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—Tara Kirk Sell
Since Greg and I had Sennet, we’ve had our hands full with kids. One of the things I love about our Old St. Paul’s community is that when we come to church there are so many people ready to lend a helping hand or hold a baby for a few minutes. Sometimes, my arms are just tired and so it’s really nice to have people around who enthusiastically give Greg and me a moment to rest and recharge.
The other day when we stood up front to support Michael and Suzanne during Gabriel’s baptism, we were in turn supported by other members of the church when we plopped Sennet down in Kate Brantley’s arms and left Torin with Doug, Francine, and Ramy. Sennet spent the time grabbing Maggie’s hair with her toes and I could see Torin’s head poking up as Doug held him to show him what was going on. They were happy, safe, and welcome in the arms of friends.
When we came to the goodbye party for Chuck and Lynn, Sennet was passed from person to person as Greg and I chased Torin and renewed our friendship with other people. After a while, Greg and I said to each other, “We better go figure out where our baby is,” but we were entirely sure she was happy and well cared for being held by different members of our parish.
It is acceptance and compassion and welcome and love all wrapped up in one. That’s why I love it here at Old Saint Paul’s.
Tara Kirk is an American former competition swimmer and breaststroke specialist who is an Olympic silver medalist. She is a former world record holder in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Ernest Hemingway is a man best known for his minimalist writing and for his “man’s man” reputation: a tough, tight-lipped war-vet, always ready to bleed for his art, always with a drink in hand. He’s a man known for quotes like, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
My husband Evan Mead-Brewer shared this particular Hemingway quote on Twitter recently, saying, “Fighting depression myself, this thought has given me grim comfort before. But it’s just not true.” —Seeing this, I found myself at once surprised and deeply proud. Because Evan is absolutely right: The idea that depression is somehow married to or correlated with intelligence is a deeply problematic sentiment, one that’s poisoned our waters for far too long.
Not only does this idea somehow suggest that happy or joyful people are dumb/ignorant/thoughtless, but it also suggests that there’s a kind of romantic, even bohemian upside to suffering depression. After all, if depression is a trait shared by intelligent, creative people, then maybe there’s some inherent benefit to being depressed, maybe something about this state of suffering better enables creative thinking. Maybe, in other words, there’s nothing wrong with being depressed. Maybe being depressed is just a personality trait of those who are thoughtful, educated, and wise. But, as Evan said, this is simply untrue. Depression is absolutely not a personality trait, nor is it somehow part of a person’s intelligence. Depression is a disease, plain and simple.
What makes me proud here, is not only that Evan was bold enough to share this insight—given the kinds of stereotypes and assumptions that continue to plague people who experience depression—but also because of how difficult it can be to acknowledge one’s own needs and misconceptions in general.
Yet this is precisely what’s asked of us as Christians. Do we want to be healed? Forgiven? Saved? Then we must earnestly seek to be so. For example, just look at Psalm 30: 2, 8-12:
LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. … To you, LORD, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy: “What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.” You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. LORD my God, I will praise you forever.
Not only is it vital that we seek help and healing for ourselves, no matter what we suffer from, but it’s also vital that we be able to actually say those painful words: I am unwell. I need help. Please, God, someone, be my help.
Unfortunately, these are words we often make people feel embarrassed or ashamed of. Why else would these excuses (I’m not depressed; I’m just smart/creative/romantic) and negative stereotypes (She’s not depressed; she’s just lazy/selfish/attention-grubbing) continue to haunt people who suffer depression? But it’s precisely because of these kinds of excuses, prejudices, and misconceptions that many people continue to suffer needlessly—that they continue going on and on without ever seeking or asking for the help they need.
There is no inherent honor or benefit to suffering. As followers of Christ—a man perhaps best known for his suffering—we can sometimes forget this. We can sometimes convince ourselves that because Christ is revered for the suffering he underwent, suffering must be a trait of those who are good and wise and ahead of their time. But this is simply not the case.
