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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
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.
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.
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.”