Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Episcopal Church...according to a high school senior

My, my has it been a cold week!  Hope everyone has kept warm and kept their power during the weekend. 

In the past I have shared stories about growing up as a proud Episcopalian.  Claiming it proudly and wearing all my Episcopal “swag” whenever possible.  If you are wondering how much Episcopal apparel can someone really own; the answer is a lot.  Belts, keychains, multiple sweatshirts, hats, bumper stickers, license plates, and more t-shirts than I know what to do with.  I even currently have a 4’x 7’ Episcopal flag hanging in my office.

All that being said, when I went to college and I was asked to describe what it meant to be Episcopal…I was speechless.

I just stuttered and ummmm’d and said a few things but the more I thought about it the more I realized I didn’t know. 

Yesterday, one of the seniors in our youth group told me about how they were writing a paper for school about how much he loved the Episcopal Church and its beliefs.  Today they sent me a copy of that paper and was delighted to read it.

One great thing about the Episcopal Church is how open and loving we are.  Even ask Robin Williams!  If you did not know, Robin Williams is one of the many famous Episcopalians.  In one of his comedy bits, he names the top ten reasons to be an Episcopalian.  What was number 1? 

“No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.”

Such a true statement!  So to change things up, instead of me talking about my thoughts on the Episcopal church, I have decided to let the words of our youth say why they love this church so much.

If you were to know a brief history about me and my family, it would not be surprising to find that I have always been Christian and am surrounded by Christian family, since I am a white male living in the Southeastern United States. My ancestors lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi—all of which are included in the “bible belt”—since before the Civil War, so Christianity has always been present in my family. The aforementioned ancestors ranged from being mainly Methodists and Baptists but with an occasional Catholic.  When my grandfather married my grandmother, he was exposed to the Episcopal Church. Being a former Methodist with some Catholic background, he loved the mixture of the two denominations that he felt. He felt a homey sense that can be found in a Methodist church when the congregation converses with each other before the service. However, he thoroughly enjoyed the formality similar to that of a Catholic service in which ancient chants, psalms, and hymns are sung and the same liturgy is followed that was written thousands of years ago. And so, the Episcopal Church was introduced to my family tree. I am an Episcopalian, and this denomination of Christianity has shaped the man that I am becoming today.
            As an adolescent growing up, I didn’t understand the expansive diversity that Christianity contains within its countless denominations. My young mind could only wonder why we all weren’t just one Christian church. After all, we each claim that Jesus is the Son of God who was sent to rescue mankind from our sinful nature and that he is our Savior. To a young, naïve Christian mind, isn’t that all that matters? That we all love Jesus? This lack of understanding caused my Christian journey to be confusing as a child. I went to a conservative school from junior kindergarten to sixth grade. This school was heavily affiliated with a massive, conservative church. It was so stern in its beliefs that children of different religions hardly felt welcome at all. I knew only one Hindu and one Muslim who attending solely for the educational prestige of the school as an elementary school. I did not meet a Jewish person until my arrival at a college-preparatory school for middle and high school . Thus, any Bible class or seminar about manhood at my elementary school caused great confusion to a young Episcopalian like myself. This was because I would go to school five days a week, hear Bible classes taught from a very conservative point-of-view, and then go to church on Sunday and hear a more liberal understanding of the Bible and its message. At the time, conflicts were as small as the question of whether or not women should be welcomed in clergy. My church said yes; I was even baptized by a woman. My school and its church said no; women were not to be included. This confusion, although miniscule, caused me to become frustrated to the point that I would just “go with the flow” depending on which setting I was in.
            Once I got to 7th grade, I had become less concerned about what I truly believed with my faith due to frustration and more concerned about what would make me seem less like a religious radical in the minds of a bunch of 13 year olds. Thus, I rejected any notion of evolution; I said I believed homosexuality was an abomination and more. 7th and 8th grade were years spent of my family trying to explain that evolution was a fact that couldn’t be denied and that maybe homosexuals are not an abomination. It wasn’t until 9th grade that everything began to change. Some credit is due to my biology teacher, who showed me that evolution was a fact that I believed couldn’t be denied. At first, this scared me. But, with the help of family and a priest, I learned evolution theories and God’s creation can be pressed together in a way that they can coexist. However, this realization was not the most monumental in the strengthening and foundation of my own true Episcopal faith.
            In 10th grade, I attended a weekend retreat called Happening upon the demand of my mother. My older sister who had previously attended Happening, assured me that it would be amazing; she could not have been any more correct. Happening changed my life. Through prayer, reflection, and discussion with priests I began to find ideals that truly felt right for me to believe; I felt completely comfortable in believing them. The way in which this came about is surprising considering my middle school beliefs. At Happening, the leader for my retreat was a homosexual man. At first, this made me uncomfortable, as I was still unsure about how I felt about homosexuality in Christianity. But, after many conversations with this man, I thought to myself that there is no way God is going to damn this man—who loves God with all his heart, who does nothing but try to make people happy in a positive way, and who works exhaustingly to spread God’s message—to hell for being homosexual. I realized that it could be possible that maybe this man didn’t decide to be gay but that he was made that way, just as I felt that I never decided to be heterosexual but that I just am and always have been. My next thought was that, if it is true that we are made hetero or homosexual, then, wouldn’t it be unfair for God to create homosexuals and, thus, give them no hope of salvation. So, I decided that God does not damn these people to hell but loves them the same as he loves a straight man as long as they act with the same sexual morality that is expected between a man and a woman. It was this realization that opened the doors that allowed the fullest effect of the Episcopal Church to come flooding into my life.
            Now as a senior, I feel I can begin to have a full grasp on the Episcopal Church. Long conversations with my youth leader and others influential Episcopalians in my life have brought exposure to the ideas of pluralism to my understanding. For me, the Episcopalian Church boils down to one word. Acceptance. I believe that gender, race, sexual orientation, and demographics should not dictate whether you can participate or serve in church and certainly not dictate whether you are saved. I understand that not everyone agrees with this statement, but I will never say that my beliefs are the only correct beliefs. The Episcopal Church has shown me that man is not given the right to judge with path to salvation is the correct one. Only God judges that. That is the most comforting feeling that the Episcopal Church has given me.

            This branch of Christianity has affected me in such a way that it shapes the man that I hope to become. I aspire to be accepting, understanding, and open. However, I don’t want to reflect these qualities only when concerning religion, but also I want to display them in everything I do. 

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