On June 27, 2015, activist Bree Newsome climbed the statehouse flagpole in Charleston, South Carolina, and took down the Confederate flag. I watched with admiration as she was led away in handcuffs. What a deeply courageous person, I thought—and then—I wish I could be that brave. What I've realized, though, is that, each week, when I make my pilgrimage to the altar for Eucharist, I am called to choose that kind of courage, manifested in daily small acts of radical love and compassionate service. I make a hundred choices each day, and when I make these choices out of laziness, or expediency, or cowardice (all of which I do, daily), I am not choosing to love with strength and courage; I am not choosing to serve with gladness or singleness of heart. But through my community at St. Stephen’s, I feel as though I am being formed and prepared spiritually, communally, and theologically to make better choices, and I’m being held accountable to God and the community for what I have done and what I have left undone. This is one of many reasons I call St. Stephen’s my home—and this is why I choose to give.
We give and serve at St. Stephen’s because of all St. Stephen’s has provided and continues to offer to us. We have been parishioners here for 15 years. In an often superficial world, St. Stephen’s creates for us a space where it is comfortable to acknowledge that our lives are not always – or even often – everything we would like for them to be. Here, we can be joyous and grateful, but we can also admit to feeling disappointment, grief, stress, or just being tired. In turn, St. Stephens inspires us to try to create that same space for the people in our lives outside church.
St. Stephen’s has been a village for our children as well. Our daughter has made close friends here, and has also gained an understanding of the Bible that surprised her summer counselors at Camp Allen. As our sons are in the time of life when many young people grapple with the validity of belief, they have found examples of living faith in the adults around them here. No matter what we do, we cannot give to St. Stephen’s as much as the community has offered us.
- Susan H.
Singleness of heart? You might say what’s that? For me, it’s that relationship with God that I rely on every day to get through the bad stuff, rejoice in the good stuff, and ask God the hard and seemingly unanswerable questions when I don’t know what to do. The beautiful post-communion prayer that we say thanking God and asking for God to be with us for the next week has been a part of my life forever. And it brings me joy knowing that I’m not alone in facing life’s challenges.
Most of you know that I am a talker of the first degree! And so it can be hard for me to listen to God. But singleness of heart requires me to do so, because in that alliance, it’s just the two of us…me and God!
For instance, I tried to change jobs and head over to HISD from my workaholic charter school position. In my job, I work with severely underserved students who are not without possibilities but have had neither opportunity nor excellent teaching when they arrive on our doorstep for 6th grade. My kids have learning differences and need a lot of extra help to get over the many hurdles so profoundly in their way. I wanted to change jobs and coach new teachers, interviewed and was called back twice. When I received the first call back, I was at Orange Beach, relaxing with my friends. The second call back came as I was packing for Alaska. Hmm. Maybe I didn’t need a 12 month position that would take away my summer break! In retrospect, I know God was nudging me to stay at my 55 hour a week job with my students who so desperately need devotion and continuity. Listening to God. Singleness of heart.
When Sarah and I were church shopping, we went to five different parishes. The first four were just fine. But not right. At one, the people were so, so friendly, gave us a welcome bag and said, “See y’all next week!” Sarah said, “They were really nice, but something was missing. (pause) I think it’s the Holy Spirit!” Back to the drawing board! Then we hit St. Stephen’s. We knew by the time we went up for communion. God said, “THIS IS YOUR CHURCH.” Listening to God. Singleness of heart.
Every morning and every night I take special time to talk to God and thank God for all the wonderfulness of my life. And I listen. In those moments there is always singleness of heart. St Benedict wrote that we should "listen with the ear of our heart." Listen to what God is calling us to do with both our time and talent. Join me in striving to do just that with gladness and singleness of heart
- Stephanie D.
How has St. Stephen’s impacted my life in a way that touches on the concept of “singleness of heart” – coming from our weekly post-communion prayer?
The short answer? By showing me the power of people in community.
The prayer we have been reflecting on this Stewardship season is – first and foremost – a communal prayer: “accepted us”, “fed us”, “send us out”, “grant us”….”singleness of heart”.
