Seek to Understand

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, August 2, 2020

By: Wally Stettinius

Years ago, I read The Magnificent Defeat by Frederick Buechner, an author who was frequently quoted by John Miller. In it, he describes life as two wars. The first is “The war of conquest. We fight to gain our place in the world – the battle against other men to get ahead.” The second is ”The war not to conquer but to become whole and at peace inside our skins…which involves the capacity to forgive and to will good not only for the self but for other selves….This is the goal for which power, success and security are only forlorn substitutes.”

His message for winning this second battle is giving up the need for control – he calls it “The Magnificent Defeat.” Having control is an important element to material success – many successful people are very controlling. In fact, they may have a need to be in control. I know that I have struggled with this.

This thinking led me to the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time.

Accepting things that we cannot change means giving up control. How do we do this? It isn’t easy. For me, it has been to learn to live in the present and not worrying about the future. One of the things we most worry about as we age is what happens to us when we die. I think we need to accept that this is in God’s hands, and we have no control over it. This is where faith bringing peace comes in – that in dying we are born to a new life.

We are then faced with how we want to live in the present making the changes that we can. I find the answer to this in the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. We are, by nature, self-centered and motivated to meet our own wants and needs. The message in this prayer is to be other centered – Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. How to do this is described in detail – where there is hatred, let me sow love; injury, pardon; error, truth; doubt, faith; despair, hope; darkness, light; and sadness, joy.

This is obviously a huge challenge, and he goes on to describe how to do it – we need to seek to understand rather than to be understood, and to love rather than to be loved. If we can do these, the payoff is a huge paradox for it is in giving that we receive and it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

The critical skills here are open-minded listening combined with intellectual curiosity and an understanding of our own ignorance and limitations while suspending judgement. And genuine respect and concern for others and their opinions.

I present these thoughts not as accomplishments but as an aspiration for how I try very imperfectly to live my life.

I will use Anything to Reach You and Teach You

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, July 26, 2020

By: Denise Bennett

In my office, I have a small collection of little statues, icons and Holy Cards of Mary and Jesus. I never intended to collect them. I started out with one figurine of the Blessed Virgin that I picked up in a thrift shop many years ago. It was almost a joke; meant to be ironic rather than devotional.

I was raised in a very intellectual kind of Protestantism. Statuettes and icons were simply not part the deal. They were considered tacky at best and almost heretical at worst – way too Catholic. Maybe my starting to collect them was a form of rebellion. But as time went on, I started to look for them when I went thrifting and friends brought me some additions from faraway places, as well. Simultaneously as my faith journey has deepened so has my appreciation of my holy tchotchkes. I don’t worship or even venerate them, but I have come to realize that they have become visual reminders of a God who sometimes seems very hard to see. I am finding that I need those windows into the divine as icons, as sometimes described, especially in this time when so much of what we do see in this world is hard to look at.

The small icon of Christ, a copy of the one by Rublev, has a mysterious presence. But his dark brown eyes that look unflinchingly into the eyes of the viewer remind me God sees us and does not look away even when we do. The Madonna and Child statuettes, even the ones that are kind of kitschy, remind me of the Incarnation; that God chose to come into this broken world as the vulnerable child of a poor woman. Angels, God’s messengers, on a tiny triptych that a former colleague brought me from Spain, tell me that just as God spoke to people in the Bible, God still speaks to us through scripture and prayer and through the circumstances of our lives. The brown skinned Virgin of Guadalupe on the candle I bought at the grocery store shows me that God is so gracious that the Holy One will appear to us in the forms that we need most, whether it be to comfort or confront us. The many roses painted on that candle are part of the story of vision of Guadalupe, but the first thing that comes to my mind when I see them is a verse from Psalm 96: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

How much I need beauty; the beauty of our liturgy is a large part of what brought me to the Episcopal Church in the first place. How awesome is it that what started out as just an impulse buy in a thrift store has turned out to be a message from God: “I can and will use anything to reach you and teach you.” Is there something like that in your life?

A Letter to the Parish | Gersain Announces Retirement

Dear Friends in Christ,

In September of 2002, Gersain Agudelo came to work here at St. Mary’s and join the ministry of this community in Christ as one of our treasured Parish Sextons. So, by the time I arrived here at St. Mary’s a couple of years ago, Gersain was a long-standing and much-beloved member of our staff and a friend to so many of us. He was one of the first people I met on my first official day here at St. Mary’s. I remember when I introduced myself to him, he threw his arms into the air and shouted, ‘¡buenos dias!’, grabbed my hand with both of his hands to shake it, and said how glad he was to welcome me to St. Mary’s! His spirit has always been just that encouraging and enthusiastic, and I thank God for that spirit and for him.

I am writing to share that Gersain has announced his retirement at the end of this month. He had thought it might be closer to the end of the summer, but for him the time is right now. He has sold his home here in Richmond and plans to return to his native Columbia during the first week of August.

Under normal circumstances, we would have celebrated a ‘Thank you God for Gersain!’ Sunday with a proper and festive reception. We would have all had a chance to shake his hand or hug his neck in person and send him off with our love and thanksgiving. Sadly, of course, we cannot do that. But I do want to offer some tangible means for Gersain to know how much we love him and appreciate his faithful work and ministry with us at St. Mary’s.

