“You Don’t Have to Check your Brain at the Door”

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, June 28, 2020

By: Suzanne Munson Jernigan

Many of us have chuckled over Robin Williams’s list, “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian”:

  • No snake handling
  • You can believe in dinosaurs
  • Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them
  • You don’t have to check your brains at the door
  • Pew aerobics
  • Church year is color-coded
  • Free wine on Sunday
  • All of the pageantry—none of the guilt
  • You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
  • No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

I particularly like this one: “You don’t have to check your brains at the door.” To me, this means that Episcopalians are allowed more intellectual freedom, a greater ability to question conventional norms, than members of many other religious groups.

A case in point is my interest in exploring new information about the afterlife, or “heaven,” in traditional terminology. The Bible provides hints about Heaven but leaves the details for us to imagine.

Jesus said, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” But we are left to muse about their size and style.

After my husband Ned died in 2013, I began a spiritual quest to learn where he went (where we all go), what goes on there, and what the point of it all might be. I decided to go outside of religious scriptures to read what medical doctors and PhD researchers have discovered about these questions within the past fifty years.

I was glad to attend a book study at St. Mary’s, where we discussed Proof of Heaven, the New York Times best-seller by Eben Alexander, M.D., about his profound encounter with the afterlife. I found comfort in being with individuals who were not afraid to explore the unconventional. I added Alexander’s work to my growing list of books about the Near-Death Experience and what we can learn from the tens of thousands of individuals who have crossed over and returned to tell the story.

Other books of interest are Life After Life by University of Virginia researcher Raymond A. Moody, M.D.; Many Lives, Many Masters , a groundbreaking study of reincarnation by noted psychiatrist Brian Weiss, M.D.; and Journey of Souls, by Michael Newton, PhD, a remarkable summary of thousands of accounts of life between lives and the spiritual development of souls. In addition, everyone can easily access the growing number of authentic, personal testimonials of spiritual transformation that can be found online now.

By going outside of organized religion to seek answers, I found that the truth is actually contained in the basic teachings of Christ: God is love. Love one another. Forgive. Live kindly and generously. This is what it’s all about, all that matters. I also confirmed that Jesus is the real deal. He is who he said he was.

I feel comfortable sharing my findings with friends at St. Mary’s because you “don’t check your brains at the door.” And for that, I am grateful.

God’s All-Encompassing Presence in Nature

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, June 21, 2020

By: Sue Thompson

I landed in Richmond in the early morning on March 14. We were on a ski trip with our younger daughter, who is a pediatric disease specialist, and while away became tired and worried about this “new” coronavirus. After retrieving my car, I drove to a number of stores finding rattled salespeople and empty shelves. I came away with few groceries and none of the supplies I had naively planned to pick up. I was shaken and actually scared. Richmond and the world were transformed.

I arrived home stressed, exhausted, and faced with unpacking a car full of luggage. I opened the car door, sighed, and then glanced up. There was a Saucer Magnolia in full, glorious bloom. Instead of hauling luggage inside, I deliberately chose to procrastinate, and I started wandering. The morning was warm and the greens of the earth bright and fresh. Daffodils were blooming; the grape hyacinths were sending up their small blue heads in the beds of newly emerging maroon peony foliage. I kept walking.

By the time I returned to the car, I had been physically transformed. The overwhelming stress and exhaustion were totally gone. Since that morning in March, I have continued to have this powerful and embracing experience.

As landscapers, my partners and I have been working outside daily, but six feet apart, throughout the pandemic. In nurseries, we find fewer plants available as people are buying them as soon as they come in. Herbs are nearly unavailable. Vegetables are flying off shelves. Displays, normally stacked with seed packets, are also nearly empty. These shortages in many ways are frustrating. Yet, they are reflections of something much more important. Our own backyards are becoming more of a haven than probably ever before. They are calling to be noticed, to be tended, and to be loved. Nature has become a sanctuary for many.

What we are seeing—what has been revealed—is the heightened awareness of nature’s all-encompassing presence. I believe this is a renewed connection. It is a gift. Small things matter – a violet, a dandelion. I am now seeing them as more than slightly annoying weeds. They are magical. Their forms are intricate and purposeful, and they provide native insects with much needed food sources. Watching from a window recently, I saw a fat male cardinal perched on a holly branch next to a cluster of newly ripened holly berries. Again, a small gift of breathtaking beauty. One afternoon last week, while walking along a path to a creek, an owl flew out in front of my son and me and escorted us. Just a few days ago, while picnicking outside, we glanced up to see a young bald eagle racing across the sky with his incredibly strong wings. More gifts given.

