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It Takes a Village: Finding Helping Hands at Church
—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.
This past Sunday, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley gave a sermon on John 5:5-9:
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
Mary made an excellent observation in her sermon, highlighting the fact that a major turning point in this passage is the moment when the ill man finally makes and gives voice to the decision to be made well. By asking the man if he wanted to be made well, Jesus showed him respect and care, giving him hope, while also still leaving the power of choice entirely within the man’s hands. Instead of telling the man what he needed, Jesus asked what he needed–what he wanted.
Do you want to be made well?
The poignancy and painfulness of this struck me hard and has lingered with me ever since. The tragedy of many diseases is that they can suck away much more than simply our physical health. Like a parasite’s self-defense mechanism, the disease strikes out not only against our physical selves, but against our emotional and psychological selves as well, often keeping people from wanting anything at all, let alone wanting to be made well.
What many people don’t realize until they themselves are sick is that it takes energy to want things. It takes energy to decide to eat, to decide to go out with your friends or spouse or children. It takes energy to call your mother for help. It takes energy to schedule a doctor’s appointment. It takes energy to want to take care of ourselves. And more than these, it takes a true and sincere understanding that we are worthy of these desires. We are worthy of other people’s help, attention, and time. We are worthy of being made well.
When I suffered from depression as a young woman in college, I was stunned to discover that I no longer recognized myself. Who was I? Where had I gone? Surely this person who couldn’t eat, couldn’t leave the apartment, couldn’t hardly work up the energy to get dressed in the morning—surely this person wasn’t me. And this denial only made things worse. It only further fed the disease that daily convinced me everything was worthless and that I, the person who was no longer even Katie, was at the very bottom of the worthless pile.
It wasn’t until my father came and visited me in person, physically reaching out to pull me up and remind me what I was capable of, that I felt strong enough to want things again. To want to be made well.
I imagine my father’s face when I think of Christ reaching out to this man at the pool of Beth-zatha, reaching out to this man and reminding him that he can stand and walk and be made well. All he has to do is the hardest thing in the world: He must want to be made well.
Through his words and actions, Christ tells this man here at Beth-zatha, Don’t worry. You aren’t alone. I, too, want you to be made well. You are worthy of me and my help. You are worthy of being made well.
As we continue the healing ministry passed on to us from Jesus, we too can use our words and actions to show others that they are worthy of being noticed, reached out to, and cared for. They are worthy of being made well.
5 Tips for Making the Most of Lent
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.”
For more tips and ideas, check out this article on how to make Lent joyful from Ellie Borkowski with Life Teen and the article “Beyond Fasting” by Joe Lovino for umc.org.
Valentine’s Day: Seven Ways Faith can Enhance our Relationships
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
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.
- Call old friends to catch up, and thank them for being in your life
- Listen to music that moves you
- Refrain from gossiping and saying unkind things about others
- Go on a news/media fast for a period of time to lesson your anxiety
- Take more naps
- Volunteer at a local soup kitchen
- Clean out your closets and get rid of the unwanted stuff in your life
- Write a letter to a person who has wronged you, and then throw it away
- Participate in worship
- Give up drinking alcohol for Lent
- Set aside time each day to sit quietly with God, praying
- Read a book on spirituality by Henri Nouwen or Anne Lamott
- Give up eating out as much and donate that money to feed the hungry
- Make a list of five year, ten year, and twenty year goals for your life
- Spend more quality time with family and friends
- Participate in a class or retreat at your church
- Consider taking a break from people who are a toxic influence in your life
- Exercise daily, breathing deeply, and giving thanks to God for your body
- Make a list of those whom you may have hurt
- Consider taking responsibility and making apologies
- Work to mend broken relationships
- At the end of each day, create a gratitude list
- Read the New Testament
- Cook and eat more consciously, making healthier choices, to be truly nourished
- Take stock of your finances and create a plan that reflects your values
- Tour a museum to enjoy looking at art
- Watch movies that make you laugh and cry
- Write a list of the things for which you feel sorry, your sins, and then ask God to forgive you, burning the list afterwards
- Spend time in nature noticing God’s hand at work in creation
- Go to the doctor or dentist, to care of your body
- Practice Breath Prayer while driving and waiting in lines, inhaling and exhaling and saying a mantra like, “God in me. Me in God.”
