This article was written for the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram. It was published on October 6, 2018.
The morning of September 21st, on my way into work, I was listening to NPR as I do every day. Actually, “listening” might be a bit of an overstatement. The truth is that the radio was on, tuned into NPR, and my mind was elsewhere, wandering. My attention was captured when I heard the announcer say, “Today is the final day of summer.” My attention caught, I realized I was basking in the warmth of the late summer sun warming my car through the windshield, with similar weather predicted for the next several days. In that moment it occurred to me that, if not for the announcer stating the obvious, I might move from summer into autumn without noticing. Though technically an official transition of the seasons, September 21st becoming September 22nd, might have come and gone with no awareness that it marked anything at all.
You may well be wondering why this anecdote has any relevance to keeping the faith. It’s a good question and one I hope to be able to answer in a reasonably coherent way. You see, it also occurred to me in almost that same moment that the kinds of transitions we make as our hearts are converted and our lives transformed can also go unnoticed until something happens to catch our attention, to jolt us into an awareness of how God has and continues to work in us. I believe the Holy Spirit is wily, wild, and wonderful, as well as willing to work her wonders in us and in God’s world in ways that may or may not be obvious at the time.
I know, too, there are people who can pinpoint the exact situation, the very moment they were aware of God’s presence in their lives. They have the kind of experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus and having his dramatic conversion underscored by a name change. Something happens, usually not itself a good or happy thing, God’s presence is felt/seen/experienced, and life is not lived the same after that.
Though not as dramatic as that, I, too, have had a couple of experiences in my life in which my awareness or experience of God’s presence was so vivid it was the faith equivalent of technicolor. I liken those experiences to that of the father in Mark 9, who desperately wants Jesus to heal his son, who has been possessed by an unclean spirit. The man turns to Jesus for help, believing, or maybe hoping, that Jesus is who Jesus is. Jesus seems to sense something less than complete faith, something less than complete trust. He challenges the man about the level of his belief, and the man responds with stark honesty, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Jesus does and the man’s son is healed. It’s the kind of transformation that has fits and starts, kind of like poor Peter’s way of being first to claim knowledge of who Jesus is: “You are the Messiah” (as we read in Mark 8:27-28) and later, when perhaps it matters most, denying Jesus three times as the Romans seek to execute him. And yet Peter is the “rock” upon which the Christian Church is built.
Most often, though, it seems converted hearts and transformed lives are a far less dramatic process of knowing we live in the presence of God. We live our lives with a desire – perhaps known to us, perhaps not – to be open to God, to invite God into our hearts, minds, and lives. Maybe we maintain a specific prayer discipline. Perhaps we go to church or are part of a different kind of faith community. We may be biblically familiar, perhaps even “literate.” We may or may not be content with how we understand God at work in and through us. Perhaps we define ourselves as in some faith-related way, such as religious or spiritual, agnostic or atheist. Mostly though, we are who we are, living our lives in the way that we do, which is more than enough for God to be God, inviting us deeper into relationship, until one day it happens: something catches our attention and we notice. We notice that we are not the same as before, not the same as we thought or knew ourselves to be. We notice in new or different ways that we are loved by God, with love freely given, undeserved, and infinitely ours.
Copyright 2018 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article was written for the “Keep the Faith ” column of the Worcester Telegram. It was published on September 1, 2018.
In addition to being the priest and pastor at Grace Church, I am a multifaith chaplain, working since the spring at a hospital, following years of work as a hospice chaplain. One of the blessings of being bi-vocational in the way that I am is that I have truly profound and sacred conversations with lots of people, very often with vastly different life and religious/spiritual experiences. I can honestly say that these conversations do as much to nourish and grow my faith and my religious identity as any of my formal training or lifelong religious experience. In ways that sometimes seem ironic and at other times seem as logical as can be, it is often the time spent with people whose experience, beliefs, and understandings are night-and-day different than my own that I feel my own faith growing, my own identity as a progressive Christian clergy person getting clearer.
I have been thinking about this in the past several days because of a couple of particularly challenging and beautiful conversations. These conversations, coupled with reading a book I happened across on the bookshelf in my hospital office, have occupied a good amount of space in my personal prayer and reflection. While I can’t get into the specifics of the conversations, I can share that name of the book, How Do You Spell God?, by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman. (A bonus: the foreword to the book is by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.) This is a book exploring the question of similarities and differences between a number of religions and is written for young people. Although I am still reading, so this could change, my favorite chapter explores some of the different names for God and why the use of these words is important.
Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman introduce the discussion of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian names for God by writing that “each name is a lesson.” Their point is that God does not need a name but we need God to have a name so that we have a way of talking about God. They talk about the Islamic ninety-nine names for God, each describing some aspect of God. They talk about the many names given to God in Judaism and the prohibition of saying God’s real name out loud because of the belief that when we give voice to a specific singular name for God, we limit our understanding of God because the words we choose, including names, matter. They talk about the trinitarian Christian “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as language used to remind us of God transcendent, incarnate, and immanent. They go on to say, “Some of the names for God help us to remember that God’s love is always with us, even if we can’t see it like we can see each other. In fact the best way to see the name of God is to look into the eyes of somebody you love. All the names of God are written in their eyes.”
Each of the challenging and beautiful conversations I’ve had recently have reminded me of how important it is to remember that none of us knows God quite as well as perhaps we think we do, so we don’t always love each other quite as well as God would have us do. I’ve been reminded how easy it is to conflate “being created in the image of God,” a belief shared in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, with a self-righteous and self-important idea that this means we are the only image of God or that God must look, think, act, love, believe, … just as we do.
Perhaps the greatest “weirdly wonderful” (to quote a dear friend and companion on the journey) gift of the time spent with so many people from so many places, literally and figuratively, is that I reminded every day that the best lesson I have learned about God – I’d venture to say the most important and transformational lesson, in fact – is that whatever we call God, whatever we think our religion requires of us to worship God, is that God is love, profoundly simple perfect love. When we accept that gift, the true grace of God’s presence in us and our lives, we are able to share more of that love with each other. And in that sharing, we do move deeper into the heart of God.
Copyright 2018 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram. It was posted on telegram.com on May 5, 2018.
The Day of Pentecost is one of my favorite days in the church year. In Western Christianity, it is a special feast day in the Christian Church, coinciding with the Jewish Shavuot (or Feast of Weeks). The name “Pentecost” is derived from the Greek word for “fiftieth.” Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover. Pentecost is 50 days after Easter, and it marks the ending of the Easter season or Eastertide. In the Episcopal Church, it begins the Season of Pentecost, which extends until Advent, which is roughly four weeks before Christmas. This year we celebrate the Day of Pentecost on May 20th.
Preparing for a special festival service in about three weeks has me thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit. According to the biblical Book of Acts, a.k.a. The Acts of the Apostles, in what I can only describe as an amazing and fantastic story, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, the first followers of Jesus, as they were gathered together in one room. Outside was a large crowd of Jewish people from all over, speaking many different languages, celebrating the Feast of Weeks. There was wind and tongues of fire, and the Holy Spirit entered into the disciples. Suddenly they were able to speak other languages and the people gathered outside could hear in their own languages. As you might imagine, there were lots of questions about this, lots of confusion, as well as lots of astonishment. Some even thought the experience was the result of drunkenness. It is quite a story, a better telling of which is found in the New Testament in Acts 2:1-21.
The Day of Pentecost is a day set aside to remember and celebrate the gift of God’s love for all people, not just a select few. This is a good thing to remember at all times, though perhaps especially in this time when it seems that we are so focused on what makes us different, what separates us. Believing, as I do, that there is nothing more important to anyone anywhere anytime than knowing that God’s love is for all people, all creation, the Day of Pentecost is truly a special day!
One of the reasons I love this story and this day is that it is only the beginning of what we are told in the New Testament that the Holy Spirit can do. In 1 Corinthians 12:1-31 we are reminded that each of us has gifts and that all gifts are needed for us to be our best selves and to be in community with each other as God intends for us to be. Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no Law” tells us how we need to be with each other so that all of us are nourished, nurtured, and thrive.
These fruits of the Spirit are not only gifts given to those who profess belief in Jesus as the Messiah and who claim Christian identity, but are easily recognized as ways of being in community, of caring for each other, that cross all barriers and defy our all-too-human tendencies to see difference. I do not presume to tell anyone who has a different faith or understanding of God that they must now consider these ways of being in relationship from a religious perspective. What I would say to people whose faith is different than mine, including no faith at all, is that love, patience, understanding, etc. are not usually the characteristics and ways of being that cause problems in our relationships and in the world. When we approach each other with love or kindness or gentleness or…, good things happen.