Christ suffered, but not because he was wise or good or ahead of his time. Christ suffered because he was made to suffer by other people who were close-minded, fearful, exclusivist, and filled with hate. Suffering is not the work of any God of Love such as ours. God would never impose suffering upon us in hopes of teaching us some mysterious lesson or to make us more creative/intelligent/interesting; our God is Love, and therefore filled with joy, hope, compassion, and healing. In fact, as the Psalm says, You turned my wailing into Dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with Joy, that my heart may Sing your praises and Not Be Silent.
Dancing, joy, singing, sharing, openness—these are not the markers of people who simply aren’t intelligent enough to see all that there is to mourn, worry about, and fight for. These are simply the markers of God. The things our Creator wants for us, if only we can be bold enough to seek them for ourselves and neighbors.
Fortunately today, once we make that first hard leap into actively seeking help, there are many resources at hand for getting said help and treating depression, everything from counseling to medication to group therapy. The tools for seizing wellness are here; all we need do is ask.
I just completed Education for Ministry or EfM, which is four year program of Bible study for Episcopalians. It has been a worthwhile opportunity for me to explore and better understand my faith in God with a group of inquisitive and supportive Christians on the same journey.
EfM covers a different topic in each of its four years. Year one is the Old Testament, year two is the New Testament, year three is church history, and year four is theology. Typically, the class includes six to ten students and two mentors who facilitate the discussions. The classes have a mix of students who are in the various years—it may sound a little chaotic, but it works well to have the mix.
We quickly learned to trust one another and were very open about our faiths, beliefs, questions, and opinions. We often disagreed, but I never saw anyone criticized for anything they said. Everyone is free to ask questions or provide their personal perspective on any religious topic. This led to valuable discussions, although no one had definitive answers.
There were one to three hours of reading in preparation for each class. During the four years, we read the Bible, related commentaries, and numerous smaller books. The classes are once a week, last almost three hours and a term runs from September to June. It is okay to miss classes for vacations, work, etc. And there are no tests. So, a significant commitment, but not an overwhelming one.
We took turns leading the discussion of that week’s reading. When it was my turn, I would do a short summary of the readings and then pick three topics to discuss. And did I mention?—no tests.
Besides the discussions in class, I would also talk to my wife Suzanne, my church friends, and my priests The Reverend Mark Stanley, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley, and The Reverend Dr. Chris Dreisbach about the topics to gain their perspectives and insights. That added significantly to my understanding of the materials.
The classes also include theological reflections, a process for relating our experiences with the Christian tradition and our culture. The reflections help you see how God’s presence is felt in our daily lives.
EfM is not about getting everyone to a common understanding of the Bible or of God or of how to relate to God. But our readings and our discussions provided a foundation for how to explore these topics. We learned how to learn about God.
I have no more answers than when I started, but I am more comfortable with not having answers and I feel I better understand my own faith.
This past Sunday, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley gave a sermon on John 5:5-9:
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
Mary made an excellent observation in her sermon, highlighting the fact that a major turning point in this passage is the moment when the ill man finally makes and gives voice to the decision to be made well. By asking the man if he wanted to be made well, Jesus showed him respect and care, giving him hope, while also still leaving the power of choice entirely within the man’s hands. Instead of telling the man what he needed, Jesus asked what he needed–what he wanted.
Do you want to be made well?
The poignancy and painfulness of this struck me hard and has lingered with me ever since. The tragedy of many diseases is that they can suck away much more than simply our physical health. Like a parasite’s self-defense mechanism, the disease strikes out not only against our physical selves, but against our emotional and psychological selves as well, often keeping people from wanting anything at all, let alone wanting to be made well.
What many people don’t realize until they themselves are sick is that it takes energy to want things. It takes energy to decide to eat, to decide to go out with your friends or spouse or children. It takes energy to call your mother for help. It takes energy to schedule a doctor’s appointment. It takes energy to want to take care of ourselves. And more than these, it takes a true and sincere understanding that we are worthy of these desires. We are worthy of other people’s help, attention, and time. We are worthy of being made well.
When I suffered from depression as a young woman in college, I was stunned to discover that I no longer recognized myself. Who was I? Where had I gone? Surely this person who couldn’t eat, couldn’t leave the apartment, couldn’t hardly work up the energy to get dressed in the morning—surely this person wasn’t me. And this denial only made things worse. It only further fed the disease that daily convinced me everything was worthless and that I, the person who was no longer even Katie, was at the very bottom of the worthless pile.
