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What We Hope Church Can Do
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!
The Church is a People
The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.
“I am the church” Avery and Marsh © 1972 Hope Publishing Co.
Adapted text of a sharing by Eileen Donahue Brittain at the Forum on Sunday, October 16, 2016, A Place Where Lives Are Changed
The above is the first verse from one of my favorite Church School songs. I have sung it many times in many different places. The tune and these simple words bring to life for me the scriptures of 1 Peter 2:5 and Acts 2:1-4, 17:24. The hymn also describes the essence of the parish of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—the church is a PEOPLE whose lives are changed.
Here are some of the many ways I have experienced such change and how the church of OSP is not just a building, steeple, or resting place, but “a people”:
On August 21, 2014, I was standing on the corner of St. Paul and Lafayette when a large pick-up truck turned the corner going 38 mph and hit me, propelling me across the street. I was rushed to the Shock Trauma Center where medical staff used their expertise to repair my badly injured right arm and left leg. Needless to say, I still have a large external scar on my arm and much internal scar tissue as well. I cannot help but see and feel the scar each day. Since I have no “memories” of the actual event, only what my husband John and daughter Genevieve tell me happened, I don’t constantly relive the event.
I do have another “scar” though, and that is a blessed scar that is written on my soul. I bring this scar to mind frequently. It is from the wonderful outpouring of prayers, love, support, and assistance from the congregation of OSP. People called, emailed, sent cards, offered meals, and a myriad of other expressions of Christ’s love. This is the church where I have been changed.
Another time of experiencing the living expression of God’s presence through OSP happened eight months later. John was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He began a long chemo treatment to stop the growth of the cancer. It meant almost weekly appointments at Johns Hopkins Oncology Department. Again, people offered the love and assistance to help us in any way we needed. He is on the other side of the treatment now, with energy and hair returning much to our delight. But we also carry with us the delight of feeling how we have been supported in so many, many ways by so many, many people. Our lives have been changed.
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!
This verse of the hymn brings to mind yet another instance that brought home for me how OSP is the embodiment of “the church.” We have a strong and vibrant Church School for our children, a place where their young lives may be continuously changed for the better as they grow and learn in an open, supportive environment. Much care is given to ensure that the children of our parish always know how “we cherish [them] so they know they are cherished by God.”* One Sunday during Communion, I saw young Henry, not even three years old, walking up for communion intently looking at his hands, which were folded to receive the host. It “made my heart sing”* to know that even at this tender age, Henry has been given kind and appropriate instructions during the Children’s Worship on how to approach communion and he has taken it to heart.
There are many stories similar to mine in the pews of OSP. I imagine you have a few of your own that you could relate, and I hope that you will share them both at OSP and beyond so that we all may rejoice and be changed.
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!
*Favorite sayings of Reverend Mary Luck Stanley, Associate Rector, OSP
Knowing the Spirit’s Comfort
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
Rite III: Spontaneity & Creativity in Worship
Proclaim and Respond to the Word of God:
The proclamation and response may include readings, song, talk, dance, instrumental music, other art forms, silence. A reading from the Gospel is always included.
–Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pg. 400
This past Sunday, The Rev. Mark Stanley focused Forum on the history and use of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP). But what I thought would be a more purely historical lecture quickly surprised me by transforming into a lesson in Episcopal spontaneity and openness. To many, Episcopalians aren’t exactly known for their art, dance, spontaneity, or creativity. Our dedication and focus on the calendar and contents of the BCP is at once what binds us as a denomination, helping laypeople participate more easily and giving us firm ties to our historical foundations, as well as what often labels us in many eyes as staid, deeply ritualistic, and even unwelcoming of change.
This Sunday, however, I learned about a new face of the Episcopal Church and of our Prayer Book—I learned of possibilities like (what’s commonly known as) Rite III, The Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist, a guide to holding an exceptionally more free-form, creative, and spontaneous service than our typical fare. As you may have noticed in my epigraph, our Prayer Book outlines a style of service that not only allows for the possibility of having the congregation respond to the Word of God through dance, but through “other art forms” as well, through any respectful, reverent, and heartfelt art we choose! We could, theoretically, paint our response to the Word. We could (mindfully, lovingly) jazz-scat our response or line dance or write poetry, using our freedom and unique gifts to better pursue and strengthen our relationship with God.
In 1549, Thomas Cranmer came out with the first Prayer Book to help make worship more inclusive and participatory for the laypeople (helping translate services into English and welcoming laypeople to join the priest in things like saying the Lord ’s Prayer). Since then, the Episcopal Church has updated the Prayer Book four times (we now currently use the 1979 version; though, in the overall Anglican history, the BCP has been revised many times), working to make our services as welcoming, participatory, loving, open, and true to ourselves as possible. And while Cranmer may not have imagined a world where his idea for the Prayer Book allowed for dance, poetry, song, and art as responses to the Word of God, I think it’s safe to say that he would be glad to know the Episcopal Church has kept firmly to its tradition of inclusivity—working to welcome and encourage worship in its congregants that meets them where they are on their faith journeys, that helps them connect to their Creator through the talents and blessings said Creator has bestowed upon them.
I often feel funny in church, because I’m one for whom writing is the best meditation; it’s what helps me think more clearly and creatively about my day, my thoughts, and the world around me. I was the kid in class who was always taking notes, and now in Old St. Paul’s Forums and worship services, I’m that layperson who seems to always be filling up a notebook in between hymns. For me, writing is a way to better connect with not only what I learn in Forum, but what I feel after listening to the choir perform, what occurs to me as I listen to the sermon, and even helps clarify my thinking when it comes time to pray.
