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Thoughts on Advent, 2016

Larissa Peters, OSP Congregant

I’ve put this annual reflection off, and now it’s January 2017. I haven’t wanted to write it because I don’t like to do things for the sake of doing them. I don’t like saying rote things that could be counted as trite, like I haven’t thought about it. Especially to those who are going through pain. I’ve been the recipient of that, and it sucks.

And I’m weary. A lot of people have said that. They have said they are excited to get rid of 2016. But even that makes me weary. I don’t have a lot of hope for 2017.

There have been quite a few I know who have just been through it. Like you wouldn’t believe. Family members sick, broken relationships, internal turmoil, death…. And others  who have been waiting—waiting for jobs, for a change, for health….

And I work for an int’l development agency, and we’re inundated with news of Syria and millions of refugees fleeing. We hear of children trying to cross the border into Texas because of the violence in Central America. And our country is incredibly divided, not to mention our own families at times. And it’s exhausting.

So I want to be careful about saying just words.

As I began this advent, I thought—I’d like to reflect on PEACE. We need peace in us, in our world, all that…isn’t the Christmas story full of peace?

But then I couldn’t find it. Do you know how many times ‘peace’ is mentioned in the Christmas story? Once.

You can’t force a meditation. And truth be told, there wasn’t much peace. Israel was occupied, under another regime. There’s a lot of waiting. And in that waiting, so much anxiety. So much fear and doubt.

And when I read the part about Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. It hit home. How tired they must have been. Finally getting there and hearing, “No room.” Mary had to have thought (well, I personally would have thought), Of course, this is just about how I’d expect everything to go based on this year….

How exhausting it must have been for Mary, both physically and mentally. Was she full of doubts?—doubts that others had certainly placed in her. Fears she herself couldn’t help but have.

And when they arrived at an inn where they expected to hear yet another, “No room,” only to instead land in a stable, placing their baby—whom they had been told is the Messiah—in a feeding trough, Joseph must have felt incredibly inadequate as a husband and a father.

I’m sure the shepherds couldn’t have come at a better time, bursting in shouting, “Where’s the Messiah we’ve heard about?”

I see both waiting (Simeon, Anna, Israel) and journeys taken (Mary, Joseph, the wise men) in the Christmas story. But the process is the same. The emotions are the same. The inner turmoil and questions still exist whether you are stagnant or wandering.

Were the wise men disappointed to find a baby in the end? How many times did Simeon and Anna ask God, “How long, oh Lord? How much longer?”

And then Mary and Joseph again having to get up and flee for their child’s life—really holding the destiny of mankind in their hands—leaving an entire town weeping behind them…because of them.

So often, I tend to get into myself, and my path feels tired, full of doubt, unrelatable. And just when I think I’ve arrived where I wanted to go, it wasn’t what I expected or it’s even scarier than I’d imagined.
Or I never move.
At all.
And everyone else does.
It can feel incredibly lonely sometimes. And very far from peaceful. And the people I thought I could trust—well, they disappointed me.

So what’s left? What small piece can I take with me as I enter into a new year?

20160828_145216I’d like to be like those shepherds. I’d like to be able and willing to show up in the right moment because I took the opportunity—without hesitation, confirming to a fellow wanderer that they are on the right path. So much of the violence, pain and hatred of 2016 may not have been directed specifically at me or happened to me, but if I can come around and just be someone who says, “I’m here with you,” then I want to be that person.

I’d like to continue on waiting (or moving) despite my fears and doubts. So I have to ask, how could all these people do that? How does anyone? Really, there has to be a very deep motivation for either one—greater than all our unmet expectations, disappointments, and feelings of inadequacies and loneliness.

The wise men, shepherds, Joseph, Mary—all had a deep pull, that only a very deep calling could keep them going.  Something—that in the midst of the oppression, fears, doubts, weariness, murderous threats, fleeing, loneliness, trouble—something greater gave them a reason to continue. And continue in what may have seemed to some a bold or scary choice. I want this courage and this passion. This I want to remember and hold on to.

