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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
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.
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
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
“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!
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