What I would say to those of us who identify as Christian is that we do believe these are spiritual gifts and ways God’s Spirit is at work in our lives today. Believing those things and choosing to act as we believe, will make a difference in our lives and in the world. One of the lessons to be learned from the Pentecost is that God can work in ways that completely defy our imagination or understanding. Another is that we must learn to speak the language of the Spirit, the language of God’s love, to all people.
Copyright 2018 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article was written for the “Beyond the Pews” column of the Webster Times. It was submitted on February 22, 2018. It was published on March 2, 2018.
I don’t fancy myself a writer, though I do enjoy the occasional writing I do for this and another newspaper. I find that I look forward to setting aside a bit of time to gather my thoughts and to put them together in a way I hope is readable, even for folks who do not consider themselves religious, or folks for whom faith and religion is understood and expressed differently than it is for me. Whenever an article I write is published, I have the blessing of conversations with people who want to talk about what I wrote. Sometimes these are conversations with people who agree or say, “good job.” Sometimes these are conversations with people who disagree and wonder what I could have been thinking. They are all good.
Imagine my surprise, then, that I have had such difficulty gathering my thoughts to sit and write this article. It was only this morning that I realized why. As I was scanning through Facebook, I saw a couple of videos of some of the survivors of the Parkland shooting: one a father and brothers of a young woman shot dead speaking to the President and another of a CNN town hall where students sang a song they had written about the shooting and their amazing, resilient response. It was then I realized I couldn’t sit and gather my thoughts because my emotions have been blocking the way.
There has been an incredible disconnect between my mind and my heart. The grief and sadness, the anger and frustration, the horror and the disbelief, the fear and shame, the feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, have converged into what I can only describe as a “writer’s block.” And then, encouraged by young people who are younger than even my youngest child, who turned 18 on the very day of this mass shooting, I remembered who and whose I am.
In that moment, the block crumbled, it fell away. I remembered that I am not one who writes essays with ground-breaking insights or calls to action. I am a middle-aged woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I am a priest, a pastor, a chaplain. I am a neighbor, a citizen. And I am so much more than all of those things. I am a child of God, loved beyond my wildest imaginations. It is from that place – the created-in-the-image-of-the-loving-just-compassionate-merciful-creative-God-who-breathed-life-into-me place – it is from that place I get my voice.
This is also the place from which I get free will, which is the choice to speak or not speak, to act or not act, to go along to get along or to follow the example of the young people of Parkland who have said, “Enough! This will be the last mass shooting. Look at us! We are your children. You owe us real action, real change. Enough!” This is the place from which I get to choose to figure out how I live more fully into my faith, my call to be a part of “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope” (to quote my wise and wonderful bishop, Doug Fisher). It is the place from which I glean another new bit of my call to ordained ministry, of my ordination vow to be” pastor, priest, and teacher,” and to “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This morning as the writer’s block crumbled, it took with it any reticence I have had to take a clearly public stand about one of the most compelling social justice issues of our time: ending gun violence through stricter gun controls. I realize as I write this that the young people of Parkland have given me a gift. Through their example, I am in touch with a part of me that had been softened through time, tempered by life experience and an ill-placed sense of maturity. I am more in touch with the outspoken and ardent teenager I once was, the young woman who believed in the power of community and of righteous indignation as means to change the world.
I hope and pray I don’t squander this gift. I hope and pray I am up to the task to answer more fully the call to live as Jesus lived, with courage and boldness in the face of social, economic, and political power, upheld by the knowledge that, just as I am beloved of God, all people are beloved of God. I hope and pray I continue to understand this as a call to action to add my voice to the countless others who are doing this sacred and holy work.
I look forward to the conversations I know I will have, some with people who agree and say, “good job,” and some with people who disagree and wonder what I am thinking. The conversations will all be good because we will be talking and listening to each other, rather than hunkering down in our own little corners talking and listening only to people who think like we do.
Copyright 2018 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram. It was posted on telegram.com on January 5, 2018.
Today, January 6th, many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. It is the day commemorating the arrival of the magi, commonly known as the three wise men, at the stable where they meet the infant Jesus. We are told that these men, perhaps astrologers and the scientists of their time, were guided by a star from a place west of Bethlehem. It would have taken many days, which explains the time between Christmas and this day. In many churches, the wise men are an integral part of the Christmas story, which then, in essence, is a combined story of the Nativity and the Epiphany.
