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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.
By The Rev. Mark Stanley
For the first time in my life, I am presenting a resolution to the Diocesan Convention–a resolution on the topic of the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria. I realize that it is pretty nerdy, but it has been bothering me that such a brilliant man was never canonized as a saint. Many early church scholars, including Henri Crouzel, SJ (Professor of Patristics at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Gregorian University in Rome), have asserted that Origen has been “unjustly branded a heretic” (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pg 503). Trying to correct this wrong, I am presenting a Resolution at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Convention on May 13, 2016 for Origen of Alexandria to be included in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of “saints.”
Born to Christian parents in 185 AD, Origen spent the first part of his career as a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Serverus in Alexandria in 202, in which his father was killed, teenage Origen desired martyrdom but his mother prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. Because of his Christian faith, Origen chose to lead a strict ascetic life of fasting, prayer, and voluntary poverty. According to the historian Eusebius, Origen supposedly even castrated himself because of his misinterpretation of Matthew 19:12. (Recent scholars have questioned the truth of this story, however, speculating that this may have been just a rumor circulated by his detractors.) In 250 AD, during a later persecution, Origen was imprisoned for being a Christian and cruelly tortured, after which he survived only a few years.
Refusing to deny his beliefs, Origen’s willingness to undergo personal suffering gave witness to his dedication to Christ. Origen, who was renowned for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, wrote influential works in the fields of theology, textual criticism, biblical commentary, preaching, and spirituality.
Hundred of years after the death of Origen, the Emperor Justinian instigated Origen’s condemnation and had many of his works burned. In 553 AD, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople seems to have condemned Origin as a heretic. That this council actually condemned him is both “enigmatic and problematic” (Philip Esler, The Early Christian World, Volume 2, pg 262). The Catholic Encyclopedia (volume 11, pg 308) even states that Origen “does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.”
Scholars today call Origen “the church’s first systematic theologian” and “the foremost biblical scholar of the early church.” Saint Jerome proclaimed Origen the “greatest teacher of wisdom and knowledge after the apostles.” Yet many of Origen’s works did not survive due to his condemnation several centuries after his death. This needs to be corrected. Some of this later criticism comes from Origen’s wide ranging philosophical speculation at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still forming. It is problematic to label as heresy Origen’s theories about the pre-existence of souls or the Son being inferior to the Father (which he may not have actually claimed) since the church at that time did not yet have official teachings on these matters.
Unfortunately some of the accusations against Origen were actually due to misunderstandings of his writings as well as the attribution of later speculations by his followers to him. Another point of controversy is Origen’s concept of Apokatastasis, that all creatures (even the Devil) could ultimately be reconciled with God. While scholars today debate whether Origen truly taught a version of Universal Salvation, Origen’s emphasis on the patience and enduring mercy of God, rather than on Divine punishment, might be seen in our own day as not heresy but as Good News. The great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way, “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith.”
Origen is deserving of a place on our liturgical calendar with his rare combination of scholarly genius and a saintly life dedicated to Christ. The next step is a Resolution recommending Origen be included in the next edition of A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations. Then, on to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 to work for final approval from the national church.
Origen scholar, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, states, “if anyone represented Anglican rationality, love of scripture, and holiness of life, it is Origen.”
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.
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.
For the past ten years, Old St. Paul’s has been growing and changing and building under the guidance, passion, and hard work of its clergy, staff, and congregation—and all of that sweat and love is definitely on display in Old St. Paul’s fall programs. What are we excited about for this autumn at Old St. Paul’s? Here’s just a taste:
—The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley
“I’m most excited about working with our talented choir again. I’m so privileged to be working with them!”
—John Smedstad, Choir Director
“I am looking forward to the Sunday School Pumpkins and Potluck event.”
—Rebecca Giordano Dreisbach, Sunday School Minister
“Autumn has always been a special time for me because it’s always meant the beginning of a new school year and a fresh start on my responsibilities as a teacher. The excitement of new people, new spaces and a new program to implement made me feel engaged and vibrant; of course, the cooler weather and the loveliness of Baltimore in the fall helped, too. Now that I am on my second career as the Parish Assistant, I feel the same sense of being an integral part of an important organization with my ‘let’s get back to work and fun’ excitement. There are so many new things happening at our church, so many new people and so many fun events, I am energized. As the pumpkins and goblins morph into turkeys and football and then into ornaments and holly, Old St. Paul’s becomes the foundation of the holidays of fun, thanksgiving and joy, and I feel valued and enthusiastic because I am a part of something great!”
