A Reflection of Gratitude

This is the fourth installment in our Summer Gratitude series, a collection of posts from around the diocese focused on gratitude and thankfulness. It’s our hope that these stories will be uplifting, joyful, and a reminder to us all to count our blessings and experience gratitude even in times of hardship.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

There have been countless moments in my life that I have been completely overwhelmed with gratitude.  God has blessed me time and again, and I never cease to be amazed by His great plan.  When asked to write this reflection of gratitude, there was one particular memory of my mom that came to mind:

My mom has never been one to sit back and let life pass her by.  She is always up for an adventure.  If there is something she wants to do or accomplish, she finds a way.  My mom has an incredible gift for being in the moment and grateful for each day.

A little over fifteen years ago, as my family was preparing for a Memorial Day picnic, I realized that my mom had not been working around the house with the rest of us.  It seemed odd and I suddenly felt the urge to check on her.  I found her in her bedroom looking extremely pale and sick.  She told me that she didn’t feel well and I could tell instantly that something was very wrong.  I ran outside to get my dad and in a matter of minutes things went from bad to worse.  My mom was having trouble walking, she began coming in and out of consciousness, and life was draining from her with each passing moment.  I started to panic.  How could this happen?  How could someone who was so full of life just a few hours before suddenly be so sick?  We didn’t know at that moment, but an infection had made its way into her blood stream. Her body was shutting down as she became septic.  The ambulance finally came and she was taken to the hospital.  That day seemed to last forever.  The doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to stabilize her throughout the day and night.  With tears of desperation I prayed, begging God to let her live.

When morning came, mom was not out of the woods, but by the grace of God she was stable.  Many family and friends showered us with love, prayers and support.  It was overwhelming to feel the love of God through their actions.  Mom had a long road to recovery in the following months, but we were so grateful for her continued healing and the peace of God that we felt in the middle of it all.  Even through her pain and fatigue, she chose to face each day with a grateful heart.

Often times I get frustrated with what’s going on in my world.  It’s easy to get caught up in the daily routine, family drama, or the news stories that splash across our televisions and newspapers.  All of these things are parts of life that can leave us in a whirlwind of chaos and negativity.  We suffer unimaginable trials on our journey.  It can be difficult to feel grateful in the midst of it all.  Sometimes we have to choose gratitude.  When we choose gratitude, we allow ourselves to see the beauty that God is creating in the midst of our pain.  When we invite God into the center of our world, He surrounds us with peace that surpasses all understanding.  On difficult days when I struggle to find something to be grateful for, I think back on that Memorial Day.  I remember the grace and peace that God gave to us.  I think about my mom’s example of living a life of gratitude in good and bad times.  I give thanks that my mom is still here with me and for the beautiful memories we have been able to make together since then.  I am filled with gratitude knowing that God is walking beside me on my journey through life and I know that no matter what challenges I may face, I am never alone.

Jill Dressler is a member of St. Mark’s, Erie. 

Feeding the Future (Part One)

One of the areas we’ve focused on as a diocese is collaboration, and more specifically, how pooling our resources and talents can lead to adaptive change not only in the church, but in our communities for the greater glory of God. While this can take several forms, one obvious area for change is outreach.

We’re fortunate in our diocese to have several congregations who’ve come together to increase the impact of their ministry. For this series, we’ll focus on the Snack Pack outreach project, a collaboration between St. Stephen’s in Fairview and St. Mark’s in Erie to aid youth attending the Erie Charter School of Excellence.

One might ask: Why pick a charter school to partner with for an outreach project? Generally charter schools aren’t thought of as institutions in need of aid, but this particular school and its target demographic are an exception to the rule. From the CSE website:

The Charter School of Excellence initially opened its doors for students on August 26, 2003 for the school year 2003-2004. The school serves students in grades six through twelve from the Erie, Pennsylvania region. Although any student can attend the charter school, the school’s focus is directed toward those students who have had significant difficulties with academic performance in their previous school settings.

As Carly Rowe of St. Mark’s puts it, “These are kids who for whatever reason wouldn’t have made it in the public system.” CSE has a high refugee and English as a second language population, which seems unusual until you consider that, as of May 2017, Erie’s mayoral office estimated that roughly 18% of the city’s population comprises refugee families from countries like Syria, Bhutan, and Iraq, among others. Besides students facing language and cultural barriers, there is also a subset of teen mothers and roughly 30% of CSE students are considered homeless or under housed.