Theirs was a deep hope in the belief that Mary carried the Savior of the world, and that he was called the Prince of Peace.
There. Peace.
Let me again repeat this line from that old Christmas carol: “the hope and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight …”

 

This article was originally published on Larissa Peters’ blog, In Other Words Poetry. For more of her writing, visit: http://www.inotherwordspoetry.com/

 

Valentine’s Day: Seven Ways Faith can Enhance our Relationships

Katherine Mead-Brewer

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

ROSE

 

Forty Ways to Care for Your Soul this Lent

During the forty days of Lent, you are invited to take better care of your soul. Here is a list of some traditional and not so traditional spiritual disciplines that may help you to grow in the knowledge and love of God.

  1. Call old friends to catch up, and thank them for being in your life
  2. Listen to music that moves you
  3. Refrain from gossiping and saying unkind things about others
  4. Go on a news/media fast for a period of time to lesson your anxiety
  5. Take more naps
  6. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen
  7. Clean out your closets and get rid of the unwanted stuff in your life
  8. Write a letter to a person who has wronged you, and then throw it away
  9. Participate in worship
  10. Give up drinking alcohol for Lent
  11. Set aside time each day to sit quietly with God, praying
  12. Read a book on spirituality by Henri Nouwen or Anne Lamott
  13. Give up eating out as much and donate that money to feed the hungry
  14. Make a list of five year, ten year, and twenty year goals for your life
  15. Spend more quality time with family and friends
  16. Participate in a class or retreat at your church
  17. Consider taking a break from people who are a toxic influence in your life

    Mary's Lemons

    I took this photo in Sorrento, Italy, where the lemon trees bear the largest and most flavorful fruit I’ve ever tasted. It reminds me that the fruits of the spirit will grow abundantly in the right setting.

  18. Exercise daily, breathing deeply, and giving thanks to God for your body
  19. Make a list of those whom you may have hurt
  20. Consider taking responsibility and making apologies
  21. Work to mend broken relationships
  22. At the end of each day, create a gratitude list
  23. Read the New Testament
  24. Cook and eat more consciously, making healthier choices, to be truly nourished
  25. Take stock of your finances and create a plan that reflects your values
  26. Tour a museum to enjoy looking at art
  27. Watch movies that make you laugh and cry
  28. Write a list of the things for which you feel sorry, your sins, and then ask God to forgive you, burning the list afterwards
  29. Spend time in nature noticing God’s hand at work in creation
  30. Go to the doctor or dentist, to care of your body
  31. Practice Breath Prayer while driving and waiting in lines, inhaling and exhaling and saying a mantra like, “God in me. Me in God.”
  32. Pick out a person you are worried about and do something thoughtful for them
  33. Choose a justice issue that worries you and talk with a friend about it
  34. Go to Starbucks less often and send the money you saved to your favorite charity
  35. Write a little every day, perhaps in a journal, even if it is just lists of things that are on your mind
  36. Take a road trip with a friend
  37. Consider how your work can be more like a ministry, day in and day out
  38. Make a list of the hymns and readings that you want to have at your own funeral
  39. Do less or do more, to achieve better balance in your life
  40. Resolve to spend time with people who may help you to become the person God intends you to be

 

—The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley

What if God made a New Year’s resolution?

—Katherine Mead-Brewer

Around New Year’s everyone starts putting together lists of goals and plans for the next 365 days of their life. Of course, many of these goals often fail to see fruition the way we’d like, but even in these cases of “failure,” I believe that the goals themselves were (and are) still worth making.

Goals, resolutions, and plans—these are the stuff of hopefulness. These are the stuff of making us stronger and more imaginative, more energized and more human. By the very nature of making New Year’s resolutions, we’re taking time to not only acknowledge the weaknesses in ourselves, but also to imagine how we might work to grow stronger. It’s a mixture of humility and vision (and the desire for transformation) that, to me, fits very naturally as a lead-up to the next major Christian holiday: Easter.

