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—Katherine Mead-Brewer, St. Paul’s Member
One of my dearest friends recently moved from D.C. to Austin, Texas. She was nervous but also enthusiastic about the change; she wanted a new city to explore, new opportunities, new weather. But when she and her husband got there, nothing was as they’d expected. There was loneliness and job uncertainty and personal insecurities and missing their church family. I couldn’t figure out why something like this, such a heavy disappointment, such a heavy sense of fear about making a wrong/expensive/isolating decision, should fall on someone who’d only ever loved the world around her, someone who’d only ever brought happiness and light to all fortunate enough to know her.
At first this seemed like just one more negative to pile onto the aggravation-heap that became 2016 for me. What recourse did my friend have? They couldn’t move back; they’d put too much money into their new (first) house. And I couldn’t even reach out to her as I normally would’ve, because now we were hundreds of miles apart. I couldn’t wrap my arms around her or bring her ice cream or invite her out for coffee.
For a fix-it personality like me, this issue has recently felt all-consuming, touching nearly every corner of my life. So many problems seem to have clear solutions to me—just as, I imagine, they likely seem clear to others in their own ways—so why can’t I manage to fix any of them? Why are so many of my friends now living in fear?—afraid that they’ve made the wrong decision regarding their job, their schooling, their home? Afraid for their own personal safety when only a few weeks ago they were optimistic about the entire country’s future? How do we begin to move forward as individuals, as families, as communities, as a country, when everything feels so wrong?
This past Sunday, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley preached on the fact that now, as we come out of the season of Christmas, we enter the Christian season of Epiphany. A time of revelation. The season that celebrates when the Magi finally found the infant Jesus, their own revelation, a symbolic epiphany for all of us.
Of course, simply reading this story from the Bible can make the entire thing sound easy and magical. They came bringing gifts! They followed a star! When really, I can’t think of an experience that sounds more fraught with discomfort, danger, and uncertainty. A hard journey through alien lands, traveling far from their friends and loved ones, enduring grueling encounters with selfish, paranoid leaders who would hurt others in order to further their own ends—leaders who would sacrifice an entire generation of sons simply to ensure their own continued reign.
In many ways, the season of Epiphany is exactly where I am right now. It’s a time of hardship and trials. A time of maddening limbo and grave uncertainty. But as Christ’s story reassures us, this is also a time of great revelation and discovery. This is a time when we stand up to those who would victimize us and our neighbors, even if victory seems impossible. Even if we feel powerless or inadequate. This is a time when we allow ourselves to recognize the discomfort and painfulness of our journey without succumbing to it. This is a time for persevering in the face of great obstacles and insecurity.
Just the other day, my now-Austinite friend sent me an email—the first hopeful one she’s sent in a long, long time—and in it she included the photograph of a young screech owl nesting in the tree in their backyard.
“There is a TINY OWL in my backyard,” she wrote to me, ecstatic.
“It’s a sign,” I told her. “It’s a sign that you’re supposed to be where you are. It’s a little blessing.” A little epiphany. A little emblem of hope, wonder, and beauty in the midst of so much strife and loneliness.
To me, a firm believer in signs and symbols, it seemed clear that this tiny owl was a piece of God reaching out to give comfort. A mysterious, winged creature–not so unlike the Holy Spirit.
And though my friend remained dubious about what exactly (if anything) the owl symbolized, she and her husband quickly named the little fellow Rosemary. Rosemary for remembrance. Because though it can be difficult to know the path forward when everything at your back is continuously shouting for your attention, continuously trying to pull you down and tie you up, always remember that life is peppered with
tiny owls epiphanies, with sparks of hope and moments of inspiration, pointing you forward. Pointing you toward something better.
—Tara Kirk Sell
Since Greg and I had Sennet, we’ve had our hands full with kids. One of the things I love about our Old St. Paul’s community is that when we come to church there are so many people ready to lend a helping hand or hold a baby for a few minutes. Sometimes, my arms are just tired and so it’s really nice to have people around who enthusiastically give Greg and me a moment to rest and recharge.
The other day when we stood up front to support Michael and Suzanne during Gabriel’s baptism, we were in turn supported by other members of the church when we plopped Sennet down in Kate Brantley’s arms and left Torin with Doug, Francine, and Ramy. Sennet spent the time grabbing Maggie’s hair with her toes and I could see Torin’s head poking up as Doug held him to show him what was going on. They were happy, safe, and welcome in the arms of friends.
When we came to the goodbye party for Chuck and Lynn, Sennet was passed from person to person as Greg and I chased Torin and renewed our friendship with other people. After a while, Greg and I said to each other, “We better go figure out where our baby is,” but we were entirely sure she was happy and well cared for being held by different members of our parish.
It is acceptance and compassion and welcome and love all wrapped up in one. That’s why I love it here at Old Saint Paul’s.
