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Different People Around the Thanksgiving Table
—The Rev. Mark Stanley, Rector
A friend just expressed to me his concerns about his upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. His relatives who come to gather around the table have views from across the political spectrum. After a particularly divisive Presidential election, he is worried that the conversation at this meal will become uncomfortable, heated, and maybe hurtful.
Here at Old St. Paul’s we too gather around a meal—The Holy Eucharist. Around our altar table we too have a broad variety of opinions. Some are delighted with the outcome of this recent election, and some are devastated. With such diversity, how do we move ahead as a healthy and caring community?
In this congregation, we want people to express themselves and to be authentic. Being genuine with each other is a way we learn and grow in real relationship.
Can we balance our need to express ourselves with the possibility that others might feel excluded or put down by what we say? Followers of Jesus are invited to pay special attention to anyone who is hurting. Some in our community are worried and fearful after this election. There is concern that the rights and needs of certain groups in our society, particularly the most marginal, are being threatened. Others in our congregation have felt unfairly labeled because of the way they voted. Now is a time for sensitivity, especially with regards to all things political. Being thoughtful about how we come across shows our love and respect for others.
It takes energy to be a healthy and loving community. Real listening, respect, and compassion go a long way to keeping us connected. I give thanks to all of you for all your good work in building up the Body of Christ here at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore.
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
Ministry Takes Money
Bishop Swing, the bishop who ordained me, often said, “Ministry takes money.” Ministry certainly takes a lot of other things as well—prayer, compassion, hard work, and so on. But Bishop Swing wanted to let people of faith know that we can’t shy away from the fact that money is needed to carry out the work of the church. The church does not run on air. The diocese doesn’t pay our bills (I have heard more than one someone wonder about that). We depend on the giving of each member of the congregation.
Seeking Healing, Seeking Joy
Ernest Hemingway is a man best known for his minimalist writing and for his “man’s man” reputation: a tough, tight-lipped war-vet, always ready to bleed for his art, always with a drink in hand. He’s a man known for quotes like, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
My husband Evan Mead-Brewer shared this particular Hemingway quote on Twitter recently, saying, “Fighting depression myself, this thought has given me grim comfort before. But it’s just not true.” —Seeing this, I found myself at once surprised and deeply proud. Because Evan is absolutely right: The idea that depression is somehow married to or correlated with intelligence is a deeply problematic sentiment, one that’s poisoned our waters for far too long.
Not only does this idea somehow suggest that happy or joyful people are dumb/ignorant/thoughtless, but it also suggests that there’s a kind of romantic, even bohemian upside to suffering depression. After all, if depression is a trait shared by intelligent, creative people, then maybe there’s some inherent benefit to being depressed, maybe something about this state of suffering better enables creative thinking. Maybe, in other words, there’s nothing wrong with being depressed. Maybe being depressed is just a personality trait of those who are thoughtful, educated, and wise. But, as Evan said, this is simply untrue. Depression is absolutely not a personality trait, nor is it somehow part of a person’s intelligence. Depression is a disease, plain and simple.
What makes me proud here, is not only that Evan was bold enough to share this insight—given the kinds of stereotypes and assumptions that continue to plague people who experience depression—but also because of how difficult it can be to acknowledge one’s own needs and misconceptions in general.
Yet this is precisely what’s asked of us as Christians. Do we want to be healed? Forgiven? Saved? Then we must earnestly seek to be so. For example, just look at Psalm 30: 2, 8-12:
LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. … To you, LORD, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy: “What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.” You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. LORD my God, I will praise you forever.
Not only is it vital that we seek help and healing for ourselves, no matter what we suffer from, but it’s also vital that we be able to actually say those painful words: I am unwell. I need help. Please, God, someone, be my help.
Unfortunately, these are words we often make people feel embarrassed or ashamed of. Why else would these excuses (I’m not depressed; I’m just smart/creative/romantic) and negative stereotypes (She’s not depressed; she’s just lazy/selfish/attention-grubbing) continue to haunt people who suffer depression? But it’s precisely because of these kinds of excuses, prejudices, and misconceptions that many people continue to suffer needlessly—that they continue going on and on without ever seeking or asking for the help they need.
There is no inherent honor or benefit to suffering. As followers of Christ—a man perhaps best known for his suffering—we can sometimes forget this. We can sometimes convince ourselves that because Christ is revered for the suffering he underwent, suffering must be a trait of those who are good and wise and ahead of their time. But this is simply not the case.
Christ suffered, but not because he was wise or good or ahead of his time. Christ suffered because he was made to suffer by other people who were close-minded, fearful, exclusivist, and filled with hate. Suffering is not the work of any God of Love such as ours. God would never impose suffering upon us in hopes of teaching us some mysterious lesson or to make us more creative/intelligent/interesting; our God is Love, and therefore filled with joy, hope, compassion, and healing. In fact, as the Psalm says, You turned my wailing into Dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with Joy, that my heart may Sing your praises and Not Be Silent.
Dancing, joy, singing, sharing, openness—these are not the markers of people who simply aren’t intelligent enough to see all that there is to mourn, worry about, and fight for. These are simply the markers of God. The things our Creator wants for us, if only we can be bold enough to seek them for ourselves and neighbors.
Fortunately today, once we make that first hard leap into actively seeking help, there are many resources at hand for getting said help and treating depression, everything from counseling to medication to group therapy. The tools for seizing wellness are here; all we need do is ask.
Education for Ministry: Learning, Faith, & Understanding
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.