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The Church is a People
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
Seeking Healing, Seeking Joy
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.
Time away for reflection: not urgent but important
–The Rev. Mark Stanley
“So many things in life are urgently tugging at us,” my conference leader said, “that we have to make sure we also focus on things that are not urgent but are very important.”
These wise words came at the beginning of a weeklong Clergy Conference I attended in Arizona. The event is called CREDO and it is paid for by the Episcopal Church’s Pension Plan. I feel so grateful for the time to hear presentations on personal health, vocational discernment, spiritual practices, and long-term financial planning.
In all these topics we were invited to begin by ruminating on big questions like, “What are my deepest core values?” and “Where do I sense God calling me?” The answers to these sort of questions don’t come fast (at least not to me) but need time set aside for reflection, prayer, and focused conversation. Part of the gift of this week was being with Episcopal priests from across the country, laughing and worshiping and supporting each other in our interior explorations.
It is a rare experience to have a whole week of structured time and expert support to work on long-term life and work goals. But now that I am back to “real life,” I don’t want to forget that reflection and discernment on life’s big questions is an ongoing process.
May we all try to find time in our busy lives to think about the big questions in life and to focus on things that are not urgent but still vitally important.
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
All Hallows’ Eve: A Time for Remembering
I’ve been thinking a great deal about death lately. Not only is it the week of Halloween, but I’ve also recently had more than a few friends suffer through major surgeries, vehicle collisions, and severe illness. And so maybe it’s because of these events and meditations that I’ve also been feeling especially grateful to have such a life- and living-centered faith. For although many focus on the torment and violent death of Christ, it is important to also constantly remind oneself of what it was he was dying for. To my mind, Christ was not simply a sacrifice, but a man who died for his dedication to the love, life, and eternity of the world. The legacy of Jesus then, for me, has always been a life-centered faith. A faith where the mysterious God empowers us to conquer death, where all things are interconnected and eternal rather than isolated, linear, and full of endings.
Despite this legacy, however, the Christian Church, like many religions, has left in its wake a tremendously bloody history thanks to the failings, fears, and prejudices of its practitioners over the centuries: persecution of countless men and women as witches, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and many other instances of war, terrorism, conquest, and “cleansing.”
As Halloween is nearly upon us, it strikes me as a strangely ideal time to pause and give a moment of remembrance to those who have suffered and to those who continue to suffer at the hands of people who claim to be acting in the name and service of God.
To aid you in this, I leave you with a prayer from Michel Quoist’s classic meditation, Prayers:
Grant me, Lord, to spread true love in the world.
Grant that by me and by your children it may penetrate a little
into all circles, all societies, all economic and political
systems, all laws, all contracts, all rulings;
Grant that it may penetrate into offices, factories, apartment
buildings, movie houses, dance halls;
Grant that it may penetrate the hearts of men and that I may
never forget that the battle for a better world is a battle of
love, in the service of love.
(Quoist, pg 103)
Photo by Jessica Sexton, OSP Youth Minister
Experiencing the Presence of God through the Weather
How do you feel the presence of God?
This past spring, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley dedicated one of our Sunday Forums to a meditation on and discussion of just this question. People dove straight in, giving all kinds of fantastic and unexpected responses, everything from “in the love of family and friends” to “it isn’t something I necessarily have to feel, but experience.” Everyone was being so forthright and brave that I was surprised to find myself suddenly and unusually shy. Because although a very specific answer immediately leapt to mind for me, I was sure that no one else would understand, that it’d be thought of as juvenile somehow (despite all my trust and love for my fellow Old St. Paul’s congregants). This, for some reason, I was nervous to share.
And then, to my great astonishment, I didn’t have to—someone else spoke up and said precisely what was on my mind: I experience the presence of God through the weather.
My heart lifted and I know I felt God’s presence in that, in this bold woman’s admission.
I, also, so often experience the presence of God through the weather.
When I’m walking through my neighborhood and feel a breeze that has me looking up at a tree in bloom, a tree I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, or get to take off my jacket when the clouds part for a great bolt of sunshine, I’m reminded to be thankful—reminded to acknowledge the presence and hand of God in these small but life-filling pleasures.
When I’m sitting at home writing and rain pounds against the windows, I’m reminded to be grateful not only for the rain that feeds the Earth, but also to be grateful for my mother who loves the rain (but rarely gets it where she lives). I’m reminded to be grateful for having a home at all—a dry, safe place to go to when I need shelter from the wet and the storm. And I’m reminded to lift up a prayer for those who do not enjoy the same blessing.
When the sun’s out in full yellow force such that I have to go around my apartment flipping on the window AC units to cool things down again, I’m reminded to appreciate the way my body naturally responds to the world—getting chills or sweaty or tired or energized. And I’m likewise reminded to be grateful for my apartment and those window AC units, knowing how many people go without these life-preserving comforts each year, and I’m reminded to pray for them.
Whenever the weather is just so…
I’m reminded of my childhood in North Carolina, picking strawberries with my brother.
I’m reminded of spending a May week with my mother-in-law in Whidbey Island, WA where together we walked along a chilly beach and were grateful for each other.
I’m reminded of Christmases at home in Texas with my parents, brother, and little niece who I miss/worry about/am proud of/am excited about every day.
I’m reminded of my husband and the pumpkin patch we hunted through this past autumn.
I’m reminded of my husband and the time he kept us both safe while driving home through the one honest blizzard I’ve ever been in.
I’m reminded of my husband and of the walk we took together in remembrance of Freddie Gray.
And I’m reminded of just how few people get to relax enough to appreciate these weather elements as they walk outside, knowing how many women have been attacked or harassed on streets all over the world, knowing how many gay people and people of color have been attacked and harassed, knowing how many differently-abled people find navigating outdoor pathways painful/frustrating/unfair, knowing how many people are forced to live outside and expose the intimacies of their life to the weather in all its moods.
I experience the presence of God through the weather—a pervasive, constant force that fuels the world, touches every life every day, and helps keep me mindful, grateful, and praying.
(Photo by Evan Mead-Brewer)