I hope you will join me in offering a monetary gift to be given to Gersain. Please make your check payable to ‘St. Mary’s Church’ and write ‘Gersain Gift’ in the memo line. You can also make a gift on-line by going to, hover over the ‘Give’ link at the top of the homepage to reveal a drop-down menu, then click on ‘e-Giving: pledge by credit card’ in the drop-down menu or simply follow this direct link. This will take you to separate page, St. Mary’s online giving portal. Under “Give Now” there is a ‘choose a fund’ drop-down menu. Select ‘Gersain Farewell Gift’, type in the amount, click ‘submit’ and then follow the instructions from there.

I hope you will make an effort to do this as promptly so that we can gather this gift for him before he leaves. For gifts that arrive after his return to Columbia, we will make arrangements for those funds to follow him there.

And I hope that you will join me in thanking God for this wonderful man, colleague, and friend, and for the ministry we have shared together over so many years here at St. Mary’s.

Your brother in Christ,

The Reverend David May

The Wheat and the Weeds in our Hearts

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, July 19, 2020

By: David May, Rector

A prayer that I discover is often praying inside me is a prayer that is known as ‘the Serenity Prayer’. It’s a section of a longer prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr. The words are: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. What I appreciate so much about this prayer is the way it holds together both this call to act and to let be. The crux of the matter is knowing the difference: when am I called to act (to change what needs changing and that is mine to change) and when am I called to let be (what is not mine to change)?

Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds falls on the let be side of this equation. The servants in the parable are interested in rooting out the weeds that an enemy has sneakily planted among the grain. The householder says, ‘no, don’t do it; for in gathering the weeds you will uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together til the harvest.’ At the harvest – when all of our doing is done – God will sort it all out.

The danger is that in destroying the bad (the weeds) we may end up destroying the good (the wheat) as well. So where does that leave us?

Augustine of Hippo in a famous sermon offered a suggestion. He says that ‘the field’ is the world, yes. But, he said, ‘the field’ is also your own human heart; the wheat and weeds are growing there too. And, further, it is a very dangerous thing indeed to act as if only wheat is growing in my heart and only weeds are growing in yours. I’m afraid there’s way too much of that in our world right now.

Most mornings, I try to make a right beginning by remembering that wheat and weeds are growing in my own heart, to have some humility about that, and to ask for the courage to change what I can about that. Honestly, it is unlikely that I will ever change you by trying to pull up the weeds in your heart. That’s not my job. Besides, I’m not wise enough to do that without pulling up the good in you with it. My job is to love you. That’s more than enough for me to try to do! Until the harvest comes, that is enough to gives one’s life for.

“Let go and let God”

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, July 12, 2020

By: Elizabeth Baker Starling

I recently saw someone on social media say, “How is it already July? I’m still processing February!” I laughed, but the truth is, I think I’m still processing March…and April…and May. Almost exactly a year ago, I found out I was pregnant and went immediately into planning mode. We prepped the nursery, freezer meals, read all the parenting books, and downloaded all the pregnancy and parenting apps. It’s impossible to prepare yourself fully for a new baby, but we felt like we’d done a pretty good job. On March 18, Jason and I welcomed the most beautiful baby girl we’ve ever seen (we’re biased), but in so many ways, the experience wasn’t what we expected. We weren’t allowed visitors at the hospital, and after our first two weeks at home, our pediatrician advised us to stop allowing visitors altogether. We didn’t expect to learn how to parent without being able to have in-person help from our own parents. We thought we’d be able to take our baby to visit friends; to invite others over to hold her while we ate or showered or napped; we thought we’d be able to have an occasional 30-minute break. We never could have prepared ourselves for months alone as a family of three, while I recovered from surgery and we plowed through night after night of no sleep. There is no handbook on how to raise a baby in the middle of a pandemic. It’s been tough, and sometimes I dwell on that fact a little too much.

That said, initially I thought that this reflection would be all about how my faith has been tested over the past few months. But as I sat last night rocking my baby girl to sleep, I realized that while this experience hasn’t been easy, it has ultimately immensely strengthened my faith and forced me to embrace the “let go and let God” (or sometimes “Jesus take the wheel!”) mentality. Over the past few months, I’ve prayed harder and more frequently than ever before—prayers of gratitude for this new life and so much unexpected family time; prayers for guidance, safety, health; prayers for patience and sanity. During a recent Noonday Prayer service, David said, “We are not left on our own to get it all right at every moment,” and thank goodness for that. It is difficult for my Type A personality to accept that I am not in control, but it has been so comforting to remember that God is. Motherhood has overwhelmed me with a love I never knew was possible, and forced me to put all of my trust in God and His greater plan. I love my daughter so much that happy tears pour out of my eyes daily, and it strikes me that God loves us in that exact same way—powerful, overwhelming, indescribable love. The world may seem a little scarier, darker, and more confusing these days, but how blessed are we to be loved and embraced so strongly in the midst of it all?