With all the obstacles these students work through on a daily basis, the uncertainty that they will get a meal at home only compounds the difficulty of trying to concentrate in school. Part of providing a recipe for success at CSE is making sure their students have regular meals. Breakfast and lunch are served each school day, but, when it comes to weekends, the school has little control. This is where the Snack Pack outreach program steps in: St. Mark’s and St. Stephen’s have teamed up with the Second Harvest Food Bank to create food packets that are delivered to students two Fridays a month so they have food at home over the weekend. Church volunteers pick up the food from Second Harvest, pack individual bags (along with supplemental items donated by members of both congregations), and volunteers who have passed both Safe Church and school district clearances take the bags to the school and deliver them to students.

While getting food to the students is the basis of this particular outreach project, the hands-on delivery by the volunteers has had an added benefit: the building of relationships between church volunteers and the school faculty and administrative personnel. As the volunteers have become a known quantity in the building, the faculty find it easier to speak with them directly and share additional student needs that may not have been communicated otherwise, which has led to an expansion of the outreach ministry. As a result of speaking with teachers about student needs, St. Mark’s now supplies a hygiene pantry at the school, where church members donate items like toothpaste and soap that are available at the school for students to take what they need. One member of the St. Mark’s congregation is using her talents as an extreme couponer to purchase additional hygiene products to supplement the donations, which stretches the purchase power of outreach dollars while simultaneously creating an opportunity for members who aren’t available on delivery days to participate in the project.  The Snack Pack program has also grown to include a packed lunch service that takes place during the school’s summer program – last summer St. Mark’s provided 75 bagged lunches two times a week for four weeks, which covered half of the CSE summer session.

Earlier this winter, teachers also made the Snack Pack volunteers aware that several of the students didn’t have appropriate outerwear for Erie weather. With this in mind, the collection taken at Diocesan Convention was earmarked to purchase coats for CSE students. Bishop Sean matched the dollar amount collected at the convention Eucharist service and, with the combined funds, over 100 coats were purchased and donated for students who would otherwise have gone without.

It’s sometimes difficult to see the impact of a ministry once the donations have been sent to their destination, but in this video, produced by Charter School of Excellence students, you can see firsthand the kind of impression this program is making:

In our next segment of Feeding the Future, we’ll discuss the issues of long term ministry sustainability, growing ministry from strictly outreach into relationships, and the continued impact that this ministry has on both the church and the community. Stay tuned!

2018 Diocesan Lenten Day of Prayer

As we observe Lent, we would invite individuals and congregations throughout the Diocese to join us in a 12-hour Day of Prayer on Friday, March 9, from 9:00 AM-9:00 PM.  Four congregations will be serving as host sites:

  • Church of the Ascension, Bradford (26 Chautauqua Place, 16701)
  • Holy Trinity, Brookville (62 Pickering Street, 15825)
  • St. Mark’s, Erie (4701 Old French Road, 16509)
  • St. John’s, Sharon (226 West State Street, 16146)

All host sites will have their sanctuary open throughout the day for prayer, and will join the Diocese in times of common prayer. In addition, each site may offer additional scheduled or on-going prayer including Stations of the Cross, healing prayer, a labyrinth, community prayerwalks, The Great Litany, or centering prayer.  The schedule (which could be updated with additional events) is as follows:

9:00 AM       All Host Sites and Trinity Memorial, Warren*: Morning Prayer (Psalm 88, Genesis 47:1-26, 1 Cor. 9:16-27)

11:00 AM     St. John’s: The Great Litany

12:00 noon   All Host Sites and Trinity Memorial, Warren: Noonday Prayer

12:05 PM     St. John’s: Stations of the Cross

2:00 PM       St. John’s: Centering Prayer

5:00 PM       St. Mark’s and Trinity Memorial, Warren: Stations of the Cross

5:15 PM       All Host Sites: Evening Prayer (Psalms 91-92, Mark 6:47-56)

5:15 PM       Holy Trinity: Taize Evening Prayer

7:00 PM       St. John’s: Eucharist

8:15 PM       Holy Trinity: Contemplative Compline

8:30 PM       St John’s, St. Mark’s, Ascension, & Trinity Memorial, Warren: Compline

During this day of prayer, we especially ask prayers for discernment in the Northwestern Pennsylvania-Western New York collaboration, for the mission and ministry of our diocese, for increased evangelism throughout our region, and for the needs of our local congregations.

Individuals and congregations are encouraged to participate by joining a neighboring host site for as much of the day as you are able or by joining in the common times of prayer from your own congregations or homes.

For more information, please contact Canon Vanessa Butler (814.456.4203) or the Rev. Adam Trambley (724.347.4501).

