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Baltimoreans have long had a complicated relationship with their police force, and this latest tragedy in the death of Freddie Gray highlights just how far we have to go. I have only lived in Baltimore for a couple of years now, having moved here from my childhood home in Texas (a place also greatly troubled by violence). Yet, more than I can ever recall experiencing in Texas, police sirens and presence are now a very regular part of my daily life.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” –John 16:33
Recently, a friend said to me, “I like coming to church, and being part of the community, but I can’t say I’ve ever really encountered the presence of God. And I’m not even sure what that would look like.”
Growing up in the church, my Sunday School teacher told me that, “God is love. And where there is love, there is God. So whenever you see love, you see God.” Whatever it is that binds us together, that invisible dust that draws us closer, that is the presence of God.
I’ve grown up in the Episcopal Church learning that the Bible is a collection of stories about relationships that are special, broken, reconciled, and transformed. For me, being a Christian is all about the state of my relationships, with God, with other people, with myself, and with the whole of creation.
People were drawn to Jesus because they sensed in him the undeniable presence of love, and therefore of God. Jesus embodied the unconditional love of God, and he lived that out in the ways he treated people, embracing those who had been broken and rejected. But people became jealous that Jesus was treating the lowly as if they mattered as much as the mighty, so they killed him.
The amazing thing that happened after Jesus’s death was that people said they still felt his presence. They told stories about how Jesus was alive to them–loving them more than ever before.
God’s unconditional love was incarnated in the living, breathing person of Jesus. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s loved was powerfully unleashed into the world. God’s love is in us now, working to draw us closer, and empowering us to share that love in all our relationships.
God is love. And whenever you see love, or feel it, you are encountering the presence of God.
–The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley
“The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance. He is not felt as a burden for God is light, very light. Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as the Spirit approaches. The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, and to console.”
—St. Cyril of Jerusalem
In Greek Orthodox services, priests often punctuate their actions with the (sung) declaration:
This is wisdom; let us be attentive.
And while I’ve never been Greek Orthodox myself, this phrase has always struck me as something at once tremendously useful and profound. After all, it isn’t often when Wisdom is pinpointed and called out for us in everyday life.
Last Wednesday evening (3/18), my husband, Evan, and I joined fellow Old St. Paul’s member Steve Tollefson to participate in a celebration of The Feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem at The Church of the Redemption (led by The Reverend Jim Perra, former member of Old St. Paul’s). And, reflecting back on it now, I feel as though the entire night could’ve been punctuated with a great big exclamation point: THIS IS WISDOM; LET US BE ATTENTIVE. I’m not normally one who keeps quiet in a conversation, but in this group, I found that all I wanted to do was be attentive and listen.
First, we learned some of the history of St. Cyril, born in Jerusalem around 315 and made bishop of Jerusalem in (approx.) 349. As the bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril had a particular influence on the early liturgical forms of Holy Week for Christians, as thousands of believers made their annual pilgrimage there. Because of this and how those believers then returned home to spread news and practice of these liturgical forms, many of these decisions and practices continue on as our Christian inheritance today (such as the palms of Palm Sunday, for example). Cyril also had an important hand in helping to shape and vote on our Nicene Creed.
This history led us into a terrific discussion regarding not only the Nicene Creed but the possibilities and beauties of other Christian creeds, including one I’d never heard of before: the Maasai Creed.
“The Maasai Creed is a creed [that was] composed in about 1960 by Western Christian missionaries for the Maasai, an indigenous African tribe of semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The creed attempts to express the essentials of the Christian faith within the Maasai culture.”
–On Being, “The Maasai Creed,” Jaroslav Pelikan
And there’s a lot to appreciate about the Maasai Creed. For example, consider the phrase: “We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love.”
One of my personal favorite elements, however, is the line: “live the rules of love,” as in, “All who have faith in him [Christ] must…live the rules of love….”
This is wisdom. Let us be attentive.
It makes me wonder, if we were to create a creed that “attempted to express the essentials of the Christian faith within the [Baltimore] culture,” what would it look like?
**A great big Thank You to The Church of the Redemption, Steve Tollefson, and to The Reverend Jim Perra. And a special thanks to 4th Century Spanish nun, Egeria, without whose journal we would not know near as much regarding the practices of those original liturgical Holy Week practices as we do today.
My grandparents were true Depression Era citizens, and both Mom-mom and Pop-pop told me many stories about how hard it was to find what you needed during that time. Pop-pop was out of work, and Mom-mom worked as a bobbin winder at The Linen Thread; she stood for ten to twelve hours a day in front of a machine and she was glad to have the work. My mother was only eight years old when she and her brother started walking the railroad tracks for coal dropped from the open-topped cars to supplement the wood Pop-pop chopped from his own five acre farm.
My mother is now eighty-three years old, and she still talks about how she and her brother and her parents worked the five acres with the help of their neighbors, and how Mom-mom and Pop-pop were famous for their canned fruits and vegetables, and how, at the end of the Harvest, there was always a huge outdoor celebration that featured a sit-down barbeque for over a hundred people.
