How do you pray when your heart is full of uncertainty?
How do you pray when you see the structures you once leaned on for security like a good paying government job fail you?
How do you pray when a simple drive across town pulsates fear as imagines of gunfire and hate mongering have filled your computer screen for days?
How do you pray when there is no 10 month plan in your day-timer or 10 week in advance or even 10 days from now plan because you wonder how you are going to make it till tomorrow?
How do you pray when your heart feels unable to trust in the possibility of "the right answer" anymore because the world seems all do evil for that kind of blind faith?
How do you pray?
As much as there are no words, as much as there is no comfort, as much as the rage in us seeks to overflow in the places where love for neighbors dwelled . . . there was once a Teacher. There was once a Teacher who was asked by one of his disciples, "Teach us to pray . . ."
And to this request he answered:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
Such words came from a Teacher with an uncertain future. Sure, he knew that all would be well in the end-- the darkness would not overcome the light. But the world was not there yet. Suffering, great suffering awaited him and awaited all those in whom he loved. This journey of hoping without giving up would be a long road ahead.
So he prayed.
This Teacher taught us to keep praying this prayer.
Alone. Two by two. In small community. In large groups.
Whenever we needed direction. Whenever we needed Him the most. Whenever.
A prayer that would give us the words for the days when we felt overcome with the hardship of our uncertain futures.
Today join me in praying a prayer this heart weary with the complexities and uncertainties of our world truly needs right now.
There are some days in life that simply amaze you. Yesterday was one of them for me. I found myself on the floor of the Senate praying the opening prayer of the day as the guest chaplain via invitation from Chaplain Black after a nomination from Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.
It was a humbling honor, especially as I learned that this is only the second time in Senator Webb's six-year tenure that a pastor he has nominated has been selected. But, why me? I am by no means a pastor of "large" church in Virginia. We are small but mighty at best. I am still young in my vocational career and by no means a seasoned pastor with 20 or more years of experience. I could have thought of dozens and dozens of other clergy leaders more qualified for such an opportunity. However, it seemed to me to be a case of being in the right place at the right time and God doing what God does best: surprising us all.
Almost a year ago now, I filled in as pastor of a wedding. It wasn't just any wedding, but for my husband, Kevin's former roommate, Trevor. Trevor was marrying Traci and we were scheduled to attend as guests at this out-of-town event. Trevor and Traci asked me to pray in the service. Senator Webb, Trevor's boss, as he now works on the hill as the Senator's Chief Counsel, was to lead the ceremony. However, due to the budget crisis of last summer and the potential government shut down, the Senator could not leave town. And so the week before, I became the minister solo. It was a fun day for all and great material for opening remarks that I did not look like the Senator (who was listed in the program). I was glad to support our friends at this important life event as weddings are just a part of what pastors do.
A couple of months ago I got an email from our friend Trevor asking if I would like to offer a prayer on the Senator floor as a guest chaplain. "Sure," I said, not knowing much about the process or even if it would come to be. There was concern from the Senator's staff that my nomination, even if it was accepted would not make it through the process before Senator Webb's term ended this year. I really didn't think much of it at all, while thankful for the Senator and my friend's kindness.
Then, a week ago, I got a call. The phone rang at the church and the caller ID on my phone said, "US SENATE." What? It was no joke, but was Chaplain Black's Chief of Staff. Saying: "We have an opening for a guest chaplain next Thursday. Can you come?" Eagerly I said "Yes" and called Kevin right away hoping that he would be in town to come with me. And, he was! This would be something we would get to do together. How cool!
Then, yesterday, as we arrived, I learned that it has only been in the last 10 years that female clergy have been invited onto the floor to pray. And I got several jokes from the staffers how they knew they were getting old when "The guest chaplains look like teenagers." But, nonetheless, I was there.
Though I am not the type that says things like, "Everything happens for a reason" (because life just isn't this simple), I was truly tempted to say this yesterday. Because our visit to visit to Capitol Hill felt like a "such a time as this" sort of moment that we couldn't have dreamed up if we tried!
As many of you know, Kevin is now working as the CEO of a large non-profit called, Feed the Children, a large international organization that feeds over 350,000 families in the US each year and 350,000 school aged children in 10 developing countries around the world. As you can imagine, there are natural connections to the great work Feed the Children does to what goes on Capitol Hill.
And so what an opportunity, Kevin had to say, "My wife is going to be the guest chaplain for the day" to enter into some get-to-know you meetings with some of the influential law makers that could potentially substantially increase the number of children and families that receive help from feeding programs around the world. We had some great conversations with senators and staff and I am thrilled about the future of Feed the Children's work and some new supporters who will help them further their mission of "no child going to bed hungry." Doors were opened yesterday for ongoing conversation and friendship which is never a bad thing.