*Additional Addresses:

Trinity Memorial, Warren (444 Pennsylvania Ave. West, 16365)

Registration for Convention 2017 Now Open

 

Registration for Courage and Collaboration in Christian Community: Diocesan Convention 2017 is now open.

Convention will be held November 10-11 at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie and is being hosted by St. Mark’s, Erie.  A full schedule and other convention information can be found on our website.

As part of our ongoing conversation about collaboration and innovation in the church, we will be welcoming the Rt. Rev. William Franklin and a large contingent from the Diocese of Western New York.  This convention will be very mission-focused and the schedule reflects that.  The Rev. Canon Scott Slater, of the Diocese of Maryland, will help us continue exploration of our future through a program relating to shared ministry, both on the diocesan and congregational levels, using the work of Brené Brown.  To learn more about our program, you can revisit this blog post.

On the schedule you can see that we will have an open house on Thursday, November 9, from 7:00 PM-9:00 PM at St. Mark’s in place of the usual hospitality suite.  As many of you know, St. Mark’s recently underwent major renovations, due in part to a grant from the diocese, so they could continue growing their mission and ministry.  They are holding the open house as a thank you to the diocese for assisting in their work.  All are invited to attend.

Please also note the two pre-convention meetings.  The first will be held on October 10th at 7:00 PM at Christ Church, Meadville.  The second will be held on October 12th at 6:00 PM at St. John’s, Kane.  All are welcome to attend the pre-conventions.  We will be talking more about the process of exploring a shared future with the Diocese of Western New York so that all are fully informed prior to convention.

We urge our clergy and delegates to come ready to engage in our conversations. Please do not use the condensed business time as an excuse to not attend the entire convention.  The work that we will be doing at the convention, though not the conventional business, will be setting the table for the future of our diocese. We would also encourage those laypeople who are not delegates but who are interested in being a part of this conversation, to please join us as well.  We will have plenty of space for those who would like to join us and we would love to have you there.

Speak Boldly:  A Two-Track Approach to Christian Education and Formation

Throughout the season of Lent, we at St. Mark’s felt stirred to offer formation for all ages in a way that we had never done previously.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know what that was.  Personally, I knew that I needed to teach something that would be life-giving to me and would therefore feed the congregation in a new way through my energy and excitement.  For me, that meant teaching something about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) – more on that in a moment.

Of course, the Hebrew Bible wasn’t going to tap the interest of everyone in the congregation, so we needed something else to offer alongside.  With all of the recent changes in the local political landscape, the increase in issues like opioid overdose, and a bankrupt public school district, we felt called as disciples to learn more about those issues.  So we set forth to run a forum featuring influential public leaders to be run parallel to the Hebrew Bible class.  For six weeks in Eastertide, we began as a community with a meal (prepared by the culinary students at the Charter School for Excellence) and then broke off into our classes:  Public Forum, The Story of Creation for kids, and the Hebrew Bible class.

The Hebrew Bible class had one main purpose:  to teach the students about the origins, structure, and historical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.  It was intentionally not a devotional “bible study,” but rather an abbreviated introductory level Hebrew Bible course one would encounter in seminary.  The 26 students were excited and equally apprehensive because they knew they were going to face some challenges to their faiths along with way.  However, we knew that we could trust each other and that all opinions and questions were valued and respected.

Why teach such a class?  First, Jesus was Jewish.  Therefore the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were His scriptures that informed His faith and His teachings as our Messiah found in the New Testament.  Second, we are called to be peacemakers in the world.  How better to more deeply understand our Jewish brothers and sisters than through a deeper knowledge of their scriptures and our shared history? Third, there are many things as English readers of ancient Hebrew texts that we miss (symbolism, sarcasm, euphemism, parallelism, poetry, etc.) that once realized make the scriptures come alive in a new and powerful way.  Fourth, and perhaps most important, this deep study of the Hebrew Bible in college and seminary liberated my personal faith.  It caused me to think anew and ask the difficult questions I had previously been afraid to ask.  That freedom to ask hard questions is necessary for deepening one’s walk with Christ.

For six weeks, we prayed, studied, argued, sang, and shared revelatory moments together.  From Creation to the Exodus, from myth to commandment, from festivals to prophecies, from sex to poetry, we covered it and we had fun while doing it.  Can the 26 students speak fluent Hebrew?  No, but they can speak a few important Hebrew words and relate them back to their own walks with God.  Can the 26 students identify all of the writers in the Torah?  No, but they now know that there are many voices, faiths, and perspectives found in those books; and that there is much beauty in the unifying work of God in bringing all of those writings together to give us what we have today.  And finally, can the 26 students tell us everything there is to know about God’s character in the Hebrew Bible?  No, but they can certainly proclaim that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not the stereotyped old angry man in the sky, but is the same living, loving, merciful God we know in Christ today.  And for that I say, Alleluia!