In Eastertime, we’re forced to face the ugliness that can come from humanity: the ugliness that persecuted and executed Jesus Christ, the ugliness that still ravages our communities today in the forms of racism, sexism, violence, and inequality. But then we’re also shown that we have the power and love within us to transcend this ugliness, because we’re given this power in the form of a new chance, a new life in Christ, our eternal New Year’s Day.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of New Year’s resolutions God might have, if God ever had any. Would God strive to intervene more or choose to intervene less in the world? And what would Christ’s resolutions be? To work new miracles here on Earth, or would he go to distant planets? To heal the world of its persistent, self-inflicted pains? To overturn yet more tables?

For me, it’s often more self-concerned things that make my list: the classic wish for weight loss and fitness, the desires to read more, play more, make more money, do all the things the advertisers say I ought to be doing. But when I take a moment to consider what a resolution could actually look like, what it could truly mean if given the kind of power and desperate love that was put into God’s resolution to save and forgive us through Christ, I find myself humbled all over again.

The power to create resolutions is the power to try and envision a new and better world for ourselves and others. And though this imaginative, hopeful muscle is one that more and more people seem to be losing now in a day and age that’s rife with talk of war and terrorism, it’s a muscle that becomes all the more precious precisely because of such times and talk.

What are some of your resolutions, and what kinds of resolutions do you wish the world-over might make for itself this year?

leaves

All Hallows’ Eve: A Time for Remembering

Katherine Mead-Brewer

I’ve been thinking a great deal about death lately. Not only is it the week of Halloween, but I’ve also recently had more than a few friends suffer through major surgeries, vehicle collisions, and severe illness. And so maybe it’s because of these events and meditations that I’ve also been feeling especially grateful to have such a life- and living-centered faith. For although many focus on the torment and violent death of Christ, it is important to also constantly remind oneself of what it was he was dying for. To my mind, Christ was not simply a sacrifice, but a man who died for his dedication to the love, life, and eternity of the world. The legacy of Jesus then, for me, has always been a life-centered faith. A faith where the mysterious God empowers us to conquer death, where all things are interconnected and eternal rather than isolated, linear, and full of endings.

Despite this legacy, however, the Christian Church, like many religions, has left in its wake a tremendously bloody history thanks to the failings, fears, and prejudices of its practitioners over the centuries: persecution of countless men and women as witches, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and many other instances of war, terrorism, conquest, and “cleansing.”

As Halloween is nearly upon us, it strikes me as a strangely ideal time to pause and give a moment of remembrance to those who have suffered and to those who continue to suffer at the hands of people who claim to be acting in the name and service of God.

To aid you in this, I leave you with a prayer from Michel Quoist’s classic meditation, Prayers:

            Grant me, Lord, to spread true love in the world.

            Grant that by me and by your children it may penetrate a little

                        into all circles, all societies, all economic and political

                        systems, all laws, all contracts, all rulings;

            Grant that it may penetrate into offices, factories, apartment

                        buildings, movie houses, dance halls;

            Grant that it may penetrate the hearts of men and that I may

                        never forget that the battle for a better world is a battle of

                        love, in the service of love.

(Quoist, pg 103)

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Christ Church Cemetery, Alexandria, VA

Photo by Jessica Sexton, OSP Youth Minister

Rolling the Stone Away: Easter & Science Fiction

“God invites us to be co-creators, to help transform our world and bring about new life.”

–The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley

As a world, we are suffering in many ways: a plane crashed in France, killing more than a hundred people; war continues to rage in the Middle East; Ebola continues to take lives in Liberia; women across the globe are still treated as second-class citizens (and often much worse); our prisons continue to fill and fill with more people each day; people all over the world still face prejudice for their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, and any other differences one can find to hold against them—but these are not the entirety of our world. These do not have to define our world.

Nothing is fixed.

It’s the desire to celebrate this fact—Nothing is fixed; everything can change; everything can be reimagined—that always excites me about the Easter holiday. Easter speaks directly to the author and artist in me as a time to recognize the radical transformation that’s possible in all of us. As a professional writer, there are few things I find more inspiring or important than this: that the radical transformation of our world is possible, no matter how engrained or “natural” our current systems and oppressive forces may seem.