While we may not take up the wildness of the Rite III every Sunday as a congregation, know that this doesn’t mean you’re barred from taking it up for yourself whenever you need it. Try bringing a notebook or sketchpad to church with you one Sunday and see how that changes (or doesn’t change) your experience. Don’t ever be afraid or embarrassed to approach worship and responding to the Word as best fits and feels right to you.
The Church and Change
“We’ve always done it this way.”
We hear that said in the church from time to time. On the one hand, this statement captures some of the truth of the church’s connection with history and the past. Christians have always celebrated the Eucharist and always tried to follow Jesus. The church tries to communicate what can be described as eternal truths. On the other hand, a term like “always” frequently gets you in trouble. As you start to delve into Christian history it becomes stunningly clear how much things have changed over time. The liturgy in the year 100 and the year 1000 and the year 2000 are all drastically different. The role of bishops has changed. The church has made changes in the way it views slavery and more recently women and gay people in the ordained ministry.
Change in the church is often a painful and difficult process. I remember working in a parish when it was decided to move the reading lectern because it was blocking the view of the altar. The conflict and raw emotion churned up was really quite amazing. I think that one of the dynamics was that if you made the change (moving the lectern) you seemed to be saying that it was wrong or dumb to have had it where it was positioned originally. A change can feel like a put down or insult to the way things used to be.
A 16th century theologian to the rescue! Richard Hooker was a great Anglican thinker who, in 1594, wrote:
“The Church has authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both may do well.” (Laws, Book 5.8.2)
He seems to be saying that, guided by reason and the Holy Spirit, the Church should make changes. And that this is not an insult to the past. It just is that, in the past, they did things differently.
Unfortunately, some branches of the Christian Church still don’t get this 400 years after Hooker was writing. We pray for the church to continue to make changes faithfully and for the right reasons.
This post is also a plug for my upcoming forum on Anglican History this Sunday, February 15 at 9:30 am :
How Did We Get Here? The History of the Anglican and Episcopal Church.
Our English roots and experience in colonial America helped form our branch of the church. Join The Rev. Mark Stanley as we look at the crucial events and key people that created The Episcopal Church of today.
—The Rev. Mark Stanley
Sunday’s Forum (2/8/15) in Review: How is the Episcopal Church Organized?
The Forum: How is the Episcopal Church Organized? How does Old St. Paul’s Function?
(Led by The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley)
Sometimes (at least for me), it can feel like the Church has kind of a “secret (not secret) language” of “bishops,” “deacons,” “presiding bishops,” “general conventions,” “catholic v. Catholic,” and so forth. This kind of “secret language” can feel a bit shadowy or Man-Behind-the-Curtain-esque at times (I know it often felt that way to me when I was a kid). But today’s Forum got to the heart of this matter. The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley explained not only core elements of this “secret language” for Episcopalians, but also where this language comes from historically, how different positions and roles have shifted over time, and – the big fish – Why.
She kicked things off with a game. Designating one end of the room as “Yes,” and the other “No,” she instructed us to move from one end to the other (or hover somewhere in the middle) to indicate our answer to each of her questions (Is the outcome of the General Convention personally important to you? Do you identify as a Christian? Do you identify as an Anglican? etc.). Our responses to many of these were surprising and oddly funny, revealing how well (or how poorly) we actually understood the inner-workings of our church and denomination.
A point of particular fascination for me was learning that the Episcopal Church is in what’s called “full communion” with the Lutheran Church (as well as with a few other denominations). Being in “full communion” essentially means that we’re so tightly-knit with each other’s beliefs, values, and organization that we could go so far as to interchange our priests if our bishop wanted to for whatever reason. For example, as Episcopalians in full communion with the Lutheran Church, one of our priests could be assigned to lead a Lutheran congregation. Likewise, it would be possible for a Lutheran priest to be assigned to serve at Old St. Paul’s.
My favorite part, however, was when Mary explained that what binds Episcopalians together is our approach to learning about and practicing faith, rather than any strict code of required beliefs. This, I felt, also fit particularly well with The Rev. Mark Stanley’s sermon, wherein he dissected a passage from the Gospel of Mark (1: 29-39).
In his sermon, Mark highlighted the importance of one’s approach to practicing faith. Through Mark 1: 29-39, Mark discussed Christ’s example of taking time to have fellowship with friends and family (Mark 1: 29-31), as well as Christ’s dedication to taking personal/private time for prayer and meditation (Mark 1: 35). As Mark explained, we can’t keep saying that we’re too busy to pray. In truth, we’re likely “too busy not to pray.” Prayer and fellowship – these methods of learning, practicing faith, and seeking Truth – are vital to keeping “spiritually sane.”
Thank you, Mark and Mary, for another enlightening Forum and worship service!
(For more explanation regarding the organization and inner-workings of the Episcopal Church and Old St. Paul’s specifically, please feel welcome to either email Mary Luck Stanley or Mark Stanley, or visit: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/episcopal-church-structure-and-organization)
Last Sunday’s Forum: “Loneliness,” presented by author, Rafael Alvarez
Last Sunday’s forum used the book The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi – a professor at Johns Hopkins University – as a jumping off point for discussion of a peculiarly American malady: loneliness. The discussion was led by author and screenwriter Rafael Alvarez, who recently interviewed Nafisi – whose previous book Reading Lolita in Tehran was a bestseller – on the subject of loneliness.
In 2015, Alvarez will publish a book on the LOVE mural project co-founded by OSP parishioner Scott Burkholder and his friend Michael Owen. Alvarez’s current collection of short fiction is titled, Tales from the Holy Land.