on the Streets That are Golden”, when two kids showed up. The older one had been hanging around the edges every time I told a Bible story, picking at the guitar when I put it down, etc. Just being there. But this time, they made a beeline for us, running across the park. They were even intercepted by the neighborhood quasi-bully, but they came over and made us sing the song again.

We sang, and then we got the drums out for them to play on, and then we sang it again. I asked them if they knew what the song meant. And then I got the immense privilege of sharing with two children whose only experience of Christianity was Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ what heaven would be like. I got to tell them that after we died, we would be brought back to life and we would never die again. I got to tell them that although Jesus died like they saw in the movie, he came back to life and that he did that because he loved them enough to die so that they could come back to life too. And I got to tell them that heaven would be one big party with Jesus.

Have you ever seen someone’s face when you tell him for the first time that Jesus came back to life? And that he died just for one little boy in North Central Troy? Their amazement and excitement was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And then, while I was teaching the older one guitar chords, Christina got to talk with the younger one...

I showed the boy my cross. I wear a big San Damiano crucifix all the time since I'm a Franciscan. So I held it up and said, "This is what you saw in the movie, right?" The boy nodded.

"Well, every time I wear this, it reminds me that Jesus loves me and that I'm going to be in heaven with him later because he died for me and came back to life."

The boy (who I admit I thought was a girl at first, but he corrected me and didn't seem too worried about my blunder) seemed fixated on the cross. I took it off and let him hold it. He asked a bunch of questions:

Is this the blood? (Pointed to Jesus' hands). Yes, that's his blood.

Where's the devil? (I pointed to his feet). Beneath those -- because Jesus won.

Who's that up there? (Pointed above Jesus). That's the angels, watching. They can't believe what they're seeing.

He began to ask more about heaven and life after death. I told him anyone who believes in Jesus and follows him and is sorry for bad things they've done can go to heaven. They just have to pray.

He looked at me. He'd never prayed before. I told him it's just talking to God -- God can hear us, even if we can't see him. "So what do I say?" he asked. I began to lead him in a simple confession of faith and, unprompted, he repeated every word I said.

Afterward, he asked if he'd not die if he fell out of a tree. I explained he would die, but he'd live again in heaven, and he'd immediately be with God.

"And I'd see him?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "You will."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood...."

On Sunday morning, as the early light was beginning to peek around my curtain and as I lingered in a half-dream, the nagging, hated feeling came back. Dread. Heaviness. And a thought: "You have to go on the streets again today."

I am called to the streets, to love the broken people I find there and to point them toward Jesus. When I am walking the dirty sidewalks of Troy, I walk, study each face, pray, and know a joyful serenity that can only come from the Holy Spirit burning inside of me.

But there is a war every time to get there. Hannah and I have talked about them, the voices that tell us we can't make a difference: What can two brand new priests do? You're alone. You'll do more harm than good. You don't really love them. There is no hope in a city that has known so many generations of despair and pain. Give up. Go find a real church where you can really uses the gifts God has given you.

And I know this isn't the voice of God. Sometimes it's my self-doubt, and sometimes it's a demonic whisper in my ear, appealing to my fear or to my ego. And in those times, I breathe the Jesus prayer. Or read a Psalm. Or, calmly and firmly, rebuke the voices with the only authority I have -- as a reborn child of my Father God, sprinkled with blood from the Eternally Begotten Son.

So it was again on Sunday. The nagging. A quiet prayer. And up, to worship, eat lunch, prayer walk, and hang out in the park with whoever our Father would send to us.

Our prayer walk led us to a part of town we don't often visit -- a part with a lot of Hell's Angels activity. It was a dead-end street with eyes in every window. As we prayed, I envisioned Christ on the cross, dying for the men who drove nails through his hands and feet. The Lord laid down his life for those men. He poured himself out for the Hell's Angels and for all who have loved the darkness instead of the light.

There is no doubt the powers of hell want me -- and every child of God -- dead. There is no way to measure their hatred. And, I am sure that some people in Troy have pledged themselves as allies of the darkness and enemies of the kingdom of God.

But, they are not my enemies. They are those who Christ died for. Beloved of God.

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Lord Jesus, break my heart for those who follow death as their shepherd. Fill me with a restless love that seeks to bless them. And Lord, give me the courage to resist every spiritual principality and power, standing firmly in the strength of your might.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's been a year...

I wrote a status update yesterday that made me stop and think about how much has changed in the past year and how little I have had a clue of what was going on. A year ago, we had a vision for working with college students and the people of North Central Troy ("the hood") together and bringing the hope of the gospel to both groups, seeing the miraculous healing power of God at work on the streets of Troy, and seeing churches come together and help each other in this work. And no idea how to go about this vision.