And it’s for this same reason that I’ve always been particularly drawn to science fiction as both a reader and writer. Science fiction is unique among all genres because it’s dedicated not to the imagining of different worlds and systems, but to the reimagining of our current ones. It’s a genre focused on remembering that the power of transformation and change rests with us of the here and now, that these dreams are real and that nothing is fixed. Homophobia? Prisons? Racism? Sexism? Nothing is fixed. We have the tools, ability, and imagination to see these evils ended.

And isn’t this Christ’s Easter example to us?—to radically transform the world through love. To reimagine our world as run by the rules of love.

As renowned science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin said in her acceptance speech as Medalist for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2014 National Book Awards ceremony):

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of [people] who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need [people] who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”

The celebration, possibility, and truth of this “larger reality” is a major part of what Easter has come to mean for me—to remember that I live in a world where a man rose from the dead, where a man was willing to suffer anything to pursue a better world for us all, and that we also have this power to drive change and pursue worlds that don’t yet exist, worlds that others may call impossible. We have the ability to be Realists of a Larger Reality.

Perhaps Nerds of Color contributor Walidah Imarisha put it best:

“When we free our imaginations, we question everything. We recognize none of this is fixed, everything is stardust, and we have the strength to cast it however we will.” (emphasis added)

Nothing is fixed. The stone was rolled away from Christ’s tomb, and we have the power still to roll all the other stones away.

trees

–Katherine Mead-Brewer

*In Le Guin’s above quote, I changed the word “writers” to “people,” as indicated by the [brackets].

Reflections on Lent from Faith Leaders & Laypeople

For those of you interested in learning more about Lent and creative ways to observe it, just check out some of these stories from both our blog and from Episcopal News Service:

 

Archbishop of Canterbury: What makes a good Lent?

In this talk given at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Feb. 19, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby reflected on what makes a good Lent for individuals, communities and society as a whole.


I took this photo at The Chapel of the Sacred Heart (1937) in Yellowstone. It's a memory I hold dear, a moment of quiet reflection in the heart of one of God's great wonders.

I took this photo at The Chapel of the Sacred Heart (1937) in Yellowstone. It’s a memory I hold dear, a moment of quiet reflection in the heart of one of God’s great wonders.

 Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori Lent Message 2015

“That cross that comes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of the cross that’s put there at Baptism,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in her Lent Message 2015.


Lent: what a relief!

By the Rev. Mary Luck Stanley

Sometimes I make mistakes, sometimes other people make mistakes, and sometimes we both make mistakes. A lot of communication is required in order for us to sort out what the mistakes are, and where the misunderstandings are, and to get to the point where authentic apologies are made. Now, that’s a tough process to go through, so I’d rather avoid it as long as possible.


 

Forty Ways to Care for Your Soul this Lent

By the Rev. Mary Luck Stanley

During the forty days of Lent, you are invited to take better care of your soul. Here is a list of some traditional and not so traditional spiritual disciplines that may help you to grow in the knowledge and love of God.


 

Brooklyn church art exhibit features fresh take on Stations of the Cross

To mark the season of Lent, The Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew has invited 14 Brooklyn artists to contribute innovative works for a “stations of the cross” exhibit.

The tradition of walking the 14 stations of the cross, which portray the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, is an ancient Christian practice, but this exhibit “brings a new level of artistic expression to the experience,” according to a press release from the parish, part of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.


EPPN Lenten Series: Engaging Poverty at Home and Around the World

This year, the Episcopal Public Policy Network’s Lenten Series focuses on “Engaging Poverty at Home and Around the World.” This Ash Wednesday reflection from Alexander D. Baumgarten, Director of Public Engagement and Mission Communication for The Episcopal Church, is the first installment of the series. Each week, we will send an excerpt of the reflection to your inbox and provide you with a link to read the full reflection on our website.


 

Lent: Art & Our Relationship with Creation

By Katherine Mead-Brewer

Lent has long held special meaning for me, even if I haven’t always treated it with the respect it deserves. For me, Lent serves as a reminder of the tremendous mysteriousness of my creator and of just how small I am in the vastness of God’s work, of the universe’s many galaxies, planets, peoples, and creatures. Bishop Jefferts Schori captures this sentiment so well: the cross that comes at Ash Wednesday is a reminder … that we share that dust with all that has been created.


 

 

—Katherine Mead-Brewer