It wasn’t until my father came and visited me in person, physically reaching out to pull me up and remind me what I was capable of, that I felt strong enough to want things again. To want to be made well.
I imagine my father’s face when I think of Christ reaching out to this man at the pool of Beth-zatha, reaching out to this man and reminding him that he can stand and walk and be made well. All he has to do is the hardest thing in the world: He must want to be made well.
Through his words and actions, Christ tells this man here at Beth-zatha, Don’t worry. You aren’t alone. I, too, want you to be made well. You are worthy of me and my help. You are worthy of being made well.
As we continue the healing ministry passed on to us from Jesus, we too can use our words and actions to show others that they are worthy of being noticed, reached out to, and cared for. They are worthy of being made well.
–The Rev. Mark Stanley
“So many things in life are urgently tugging at us,” my conference leader said, “that we have to make sure we also focus on things that are not urgent but are very important.”
These wise words came at the beginning of a weeklong Clergy Conference I attended in Arizona. The event is called CREDO and it is paid for by the Episcopal Church’s Pension Plan. I feel so grateful for the time to hear presentations on personal health, vocational discernment, spiritual practices, and long-term financial planning.
In all these topics we were invited to begin by ruminating on big questions like, “What are my deepest core values?” and “Where do I sense God calling me?” The answers to these sort of questions don’t come fast (at least not to me) but need time set aside for reflection, prayer, and focused conversation. Part of the gift of this week was being with Episcopal priests from across the country, laughing and worshiping and supporting each other in our interior explorations.
It is a rare experience to have a whole week of structured time and expert support to work on long-term life and work goals. But now that I am back to “real life,” I don’t want to forget that reflection and discernment on life’s big questions is an ongoing process.
May we all try to find time in our busy lives to think about the big questions in life and to focus on things that are not urgent but still vitally important.
Lent can be a difficult time for some because it can seem like a second round of New Year’s resolutions, only with less fun and greater opportunity to feel like a failure. But this isn’t what Lent is meant to be about. In the forty days of Lent we are invited to remove any barriers in our lives that may separate us from the love of God. Lent is meant to be a time of focus and prayer, of acknowledging and meditating on Christ’s sacrifice as a preparation for the glorious celebration of his resurrection. To help keep spirits up during this Lenten season, consider trying out the following exercises:
- Remind yourself each day of why you are participating in the act of Lenten sacrifice. Why is Lent meaningful to you? By giving yourself these little reminders, it will help keep your motivation fresh, rather than leave you feeling like Lent’s just another diet or arbitrary restriction.
- Don’t forget to celebrate feast days on Sundays. Giving yourself Sunday as a mini-Easter and a day of rest not only gives each week a little built-in treat, but it can remind you that time spent worshiping and meditating on the Creator isn’t meant to be a time of punishment or hunger or dreariness—it’s meant to be a time of gratitude, fulfillment, and intention.
- If you’re sacrificing something as part of your Lenten observance, then consider also taking something up as well. Whether it be a designated time to pray or meditate each day, a new sport or outdoor activity, a new hobby such as gardening or writing, the taking up of something new and positive as a part of Lent can be a terrific, daily reminder that Lent is more than simply a time of sacrifice. It is also a time of anticipation and giving back.
- Make extra time for friends and family. Lent can sometimes feel like a time of loneliness or self-denial: the denial of fun, alcohol, desserts, movies, etc. But just because a lot of classic Lenten sacrifices impact our recreational activities, it doesn’t mean that Lent should also equal a sacrifice of our social lives. Don’t let Lent become a reason to stay indoors and away from others. Instead, use it as a time to show others how grateful you are to have them in your life.
