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Upon moving to Baltimore two and a half years ago, finding an Episcopal church to call home was a priority, and I was astonished at all the choices the city has in that regard. I had an attraction to Old St. Paul’s based on its web presence (photos not to be understated), and my family’s first visit that fateful Sunday sealed the deal.
I am accustomed to being heavily involved in my church community, but this chapter in my life – i.e. new motherhood – causes me to take a meaningful hiatus as I learn from life’s greatest mindfulness teacher (one’s child) and absorb worship in a new way. St. Paul’s offers a beautiful service in a magnificent space with sacred music that draws us closer to the divine … while accommodating our youngest congregants. And participating in “God’s food,” as we call it in our little family, unifies us all.
In addition to Sunday worship, I am pleased to be able to attend the occasional Wednesday service (sansdaughter) to be fed in additional ways and am excited at the burgeoning promise of the new Old Rectory for small groups and formation.
And for all this, I am dutifully aware that it takes all of us to uphold a church financially. I want to be a contributor to the crowd-sourced income of this sacred place at which I call myself a member. It doesn’t matter how small; what matters is that we contemplate how to give back of our time, talent, and treasure for this place (e.g. the electric bills) and its work (e.g. the staff), never forgetting that it serves to empower us to go out and do the work God has given us to do in Baltimore and beyond!
Please let the vestry of Old St. Paul’s know how much you want to contribute to the 2020 budget so that they can plan ahead based on real numbers. Feel free to email your pledge to the church office at email@example.com. Simply send a message stating something like, “For the 2020 budget of St. Paul’s, Baltimore, I pledge to contribute ______?”
—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
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.
Recently in Old St. Paul’s Forum, we discussed our faith journeys and why we go to church.
As someone who attends church, I think this is important to do. But it’s hard. St. Augustine said, “What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it.” That’s been my prayer for myself. Teach me, Lord, to be able to voice the peace and hope you’ve given me.
Something I often see in Christians is that they work from a context of needing to save souls for eternal life. And while it’s legitimate, it’s also a whole other world that is so far away from our thinking and our lives.
But I love what John says in 1 John 1:24-25: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what He promised us—even eternal life.”
It reads (as I understand it) that the reason for Christ coming was so that we could remain in the Son and the Father—and, oh yes, you also get eternal life…almost like an afterthought. So when Christ told us that He came for us to have life and have it to the full, He meant more than eternal life. He meant a full life here. Now.
Honestly, sometimes I ask, why couldn’t God have chosen to send Christ at the end of the world and let us all choose at that time? He could have left the world as it was with Adam and Eve and then at the end of our lives, Christ could die and save us. But what kind of life would He have given us then?
He wanted us to know the Spirit’s comfort. He wanted us to know relief from the guilt of sin while we lived. He wanted us to have the assurance of a better place than here. He wanted to be a part of our lives in our conversations, our prayers, our daily moments. He wanted us to have the confidence to enter into His throne room and pray to Him while on Earth. HE, the God of the universe, wanted to be a part of our insignificant dusty bodies.
“Eternal life,” though important, can often be irrelevant. My choice to follow God is a response to Him who interrupted history to be present in our lives.
Photo by Larissa Peters