Craig Dressler is Associate for Parish Life at St. Mark’s, Erie.

#doinganewthing Social Media Sunday at St. Mark’s

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

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Screen shot of Kate Amatuzzo’s (with Carly Rowe) Facebook post during the service.

It was only somewhat coincidental that St. Mark’s planned our first attempt at Social Media Sunday on the same day that we heard this passage from the prophet Isaiah. While I admit, I was pleased when I read the appointed lessons, it was actually after the fact! We picked Sunday, March 13, because it was the end of Lent and timely in that folks may in fact be considering attending church for Holy Week and Easter. It was also planned to happen at the same time that we launched our new website (www.saintmarkserie.org in case you were wondering). Once we determined those two things, the Isaiah reading made it all the more appropriate. So much so, that we used #doinganewthing as part of the day!

So why do a Social Media Sunday? This idea is certainly not original to St. Mark’s. The Episcopal Church has done several on a national level in recent years. Why? Because Social Media has become a powerful way to encourage people of faith to share the gospel. Facebook reports that they have 1.2 billion users (238 million in the United States alone) and Twitter reports 230 million users. I think we could all agree that this kind of reach is greater than just about any other medium available right now – oh and it’s free!

Our goal, like others who have done similar events, was to get people beyond their fear of using digital media and understand that these are effective tools that we can use to invite others, show our care and concern, tell our friends about our church, and introduce them to Jesus. Not everyone is an extrovert and not everyone is going to be comfortable walking up to someone and inviting them to church. However, if you are on Facebook or Twitter, you can post, share, invite and you have reached into your network of folks in a way that your church couldn’t do without your help. One on one evangelism times the number of friends you have on Facebook!

59695_976127559130832_6951792523750174087_nOur organization for this Sunday was simple. We produced a handout with clear instructions that everyone who came to church was given. It explained where to find St. Mark’s on Facebook and Twitter and then we suggested posts and tweets and of course hashtags (#doinganewthing #getconnected #stmarks). We gave those who were not on social media a way to participate by giving them the opportunity to write out their tweets and giving them to me to tweet. We also projected the new website and the live twitter feed in the church. (Yes, projecting in an Episcopal church and nothing bad happened, it was just fine.) Both really helped people get engaged. Vanessa Butler was on hand posting and tweeting on behalf of the diocese so our reach was even broader.

The results of all of this were beyond what we could have expected. The participation from the congregation was overwhelming and we had so much fun engaging in it on a Sunday. We picked up 20 new Twitter followers and 10 new page likes on Facebook, all in less than two hours. The website traffic was exponentially higher than any other Sunday morning. Will these people turn up at St. Mark’s for Easter or another Sunday? That remains to be seen, but at least they now know who we are and what we stand for when they decide that they are ready to come to church.

An unexpected result was that our members found new relationships and connected with other members they may not have otherwise connected with, by liking and sharing their posts and tweets. They were looking for each other after the services, introducing themselves by asking “Were you the one that posted that?”.

We said all along it was about the relationships, not the technology. Indeed it was. We reached hundreds of people outside of the walls of St. Mark’s on March 13 and we formed community for those who were already there. Win, win, and, yes, we would most certainly do it again!

Carly Rowe, Associate for Programs and Development, St. Mark’s, Erie

Brewing Faith – A Christian Community

Brewing FaithA brainchild of St. Stephen’s Fairview, Brewing Faith has become an essential piece to the spiritual lives and development of many young adults in the Erie area.

What is Brewing Faith? Brewing Faith is a monthly opportunity for young adults in their twenties and thirties to come together in a casual atmosphere – that of a craft brew pub – and intentionally discuss issues of faith and life. A collaborative ministry of St. Stephen’s and St. Mark’s, it is modeled after other young adult groups found throughout mostly major urban areas, and is open to people from all walks of spiritual life – Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, non-denominational, etc.

As a staff member of St. Mark’s and a thirty year old adult, I am thrilled to be a part of such a community. It’s a chance to simply be in Christian community – no agenda, no right or wrong answers, no rubrics – just simply be. As Jesus regularly broke bread with His community, we too are continuing this tradition and letting the Spirit move in and among us. This freedom of community has created a safe space in which everyone is valued and all opinions matter. Through the grace made manifest in the Brewing Faith community, we have been able to have fruitful and thoughtful discussions (while not always agreeing) on a wide array of topics: The Nicene Creed, Prayer, Social Justice, Racial Discrimination, Liturgical Practice, Holiness, and Lenten Discipline just to name a few.