Many of you know -- I am not always a communal person. In fact most of the time I’m happiest alone, doing my thing. Let’s just say I’ve had trust issues for a long time. As an only child, growing up in a neighborhood with no kids, I learned self-reliance, had lots imaginary friends, kept my own counsel, hated confrontation – you get the picture. I wasn’t exactly antisocial – but always in the corner at a party. Usually the one trying to negotiate peace.
Having “fallen away” from church at age 18, my relationship with God was personal – and private, and I liked it that way.
Then, as they say, “God only knows why”, at age 40 I was guided to St. Stephen’s.
Initially I tried to be here for God, but not be social about it. That sounds pretty dumb now – but hey, that’s where my head was in 1990. That tack, over time, did not work well.
I had stumbled into a faith community that was busy, challenging, questioning, caring, arguing, chaotic, standing up and standing out…ALL. THE. TIME. I was sure I could never fit in. But, gradually I saw that while we might not (who am I kidding, we will NEVER) have singleness of MIND – there was a singleness in our love of God. That was the common thread – that was what I heard in the prayer after communion as “singleness of heart.” And THAT I could live with. My inner spirituality could live WITH the power of communal faith.
My Dad’s fave scripture was Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
He called it the litmus test. “Talk is cheap – but what you put your time, energy, talent, gifts into – that’s what you really love and value.”
I value worshiping and being in community at St. Stephen’s. Here I have received the strength and courage to be better. To love and serve God better – knowing that when I screw up or just get lazy –
This community is strong.
You will keep going when I cannot.
You will eventually get me going again.
And I will do the same for you.
So when we pray this prayer: I hear a call for action. I know I am not alone. We share a singleness of heart – our love of God. And we go out into the world….
And with Hope.
- Paula P.
When I am mindful during the day, I realize that I am usually doing two or three things at once. I try not to remind myself because, like a juggler, consciousness is the enemy. One stray observation and all my tennis balls fall to the floor.
It's important for my tennis balls to stay aloft, because everything depends on their staying airborne. My juggling ability determines my salary, my standing in the world, my sense of self-worth. I am proud of my ability to multitask, proud of my being able to check off multiple entries on my To Do list nightly. I am proving my worth by my actions. I am productive.
Every Sunday, we pray the same words in the liturgy: “Grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Why do I pray for “gladness and singleness of heart” every week? Can Jesus not see how complicated my life, modern life is? What would happen if I were to drop everything, abandon everything, and follow the Way? It would be just this side of insane. Right? Right?
My husband, Gary and I have been members of St. Stephen’s Church for over 20 years. As cradle Catholics, our search for a church-home ended with an unexpected visit to St. Stephen’s and we’ve never left. I remember the first time I heard Helen Havens, the former Rector, say, “All are welcome at God’s table,” I was hooked. After a couple of years, we eventually became Episcopalians. As our church-home, we’ve celebrated with the community, family and friends such events as our blessing as a couple on July 5, 2014 and my appointment as Head of School in 2012. We’ve also prayed for healing and given thanks when Gary was first diagnosed with cancer, then relapsed and eventually cured. Now, as we move into our retirement years, our church-home is just a larger extension of our family. We gladly give back to St. Stephen’s because St. Stephen’s and the community have given us so much.
As a couple, the past year has been one of the hardest and one of the best we could’ve asked for. In August 2015, during our engagement, Chris’ parents were killed by a car accident. The St. Stephen’s community embraced us as we moved forward in our grief and as we prepared to enter marriage. We were met with a constant showing of support whether it be through the before/after church conversations with fellow parishioners, dinner with Foyer’s, the pre-marital retreat and pre-marital counseling sessions, and for myself, the people in Education for Ministry. When we married in January 2016, the day was an outpouring of gladness surrounded by family, friends, and the St. Stephen’s community (who very much feel like family and friends). The gladness and joy we felt on that day was such a wonderful way to start a new chapter of our lives together. St. Stephen’s has enriched my life in so many ways and through giving, I want to show my appreciation for the spirit of gladness that St. Stephen’s gives to me.