The story of the magi is important in and of itself. Their story is our story. It is the story of how real people, going about their daily lives, allow their curiosity, their innate awareness of the need for something beyond themselves, to lead them to an encounter with God. And in that first encounter they are changed. They and their lives are transformed. The grace they received is grace extended to all of us. It is meant for all of us. It is freely given and undeserved. It is, as the saying goes, “ours for the asking.”
I sometimes think this is one of those situations in which the warning, “be careful what you ask for” is warranted. Opening one’s heart, mind, and life to this grace, to the transformation that results from accepting this gift, means letting go of some of the control so many of us want to have. It means giving up, or at least loosening our grip on much of what the world tells us is important. To quote the author Annie Dillard (in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters):
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?… It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we all should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Now, I don’t believe in the sleeping God, though I do think often we are unaware of God’s presence at work in and through us. I believe absolutely – in part from the witness and testimony of others and from my own experience – that God will and does “draw us out to where we can never return.” This is the meaning of transformation: to be changed in ways that are self- and life-altering.
In Romans 2 we are told: “Do not be conformed to this world,* but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.*” When we accept the gift of grace, whether that be through belief in the incarnate God or a focus on the Resurrection, or through some other knowledge and experience of the Divine, we accept also the likeliness that we will be changed, that our hearts and minds will be transformed. When that happens, all bets are off as to the ways we begin to understand what it means to live faithfully and, hopefully, how it is our faith should shape how we behave in the world, rather than vice versa.
The Nativity is not a story about God’s inbreaking into a perfect world filled with perfect people. It is the story of God’s inbreaking into the world as it was, home to a diverse multitude of people, imperfect people, flawed people, broken people. One of my favorite parts of the story is that God entered the world in a new way, in the person of the infant Jesus, as people were going about their usual business, not doing anything special. Mary and Joseph were being good citizens, making their way to be counted in the census. The shepherds (and the sheep) were doing what they do. Even the angel, whose appearance defies the norms of our day, is doing what angels do. So it is with the magi. They honor their curiosity as scientists do and follow a star, and their lives would never be the same again. And that, my friends, is an opportunity that is open to all, whoever we are, wherever we are.
Copyright 2018 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article first appeared The Yankee Express. It was published in December 2017.
When I think about Christmas, about what it means beyond family gatherings and gifts, food and festivities, I have a deep and abiding feeling of Love. This love is the source of all joy, of all hope, of all peace. Christmas is the in-breaking of God into the world, in the form of the infant Jesus. Sometimes I think what amazes me most about this truly amazing story is that God came into the world as it was. God lived with people as they were. God didn’t wait until people were all well-behaved and properly reverential. God came into the world as it was, with people just like you and me.
This inbreaking of God into humanity, into you, and into me, brings with it the irrevocable, unconditional, eternal promise of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s mercy, God’s justice. My hope for you, for me, for all people, is that we are able to accept this most profound and yet simple gift of God’s grace, freely given and undeserved.
We would love to have you join us at Grace Episcopal Church in Oxford. We have two Christmas services: Christmas Eve at 5:00 pm and Christmas morning at 10:00 am. Our regular weekend worship schedule is Saturday at 5:00 pm and Sunday at 10:30 am. We have a weekday service on Wednesdays at 9:30 am. At Grace Church, all are welcome, especially you!
Copyright 2017 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article first appeared in the “Beyond the Pews” column of the Webster Times. It was published on November 24, 2017
On December 3rd, the Episcopal Church, along with many other Christian denominations, enters into the Season of Advent. Advent is a solemn season, one of reflection and preparation. Contrary to popular understanding, Advent is not about preparing for Christmas. Preparing to celebrate the birth of the incarnate God is a part, an important part, but it is not the whole of it. In Advent we are preparing to meet the Risen Christ, to participate more fully in the Reign of God, to celebrate the realization of God’s Kingdom.
Advent is a bit of a paradox, I think. It is both preparation for a “now” and a “not yet.” We know that the birth of Jesus was God’s inbreaking into the world in a way that had not been before, and has not been since. The Christian Christmas is a celebration of that reality, of God’s grace given to us in the life and ministry of the man, Jesus.
