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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
The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley
What are your hopes for your child’s faith development? I asked parents to respond to this question, and it was moving to hear responses like,
“Right now, my daughter loves coming to church and I really hope that enthusiasm continues.”
“I want my kids to know they are loved by others in our church, and loved by God.”
“I hope my children will be shaped by the Bible stories and the Christian traditions, learning how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.”
In the twenty-seven years I’ve been working on Youth and Children’s Ministry in the Episcopal Church, I have learned that children develop a Christian identity in the midst of their relationships with other Christians. Faith is caught and not taught. The development of faith is a matter of the heart, as well as the head. Faith formation takes place primarily in the midst of loving relationships.
As Episcopalians, we value education, yet it is not enough to just teach content to kids. The development of a love for God and sense of belonging as God’s beloved children, comes first and foremost as children experience other human beings loving and forgiving them in a Christian community. If faith is caught and not taught, then children catch faith by being in relationship with other Christians who will model for them what it means to walk the walk and talk the talk.
At St. Paul’s, Baltimore, we cherish children so they will know they are cherished by God. We do this by spending time together as a Christian community, and by modeling how to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are moving away from the “school model” of Christian formation where parents simply drop off their kids at their classes so that the “experts” can teach the kids content about how to be good Christians. We know this old fashioned model doesn’t work very well. So, we are moving toward an “extended family model,” where parents join their kids in their church activities in a variety of ways, modeling what it means to be participants in a Christ-centered community. If our church is more like an extended family, and we have weekly family reunions on Sundays, then we are all involved, taking turns helping out, and seeking to include all ages.
With more than seventy participants in our youth and children’s programs this year, we have become more of a homegrown volunteer and parent led co-op, than a slick professional enrichment program for kids. Parents especially, are expected to participate in programs along with their children. Faith development, for both the children and the adults, takes place within the context of friendship and community.
When it comes to faith development, it’s all about relationships with each other and with God. Think about it. The Bible is a big book full of stories about relationships that are blessed, broken, unjust—reconciled, healed, and transformed. We are building up the bonds of love in our Christian community, trusting that as we cherish each other, we are also cherished by God.
How do you feel the presence of God?
This past spring, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley dedicated one of our Sunday Forums to a meditation on and discussion of just this question. People dove straight in, giving all kinds of fantastic and unexpected responses, everything from “in the love of family and friends” to “it isn’t something I necessarily have to feel, but experience.” Everyone was being so forthright and brave that I was surprised to find myself suddenly and unusually shy. Because although a very specific answer immediately leapt to mind for me, I was sure that no one else would understand, that it’d be thought of as juvenile somehow (despite all my trust and love for my fellow Old St. Paul’s congregants). This, for some reason, I was nervous to share.
And then, to my great astonishment, I didn’t have to—someone else spoke up and said precisely what was on my mind: I experience the presence of God through the weather.
My heart lifted and I know I felt God’s presence in that, in this bold woman’s admission.
I, also, so often experience the presence of God through the weather.
When I’m walking through my neighborhood and feel a breeze that has me looking up at a tree in bloom, a tree I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, or get to take off my jacket when the clouds part for a great bolt of sunshine, I’m reminded to be thankful—reminded to acknowledge the presence and hand of God in these small but life-filling pleasures.
When I’m sitting at home writing and rain pounds against the windows, I’m reminded to be grateful not only for the rain that feeds the Earth, but also to be grateful for my mother who loves the rain (but rarely gets it where she lives). I’m reminded to be grateful for having a home at all—a dry, safe place to go to when I need shelter from the wet and the storm. And I’m reminded to lift up a prayer for those who do not enjoy the same blessing.
When the sun’s out in full yellow force such that I have to go around my apartment flipping on the window AC units to cool things down again, I’m reminded to appreciate the way my body naturally responds to the world—getting chills or sweaty or tired or energized. And I’m likewise reminded to be grateful for my apartment and those window AC units, knowing how many people go without these life-preserving comforts each year, and I’m reminded to pray for them.
Whenever the weather is just so…
I’m reminded of my childhood in North Carolina, picking strawberries with my brother.
I’m reminded of spending a May week with my mother-in-law in Whidbey Island, WA where together we walked along a chilly beach and were grateful for each other.
I’m reminded of Christmases at home in Texas with my parents, brother, and little niece who I miss/worry about/am proud of/am excited about every day.
I’m reminded of my husband and the pumpkin patch we hunted through this past autumn.
I’m reminded of my husband and the time he kept us both safe while driving home through the one honest blizzard I’ve ever been in.
I’m reminded of my husband and of the walk we took together in remembrance of Freddie Gray.
And I’m reminded of just how few people get to relax enough to appreciate these weather elements as they walk outside, knowing how many women have been attacked or harassed on streets all over the world, knowing how many gay people and people of color have been attacked and harassed, knowing how many differently-abled people find navigating outdoor pathways painful/frustrating/unfair, knowing how many people are forced to live outside and expose the intimacies of their life to the weather in all its moods.
I experience the presence of God through the weather—a pervasive, constant force that fuels the world, touches every life every day, and helps keep me mindful, grateful, and praying.
(Photo by Evan Mead-Brewer)
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
Since 2006, Old St. Paul’s has prided itself on having a thriving youth group for teens, but it wasn’t until this previous Sunday that it celebrated its first official Youth Sunday. Youth Sundays can vary widely from church to church, including everything from special announcements regarding youth group activities and achievements to youth-led sermons.
At Old St. Paul’s, Youth Sunday came in the wake of our Youth Confirmation Retreat, led by Youth Minister, Jessica Sexton and vestry member, Georgina Anton. Through the advent of our Youth Sunday, Jessica sought to inspire our youth to consider how they might use their spiritual gifts in service to the church, encouraging them to take on new roles and responsibilities both in and out of the worship service.
This means that, with the exception of the choir, our youth group took on allnon-ordained roles in the Youth Sunday worship service: acolytes, chalicists, hosts/ushers, readers, and Prayers for the People. For though our church recognizes no specific rules regarding age for these positions, these roles tend to most often go to adult members of the congregation (save for the role of acolyte). Each position in the worship service inevitably holds greater and greater meaning the more involved, mature, and educated a person becomes on each element and how they all fit together on Sunday morning.
This Sunday, our sanctuary was refreshed by a host of new voices, reminding us that wisdom can come from any thoughtful, reasoning person—no matter their age, background, or any other difference that’d seek to divide us.
In the morning’s Forum, The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley led us in a discussion on Social Teachings and the Church, touching on everything from the Church’s role in taking moral stands on matters of social justice to issues of the Church’s continued relevancy in today’s world. And while our discussion was spirited, diverse, and thoughtful, I found myself grinning about parts of it during the worship service. What’s the Church’s continued relevancy today? —A strange question in a community where youth members—many of them not yet confirmed in the Church; many of them still on the fence about whether or not being confirmed is even what they want—would come together to help lead us in a worship service, would acknowledge us as a community worth investing in, worth working for, worth seeking wisdom from and imparting wisdom to.
Our relevancy, the Church’s relevancy, as Mary went on to explain, isn’t founded in what moral or social issues it stakes itself to, but in its members, young and old, and in helping guide and support those members on their way to discerning the capital-T Truth together.
Thank you to all our youth members: Jack Stanley, Hannah Stanley, Sophie Allen, Andrew Bickford, David Giordano, Kenny Gaisor, Nathan LaClair, Elizabeth Greisman, and Erin Barringer, who served this past Sunday! And a very special thank you to Jessica Sexton and Georgina Anton—without you, none of this would’ve been possible.