And God has taken this community of Brewing Faith and has deepened our community far past the surface conversation topics. We have been able to celebrate birth and mourn death together as our individual lives have taken their various turns. We have held each other up in prayer and support one another along our journeys. And the community is starting to ask itself, “What’s next and what’s our wider purpose?” From a community development perspective, a community asking itself those deeper questions is a dream come true – a seed of something that is about to blossom beyond our wildest imaginations. Please pray for us as we work to discern our next steps as we deepen our communal walk with one another and with God. And if you’re ever thirsty…Millcreek Brewing Company on the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 6:30pm. Cheers!

Craig Dressler, Associate For Parish Life, St. Mark’s, erie, PA

Sr. Joan Chittister Speaks at St. Mark’s Service For Displaced Workers

The current state of the world is volatile. We all know this to be true. The terrorism, gun violence, increase in gangs, and job losses can be debilitating. But we are called as followers of Jesus to speak life – resurrection hope – into those dark debilitating places in our world. But, how do we even begin to know where to start?

Fr. Don Baxter, Gary Loncki (one of St. Mark’s delegates), and myself asked that very question of ourselves on the second day of diocesan convention. The lead story in the Erie Times News was about the massive layoffs announced by General Electric for their Erie plant. We wondered how we could respond. There was no way we could create new jobs for these people and no way that we could financially assist all of the people who would be impacted. What we knew is that we are people of prayer as followers of Jesus, and that we have a beautiful tradition of common prayer that perhaps we could offer to the community in a time of great uncertainty and grief.

In that moment of our response, God went to work. We began by crafting an evening prayer service with healing for the jobless and job-displaced people of our region. It was our hope to have a local leader offer a reflection at this event, but we weren’t having much luck finding that leader.

Then a providential opportunity presented itself where Fr. Don found himself at an event with Sister Joan Chittister, a world-renowned author on religion. In a step of faith, Fr. Don approached Sister Joan with the invitation to speak at the service. By the grace of God, Sister Joan was available and excited to offer the meditation. Fr. Don’s willingness to take a chance, Sister Joan’s support, Gary Loncki’s public relations experience, and guidance of the Holy Spirit came together to create an opportunity for healing far surpassing our wildest imagination. All of a sudden we had news coverage from all of the news channels and the newspaper. Our message, the message of the Resurrection, was being proclaimed.

On November 29, St. Mark’s hosted 60 guests at that service from all walks of life. Sister Joan focused her meditation on the grief and sadness that we are all familiar with and spoke deeply to the resurrection hope that we all have in our Savior Jesus Christ. Over 40 people came forward for healing for themselves or on behalf of another. The presence of the healing power of the Spirit was palpable as Fr. Don, Sister Joan, and Judge Nygaard laid hands on those 40 people asking God to come into their lives in new and powerful ways. That night was one of those moments that we desperately yearn for as ministers in the church, and it was an honor to bear witness to such a moment in the life of the church.

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Left to Right: Craig Dressler, Carly Rowe, Sister Joan Chittister, Fr. Don Baxter and Richard Nygard.

Dislocated Workers Focus of Prayer Service at St. Mark Episcopal Church

AR-130419938.jpg&maxW=960St. Mark Episcopal Church, 4701 Old French Road, is hosting a public prayer service for dislocated workers and their families on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 4 p.m. 

The service will be conducted by the Rev. Dr. Donald Baxter, St. Mark’s vicar.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, an internationally known author and lecturer on issues related to justice and peace, will deliver a reflection at the service.

Baxter noted the recent announcement that Erie’s General Electric plant will cut 1,500 jobs plus news of other recent layoffs in the Erie area make it necessary to bring people together for prayer.

“Workers and their families are hurting and looking at uncertain futures. We want to provide them a place to gather for prayer and support. By putting the Gospel of Jesus Christ into action, we trust the service will bring them a measure of healing and hope,” he said.

The Rev. Baxter said Sister Joan will provide a needed perspective for those who have lost sistertheir livelihood or are facing a loss of employment. 

The service will include music, Scripture readings, reflection and prayers for healing.

All are invited to attend.

For more information, call 868-9704 or contact Craig Dressler, St. Mark’s Associate for Parish Life, at cdressler@saintmarkserie.org