U-C: What I See

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On Prayer Shawls in the wake of Katrina


A friend recently wrote to point out that more than forty days have passed since I last posted to my blog. A combination of an extremely busy travel schedule, a commitment to protect what little family time I have, and my laptop being out of commission for more than four weeks, have all led to this long, quiet, interlude. There is much to catch up on, and I want to begin with several posts to offer impressions of three days that I’ve just spent in South Louisiana and Mississippi Presbyteries. (By the way, if you’ve been waiting for email from me, please hang in there. I’m trying to dig out from under a pile of several hundred emails that have built up during this crazy time.)

I was supposed to spend the last eight days traveling in the Synod of the Lakes and Prairies. However, on Labor Day, a week after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Interim General Presbyter Mike Mann from S. Louisiana Presbytery called me to ask if I could be with them on Sunday the 11th for a special meeting of the Presbytery. Folks in Lakes and Prairies were extremely gracious and encouraged me to go, and everywhere I went in their Synod the first question I was asked was how Presbyterians can respond to the victims of Katrina. So, after five and a half days of visits to Duluth, Minneapolis, northeast Nebraska, Storm Lake Iowa, and Rapids City S. Dakota, I spent my last morning at Crossroads Presbyterian Church, a growing, vibrant, exciting church just north of Milwaukee.

As I rushed toward the car after the first service in order to make my flight, one of the women in the congregation stopped me to offer me a “prayer shawl.” I didn’t know anything about prayer shawls, but there is a movement of folks who pray for whoever will eventually receive the shawl they are making, and then who pray each stitch as something of a spiritual discipline as they work. (check out their website at www.shawlministry.com.) Mine was a large, soft, bluish-green shawl, and it was given to me with prayers for my time as moderator.

As I flew to Baton Rouge, I was having a hard time organizing my thoughts. What could one say to be helpful to pastors and elders, when many of them have lost everything themselves, many of their churches will not be habitable for weeks or even months to come, and many of their parishioners have been scattered. I spent the flight thumbing through my Bible and meditating, praying that God might help me to find the right words and that my presence might be helpful to our colleagues there.

As I prayed, I held the prayer shawl on my lap, and it occurred to me that it was a wonderful sign of all of the prayer and concern I have heard from Presbyterians as I’ve traveled during the last two weeks. There was a card pinned to the shawl with a short prayer of support for those who receive it, and I read the prayer over and over as we flew. Here are the words to the prayer:

May God's grace be upon this shawl...warming, comforting, enfolding and embracing. May this mantle be a safe haven... a sacred place of security and well-being... sustaining and embracing in good times as well as difficult ones. May the one who receives this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in love. Blessed Be!

Late on the afternoon of the 11th, I was offered the chance to share a few words with more than one hundred Presbyterian pastors and elders at the meeting, and as I concluded my remarks, I offered the shawl to Hawley Wolfe - the Moderator of the Presbytery - with the request that he pray on it himself for awhile, and then pass it on to someone else in the Presbytery to help sustain them. He draped it over the pulpit where we were gathered at First Presbyterian Church, and it remained there throughout the rest of the meeting and our worship.

Two days later, I was headed for Mississippi and regretting the fact that I didn’t have another shawl to offer. One of my stops there was to help dedicate a “Tent Village for volunteers” at Gautier Presbyterian Church on the coast (more about that later). As we sat on folding chairs in the hot sun and waited for the dedication to begin, one of the women from the church said something to the other women sitting with us about their prayer shawls. I couldn’t believe it. It turns out that their small church, like the large congregation in Mequon, WI, has a ministry of making prayer shawls, and Pat, Sue, Dottie and Aubin all participated in the ministry. Aubin, who proudly announced to me that she was the oldest member of the congregation, said that she had her shawl with her in the car.

We agreed that I would use Aubin’s prayer shawl to begin a similar chain of encouragement and support in their Presbytery, and the shawl that she handed me was almost exactly like the one I had left behind in S. Louisiana, right down to the color of the yarn. As I “presented” the shawl to Pat, she agreed that she would return it to Aubin, and bring the latest one she had finished to the church to be blessed in prayer before being handed on to the next of the ten churches on the Gulf Coast whose families have had their lives turned upside down.

I love it when God works on me that way, opening my eyes, all at once in a rush, to something that I know nothing about. As I offered both of the shawls, I assured our sisters and brothers of South Louisiana that these shawls come with a commitment to prayer from the rest of us across the country. I hope that all folks, Presbyterians and others, will find a way to pause each day and hold the victims of Katrina in prayer. Further, I hope that this will be the kind of prayer that I heard Brian Blount, a professor at Princeton Seminary, talk about last summer. He said that his mother taught him not to get down on his knees in prayer to God unless he is willing to get up and go to work for what he’s just prayed for.

Theologically, I believe that in moments of tragedy we are not to ask “Why did this happen?” but instead, “What would God have us do?” This is a time for the church, in all places, to BE church.