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—Katherine Mead-Brewer, St. Paul’s Member
One of my dearest friends recently moved from D.C. to Austin, Texas. She was nervous but also enthusiastic about the change; she wanted a new city to explore, new opportunities, new weather. But when she and her husband got there, nothing was as they’d expected. There was loneliness and job uncertainty and personal insecurities and missing their church family. I couldn’t figure out why something like this, such a heavy disappointment, such a heavy sense of fear about making a wrong/expensive/isolating decision, should fall on someone who’d only ever loved the world around her, someone who’d only ever brought happiness and light to all fortunate enough to know her.
At first this seemed like just one more negative to pile onto the aggravation-heap that became 2016 for me. What recourse did my friend have? They couldn’t move back; they’d put too much money into their new (first) house. And I couldn’t even reach out to her as I normally would’ve, because now we were hundreds of miles apart. I couldn’t wrap my arms around her or bring her ice cream or invite her out for coffee.
For a fix-it personality like me, this issue has recently felt all-consuming, touching nearly every corner of my life. So many problems seem to have clear solutions to me—just as, I imagine, they likely seem clear to others in their own ways—so why can’t I manage to fix any of them? Why are so many of my friends now living in fear?—afraid that they’ve made the wrong decision regarding their job, their schooling, their home? Afraid for their own personal safety when only a few weeks ago they were optimistic about the entire country’s future? How do we begin to move forward as individuals, as families, as communities, as a country, when everything feels so wrong?
This past Sunday, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley preached on the fact that now, as we come out of the season of Christmas, we enter the Christian season of Epiphany. A time of revelation. The season that celebrates when the Magi finally found the infant Jesus, their own revelation, a symbolic epiphany for all of us.
Of course, simply reading this story from the Bible can make the entire thing sound easy and magical. They came bringing gifts! They followed a star! When really, I can’t think of an experience that sounds more fraught with discomfort, danger, and uncertainty. A hard journey through alien lands, traveling far from their friends and loved ones, enduring grueling encounters with selfish, paranoid leaders who would hurt others in order to further their own ends—leaders who would sacrifice an entire generation of sons simply to ensure their own continued reign.
In many ways, the season of Epiphany is exactly where I am right now. It’s a time of hardship and trials. A time of maddening limbo and grave uncertainty. But as Christ’s story reassures us, this is also a time of great revelation and discovery. This is a time when we stand up to those who would victimize us and our neighbors, even if victory seems impossible. Even if we feel powerless or inadequate. This is a time when we allow ourselves to recognize the discomfort and painfulness of our journey without succumbing to it. This is a time for persevering in the face of great obstacles and insecurity.
Just the other day, my now-Austinite friend sent me an email—the first hopeful one she’s sent in a long, long time—and in it she included the photograph of a young screech owl nesting in the tree in their backyard.
“There is a TINY OWL in my backyard,” she wrote to me, ecstatic.
“It’s a sign,” I told her. “It’s a sign that you’re supposed to be where you are. It’s a little blessing.” A little epiphany. A little emblem of hope, wonder, and beauty in the midst of so much strife and loneliness.
To me, a firm believer in signs and symbols, it seemed clear that this tiny owl was a piece of God reaching out to give comfort. A mysterious, winged creature–not so unlike the Holy Spirit.
And though my friend remained dubious about what exactly (if anything) the owl symbolized, she and her husband quickly named the little fellow Rosemary. Rosemary for remembrance. Because though it can be difficult to know the path forward when everything at your back is continuously shouting for your attention, continuously trying to pull you down and tie you up, always remember that life is peppered with
tiny owls epiphanies, with sparks of hope and moments of inspiration, pointing you forward. Pointing you toward something better.
My wife Jenn and I spent our initial Baltimore years developing our spiritual lives at a church in the suburbs. When we moved downtown we felt a need to find a church closer to our weekday community. We also felt a need to change how we were nourishing our understanding of God. We started attending Old St. Paul’s in the Fall of 2009.
Our first Sunday at St. Paul’s was the kickoff of The Forum, the adult education program. There was palpable excitement for the local celebrity speaker. The church had reserved the ballroom of the Tremont Grand, the hotel next door, for the special occasion. Gary Vikan, Director of The Walter’s Art Museum, was sharing a playful lecture on his recently released book, From the Holy Land to Graceland. It was immediately obvious that his deep knowledge of Byzantine art was matched by his deep wonder of rock and roll culture. The lecture was mesmerizing. It spoke to my mind, my heart, and my soul. It was what I hoped church could do. It was what I hoped I could do with my own life’s work.
When I started attending Old St. Paul’s, I was looking for direction. I was reasonably far removed from my engineering degrees. It would be hard to pursue a path in that trade, not to mention that I lacked the ambition to do so. I had an inkling to go into finance, but again I was not moved. I was dabbling on the business side of art, managing a friend’s mural project. I was moving forward, but with hazy vision and limited fire. Gary clarified for me what might be possible and kindled the notions of the value of art that were already floating in my head.
In the course of his lecture, Gary shared that he was from Minnesota. I took the divine connection to my home state as an omen. I stalked him out of the hotel and stopped him before he got into his car. I shared briefly about my work on the Baltimore Love Project and he gave me his contact info. Two weeks later, we met for coffee. I will be having lunch with Gary again next Thursday. It is something we have done consistently since our initial coffee nearly 7 years ago.
The introduction to Gary was pivotal to my career, but it is not the only thing Old St. Paul’s has done for my vocation. The church has been a consistent source of inspiration, purpose, and direction. And, just as importantly, it has often allowed me to provide the same for others. This receiving and giving afforded by Old St. Paul’s has changed my life. It is one of the most cherished and valuable things to me. As a result, I yearn to invest more of myself, my time, and my treasure into Old St. Paul’s being!
Interested in sharing the various ways Old St. Paul’s has changed you? Please either email The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley or include a comment directly to this post by typing in the discussion box below. You can also choose to receive email notifications of new St. Paul’s articles by clicking the “Follow” button on the left-hand side of your screen. Thank you & God bless!
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.
–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.
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