- Rather than focus on feelings of guilt during the days of Lent, try focusing simply on self-reflection in general. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself about both the bad and the good. For many people it’s all too easy to focus on the “bad,” on what they aren’t good at, at the things they’ve done wrong, the mistakes they’ve made. But Lent isn’t about feeling terrible and running yourself into the ground. It’s about coming to terms with oneself and with God, honestly and sincerely, so that you might also be transformed, receiving the grace of new life at Eastertime. So make time for prayer, meditation, and self-reflection, and let truth rather than guilt or self-pity be your guide. As Anne Lamott has so wisely said,
“God loves you just the way you are. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
Many people think of chocolates, roses, and poetry-packed cards when they think of Valentine’s Day. But Valentine’s Day can also be a time when we meditate on our loved ones and on the fact that we ourselves are loved. For those with faith—whether it be in the Christian, Jewish, or any other religious tradition—Valentine’s Day can also be a time to meditate on how this faith can be used to enhance our relationships. Here are a few ways that a healthy spiritual life can help us do just that:
- By entering into regular reflective practices such as prayer, yoga, journal writing, or meditation, you’ll not only help keep yourself healthier, but you’ll find yourself better equipped to help and empathize with the needs of those closest to you.
- A healthy spiritual life often means keeping an open mind to things miraculous, supernatural, or beyond ourselves. This exercise in open mindedness can help prepare us with the generosity, respect, and curiosity necessary to learn about the perspectives and beliefs of others. In this way, we deepen our relationship with God as well as with our friends and neighbors.
- Having faith typically also means that you are an active seeker of wisdom and understanding, leading many people into intimate conversations, intense study groups, prayer vigils, and other such settings. Engaging in these kinds of intimate activities with loved ones can be a terrific way of strengthening bonds of trust and understanding.
- Reading and learning about religious texts and histories is often an exercise in learning about the history of love. For Christians this is absolutely the case, as the Bible is packed full of scripture dedicated to the nature and power of love. Meditating on and sharing these passages with friends and loved ones can be a great way of sharing profound feelings when our own words would fall short. This can also be a good way to enhance our relationships with our children, discussing with them the power of love and all its various forms.
- Having faith is a lifelong process of growth and learning. By continuing to grow and seek God throughout our lives, we can sometimes stumble and find ourselves vulnerable or even embarrassed by or anxious about our own changing beliefs and feelings. But if we are brave enough to share these struggles with loved ones, then not only will we find ourselves drawn closer to God, but we may also find ourselves drawn closer to each other as well.
- For many, having faith also means being part of a faith community. Engaging with a faith community, whether through weekly services, gatherings, or other events, opens us up to make new friends while also giving us a safe, reflective space to share with current friends and family.
- A healthy spiritual life usually also goes hand-in-hand with having access to strong mentors in the form of priests, rabbis, and other leaders. By seeking out guidance from available mentors, we open ourselves up to the fact that there is much we can learn from others while also discovering how to become effective mentors and guides ourselves.
We love because God first loved us.
—1 John 4:19
“I need to look good without my shirt,” said Brandon, my dear friend.
This is the statement that got me into a yoga studio, or frankly a gym of any sort, after a nearly two decade hiatus from indoor fitness. My friend Brandon is a professional dancer, and he had just landed a part in the ensemble of The Producers. Our practice began five months prior to opening curtain and opening his shirt.
I had been active for the two decades riding bikes through the woods and on roads as a weekend cycling warrior. I was not unhealthy in the minds of many, but I was not a specimen of fitness either. Knowing that rigor is always easier with a partner, I took Brandon up on the offer and bought a Groupon for my first visit to a yoga facility. I had no idea how my body and mind would change with this friendly gesture.
The first thing I noticed was the space. Why am I going to a studio and not a gym? Why does the space smell like a walk through a State Park? Why is the music so serene and mind stretching? Why is it so hot?
Next I noticed the format of the class. Why is the instructor overly friendly with her voice? Why does my session start with “setting an intention”? Why does the experience begin with my eyes closed and finding my breath?
Then I noticed the power of being stationary. Why is mimicking a raven so hard? Why am I floating on one foot, bent over, arms at my side trying to look like a jet in flight? Is anyone else having a hard time standing still?
And why does my teacher thank me for sharing my practice?
After confronting this experience several times it dawned on me that that the answer to all of these questions is rooted in one simple fact: Yoga is all about practice.