This is a time to notice, a time to walk, and a time to realize that weeds can be beautiful flowers and earthworms are really cool. It is a time for awestruck glances at cloud formations and for viewing miraculous sunsets; a time to walk in the woods filled with newly emerging fern fiddleheads and emptied birds’ nests tucked into shrub thickets; a time for quiet reflection.

The intricacies and connections we see around us in the natural world are God’s gifts. Nothing is demanded of us to receive these gifts. We simply need to quiet our urgent need to “get things done” and open up our senses and breathe. Slowing down during this pandemic when we can, being present, picking a few fresh vegetables from a small garden space, are all ways we become more aware of God’s presence all around us.

One is never too old to be called by God

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, June 14, 2020

By: Denise Bennett, summer intern

When David suggested I write a reflection, I looked at the scriptures assigned for today in the Revised Common Lectionary. When I saw that one of them was Genesis 18: 1-15, I had to laugh. It is that story about the three strangers who come to visit Abraham and Sarah to reiterate that God will fulfil the promise made to them many years before that they would have a child. Long past child-bearing age, when Sarah overhears them say this from inside the tent, she laughs. Back in the mid 90’s when I first experienced a call to ministry, I wrote a dialogue sermon with my mother-in-law Judy who is now a retired United Methodist minister on this very passage. I believe we titled it (because Methodists do that in church bulletins) “And Sarah Laughed.”

I do not remember much else about the sermon except that having never preached before I felt incredibly awkward. I kept thinking “what do I do with my hands?” But Judy and the small congregation were very encouraging. A few years after that I got my M.Div. from Union Presbyterian Seminary. I loved seminary and found my preaching voice there, but I did not stay in the United Methodist ordination process for a variety of reasons. Instead after seminary, I found work as a lay chaplain at Hermitage Richmond, a retirement community in Richmond’s Northside. I also discovered storytelling and began to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of places from pre-schools to bars to churches’ halls.

When our two sons were young, I attended church wherever my husband Jim, who is a church musician was working. When he took a position at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, commuting on weekends, I began to look around for an Episcopal Church in Richmond. At the invitation of a friend, I began to attend St. Andrew’s in Oregon Hill. There I fell in love not only with the people of St. Andrew’s but with the Episcopal liturgy itself.

As I became more involved in the life of the church, preaching and teaching and being a chalice bearer, the call to ordained ministry resurfaced, quiet but insistent. At first, I felt a bit like Sarah, “What? Are you joking, God? At my age?” But when I blurted out to Bishop Susan, “Am I too old to be ordained as a priest?” and she gently answered, “One is never too old to be called by God.” I did not laugh; I burst into tears, but they were tears of joy. So here I am at 61 years-old, a postulant to the priesthood and an intern in the Mid-Atlantic Training Program. I will be a student at Virginia Theological Seminary in the fall for Anglican Studies.

I have already received such welcoming messages from some of you and I look forward to meeting you in cyberspace and I hope, in person too. I look forward to learning and worshipping with you, loving and laughing together too! This is such a strange season in which we find ourselves and yet I see already the many ways you have found to be church even at a physical distance. In this time of uncertainty, let’s hold fast to the words that the heavenly messenger said to Sarah, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

Offering a ‘First Vision’

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, June 7, 2020

By: David May, Rector

“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” – II Timothy 1:7

In my reflection this past Monday, I offered a first set of thoughts about how this world of ours has been broken open. Have mercy! We are and have been on a long journey in the wilderness as a community, as a nation and a world, living through a worldwide pandemic. And now, the killing of George Floyd while in police custody has ignited an outpouring of pain and lament and anger throughout our nation, and indeed now worldwide. John Lennon wrote a song that includes: “Nobody told me there’d be days like these. Strange days indeed.”

But this is the day that the Lord has made. This is the day we pray that we may be the hands and heart of Jesus in this world. We pray that God’s good news of grace may be heard in each of our own souls so that we will have a word of grace to speak for a world so desperate to hear a word that brings peace, mercy, love, and justice.

In Monday’s letter I said, I would be offering ‘a first vision’ of how we may respond to a world that has been broken open. I’m not sure what I have to offer lives up to a word like ‘vision’ but here are my thoughts.

As I have sat with this verse from Second Timothy, three thoughts have come into view.