- Pick out a person you are worried about and do something thoughtful for them
- Choose a justice issue that worries you and talk with a friend about it
- Go to Starbucks less often and send the money you saved to your favorite charity
- Write a little every day, perhaps in a journal, even if it is just lists of things that are on your mind
- Take a road trip with a friend
- Consider how your work can be more like a ministry, day in and day out
- Make a list of the hymns and readings that you want to have at your own funeral
- Do less or do more, to achieve better balance in your life
- Resolve to spend time with people who may help you to become the person God intends you to be
—The Rev. Mary Luck Stanley
Practice in Practice: Yoga
“I need to look good without my shirt,” said Brandon, my dear friend.
This is the statement that got me into a yoga studio, or frankly a gym of any sort, after a nearly two decade hiatus from indoor fitness. My friend Brandon is a professional dancer, and he had just landed a part in the ensemble of The Producers. Our practice began five months prior to opening curtain and opening his shirt.
I had been active for the two decades riding bikes through the woods and on roads as a weekend cycling warrior. I was not unhealthy in the minds of many, but I was not a specimen of fitness either. Knowing that rigor is always easier with a partner, I took Brandon up on the offer and bought a Groupon for my first visit to a yoga facility. I had no idea how my body and mind would change with this friendly gesture.
The first thing I noticed was the space. Why am I going to a studio and not a gym? Why does the space smell like a walk through a State Park? Why is the music so serene and mind stretching? Why is it so hot?
Next I noticed the format of the class. Why is the instructor overly friendly with her voice? Why does my session start with “setting an intention”? Why does the experience begin with my eyes closed and finding my breath?
Then I noticed the power of being stationary. Why is mimicking a raven so hard? Why am I floating on one foot, bent over, arms at my side trying to look like a jet in flight? Is anyone else having a hard time standing still?
And why does my teacher thank me for sharing my practice?
After confronting this experience several times it dawned on me that that the answer to all of these questions is rooted in one simple fact: Yoga is all about practice.
The space: Yoga takes place in a studio because you go there to refine a craft. It’s not about mindless running in place or curling a weight seventy-three times. In yoga you work on form, an act of the mind and the body. It smells so good—yes, probably in part to hide our human aroma,—but more importantly, to refresh our minds. The sounds of the room impart a sense of exploration and encourage an inner and outer reaching. And it’s hot because your muscles are more elastic in a warm environment. The entire environment beckons us to explore.
The class: Your teacher is so kind because we need encouragement in our moments of struggle to execute. The tenor of his or her voice lets you know that it is not only okay but it is right to try. There will be no judgement here by you, by your peers, nor by your instructor. You start your session by setting an intention because practice is most effective with a purpose. Our breath is a reminder of our humanity, our starting point. You find your breath to find yourself. Your breath melts mental dams. The class empowers us to try.
Being stationary: It can be difficult to see the value of being at rest. How often do we take the moments we need to understand our present condition? Our minds, our mouths and our bodies are constantly in motion. This is why it is so hard to pose like a raven or fly like a plane. Our brain and our muscles need to train to be quiet, to be at rest, and to hold ourselves up in new positions. When we are at rest in mind, body, and spirit we have no idea if the other is better or worse than we. We only know of our own condition and our own place in the universe. We are free from judgement of ourselves and others. Being stationary gives us freedom to be ourselves.
My practice of yoga has been incredible for my whole being. I am more flexible. I am stronger. I am more open. The spirit of the experience has allowed me to reach more. With the start of a new year, I have set my intentions. They are more ambitious goals than I would have set even a year ago. And more importantly, I have given myself the freedom to practice so that I will be ready to perform and achieve them!
What will you reach for in 2016? Are you ready to give yourself the opportunity to practice to get there?
And yes, Brandon found his form for opening night!
Finding Our Spiritual Gifts
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 Power of Presence
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
Helping Children to Find Faith
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.
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.