Friday, October 28, 2011

Praying the Liturgy - A Literal Interpretation

Students who worship at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center are not necessarily Episcopalian. In fact, many of them get their first introductions to a liturgical tradition via the Center. Because of their unfamiliarity with the tradition, some rather odd things can happen during the liturgy. Most of the oddities are non-consequential, but one student's interpretation of the Compline confession has made a lasting impression:

At the last Compline of the fall semester, I invite a student to lead the liturgy. Although he regularly attends this service, this is only his second time leading. So, rather timidly, Peter begins the service. With the first few lines handled well, Peter confidently reads, "Let us confess our sins to God." I make eye contact with him hoping to remind him to provide time for silent confessions before continuing with the corporate confession. Peter pauses for a beat, and then he proceeds by stating his confession aloud.

Softly and humbly, the young man says, "I pray for forgiveness because I have harbored jealousy in my heart." Some of my students begin to giggle nervously, others stare at him in shock, and internally I'm saying some bad words out of fear that he's going to "over-share." He continues, "I really like this girl, and every time I see her boyfriend, I just can't help it. I'm so jealous..." He finishes his confession with a sigh, and then an awkward silence ensues. Facial expressions from other students convey their bewilderment and questions. Their eyes ask me where do we go from here?

Responding to their need for direction, I simply thank the young man for trusting us enough to articulate aloud his confession. Internally, I'm completely thrown off and don't really know what to do. But I continue speaking, "I now invite you all to make your own confessions. You may do this out loud, as so beautifully illustrated by Peter, or you may confess silently. After some time for reflection, we will all together make the corporate confession to God as printed in your leaflets."

The silence blares. I fearfully wait for someone else to speak. I wait fearing that I myself might speak. Should I, the priest, the chaplain of these young souls confess aloud of my sinfulness? Could I, the one who pronounces absolution to them, admit aloud my own personal need of absolution? Would I allow my students a glimpse of my own vulnerabilities and provide a witness to the sacredness of this moment?

Before I can answer those questions, Peter begins, "Almighty God, our heavenly Father: we have sinned..." A chorus of relieved voices joins in the remainder of the confession.

Mother Kim+

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dear Freshman

Dear Freshman,

Welcome to college!

You showed up on campus on a hot summer day with your parents and a minivan full of your effects. Packed neatly was your favorite blanket, pillow, clothes, the collage of pictures from your senior year, and poster of Justin Beiber (JK) rolled tightly into a handy cylinder just waiting to be unrolled and put on your wall. You’re full of energy. You’re mostly nervous, a little excited, and you couldn’t wait to get this thing going! After all, you busted your ass to get here!

If you didn’t notice, your parents were jacked up too. When I met your parents, your mom was super anxious and your dad was the proudest papa ever. I totally get where they are coming from…as a parent I can’t wait to drop my kids off at college and my wife is already anxious about it. My kids are 2 and 4 years old.

What happened when your parents pulled away and you were left to your own devices is what has changed the most since I was a freshman (only 14 years ago). Instead of a weekend to unpack and a few days to get to know your new friends before class begins, you discover that the school has your free-time already booked. You’re important now! There is no time to think. No time to waste. Orientation has begun. Welcome to college!

And if you thought you would have to come up with your own schedule after orientation. Fear not! You’re booked until graduation! The system is in place for you to be busier than a bee until you leave. You have a million clubs to join, sports to play, sports to watch, Greek life, field trips, special speaker series, study abroad, comedians, concerts, campus ministry(let’s make that priority #1, okay?), and of course the very reason you are at college in the first place: school. And just so you know, your professors are famous, your classmates are brilliant, and all of them will be famous one day too…so you better study if you want to keep up. But no pressure, though. College is awesome!!!

This. This is college today. And it’s all a perfected production brought to you by the lovely institution that bares its name on your new sweatshirt. And it’s for you, so that college will be the best part of your life. Ever.

But let me offer you one piece of advice that saved me 14 years ago: Find quiet.

In the midst of the great chaos and pressure, find a place where you can just sit and be. For me, that place was the southwest corner on the 4th floor of the library, where I would sit and deeply gaze out of the huge windows that overlooked campus. It’s where my busy world was hushed. And in that quiet space, my spirit, body and mind got to know each other.

I hope you find quiet.

Welcome to college!


Episcopal Chaplain

Washington University in St. Louis

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Campus Ministry?

