Archives for the month of: February, 2013

I wasn’t even the driver and I was filled with anxiety. Zipping through traffic on the freeways in Los Angeles on our way to Julian, California. Everyone is in a hurry, trying to weave in between cars to reach their destination quicker.

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When I told my family and friends that I was moving to LA their first comment was to complain about the traffic. I have not experienced the legendary Los Angeles freeway because I mostly ride the Metro system train. I am an expert in navigating the foot traffic that is the Hollywood and Vine rush hour. I weave in between people to reach work faster but I rarely look at those besides me. I am busy with what I need to do and how quickly I can accomplish that.

We focus too much on the destination and not the fashion in which we do so. We tend to complain and not appreciate, criticize instead of marvel. I will try to see the beauty that is the intricate structure that is Metro, the transpiration system, and all the people that it takes to manage and improve it.

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One of the joys I have been given in my Christian and Spiritual journey is that of the season of Lent.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that I felt intimidated, disconnected and a flat-out failure around all that Lent represented.  I would set goals, only to not meet them; I would attempt to take on a new discipline only to have my word and commitment mean nothing.  Truly it felt
like the longest 40+ days ever, and I often just wanted to get it over with.

Yet, by God’s grace in my life, I sit today as one who embraces and cherishes this sacred season.  My view has been shifted to one of gratitude.  Gratitude for this holy and sacred time with God.  To say that I live a very full, busy and demanding life would be an understatement.  I am blessed not only to have an abundance of work, but also to be actively engaged in many communities where my time and talents are welcomed and used.  Most of the time, I’m an over-extender – over-achiever.  I give and give of myself and love doing it. Yet, I fail miserably when it comes to slowing down to take care of myself, and to nurture my relationship with God & Jesus.  THAT is where the gift of Lent shows up.  It’s as if I’ve been given permission to alter my way of being drastically for this period of time with the invitation and reminder on Ash Wednesday that from ashes I came, and to ashes I shall return.  In its simplicity, I am reminded of my mortality, and that the only time I have is now, this moment.   I guess I’m someone who needs permission to pull back, to retreat.  And so, this Lenten Season I gave much prayer and consideration to how I might do that.

Being still and being alone with God seems to be the most difficult things for me to do. Transforming myself from an active, doing, fixing, type-A being into one who will be still and present was the call.  To take my ‘aloneness’ that I bury and hide, and to place it prayerfully and vulnerably in God’s hand each day – so that I am no longer alone but rather, that I am alone with God. The Holy One.  God and me – together are one.  The Holy One.

My practice has been to take time each day to sit in stillness and silence.  After attending a recent retreat day with James Finley where he led us through simple yet profound steps in contemplative & meditative commune with God – I felt I had the tools I needed. (yes, my type-A brain wanted tools!).  Whether sitting in my living room or office, back yard or church, or as I did today – in my hotel room in Taiwan, I have committed to joining God in the stillness and quiet.  It has not been easy to keep my thoughts and other interruptions at bay –but I am imperfect and God’s love for me in spite of me helps me to let go of my self-judgment.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a natural hot springs spa here in Taiwan.  Because I was traveling alone, I had to use the common facilities on the women’s side (rather than a private couples facility offered to other tourists in my group).  At first I felt envious that they had a private area in which to enjoy the healing waters (my self-conscious western brain wanted not to be nude publicly).  However, once I navigated the way to the pools (common shower, everyone nude, no towel to cover up with), I miraculously became not an outsider but a part of a greater community of women. They noticed me, and guided me without a common language in the proper ways of using the facilities, and when I finally sat in the healing sulfur waters, I closed my eyes and gave thanks to God.  Here I was, placed in the midst of a community where I was the foreigner – and yet was welcomed and almost immediately was no longer any different than any other woman there.  I was one of many, and yet one.  And God was present in their warm smiles, their curious gazes, their kind directions, and in the space they provided to me to just sit and be.