And there were many, many months of discouragement. Many months where all I was doing was praying in my own apartment, teaching the youth group in a church in another town (which was awesome, incidentally, but my heart was burning for Troy), unsure of how this priesthood thing that I was called to worked, and barely making ends meet while working as a cashier. Months of walking around the block in Troy praying, dutifully making pilgrimages to the Stewarts to get my cup of tea and talk to anyone who would make eye contact.

Months of just trying to obey. God would throw us a bone every once in a while - just enough to keep us going, but it was rough. And lonely. Walking the streets in winter praying for people whose faces I didn't recognize and names I didn't know. And we all but gave up on the college ministry side of it because we just couldn't get in. Every door slammed. Our mentors got slammed with all kinds of things and just couldn't meet with us. Winter storms pretty much killed any social endeavor.

But you were praying. And we just tried to obey and follow blindly one step at a time. And God is faithful.

Wednesday made me realize just how much things have changed already. In May, we started walking and praying at least once a week together with our collars on. God gave us some local clergy with the same heart and passion (and who had been here longer and are much wiser and more experienced than we are). And we prayed together. We joined with some of the local pastors at Compelled, the random, last-ditch effort to keep a Christian Missionary Alliance church going on Wednesday nights that unexpectedly brought in a bunch of college students. Now we're playing worship music and leading a small group there. And some of them have joined us in North Central. And some of them have joined us for ice cream.

Compelled folks praying with North Central kids

And we kept walking and praying. And God is bringing down strongholds. We started monthly barbecues in the park loosely structured around a bible story/game/craft/worship/prayer time. And God gave us a church from 2 hours away who have faithfully come up and helped us put it on, and the youth worker from a church across town, and some Compelled folk and some people from my youth group church and some folks we worked with at the summer camp last summer and we have always had enough help. And we got a small army of children.

First cookout; thanks to Scotty Gladstone for the collages and photos

We started going every Sunday in between and doing small snack/game/bible story time. Last week, three kids gave me a hug. The bully circled around and didn't disrupt and told us his birthday is this week. The older kids joined our softball game. One boy made us retell the bible story he'd missed (because he was rough-housing) just for him. A little girl told us her name for the first time. Two young brothers helped us unload the car (and hunted for cookies). A man rode around the neighborhood on his bike and brought his friends. We prayed for another. The the guys in rehab made a woman with a miscarriage let us pray for her. The former Jamaican Baptist evangelist who's always stoned or drunk and knows everyone in the neighborhood has decided that the two crazy nuns walking around are his friends.

September cookout
And then there was the "Sanctuary for Independent Media" lady who's doing a documentary on the neighborhood. She chased us down and asked us to share what we were doing on camera. So we explained about praying for hope and the freedom of Christ that we were praying for in the neighborhood with a smattering of spiritual warfare and freedom from drugs and crime and poverty. She'll catch up with us again eventually.

And then there was Wednesday. We had an hour. We took an hour and a half and finally ran away so we weren't crazy late to Compelled. But Pastor Willie, from the only open church in that side of town, the black gospel street mission church, was sitting outside. We'd encountered him before and were praying about how to work with him. He asked us to sit with him, and started telling us about his experiences in the past 4 years of being there and how he needed help. We told him what we were doing on the other side of the neighborhood, and he asked us to teach his kids bible study so he could separate the kids and the adults, who were all in one group. Pastor Willie asked us to teach his street mission kids!

And the two crazy nuns kept walking and praying and had real conversations with several people. And several people interrupted their conversations to wave and say hi. And some of our kids stopped us to ask about the cookout (and discuss birthday cupcakes). And a random kid stopped us to ask about our collars and if we ever got to take them off (which totally cracked up his mother).

It's been a year. God has given us a place, jobs (I even got to stop being a cashier, which is just a bonus) and people. The kids know we're there and that we'll come back. Some of them even know that we love them. The praying walking nuns are part of the landscape now and people often say hi. In one day, we talked with three different churches to work with them for the sake of the Gospel (plus preaching/celebrating at the cathedral, which was kind of a culture shock). God is doing things through the prayers of his people. Now we just need to pray for a place to continue down there during the winter.

Summary: God is good. He alone can fulfill the vision that he gave us - in so many unexpected ways. I know there will be many discouraging moments in the future, but if I can just look back on what God has already done, hopefully I can take heart for the future. And hopefully, this is encouraging to others of you who are on this journey with me.

Praise the holy, mighty name of Jesus!