Pop-pop stood at the front of the line of homemade picnic tables and always made the same speech, year after year. He thanked God for the beauty and bounty of the land, he thanked Herbert Hoover (and then Roosevelt) for the freedom of the USA, he thanked his neighbors for their help on his farm, and he thanked his family for putting up with him. At which point Mom-mom would chime in, “Amen!” and the food would be passed.
Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s generosity to all was well-established by the time my sister, brother, and I arrived. Every Sunday she would stop on the way out of church to ask the pastor about the local families:
“How is Miss Ann doing?”
“Did Mrs. McGraul have her baby?”
“Did Big Jim find work yet?”
As her workweek progressed, she remembered those talks with the pastor on the marble steps of the church and, after dinner each night, she would gather canned foods from her pantry, add a loaf of her homemade bread, a fresh-baked chicken, and a bag of her (justifiably) famous sugar cookies, and then we would take a walk. My sister, brother, and I would sit on Miss Ann’s porch and talk with her about our little adventures while Mom-mom went into the kitchen to put away the food she had brought.
Miss Ann, Mrs. McGraul, Big Jim, and all of Mom-mom’s other neighbors were always so grateful for her kindness, and would thank her over and over. She always responded, “God gave me a great gift with this life, and I want to return the favor.”
Mom-mom and Pop-pop are long gone now, but their hospitality and generosity live in my memory every time I set a tray of doughnuts out for the congregation on Sunday.For me, the talking and the laughing and the hugs that circulate around the hospitality tables at the back of Old St. Paul’s after the service (punctuated by a lot of Thank you so much, Lynn!) is a secular echo of the Eucharist that we all share.
The Holy Hospitality of the Eucharist is accepted quietly and spiritually – the doughnuts, coffee, fruit, and homemade treats are shared as a banquet of friendship and community among the congregation, and now is the time for talk!
Conversation flourishes among the congregation as the children play in the aisles: future plans to get together are made, confidences are shared, and current issues are discussed. Old St. Paul’s is God’s House and this is a happy time.
As I always say, “Things go better with food!” I know Mom-mom and Pop-pop would agree.
Several years ago we started having a baby boom in our church, so we decided we wanted to create a “Soft Space” for families where they would feel comfortable and safe worshiping in our sanctuary. We saw the need to provide childproofed space for babies to roll around and play on the floor while their parents were in worship. We proposed to remove just one pew so that an enlarged space could be equipped with a super soft carpet, stuffed animals, and a pew door.
The initial proposal was well received in general, but a member of our vestry became upset at the thought of us doing anything to change our historic building. To address this person’s concerns, an architect was consulted, and a variety of locations were considered for the new Soft Space so that it might be low profile while offering easy access to exits and bathrooms. After a great deal of discussion, vestry members were polled. In the end, there was overwhelming support to move forward with the creation of a Soft Space that would provide for the practical needs of families, and also serve as a symbol of our church’s welcome of young children. Soon after it was completed, a parishioner gifted the Church with an enormous teddy bear to welcome families into the new Soft Space.
Fast forward five years, and we now have added a second Soft Space and dozens more children to our membership. In fact, we are already thinking of adding one or two more Soft Spaces to accommodate the many new families who have joined our Church. At a recent newcomer event, we asked people to share their first impressions of our Church. One young woman said, “At my wedding a few months ago, my guests were delighted to see the space for children with the huge teddy bear. My first impression was that this Church was trying to be an inclusive community.”
It’s true that, for the past decade, we have been working to build the kind of Christian community where people can come and feel accepted for who they are, nurtured through friendship, and loved unconditionally by God. We set out to create a Soft Space for families, and, in the process, we have created a whole Christian community that is one big soft space for everyone who enters our doors. Through Forums and workshops, we have worked on ourselves, asking, “How can we relate to people in ways that are open, civil, kind, and compassionate?” I could not be more proud of the members of our Christian community for their efforts at following in the footsteps of Jesus.
I wonder what more we could do to have our Church serve as a soft space for the people of downtown Baltimore, where we are surrounded by hardscape. How could we provide a soft space during the week for those who are bustling to and from their jobs downtown? What ministries might we develop to provide more of a soft space for the homeless people who sleep on our front portico most nights? Our Church community seeks to offer holy hospitality, and we do a great job of that on Sundays, but still, I wonder what more we could do for folks on weekdays.
—The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley
(Photo credit: Laurie DeWitt)
Looking back at the past 18 months since I started attending Old St. Paul’s, I feel blessed to count myself among those fortunate seeds. In fact, I’m so certain that I’ve found good spiritual soil that I have decided to announce it publicly. On March 22, I will be confirmed into the Episcopal Church.