In the end, I fully recognize yesterday was not about me. It was about being a vessel of the work that God has prepared for us to do: Kevin and I together. And, I just showed up and did my part, hoping that the outfit I picked out would have made my beloved fashionista Grandmother (God rest her soul) proud.
One of my favorite scripture verses in Ephesians 3 says, "With God's power working in us, we can do more than we could ask for or imagine." To this I say, amen, feeling as though our day of "Hagans on the Hill" was an amazing gift of scripture lived out in front of our eyes. It's a happy place to be when you say with your life, "God, surprise me." Because God will!
"Will you please make my life better NOW?"
Being a pastor, as many of us know, is a "one size fits all" kind of job filled with lots of expectations placed on our shoulders from many. People certainly want happier lives all the time. And because of this human condition, it is not unusual that we are asked to do so much more than attend to the spiritual lives of our members.
If my colleagues' weeks are anything like mine, folks regularly want to chat with me about everything from martial relationships, how much money is in their bank accounts, their health, and/ or how they feel our church is or is not meeting their social/ emotional needs. Practically, on a given week, I could be found driving someone to a doctor's appointment who could not find a ride otherwise, talking with a struggling single mom about where to get assistance to pay some of her past-due bill, or even taking calls from the social workers of some of our mentally challenged church members about her developmental progress. This is all outside that sermon that always must be prepped and ready by Sunday at 11 am (you know, what folks think is our main job). Though we know that being "all things to all people" is an impossible task and equipping the people of God for the work of ministry is our ultimate goal (i.e. pastors do not do all the work themselves or alone), this does not change the expectations others seem to pile on us week in and week out. Fair or not, it is just the way it is. Sometimes folks, I find, just need someone to blame for their unhappiness in their life and the church and its leadership is an easy scapegoat.
Sometimes we are told as pastors:
If you would just preach a clearer 3-point sermon, then I'd know God's will for my life.
If the church would just start a new ministry for people in my life situation, then I wouldn't be as lonely anymore.
If the pastor had just visited my mother-in-law at the hospital one more time, then she wouldn't have been so discouraged.
"Will you please make my life improve and improve now?" Such pastoral shoes are heavy ones to put on sometimes. Sometimes pastors and the churches they serve feel as helpless to improve the quality of life of its congregants simply because of ALL of the responsibilities before us. It certainly can be overwhelming without lots of prayer.
With all of this being true, I found myself listening to the White House staff I met with this week differently. As part of a 60+ member delegation to converse with White House staff via an invitation from Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement, Paul Monteiro, I sat before some of the most hard-working and most severely criticized public servants in the country. On topics of concern including the environment, human trafficking, housing, credit and immigration, our pastoral delegation listened and dialogue back with the staff about concerns stemming from our "front line" experiences of ministry. A civil and respect-filled encounter existed between us, I am proud to report. However on countless occasions, questions from the pastors to the staffers came in the form of "I wish that the Obama administration could do more on this . . ." This line of questioning felt like a broken record that went on for the duration of the three-hour meeting. We all wanted our government to do MORE. We hoped our government would fix more of our deepest brokeness as a nation. We wanted change soon, and as soon as possible. And as I listened, I couldn't help but whisper to my colleague, Rev. Abby Thornton sitting beside me, "I want to say to these White House staffers, I know how you feel."
Of course, my work in my congregation is on a much, much smaller scale, but the expectations and the constant "fix me" is something I do understand. And, I am sorry that my those who we elect to serve or are appointed to serve us in government have to feel this way too. I can't imagine what it is like to meet with citizens day in and day out receiving little praise for the good work you are doing instead being surrounded by voices that must sound like that of needy preschoolers who constantly ask their teachers for "Help me now! More, more!"
For, while we all have power to lead change, especially in positions of leadership, none of us are saviors, none of us are miracle workers. I know no matter who we elect to the executive office, he or she can not ever address every problem we face as a nation and as global citizens either. I also know that no matter how prepared, studied up or experienced in a multitude of situations as a pastor, I can not save my congregation from their deep woes either. Only God can.
While it is easy to want to expect the impossible from our government leaders, I hope I will think with more compassion the next time I'm in a conversation that begins with "I wish this administration would do . . ." There's more work, great work to do, of course, but we also must remember the people behind the scenes are just people after all. Like pastors, they can only do so much.
As a citizen as of this democracy, if I want to complain, I need to be willing to do something about the change.
And, I know the same is true of churches across our land. If you don't like what you see, do something about it: be a part of the solution, not just the complaint. Like Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see." And, so let's get to work, all of us.