In my meditation this morning, the profound message from God was that I am not alone.  I am one person, and in a country that is not familiar, and yet I am not ever alone. In my deepest longing for belonging, God is with me and I belong.  I pray to carry this with me beyond this Lenten season, to be mindful always.

Over the years, as I grew up in the Episcopal church, I often heard people talking about giving something up for Lent. Therefore, in my mind, this season became known as a time where Christians go without something because that’s the tradition. It wasn’t until last year that I finally grasped the meaning of Lent! This was an appropriate time though because I needed to strengthen my own relationship with God and gain clarification on several Episcopal traditions that I had been accustomed to witnessing for years without a firm understanding. I decided that I wanted to observe Lent and not only go without for forty days but challenge myself to be more cognizant of a specific habit as well. My Lenten discipline was to go without consuming the flesh of any living thing (becoming a vegetarian) as well as forcing myself to be more assertive in situations where I might otherwise shy away. This was very difficult, but I committed my whole heart, body, mind, and spirit to experience what Jesus had to go through while he was out in the wilderness and constantly tempted by the devil. Well, I definitely felt different after officially observing Lent for the first time because the bond I have with God is now stronger than ever. Oh, and I’m a pescatarian now. Every time I ate meat after that I felt conflicted, so I decided to make what was only a brief practice a permanent change.

This year I wanted to choose a practice that was going to challenge my usual habits, so I have given up sugar. And, when I say sugar, I don’t just mean desserts and sweets, but anything that has sugar added to it as well. As for what I added, I am going to try and make a sacrifice each day by, for example, giving up time set aside for myself to be with others. So far, it’s been quite challenging because I’ve seen so many sweets and items with sugar in them since Lent started that I am forced to wonder what foods exist to eat without this crystalline compound as an ingredient. All in all, the experience of waking up each morning, and reading the Lenten meditation booklet I have in addition to saying a prayer for those people who have been placed on the daily [prayer] schedule has been amazing for me spiritually. This routine allows me to keep in mind my commitment to my Lenten discipline. Lent to me is a time to be inspired through momentary adjustments to every day actions. It may seem like a long journey, but that’s only because we are without what we thought we might have never been able to live without. Now, imagine how Jesus might’ve felt…

-Brandon Stuart

The stain-glass windows that line our church walls transform the some times muggy shine from the Hollywood sun into a bright display of color. The range of hues and shades mirror the diverse congregation, each bringing something distinct to our St. Stephen’s family.

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Every family, city, and church is different and has its own style. I am always fascinated with the stain-glass that inhabits each church I visit. This picture, taken by David Hawbaker, of me admiring one such window in Blackfoot, Idaho. Each congregation reflected in the glass.

 

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As a child, I was raised as a non-denominational Christian who didn’t participate in Lent or any other Episcopalian or Catholic traditions. Lent was a completely foreign concept to me when entered into my undergraduate education at a Jesuit institution and also when I arrived in Los Angeles for the Episcopal Urban Intern Program (EUIP). Lent is something I never engaged in myself because I didn’t understand why someone decided to do it. Why would someone give up something they like to eat, or do or participate in for 40 days? I decided that talking with people about their reasons for engaging in Lent wasn’t the best way for me to gain an understanding of this experience. I decided to participate in Lent myself to gain an understanding through doing.

After a week of discernment I decided that for Lent I would give up the use of profanity. I realized that using profanity wasn’t the best way to verbally express myself. I also realized that I had started influencing those around me in using it more often, which is not a good thing. I began to realize that by being intentional about not using profanity and searching for better words to express myself, I began to start thinking before I speak and formulating what I wanted my words to convey. Thinking before I speak has never been one of my strongest qualities, as I tend to act on instinct. I have realized this is a habit I need to develop and Lent is the perfect opportunity to do that.

I don’t have the best understanding of Lent right now being the start of the season, but I am growing in my goal of changing how I verbally express myself. Each day has been a struggle and I have failed more times than I have succeeded but I refuse to give up. Each day is a new day for me to work towards my goal and each day I go without using profanity verbally is one step closer to not even thinking those words and being able to articulate myself more efficiently.

