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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.
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.