The space: Yoga takes place in a studio because you go there to refine a craft. It’s not about mindless running in place or curling a weight seventy-three times. In yoga you work on form, an act of the mind and the body. It smells so good—yes, probably in part to hide our human aroma,—but more importantly, to refresh our minds. The sounds of the room impart a sense of exploration and encourage an inner and outer reaching. And it’s hot because your muscles are more elastic in a warm environment. The entire environment beckons us to explore.
The class: Your teacher is so kind because we need encouragement in our moments of struggle to execute. The tenor of his or her voice lets you know that it is not only okay but it is right to try. There will be no judgement here by you, by your peers, nor by your instructor. You start your session by setting an intention because practice is most effective with a purpose. Our breath is a reminder of our humanity, our starting point. You find your breath to find yourself. Your breath melts mental dams. The class empowers us to try.
Being stationary: It can be difficult to see the value of being at rest. How often do we take the moments we need to understand our present condition? Our minds, our mouths and our bodies are constantly in motion. This is why it is so hard to pose like a raven or fly like a plane. Our brain and our muscles need to train to be quiet, to be at rest, and to hold ourselves up in new positions. When we are at rest in mind, body, and spirit we have no idea if the other is better or worse than we. We only know of our own condition and our own place in the universe. We are free from judgement of ourselves and others. Being stationary gives us freedom to be ourselves.
My practice of yoga has been incredible for my whole being. I am more flexible. I am stronger. I am more open. The spirit of the experience has allowed me to reach more. With the start of a new year, I have set my intentions. They are more ambitious goals than I would have set even a year ago. And more importantly, I have given myself the freedom to practice so that I will be ready to perform and achieve them!
What will you reach for in 2016? Are you ready to give yourself the opportunity to practice to get there?
And yes, Brandon found his form for opening night!
Discovering one’s spiritual gifts, those things planted within us that marry innate talent with the common good, can be a long and difficult journey. But once these gifts are realized for what they are, there can be no denying them or the responsibilities they bring. Because while our spiritual gifts can bring us joy—After all, who doesn’t enjoy doing those things they’re talented at?—they do bear the weight of the common good’s need. We’ve all heard the old adages about the gift that keeps on giving and how it’s better to give than to receive. But the simple truth about spiritual gifts is this: these are gifts given solely to be shared. These are gifts that demand in their very nature to be re-gifted again and again.
This past Saturday, only hours before The Reverend Mark Stanley would sermonize over the value of spiritual gifts, I watched my dear friend Jessica Sexton walk down a long church aisle to publicly share and dedicate her gifts to the common good. To be ordained as a transitional deacon on her way to becoming a priest.
“Since ancient times the liturgical functions of deacons have suggested the activity of angels. As they proclaim the gospel, lead intercessions, wait at the Eucharistic table, and direct the order of the assembly, deacons act as sacred messengers, agents, and attendants…. [as well as act to] promote care of the needy outside the church.” (TheEpiscopalChurch.org)
The Holy Spirit has activated within Deacon Jessica Sexton many gifts, which she has dedicated to such activity of angels: wisdom, kindness, confidence, intelligence, gentleness, teaching, public speaking, sermonizing, writing, empathy, just to name a few, and I could not be more proud of her or more excited to see how she’ll exercise these gifts in her new position for the betterment of all.
But we are not all called to be members of clergy. So how can we know what we’re suited for? Meant for? And, once we find these gifts and talents, how can we learn to use them for the common good?
Finding the answers to these questions can happen early for some and be lifelong searches for others, but fortunately we’re provided with many compasses along the way if only we’re willing to pause and consider them. Compasses can come in all manner of forms, from meditation to friends to family, or from our philosophers, poets, and religious leaders like Frederick Buechner who so wisely explained that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The key is to not let ourselves become afraid or discouraged by the process of following these compasses. As the poet Wendell Berry (one of my favorite personal compasses) has said, “It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” In other words, sometimes a struggle is a good thing. Sometimes frustrating uncertainty is a vital part of the journey itself, of allowing our gifts to be activated within us.
As the lesson from 1 Corinthians 12 says, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” So whether or not we’ve discovered our spiritual gifts within ourselves yet, whether or not we’re yet aware of how we individually may contribute to the common good, we can at least rest assured that no matter what or when these gifts become clear in us, they were meant for us, activated within us, and it’s through us that they’ll find their bloom.