As part of the Christmas story we hear of God’s choosing of Mary to give birth and of Mary’s humble and open-hearted acceptance of God’s will. We hear of Joseph’s willingness to cast aside his doubts about Mary and to enter into marriage with her, even though no one would have blamed him for walking away. We hear of angels and magi, of bright stars and precious gifts. We hear of people throughout the land understanding that this infant, born in humble circumstances, is no ordinary baby. We seek to model our faith, our lives, on these examples.
The birth of the incarnate God was and is cause for great celebration. Jesus the Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World, born to change the world in ways we continue to try to understand. Even some of those who do not know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, such as our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, know him as a great prophet and teacher.
By God’s grace the world was and continues to be changed. Jesus the man challenged those with whom he lived to live differently, to love differently, to invite the Spirit of God into their hearts and minds so that God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s compassion, God’s mercy, God’s love, would become their hope, transforming them and all the world. We know these things. We are grateful for this knowledge. We know and are grateful for these things now. Christmas is a “now” celebration.
Jesus the Christ, whose Holy Spirit moves in and through us, continues to challenge the world in this way, always inviting us deeper into God’s heart, the place of true transformation. We know these things. We are grateful for this knowledge. We know and are grateful for these things now. Easter is the “now” celebration of these things.
And yet there is more to the story. Advent is a time of preparation for the fulfillment of the Christian Scriptures, of the Second Coming of Christ. Although we are told that this time is coming, it has not yet come. We cannot know exactly what this will be, at least not in the same way we know what the first Christmas and first Easter were. While we are grateful for the promise of what is yet to be, we are grateful in anticipation, because we cannot know when or how the full manifestation of the Reign of God will come. And we are told that we need to be prepared whenever or however the promise is fulfilled. Advent is the season in which we are to be intentional in our preparation for the “not yet.”
We do this year after year, in hopeful expectation. Those of us who mark the year with the liturgical seasons relive each year God’s work in the world from the beginning of time through to the time we cannot know. We celebrate Christmas and Easter as world-changing signs of God’s grace. We do that in the reading of our Scriptures: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In the Episcopal Church we make changes to our liturgy (worship). Some of our prayers change. Our hymnody is different, with lyrics that speak of waiting and preparation, and with melodies and harmonies that evoke a feeling of anticipation. We decorate in purple or blue. These changes in the rhythm of our life together, in the ways we pray and stimulate our senses to open our hearts and our minds, remind us that there is more to the story of how God has, is, and will continue to work in and through us. In Advent we celebrate and prepare for the great “not yet.”
Copyright 2017 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram. It was posted on telegram.com on September 29, 2017.
When I was asked to write for this column, I wondered how what I might contribute would be helpful to those who are not in my usual “sphere,” i.e. not in my parish or the other circles in which I travel. I worried that my particular understanding of faith and life, including God, would not resonate with those for whom faith and life and God are experienced differently, perhaps in truly significant ways. And then a friend (everyone should have a least one friend who can do this) gently suggested that I “get over” myself and that I stop “overthinking” the invitation and just be who I am, as I am, which as he reminded me, is good enough for the God I know and worship, and has proven in my over half century of life, to be good enough for at least a few others as well. So I accepted the invitation, somehow understanding that my contribution likely would be in sharing my understanding of a radical love and hospitality that I experience through my particular progressive Christian faith tradition, but which certainly can be understood in many different ways, using different language, and filtered through a variety of life and faith experiences. My contribution might not be original or ground-breaking thinking, but it would be honest and real, and as true as I know how to be.
Today I share with you words I first shared with my parish a few weeks ago in a weekly email called “Greetings from Grace.” So, these words definitely are not original, though they continue to resonate with me in slightly new or expanded ways as I have conversation after conversation about them with parishioners and other important people in my life.
“I don’t know about you, but when I read or listen to the news, my heart breaks. Between the political and policy decisions that seemed designed to exclude and humiliate some of God’s children, the acts of terrorism that seem now to be so common they almost escape notice, and the devastating weather events across the world (hurricanes and floods, mudslides and wildfires, earthquakes and…), it is hard to imagine a way forward. This may be especially true if you or someone you love is in harm’s way, whether that be harm from the weather or from the actions of others. Although I don’t have “the answer” about how to solve the problems we face, I do want to say two things:
* it is true that God is present with us in all things, including our suffering, and
* suffering is NOT God’s plan for anyone anywhere, period, end of story.