Tara Kirk is an American former competition swimmer and breaststroke specialist who is an Olympic silver medalist. She is a former world record holder in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Lent can be a difficult time for some because it can seem like a second round of New Year’s resolutions, only with less fun and greater opportunity to feel like a failure. But this isn’t what Lent is meant to be about. In the forty days of Lent we are invited to remove any barriers in our lives that may separate us from the love of God. Lent is meant to be a time of focus and prayer, of acknowledging and meditating on Christ’s sacrifice as a preparation for the glorious celebration of his resurrection. To help keep spirits up during this Lenten season, consider trying out the following exercises:
- Remind yourself each day of why you are participating in the act of Lenten sacrifice. Why is Lent meaningful to you? By giving yourself these little reminders, it will help keep your motivation fresh, rather than leave you feeling like Lent’s just another diet or arbitrary restriction.
- Don’t forget to celebrate feast days on Sundays. Giving yourself Sunday as a mini-Easter and a day of rest not only gives each week a little built-in treat, but it can remind you that time spent worshiping and meditating on the Creator isn’t meant to be a time of punishment or hunger or dreariness—it’s meant to be a time of gratitude, fulfillment, and intention.
- If you’re sacrificing something as part of your Lenten observance, then consider also taking something up as well. Whether it be a designated time to pray or meditate each day, a new sport or outdoor activity, a new hobby such as gardening or writing, the taking up of something new and positive as a part of Lent can be a terrific, daily reminder that Lent is more than simply a time of sacrifice. It is also a time of anticipation and giving back.
- Make extra time for friends and family. Lent can sometimes feel like a time of loneliness or self-denial: the denial of fun, alcohol, desserts, movies, etc. But just because a lot of classic Lenten sacrifices impact our recreational activities, it doesn’t mean that Lent should also equal a sacrifice of our social lives. Don’t let Lent become a reason to stay indoors and away from others. Instead, use it as a time to show others how grateful you are to have them in your life.
- Rather than focus on feelings of guilt during the days of Lent, try focusing simply on self-reflection in general. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself about both the bad and the good. For many people it’s all too easy to focus on the “bad,” on what they aren’t good at, at the things they’ve done wrong, the mistakes they’ve made. But Lent isn’t about feeling terrible and running yourself into the ground. It’s about coming to terms with oneself and with God, honestly and sincerely, so that you might also be transformed, receiving the grace of new life at Eastertime. So make time for prayer, meditation, and self-reflection, and let truth rather than guilt or self-pity be your guide. As Anne Lamott has so wisely said,
“God loves you just the way you are. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
I like to be independent. I don’t like seeming weak. I don’t like asking for help. But over the last couple months, I’ve had to. I’m currently facing a health issues. It’s nothing too serious, but it’s something that has been bewildering and, at times, left me feeling completely helpless and alone.
But what has stood out the most to me is what a powerful thing presence can be. I have been so grateful for people simply being present with me in these difficult days, and the power of presence has been reinforced for me over and over again.
Being on the receiving end of help has started a stream of thought for me about what presence means and why it’s spoken so strongly to me.
Presence is more than just being there.
Presence is being open, not necessarily available 24/7. That’s an impossible expectation to put on anyone. But I can’t describe the relief I’ve found in those who are present with me, not simply in proximity, but in spirit by letting me know I can call at any time and say, “I can’t. I can’t tackle this anymore.”
Presence is listening. People know when the person they’re talking to is distracted. Sometimes you can’t help it, but a listening ear that is all there can be like fresh water to a thirsty person. Unvirtuous Abby once posted: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference” (David Augsburger, Mennonite Teacher).
Presence is forgiving. It can be tiring. And sometimes the person in need doesn’t have room in his or her life to return the favor or even the mental space to remember to say thank you. Sometimes there can be hurt. But being present is being compassionate, overlooking wrongs.
Presence is active. It’s one thing to be available, but if someone is hurting, sometimes they have no idea or any capacity to state a need they may have. It’s recognizing, it’s noticing. At times my need was taken care of even before I felt it.
And most importantly, presence gives hope. The words or help of a friend has helped me face another day, it’s helped me stay positive, it’s given me courage—for no reason at all but the fact that I don’t feel alone in this.
As Advent is coming up, I find more and more richness in the name of Jesus: “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” His gift to us is His presence. He is someone who is wanting us to draw near.
“God with us” means that someone has an interest. Someone is nearby. Someone gives us the courage to face the next day. I’ve heard people say, “You shouldn’t go to God with a list.” And while that is valid, I honestly don’t think He cares if we end up going to Him in weariness with a request. I don’t think He tires of it. Knowing He is with me in unanswered health issues gives me peace. His presence gives me hope.
And it is through the presence of people that I’ve felt God’s presence as I walk through this.
Photo by Hania Luna