I give to St. Stephen’s because it has made me a better person. St. Stephen’s has taught me to live my life bravely; to go into the world with strength and courage to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. I lived in southeast Houston for 25 years until I got a divorce in 2000 and moved “inside the Loop” in 2005. I left behind my church and the friends I had known for many years. Although we still stay in touch, I needed a new life and new church. Driving by St. Stephen’s repeatedly, I liked the small, stone church standing bravely on a busy street and gathered up the courage to attend an 8:30 service one Sunday morning. That day, I was met with a wave of welcome from both the congregation and Lisa. As you know, you can run but you can’t hide from service at St. Stephen’s and soon I was involved with ministries I never imagined myself doing. Each time I was asked to do something, I had to step up and get out of my comfort zone, and each time I received encouragement, positive reinforcement, thanks, and was blessed to grow into my roles. I may be retired, but I find myself busier than ever, involved in the diversity of activities and ministries that St. Stephen’s offers, and looking forward to what St. Stephen’s has for me to do next. To love and serve the Lord at St. Stephen’s has truly sent me into the world in peace and brought me gladness and singleness of heart.
A couple of weeks ago, I received two pieces of mail on the same day. Quarterly contribution statements arrived--from two different churches in two different parts of Texas--reminding us of our annual pledges to parishes that were spiritualhomes to our family before and during seminary.
It struck me that there would be more coming! We would soon be hearing from St. Mark’s in San Marcos, where I served as an intern for two years, and from St. Stephen’s, our family’s new parish as I begin to serve this community in ordained ministry. We also pledged support to those parishes in 2016.
Four pledges in one year!
I recall encountering the concept of pledging for the first time as an Episcopalian in 2004. It was an unfamiliar concept, as our prior church tradition did not budget based on the commitments made by parishioners, but by estimates of what was hoped would come in. As we considered pledging in those first years, we were slow to get on board. For a time, we resisted “pledging” because it felt as though the role of faith in giving was diminished. In another season we chose not to pledge because we were not confident we could make good on our commitments, opting instead to just give, from time to time, as much as we could.
When Tami and I first made a pledge, we made a small one. We were fairly certain that we would end up giving more to the church; but we wanted the vestry to know the minimum they could count on coming from us. It was a very rewarding feeling to know that we were participating with and sharing in the process of planning for the next year’s ministries by our pledge. In the next year we gave more, and have continued to increasingly pledge since those former days.
I realized when those statements came in the mail the other day that we now think of pledging as a very important part of our worship and commitment to any parish we call home. The reason we have pledged at four churches this year is because we served within and received ministry from each of those communities. It has become a very natural thing for us to pledge our support in a parish to which we belong.
Now, as we call St. Stephen’s home and have begun to share in the deep and rich ministry that happens within and through the people of this parish, our commitment is to pledge undividedly to St. Stephen’s for 2017. Won’t you consider joining us, even if just starting out in pledging for the first time?
The Reverend Scott Painter, Curate
My name is James LaRocque, I have been a parishioner at St. Stephens for two years, and I give to St. Stephen's because I was invited to. As someone returning to a community of faith after experiencing oppressive and exclusionary practices in church as a teenager, I was wary when I first arrived—as I believe many in our community were and are—about returning to the pews. In those first weeks, showing up on Sunday mornings took all the emotional energy I had. Later, when I was invited to give my time and candid thoughts – an hour for coffee with the clergy, an afternoon envisioning the campus master plan, one evening a month for a foyers dinner, the occasional stint as an usher, a weekend for marriage preparation—a gift of my time felt easy to give.
Because I had been invited, because I felt listened to, I felt that I knew others at church, and that I was truly known. Two years later, the financial pledge I now make feels like an extension of the welcome that I first received at St. Stephens. I take pleasure in the fact that other newcomers receive the same invitation that I did when I first arrived, and comfort in the knowledge that St. Stephens can remain the radically welcoming place it has always been, and will continue to be in the future.
St. Stephen's walks, without judgment, with those taking different paths to God so that we may be transformed through Jesus Christ as we serve others.