Rain is a silly thing. Drops are only seen falling in front of headlights or streetlamps or reflected in the pools. Each puddle avoided just adds to the spender of jumping into the enormous one right outside your house. Then dash inside to change into slippers and warm your toes. The sounds against the window and on the roof are steady as you go to sleep.

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I realized how lucky I am that I only have to bear that rain during my commute. The rain that I enjoy only for the minutes I am outside and then watch lovingly from my house. Last night I was able to spend it indoors but others were not. Rain is a silly thing, both comforting to some and an unavoidable challenge for others.

Up until this year, even though I always acknowledged the meaning behind Lent, attended church every Sunday and made what I thought were sacrifices, I was selfish and hardly altruistic during this time of year. Growing up, I didn’t mind that us Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. It just meant that my family was able to go out for a world-renowned Wisconsin Friday Fish Fry, which was often times the best part of my week.  I never felt I was being deprived of anything. As a result, I stopped looking at the real reason behind no-meat on Fridays and instead looked forward to fried cod, French fries, tartar sauce, coleslaw, bread and apple sauce.

As the years went on, I recognized the importance of giving up other things during the season. For a few consecutive years, I gave up Ketchup. This may sound completely ridiculous, but as I have explained to my roommates, this truly was a sacrifice and a struggle. I could give the little boy from the movie Big Daddy a run for his money on who loved the condiment more. But even then, I was never doing it for my Lord or to prepare for Easter. I was doing it to lose weight. I always joked with my mom that I loved Lent because I dropped about 5lbs. The sacrifices I was making were in reality not sacrifices at all. I used Lent merely as a means to an end, choosing not to look more closely at why I was giving up something in the first place.

This year, through my spiritual growth in the Episcopal Service Corps and Jubilee Consortium, I made a tremendous realization. I finally opened my eyes and was awakened to the fact that Lent is not about weight loss, trivial food sacrifices or Friday night Fish Fry. It is not about me at all. Lent is a time to prepare for and commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered, died, and rose again in order to save us. I feel foolish to think that for so long I used his selfless love and sacrifice in the wrong way.

This year, I am changing how I approach Lent altogether. I have not given anything up. Instead, I am taking on challenges and trying to bear my own cross. One of my goals for Lent is to be patient as Christ was patient. This transcends through all aspects of my life: at home, at work, on the bus, with my family, friends and even at the grocery store on Sunday afternoons.

The other day I was at the store, attempting to check out, and I noticed that my bus was arriving in 5 minutes. The woman helping me received a phone call during the middle of my transaction, which she took, because it was her daughter. She chatted for a few minutes about how much water her daughter needed to make a pasta (I think it was her daughter’s first time cooking) as I began to nervously check my GoMetro app, counting down the minutes until the bus would surely pass me up. Any other day I might have interrupted her conversation and said, “I’m really sorry but I’m going to miss my bus – could you finish checking me out?” But I didn’t. I could tell in her face that she was so thrilled to be offering her daughter advice and receive that phone call. I reassessed the situation and didn’t want to rush her. I had nowhere to be. Another bus would eventually come. I waited until she got off the phone, finished the transaction, and made it to the bus stop with a few moments to spare. Although this may seem like a trivial example, the smallest moments are often times the most important. They serve as a foundation for the bigger picture.

I am also attempting to meditate or dedicate at least 5 additional minutes of silence and prayer to God every day. I am accustomed to praying when I attend church or every night before I go to bed, but now I find myself holding conversations with God and offering him praise throughout the day. In less than a week, I already feel like our bond is growing and I have seen tremendous improvements in my daily life. I feel happier and more at peace.

Finally, I am offering all of my suffering and frustrations to God during this time. I am letting go and letting him take the wheel. There have been many curveballs thrown at me this year in terms of health, family, etc., and in the past I was always angry with God for making me face adversity and difficult times. In my daily life, I find myself frustrated with Los Angeles (on public transportation, in my job, at the store, etc). Through the help of my peers and my own understanding, I now realize that I must suffer as Jesus suffered. The suffering is what makes us great. It is what makes the good times, good. There is nothing I cannot handle with God by my side. Even when Jesus thought his cross was too heavy to carry, dropping it as he walked, he picked himself up and kept moving forward. In other words – I am trying to thank God every day for everything, knowing that he will continue to help me on my path.

This Lent, I’m giving up my worries about money. If this sounds like an unspecific and unattainable discipline to you, you should take a look at my budget spreadsheet. This ridiculously detailed spreadsheet is left over from the years where I primarily worked as a freelancer, when paychecks were sporadic and varied in size. Keeping a careful eye on my bank accounts helped me plan for the lean months.

Now I have a steady job, with enough money to pay the bills, but I still find myself worrying about money. When my husband and I finish our graduate studies and look for more permanent jobs, will we find something that pays enough to support us as a family?

Of course, budgeting is not a bad thing, in and of itself. Neither is dreaming about the future. But I feel that both of these are taking me farther away from God and my trust in God’s provision. After all, I remember what Jesus reminded his disciples, many of whom had left behind their own jobs to follow him:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:25-27)

So for the next forty days, my spreadsheet is off-limits. My husband will be taking care of the bills I usually pay. And when my usual worries about the future crop up, I hope to replace them with prayer. This Lent, I will try to live into Jesus’ words of comfort, as best I can.

Hello St. Stephen’s and friends!

My name is Brian Cerney, and I am one of the 25 Episcopal Urban Interns working around Greater Los Angeles. This Lenten season I have decided to periodically record my progress in keeping my chosen discipline. I’ll be sharing my experience with the St. Stephen’s community, so be on the lookout for updates.

This Lenten Season, rather than giving something up, I’ve decided to take on two disciplines: daily spiritual practice and daily preparation of at least one meal. I chose these two disciplines because a) I believe they are important and should be a part of my everyday life, and b) by the end of a long day, they are often little more than an afterthought. After working with middle schoolers at EXCEL Charter Academy for upwards of 10 hours, I’m usually drained and just want to sit down with some fast food and zone out on the internet. But that sort of Path-of-Least-Resistance living isn’t what this Year of Service is about, nor is it the sort of lifestyle I want to call my own. I’m hoping that adding them to my daily routine this Lenten Season will help turn them into habits that continue on indefinitely.

The parameters for my disciplines are as follows:

– Daily Spiritual Practice: This can be any activity that I find spiritually nourishing. Prayer, meditation, attending a religious service, playing music – whatever! The goal is simply to take some time each day to engage in something that lifts the soul. During the course of the season I also hope to take part in some spiritual practices that I’m not as familiar with (for example, Taize prayer) as well as attend at least one worship service of a religious denomination that I’ve never experienced before.

– Daily Preparation of At Least One Meal: Here we are using the word “preparation” pretty loosely. This could mean cooking a full meal from scratch or just making myself a sandwich for lunch. Heating something up in the microwave or oven doesn’t count, even if they’re leftovers from a previously cooked meal. I would also like at least one prepared meal a week to be something I’ve never cooked before.

I’m excited to take on these challenges, and I hope you’ll check back to see how I’m doing. With that said, good luck to all in your personal Lenten disciplines!

All the best,

Brian Cerney

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The intersection just outside my window always seems to be busy. Horns honk, sirens wail and a number of people are always running late. Nothing is relaxed but always in a rush or actions done out of anxiousness. I see the stop signs that no one obeys and the litter scattered along the sidewalk. I also see the trees blossoming, the dog walkers, and the families strolling to preschool. Calm and genteelness exists along side the anxiety and noise. These remind me that God is ever present, especially when there are things that do not represent the love that God preaches. Even if I don’t find it in the scenery, then I will try find it in the people and myself.

– Kim Ellsworth