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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.
Origen: Heretic or Saint?
By The Rev. Mark Stanley
For the first time in my life, I am presenting a resolution to the Diocesan Convention–a resolution on the topic of the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria. I realize that it is pretty nerdy, but it has been bothering me that such a brilliant man was never canonized as a saint. Many early church scholars, including Henri Crouzel, SJ (Professor of Patristics at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Gregorian University in Rome), have asserted that Origen has been “unjustly branded a heretic” (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pg 503). Trying to correct this wrong, I am presenting a Resolution at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Convention on May 13, 2016 for Origen of Alexandria to be included in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of “saints.”
Born to Christian parents in 185 AD, Origen spent the first part of his career as a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Serverus in Alexandria in 202, in which his father was killed, teenage Origen desired martyrdom but his mother prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. Because of his Christian faith, Origen chose to lead a strict ascetic life of fasting, prayer, and voluntary poverty. According to the historian Eusebius, Origen supposedly even castrated himself because of his misinterpretation of Matthew 19:12. (Recent scholars have questioned the truth of this story, however, speculating that this may have been just a rumor circulated by his detractors.) In 250 AD, during a later persecution, Origen was imprisoned for being a Christian and cruelly tortured, after which he survived only a few years.
Refusing to deny his beliefs, Origen’s willingness to undergo personal suffering gave witness to his dedication to Christ. Origen, who was renowned for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, wrote influential works in the fields of theology, textual criticism, biblical commentary, preaching, and spirituality.
Hundred of years after the death of Origen, the Emperor Justinian instigated Origen’s condemnation and had many of his works burned. In 553 AD, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople seems to have condemned Origin as a heretic. That this council actually condemned him is both “enigmatic and problematic” (Philip Esler, The Early Christian World, Volume 2, pg 262). The Catholic Encyclopedia (volume 11, pg 308) even states that Origen “does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.”
Scholars today call Origen “the church’s first systematic theologian” and “the foremost biblical scholar of the early church.” Saint Jerome proclaimed Origen the “greatest teacher of wisdom and knowledge after the apostles.” Yet many of Origen’s works did not survive due to his condemnation several centuries after his death. This needs to be corrected. Some of this later criticism comes from Origen’s wide ranging philosophical speculation at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still forming. It is problematic to label as heresy Origen’s theories about the pre-existence of souls or the Son being inferior to the Father (which he may not have actually claimed) since the church at that time did not yet have official teachings on these matters.
Unfortunately some of the accusations against Origen were actually due to misunderstandings of his writings as well as the attribution of later speculations by his followers to him. Another point of controversy is Origen’s concept of Apokatastasis, that all creatures (even the Devil) could ultimately be reconciled with God. While scholars today debate whether Origen truly taught a version of Universal Salvation, Origen’s emphasis on the patience and enduring mercy of God, rather than on Divine punishment, might be seen in our own day as not heresy but as Good News. The great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way, “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith.”
Origen is deserving of a place on our liturgical calendar with his rare combination of scholarly genius and a saintly life dedicated to Christ. The next step is a Resolution recommending Origen be included in the next edition of A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations. Then, on to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 to work for final approval from the national church.
Origen scholar, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, states, “if anyone represented Anglican rationality, love of scripture, and holiness of life, it is Origen.”
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
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!
Autumn at Old St. Paul’s
For the past ten years, Old St. Paul’s has been growing and changing and building under the guidance, passion, and hard work of its clergy, staff, and congregation—and all of that sweat and love is definitely on display in Old St. Paul’s fall programs. What are we excited about for this autumn at Old St. Paul’s? Here’s just a taste:
“I’m excited about the Parish Breakfast and the start of the new choir season on September 13th, and the kick off of our education programs on September 20th.”
—The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley
“I’m most excited about working with our talented choir again. I’m so privileged to be working with them!”
—John Smedstad, Choir Director
“I am looking forward to the Sunday School Pumpkins and Potluck event.”
—Rebecca Giordano Dreisbach, Sunday School Minister
“Autumn has always been a special time for me because it’s always meant the beginning of a new school year and a fresh start on my responsibilities as a teacher. The excitement of new people, new spaces and a new program to implement made me feel engaged and vibrant; of course, the cooler weather and the loveliness of Baltimore in the fall helped, too. Now that I am on my second career as the Parish Assistant, I feel the same sense of being an integral part of an important organization with my ‘let’s get back to work and fun’ excitement. There are so many new things happening at our church, so many new people and so many fun events, I am energized. As the pumpkins and goblins morph into turkeys and football and then into ornaments and holly, Old St. Paul’s becomes the foundation of the holidays of fun, thanksgiving and joy, and I feel valued and enthusiastic because I am a part of something great!”
—Lynn Calverese, Parish Assistant
“You want to be careful about superlatives, but I foresee our church having the best fall we have had in my eleven years here as rector. Why? Our education programs are really taking off. Our Sunday School and Youth programs are growing and our forums series is spectacular. We have a growing number of fellowship opportunities this fall so that people can build stronger relationships in the congregation. In addition, we have begun exploring two new outreach ministries that could come to fruition in the coming months. Finally, our music program is really hitting its stride. I am looking forward to so much this fall.”
—The Reverend Mark Stanley
“I am so excited to see our wonderful choir return and see the list of all the interesting forum topics that will engage, inspire, and challenge us in the coming year. Additionally this year, I am extra excited to start a new program at OSP for families of babies and toddlers. Every month we will open up the church for the wonderful little kids of OSP and their parents to play and connect. It’s going to be a great year!”
—Kate Brantley, OSP Community Builder for Families with Infants and Toddlers
And as for me? Besides pumpkin carving (love it!) and all the terrific dinners, breakfasts, and get-togethers with my friends at Old St. Paul’s, I couldn’t be more excited about the start of the fall Forum series. The Forum has long been one of my favorite programs at Old St. Paul’s. Getting to learn from such a variety of people with my friends and fellow congregants, getting to get outside the normal worship rituals and rediscover the many ways that learning and asking questions can enlighten and lead us into worship—it’s definitely something to look forward to.
What programs, opportunities, and changes are you most excited about for this fall, whether at Old St. Paul’s or just in your own personal spiritual life?
Spanking Is Not The Way
Jesus advocated a non-violent approach to difficult situations. He taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and he told his disciples to put away their swords at the time of his arrest (Matt 5:39, 5:44, 26:52). While Christ’s teachings on non-violence can be applied to international warfare, and adult interpersonal conflicts, I would like to focus on an important family issue – the spanking of children.
A 2013 Harris poll showed that 81% of Americans approve of parents spanking their children. Of course, parents want to correct the youngsters put into their care. Everyone can agree that discipline needs to take place in order to help our children grow and mature. One option is to use physical punishment. Sometimes the biblical verse, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24), is thrown into the mix.
Is spanking a violent act? Certainly not all these physical punishments are the same. Slapping a child in anger is different from a dispassionate and limited spanking. But can parents be moved beyond this one way of providing discipline, deciding that they will find more effective and less damaging ways of teaching children how to behave?
There are many secular reasons not to spank children. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association assert that spanking can emotionally harm both parents and children, and that it is one of the least effective methods of discipline. (To see more from these sources, visit: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx or http://nospank.net/aap4.htm)
Pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears writes that “hitting models hitting” and teaches children that violence is the way to solve problems. He advocates other avenues of discipline that have much better outcomes.
In the last few years, we have grown in awareness of the dangers of domestic abuse. If spouses should never hit each other, can we get to a place where can agree that it is also unacceptable for anyone to physically hurt their children? Shouldn’t the basic human right to not be hit or slapped by another person be the same for both adults and children?
That much used “spare the rod” verse can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The “rod” (shebet) can be used for guiding and protecting rather than hitting. More than that, Jesus modified the eye-for-an-eye culture of his day with a message of non-violence. He offers a challenging but ultimately more life-giving path of compassion and refraining from ever hurting others.
For all these medical, psychological, and biblical reasons, Christian parents may want to rethink their use of corporal punishment in favor of using more effective and less damaging forms of discipline. After all, the word discipline actually means “teaching” and there are many non-violent ways to teach so that children will learn to become kind, compassionate, and loving like Jesus.
—The Rev. Mark Stanley
Celebrating Wisdom & St. Cyril of Jerusalem
“The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance. He is not felt as a burden for God is light, very light. Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as the Spirit approaches. The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, and to console.”
—St. Cyril of Jerusalem
In Greek Orthodox services, priests often punctuate their actions with the (sung) declaration:
This is wisdom; let us be attentive.
And while I’ve never been Greek Orthodox myself, this phrase has always struck me as something at once tremendously useful and profound. After all, it isn’t often when Wisdom is pinpointed and called out for us in everyday life.
Last Wednesday evening (3/18), my husband, Evan, and I joined fellow Old St. Paul’s member Steve Tollefson to participate in a celebration of The Feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem at The Church of the Redemption (led by The Reverend Jim Perra, former member of Old St. Paul’s). And, reflecting back on it now, I feel as though the entire night could’ve been punctuated with a great big exclamation point: THIS IS WISDOM; LET US BE ATTENTIVE. I’m not normally one who keeps quiet in a conversation, but in this group, I found that all I wanted to do was be attentive and listen.
First, we learned some of the history of St. Cyril, born in Jerusalem around 315 and made bishop of Jerusalem in (approx.) 349. As the bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril had a particular influence on the early liturgical forms of Holy Week for Christians, as thousands of believers made their annual pilgrimage there. Because of this and how those believers then returned home to spread news and practice of these liturgical forms, many of these decisions and practices continue on as our Christian inheritance today (such as the palms of Palm Sunday, for example). Cyril also had an important hand in helping to shape and vote on our Nicene Creed.
This history led us into a terrific discussion regarding not only the Nicene Creed but the possibilities and beauties of other Christian creeds, including one I’d never heard of before: the Maasai Creed.
“The Maasai Creed is a creed [that was] composed in about 1960 by Western Christian missionaries for the Maasai, an indigenous African tribe of semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The creed attempts to express the essentials of the Christian faith within the Maasai culture.”
–On Being, “The Maasai Creed,” Jaroslav Pelikan
And there’s a lot to appreciate about the Maasai Creed. For example, consider the phrase: “We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love.”
One of my personal favorite elements, however, is the line: “live the rules of love,” as in, “All who have faith in him [Christ] must…live the rules of love….”
This is wisdom. Let us be attentive.
It makes me wonder, if we were to create a creed that “attempted to express the essentials of the Christian faith within the [Baltimore] culture,” what would it look like?
**A great big Thank You to The Church of the Redemption, Steve Tollefson, and to The Reverend Jim Perra. And a special thanks to 4th Century Spanish nun, Egeria, without whose journal we would not know near as much regarding the practices of those original liturgical Holy Week practices as we do today.