I offer these words because this week I have heard more times than I can count that the hurricanes and floods, mudslides and wildfires, and all manner of other natural events are God’s way of sending the world a message. I have also heard people claim Christianity justifies their mean-spirited and hateful acts. This message: that God would cause heart-wrenching pain and suffering as a way of proving a point (or wants us to do so in Jesus’ name), breaks my heart more than all the awful news combined. If you hear me say nothing else ever, please hear me when I say this: God is love and only love, and God’s plan for us is that we know that we are loved unconditionally beyond all human comprehension and imagination, and that we share that love with one another. There is nothing about God, nothing in God, nothing from God, nothing honoring God, that is designed to cause pain or hardship to anyone anywhere, period, end of story.
These are not just words pulled from nowhere by an admittedly socially, politically, and theologically progressive clergy woman. They are rooted in my own experience of moving deeper and deeper into the heart of God – often most noticeably through the trials, tribulations, and trauma that seem so impossible to separate from being human. They are rooted, too, in the graces that abound through walking with others as they undertake their own journeys, whether walking as family member or friend, pastor or chaplain. And they are rooted in my Scripture, which includes the awesome stories of God and God’s people as found in the Hebrew Scriptures, Apocrypha, and New Testament. Of the many roots in Scripture, here is one of my favorite, Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Perhaps these words, or some other words from your sacred and holy texts will provide you with comfort and hope for this day and the future.
Copyright 2017 The Rev. Paula J. Toland
This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram. It was posted on telegram.com on July 21, 2017.
I had a heart-warming experience a couple of weeks ago. I was walking down Main Street in Oxford, on my way from the church to get a cold drink. Most days when I am in Oxford I look like a priest. I wear my clerical collar because most days I am in town are days we “have church.” The black shirt and white collar get lots of attention. I have been known to say that it is a little bit like wearing a billboard. People see it. They are curious. They ask questions. They offer opinions. It says something.
Anyway, on this day, I was casually walking the couple of blocks to the convenience store. A man I’d never met, and haven’t run into since, stopped me and said, “Hey, Pastor! You’re the new pastor at the stone church, right?” I said I was and, before I could ask him his name or say “hello” or anything else, he said, “So is it true? Is what it says true?” Is it really true?” I’ll admit it took me a second or two to realize that he was talking about the sign in front of the church. We have one of those signs in which the message can be changed. For much of the time since I arrived in March, it has said, “Come meet Rev. Paula” followed by a message that is there almost always, “All are welcome…Especially you.” I realized that this man was curious, wanted to know – I’d venture to say he needed to know- these words are more than words. My guess is that he needed to know that he would be welcome, though I did not have the chance to ask him because he said, “Good!” and went on his way after I said, “It is true. We welcome everyone. We’d love for you to come.” I wish I had more time to talk to him. I hope and pray I see him again, at church or on the street. I’m curious about what caused him to stop me as he did, to ask the question he did. I’d like to know if the answer I gave him was enough and if there is anything else he’d like to know. But mostly, and in a big way, I’d like him to know that the invitation stands, that he is welcome to come to Grace, whenever he wants, as often or as infrequently as he wants. He is welcome to come out of curiosity or need, to be fed or to feed.
Those words on the sign are more than just words. They are a huge part of the mission and ministry of Grace Episcopal Church. Welcoming God’s children, whether they are confident in claiming that identity or are seeking answers about what it means, is at the center of who we are and what we do. It is something we do, not out of a sense of politeness or because we are nice people (though we are!), but because this is how we understand what it means to be followers of Jesus, Christians in the Episcopal tradition. We take to heart and we do our best, always seeking to do it even better, the call to love one another, to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger. We are so grateful for the radical love and hospitality that Jesus offered and offers us that we really and truly want to share it with others. We want others to know that there is a place for them, a place where they can pray and worship, a place where they can connect with other people, a place where they can ask questions and perhaps find answers, a place where they can offer their unique gifts and receive the gifts of others. All are welcome always, whether for a visit or a lifetime.
It is not a perfect place. It is real and it is honest, always seeking to move deeper into the heart of God. It is a faith-filled and welcoming community of people from all walks of life, at different places on the faith journey. Grace Church is a place in which we come together to meet God, to share in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, and to be enlivened and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to do what we can to make the world a better place. Grace Church is a place where ALL are Welcome… Especially YOU!
Copyright 2017 The Rev. Paula J. Toland