                “Why do you want to do campus ministry?”  I got asked this question a lot as I navigated my way through the complicated discernment process I had to go through for ordination.  Truthfully, it was simply where I felt (and still feel) called to serve God and the Church.  College students are incredible.  They are learning about independence and adulthood, and their minds are being opened and stretched daily by new and interesting ideas.  Their worlds are also being expanded by new experiences and opportunities – like studying abroad, drinking too much, not being under the watchful eye of a parent, choosing which activities they want to be a part of (like whether or not to go to church).  In short, college is just a really interesting life phase, and it’s a place I feel the church presence is desperately needed.
                But do college students need the church?  There have been a proliferation of articles trying to explain why this generation of ‘millennials’ has fled organized religion.  I have my own theories.  But what I have witnessed in my three plus years of ministry on campus is that even some of the professed atheists sense something drawing them to seek God, or at least to ask questions about it.  And when we look at who is on college campuses (and who is well funded there) by and large it’s not the mainline Christians.  So those who are not persuaded by simplistic theology or culturally conservative viewpoints end up being turned off to religion altogether.  You would probably not believe the number of students who have said to me, “I didn’t know you can be Christian and support LGBT people!” 
                And, it’s also surprising to me how much of the Christian story is really unknown to this generation.  Thus, there’s much of the Gospel that young adults simply do not know.  Whereas in previous generations I think even those who were not Christians knew at least something about the Christian story.  That cultural knowledge is fading fast.
                So the good news is this is a group of people who truly haven’t heard the Gospel.  And some of them desperately want to hear it – not the sound bites that certain fundamentalists spew, but the real what-Jesus-said-and-did version.  And if we are not there on campus to share it with them, then we really do risk losing our chance to reach this generation entirely.  While part of our mission as campus ministers is to serve those who were raised in the church and are now in college, the reality is that a large amount of our time and resources goes to evangelism.  That is, sharing the Gospel with those who haven’t heard it and shepherding them into the beginning of their faith journey.  And having had the opportunity to do this with students has taught me that the notion that this generation is not interested in organized religion is false.  Or at least, not true for all.  And so here on campus the church has a perfect opportunity to connect with them during this intrinsically formative time in their lives.  This is why campus ministry is so crucial and why I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to do it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"You're lookin' like GOD today!"

It’s sometimes frustrating to see and feel the disconnect between Sunday worship and the rest of our lives.  So a couple weeks ago I decided to give our college ministry one simple and specific practice to take home every Sunday with the goal of fostering community and discipleship throughout the week.  Nothing revolutionary.  Just simple practices. But practices that when taken seriously might just transform the way we think about our lives and the way we live them.  The first challenge was to observe a sabbath rest (a difficult undertaking during midterms!)
Last Sunday I told a story about when I was living in the Episcopal-Lutheran ministry house at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. (Go Vols!)  One morning I woke up to discover the phrase “You’re lookin’ like GOD today!” written on my bathroom mirror. Hah! I sure wasn’t feeling like God that day—what a joke!  But when I found the culprit she told me that she just wanted everyone in the house to remember that they were created in the image of God every day of their lives!  What a great reminder! 
I asked the students in our ministry to do the same—to write “You’re lookin’ like God today” on their mirrors.  I challenged the brave ones to even write it on their roommates’ mirrors to see what kind of conversation might emerge! 
Amazingly, the imago dei spread like wildfire this week, in our ministry and beyond!  I heard accounts of students receiving text messages and facebook posts, finding the phrase on their dorm room doors, and inspiring RA’s to post it on their bulletin boards all week long.  One dance instructor who teaches teenage girls with low self-esteem received the note from one of our peer ministers and wrote it on her ballet class mirror!  All of a sudden, students had an excuse to contact other students in the ministry with whom they had little in common, and random roommates were talking about God. 
And it was so simple.  It is so simple.  Even in the intellectually rigorous and theologically rich vineyard that is campus ministry, we mustn’t take for granted the profoundly simple and simply beautiful fundamentals of our faith—like the notion that we really are made in God’s image and empowered to be God’s presence in the world.
The takeaway here?  In a world where we’re constantly reminded of sin, brokenness, and inadequacy, people are eager to hear God say “you are good!” 
What practices does your campus ministry or congregation use to help students build community and “be the church” Monday-Saturday?  Leave a comment and join the conversation!

Zack Nyein

Zack Nyein is the lay chaplain for Project Canterburyan emerging congregation of college students and young adults in Chattanooga, TN.