First, times like we are living in right now are when we can be especially open to the Spirit. When we are most in need, when we sense deeply how little we can actually control, our trust in God becomes vital in a way that we may have never known before. Our brother in the faith, the Apostle Paul – that extraordinary and sometimes confounding child of God – understood well, that in our weakness, we are strong through the grace of God. The deep Spirit work of this time may be to let be what we cannot control, trusting fully in God’s grace and wisdom. This kind of trust probably does not know what the outcomes will be but still trusts God with that.

Second is to find ways to connect with people or organizations where you believe God is calling you. Social media is filled up – way too filled up for me – with suggestions about ‘what to do.’ The Spirit will lead you. My suggestion is that if you know nothing about Richmond Hill, it is a good place to start. Richmond Hill was founded in 1987 and its mission is “to seek God’s healing of Metropolitan Richmond through prayer, hospitality, racial reconciliation and spiritual development.” Work, in the Spirit, has been going on there for a long time and a community of people are already there worshipping, praying, learning, and taking action.

And third, I will offer a series of teaching on the Christian moral life. I am afraid we sometimes feel like we have been left on our own to figure out for ourselves what is right and what is wrong and how we are to live. Christian Ethics and Christian Moral Theology are two rich, noble, living disciplines with great wisdom to share. I don’t know how we will offer these sessions. It may be Zoom calls or webinars, or as prerecorded pieces or as written offerings, or all of the above. But the great Ashley Cameron has assured me that it is her job to figure out and she will help!

There is work for us to do. And it is hard work. At times like these, I think Jesus’ persistent words, ‘you must lose your life to gain it’ become real. But “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

I thank God for you. And I thank God for this time we have been given to bear witness to the cause of Christ in this world, and for our calling to be citizens of his coming Kingdom of peace, mercy, justice, and love.

A Special Reflection from St. Mary’s Rector

A Special Reflection, Monday, June 1, 2020

By: David May, Rector

“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” – II Timothy 1:7

It was this past Friday evening as I was watching the news coverage of the protests all over our nation that I began to become conscious of what had happened. George Floyd, an African American, had been murdered four days earlier in broad daylight in the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s murder was recorded in its entirety by an onlooker, a seventeen-year-old girl. We all saw it. To say that our nation is in an agony of pain over Floyd’s murder and how it happened is an understatement. Black Americans are experiencing an excruciating re-traumatization of the unhealed wounds of historic, systemic violence and injustice. I believe, because I have to believe, that the vast majority of people are becoming conscious – again – that they don’t want live in a world where this kind of thing continues to happen again and again.

So why had it taken me four days to become conscious of what had happened? Why has it taken over a week for me to respond? My sermon for this past Sunday was recorded late this past Thursday afternoon. By the time it finally, finally hit me what was happening, it was late Friday and the work to piece all the different parts of the service was completed. I hoped the scene of conflict in the sermon I had recorded would resonate broadly enough to include George Floyd’s murder. But maybe that’s just the half-hearted hope that contributes to the perpetuation of systemic evils like racism. There is a hard conversation going on in my own spirit about that right now which I believe is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

What is important, I think, is to begin wherever you are. At the heart of the Christian faith is the life of Jesus who came to save us from our sins and to heal this broken world. It is a normal experience of a living faith in Jesus to be broken open, to repent, to seek forgiveness and the amendment of life that can lead – with God’s help – to reconciliation. This pattern is the Way of the Cross which is, for us, the Way of Love. In this world, we – none of us – is ever past that.

I have begun to think through what we can do as a church to live in this Way of the Cross as the murder of George Floyd has broken open this world and our lives. I’ll be offering a first vision for that in the reflection for this coming Sunday. For now, let me tell you where the Scripture passage that heads this reflection comes from.

My grandmother was an old-fashioned, no-nonsense Methodist. Her faith in Jesus and the Bible as the Word of God was complete. Over the course of her life, she would pick a passage from the Bible to be the special ‘Bible verse’ for each of her grandchildren. The verse from Second Timothy is the one she gave me. Yesterday, Sunday afternoon, I was pulling weeds, sweeping clots of spiderwebs from the eaves of our house, washing Em’s car and pruning bushes, working and working in a complete stew. Somewhere along the way, this verse just came to me. As I found it taking shape in my spirit, it was like a centerboard coming down into place in a small sailboat that sets the boat moving ahead instead of being pushed this way and that by the wind and waves.

There is work to do. The Holy Spirit is leading and guiding us, even into places we might not wish to go. But I am certain, that those places are where we will find Jesus – as ever – ‘about his Father’s business’ in this world and calling us to follow him.