—Lynn Calverese, Parish Assistant
“You want to be careful about superlatives, but I foresee our church having the best fall we have had in my eleven years here as rector. Why? Our education programs are really taking off. Our Sunday School and Youth programs are growing and our forums series is spectacular. We have a growing number of fellowship opportunities this fall so that people can build stronger relationships in the congregation. In addition, we have begun exploring two new outreach ministries that could come to fruition in the coming months. Finally, our music program is really hitting its stride. I am looking forward to so much this fall.”
—The Reverend Mark Stanley
“I am so excited to see our wonderful choir return and see the list of all the interesting forum topics that will engage, inspire, and challenge us in the coming year. Additionally this year, I am extra excited to start a new program at OSP for families of babies and toddlers. Every month we will open up the church for the wonderful little kids of OSP and their parents to play and connect. It’s going to be a great year!”
—Kate Brantley, OSP Community Builder for Families with Infants and Toddlers
And as for me? Besides pumpkin carving (love it!) and all the terrific dinners, breakfasts, and get-togethers with my friends at Old St. Paul’s, I couldn’t be more excited about the start of the fall Forum series. The Forum has long been one of my favorite programs at Old St. Paul’s. Getting to learn from such a variety of people with my friends and fellow congregants, getting to get outside the normal worship rituals and rediscover the many ways that learning and asking questions can enlighten and lead us into worship—it’s definitely something to look forward to.
What programs, opportunities, and changes are you most excited about for this fall, whether at Old St. Paul’s or just in your own personal spiritual life?
My grandparents were true Depression Era citizens, and both Mom-mom and Pop-pop told me many stories about how hard it was to find what you needed during that time. Pop-pop was out of work, and Mom-mom worked as a bobbin winder at The Linen Thread; she stood for ten to twelve hours a day in front of a machine and she was glad to have the work. My mother was only eight years old when she and her brother started walking the railroad tracks for coal dropped from the open-topped cars to supplement the wood Pop-pop chopped from his own five acre farm.
My mother is now eighty-three years old, and she still talks about how she and her brother and her parents worked the five acres with the help of their neighbors, and how Mom-mom and Pop-pop were famous for their canned fruits and vegetables, and how, at the end of the Harvest, there was always a huge outdoor celebration that featured a sit-down barbeque for over a hundred people.
Pop-pop stood at the front of the line of homemade picnic tables and always made the same speech, year after year. He thanked God for the beauty and bounty of the land, he thanked Herbert Hoover (and then Roosevelt) for the freedom of the USA, he thanked his neighbors for their help on his farm, and he thanked his family for putting up with him. At which point Mom-mom would chime in, “Amen!” and the food would be passed.
Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s generosity to all was well-established by the time my sister, brother, and I arrived. Every Sunday she would stop on the way out of church to ask the pastor about the local families:
“How is Miss Ann doing?”
“Did Mrs. McGraul have her baby?”
“Did Big Jim find work yet?”
As her workweek progressed, she remembered those talks with the pastor on the marble steps of the church and, after dinner each night, she would gather canned foods from her pantry, add a loaf of her homemade bread, a fresh-baked chicken, and a bag of her (justifiably) famous sugar cookies, and then we would take a walk. My sister, brother, and I would sit on Miss Ann’s porch and talk with her about our little adventures while Mom-mom went into the kitchen to put away the food she had brought.
Miss Ann, Mrs. McGraul, Big Jim, and all of Mom-mom’s other neighbors were always so grateful for her kindness, and would thank her over and over. She always responded, “God gave me a great gift with this life, and I want to return the favor.”
Mom-mom and Pop-pop are long gone now, but their hospitality and generosity live in my memory every time I set a tray of doughnuts out for the congregation on Sunday.For me, the talking and the laughing and the hugs that circulate around the hospitality tables at the back of Old St. Paul’s after the service (punctuated by a lot of Thank you so much, Lynn!) is a secular echo of the Eucharist that we all share.
The Holy Hospitality of the Eucharist is accepted quietly and spiritually – the doughnuts, coffee, fruit, and homemade treats are shared as a banquet of friendship and community among the congregation, and now is the time for talk!
Conversation flourishes among the congregation as the children play in the aisles: future plans to get together are made, confidences are shared, and current issues are discussed. Old St. Paul’s is God’s House and this is a happy time.
As I always say, “Things go better with food!” I know Mom-mom and Pop-pop would agree.