Although I was baptized as a baby in the Methodist Church, I’ve never officially chosen a denomination or even become a formal member of a church community. Up until a few months ago, I never even had a strong interest. Religion is a personal matter, why the need for a public display? Why don the label of any one denomination? Some of those thoughts come through for me in my father’s voice. He’s been a staunch atheist for as long as I’ve known him. Although he loves me and my mother (who’s every inch his intellectual equal), he can’t help but see our desire for faith as some misguided attempt to surrender our reason. That’s not the best soil for a seed to take root in, so I kept churches at arms-length for most of my life. In many ways, staying “nondenominational” is a great way to protect yourself from some of the less comfortable aspects of being a Christian in America. When a church takes a stand you disagree with or a scandal hits the news, it’s easier to protest: “I’m not one of those people.”
But I’m choosing to make Episcopalians, and Old St. Paul’s in particular, my people.
My priests, The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley and The Rev. Mark Stanley, are helping me learn more about who these people are exactly. Through our weekly Forum series, we’re learning about the Episcopalian Church as an organization and as a faith community. In the next few weeks leading up to the Bishop’s visit in March, we will discuss topics ranging from Church hierarchy to the history behind the Book of Common Prayer to where the Church stands on social issues today. I feel tremendously blessed to have this information provided to me so openly, information that often feels buried either in the mystery of Tradition or the challenging language of the doctrine.
However, I believe I already know the most important facts about my new community. To paraphrase Mary, what binds Episcopalians together is our approach to learning about and practicing our faith rather than a strict set of beliefs. Back when I was church-shopping over a year ago, The Forum series had the greatest influence on my decision to start attending Old St. Paul’s regularly. In many ways, The Forum bridges the divide between my parents’ perspectives on faith by bringing intellectual rigor and curiosity together with faith. I could tell that this was a diverse community that really practiced what it preached. These were people committed to growing as Christians together.
In his Parable of the Sower, Jesus never specifies what types of seeds are being planted by the anonymous farmer. The seeds don’t have to be all alike. There’s room for the doubtful and the certain because we recognize that both have similar spiritual needs. We may not all grow into the same thing, but we do need some of the same nourishment. On March 22, I will make a public announcement, not of what I want to be when I grow up, but where I want to grow. How much luckier I am than a seed in getting to choose my soil.
The Episcopal Church seems a bit tarnished right now, and it’s embarrassing to walk around town wearing my clergy collar. I’ve got to stop reading the comments on Facebook because it’s getting me down. It feels like we are living under a shadow here in Baltimore. I worry about those who might distance themselves from the Church to avoid being associated with all this suffering.
Many are upset in the wake of the terrible tragedy that happened in Baltimore when a cyclist, Tom Palermo, was killed when Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook ran into him with her car. People in our community are expressing a lot of pain as they grieve along with those who are most affected by this tragedy.
Reading through the kind messages left on the donation page for the Palermo children’s education, you see the ways people feel connected to what has happened; school friends of Tom’s, the cycling community, work colleagues, neighborhood friends, the AA community, and Episcopalians who feel upset as well. After living in this fine city for a decade, I finally understand why they call this place “Small-timore.”
At Church, every week we gather in a circle with our Sunday School families to sing the “Community Song.” We point to each other as we sing, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s you who builds community.” We teach this simple song to our children so they will learn that each person has a part building community in our Church, in our neighborhoods and schools, and in our world. We want our kids to know the joy of feeling connected and cherished, especially by God.
But I wonder when we are going to break the news to the kids that there is a cost to being part of a community. Sure, when times are good and there are reasons to celebrate, it feels great being connected. But, when times are tough, and someone is suffering, it can feel pretty awful as we suffer along with that person.
A friend of mine is fond of saying, “If there are human beings involved, there is going to be a mess, because people are messy, no doubt about it.” In healthy communities, people speak the truth in love, offering feedback and support when they see other members in trouble. There’s a another type of suffering that comes with the growing pains people experience when whole communities wrestle with tough issues and make plans to reform themselves and do things differently in the future.
I suppose we could avoid paying the cost of community by keeping ourselves apart from others, and by building up walls to ensure that other people’s pain and messiness does not affect us. But that would lead to a life of loneliness, and we would miss out on all the joy and personal growth that comes with friendship.
The organic rules of community dictate that there are puts and takes, and we all pay in, hoping that the community will be there to support us if we ever need it. But whenever we actively choose to suffer along with another person, we often discover a deep sense of solidarity and satisfaction, knowing that we have helped to ease another person’s burden through our compassion.
There is great joy to be found in the ups and downs of living in community. When times are good, we come together to rejoice in God’s blessings. When times are bad, God calls us to stick with those who are hurting, staying by their side, even though this might be costly. God ministers to each of us in our times of need through the willingness of other people to be with us, even when it’s messy. There is always more work we can do to grow in faith and understanding. God is with us now, working in us, and through others to bring about new life.
I can’t get that song out of my mind, “It’s you, it’s me, it’s us who builds community!”
— The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley