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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
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
Knowing the Spirit’s Comfort
Recently in Old St. Paul’s Forum, we discussed our faith journeys and why we go to church.
As someone who attends church, I think this is important to do. But it’s hard. St. Augustine said, “What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it.” That’s been my prayer for myself. Teach me, Lord, to be able to voice the peace and hope you’ve given me.
Something I often see in Christians is that they work from a context of needing to save souls for eternal life. And while it’s legitimate, it’s also a whole other world that is so far away from our thinking and our lives.
But I love what John says in 1 John 1:24-25: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what He promised us—even eternal life.”
It reads (as I understand it) that the reason for Christ coming was so that we could remain in the Son and the Father—and, oh yes, you also get eternal life…almost like an afterthought. So when Christ told us that He came for us to have life and have it to the full, He meant more than eternal life. He meant a full life here. Now.
Honestly, sometimes I ask, why couldn’t God have chosen to send Christ at the end of the world and let us all choose at that time? He could have left the world as it was with Adam and Eve and then at the end of our lives, Christ could die and save us. But what kind of life would He have given us then?
He wanted us to know the Spirit’s comfort. He wanted us to know relief from the guilt of sin while we lived. He wanted us to have the assurance of a better place than here. He wanted to be a part of our lives in our conversations, our prayers, our daily moments. He wanted us to have the confidence to enter into His throne room and pray to Him while on Earth. HE, the God of the universe, wanted to be a part of our insignificant dusty bodies.
“Eternal life,” though important, can often be irrelevant. My choice to follow God is a response to Him who interrupted history to be present in our lives.
Photo by Larissa Peters
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.
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