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What We Hope Church Can Do
My wife Jenn and I spent our initial Baltimore years developing our spiritual lives at a church in the suburbs. When we moved downtown we felt a need to find a church closer to our weekday community. We also felt a need to change how we were nourishing our understanding of God. We started attending Old St. Paul’s in the Fall of 2009.
Our first Sunday at St. Paul’s was the kickoff of The Forum, the adult education program. There was palpable excitement for the local celebrity speaker. The church had reserved the ballroom of the Tremont Grand, the hotel next door, for the special occasion. Gary Vikan, Director of The Walter’s Art Museum, was sharing a playful lecture on his recently released book, From the Holy Land to Graceland. It was immediately obvious that his deep knowledge of Byzantine art was matched by his deep wonder of rock and roll culture. The lecture was mesmerizing. It spoke to my mind, my heart, and my soul. It was what I hoped church could do. It was what I hoped I could do with my own life’s work.
When I started attending Old St. Paul’s, I was looking for direction. I was reasonably far removed from my engineering degrees. It would be hard to pursue a path in that trade, not to mention that I lacked the ambition to do so. I had an inkling to go into finance, but again I was not moved. I was dabbling on the business side of art, managing a friend’s mural project. I was moving forward, but with hazy vision and limited fire. Gary clarified for me what might be possible and kindled the notions of the value of art that were already floating in my head.
In the course of his lecture, Gary shared that he was from Minnesota. I took the divine connection to my home state as an omen. I stalked him out of the hotel and stopped him before he got into his car. I shared briefly about my work on the Baltimore Love Project and he gave me his contact info. Two weeks later, we met for coffee. I will be having lunch with Gary again next Thursday. It is something we have done consistently since our initial coffee nearly 7 years ago.
The introduction to Gary was pivotal to my career, but it is not the only thing Old St. Paul’s has done for my vocation. The church has been a consistent source of inspiration, purpose, and direction. And, just as importantly, it has often allowed me to provide the same for others. This receiving and giving afforded by Old St. Paul’s has changed my life. It is one of the most cherished and valuable things to me. As a result, I yearn to invest more of myself, my time, and my treasure into Old St. Paul’s being!
Interested in sharing the various ways Old St. Paul’s has changed you? Please either email The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley or include a comment directly to this post by typing in the discussion box below. You can also choose to receive email notifications of new St. Paul’s articles by clicking the “Follow” button on the left-hand side of your screen. Thank you & God bless!
It Takes a Village: Finding Helping Hands at Church
—Tara Kirk Sell
Since Greg and I had Sennet, we’ve had our hands full with kids. One of the things I love about our Old St. Paul’s community is that when we come to church there are so many people ready to lend a helping hand or hold a baby for a few minutes. Sometimes, my arms are just tired and so it’s really nice to have people around who enthusiastically give Greg and me a moment to rest and recharge.
The other day when we stood up front to support Michael and Suzanne during Gabriel’s baptism, we were in turn supported by other members of the church when we plopped Sennet down in Kate Brantley’s arms and left Torin with Doug, Francine, and Ramy. Sennet spent the time grabbing Maggie’s hair with her toes and I could see Torin’s head poking up as Doug held him to show him what was going on. They were happy, safe, and welcome in the arms of friends.
When we came to the goodbye party for Chuck and Lynn, Sennet was passed from person to person as Greg and I chased Torin and renewed our friendship with other people. After a while, Greg and I said to each other, “We better go figure out where our baby is,” but we were entirely sure she was happy and well cared for being held by different members of our parish.
It is acceptance and compassion and welcome and love all wrapped up in one. That’s why I love it here at Old Saint Paul’s.
Tara Kirk is an American former competition swimmer and breaststroke specialist who is an Olympic silver medalist. She is a former world record holder in the 100-meter breaststroke.
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.
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.
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
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.