Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Last weekend, youth from across the Bay Area met with our youth group for a transformative teach-in and art workshop about the Thirteenth Amendment and the national movement to abolish forced labor in prisons. 

Last weekend, youth from across the Bay Area met with our youth group for a transformative teach-in and art workshop about the Thirteenth Amendment and the national movement to abolish forced labor in prisons. 

With artists Akeil Robertson-Jowers, and Phoebe Bachman of Mural Arts, we went on a challenging but necessary journey through the history of racism and oppression in the US, following the throughline that runs from slavery to the current system of involuntary servitude in prisons. This system of involuntary servitude is made possible by an “exception” clause in the Thirteenth Amendment that means those incarcerated can be forced to work without compensation. 

We were given many examples of how demeaning and punitive this work can be. In Louisiana State Penitentiary, we learned, incarcerated people are currently being made to pick cotton in the same fields where enslaved people once picked cotton. Closer to home, fire fighters in California risk their lives for two to five dollars a day during fire season.  Most of the people working in prisons will graduate with precious little to show, in terms of either savings or credentials that can help them gain other work. 

These revelations led to a powerful discussion about how we can all be agents for change. We learned about the national End the Exception movement that is calling for an end to involuntary servitude. We also heard about the role of leaders in the Episcopal Church, including our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, and other members of the Free at Last Coalition. 

Moved and inspired, we created a powerful piece of art calling for the end of slavery. This piece was blessed at our 6 pm Choral Eucharist, and will be on display permanently in the crypt of Grace.

We also made discoveries and connections that will stay with us forever. 

It was a privilege and honor to be part of this experience. I am so grateful to the youth and youth group leaders who participated from St. Mary’s the Virgin and St. James’ Episcopal churches, as well as congregants Ciara Bedingfield and Jodie Forve, who took these images.  

Thanks also go to Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Amy Quirk of the Quirk Family Foundation for making this event possible. 

Images by Jodie Forvé 

Dear friends,

I wonder if you will be making any New Year’s resolutions.

Many of us have become increasingly cynical about making resolutions. Each passing year demonstrates how fragile resolve can be and how easily it breaks in the light of the new day. 

In my twenties, I made laundry lists of resolutions on New Year’s Eve. Some of these resolutions were frivolous, focused on matters such as finding a way to fit into the stovepipe Wrangler jeans than in fashion. The more earnest resolutions I offered to the universe, as I stood waiting for the town hall clock to chime midnight, were that I would try to make a difference in the world, to be more loving with those I loved, and to gain inner peace. I sense most of those gathered offered similar intentions to the starry sky and that this is what gave, and continues to give, each new year celebration around the world its energy and optimism. 

Resolutions are prayers. They are expressions of our deepest longings for transformation and peace. While we may become less comfortable voicing these longings, they continue to burn undiminished within our souls. 

During the Bishop’s Pageant on Christmas Eve, children offered prayers that gave voice to all our prayers: for belonging and community, for the welfare of those in our care, for joy for the living and peace for those who have died. One of the most moving things was the faith with which I heard these prayers spoken, the confidence that, in the speaking of these petitions, they would be heard. There was no apologetic tone, no equivocation of the kind with which we as adults often offer our weary prayers, our sheepish hopes.  

I wonder if a resolution for the new year can be to remember the faith with which we made our resolutions, to allow ourselves to shrug off the protective cloak of cynicism we sometimes wrap around ourselves, and give voice anew to our hopes for peace and transformation. 

The Martin Luther King Jr. weekend presents us with an immediate opportunity to renew our engagement in justice. On Sunday, January 15, Grace Cathedral will host an Interfaith Evensong and forum honoring the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth are invited to participate in a teach-in and art workshop about the national movement to end slavery for good. Artwork produced will be presented at our 6 pm service and then placed on permanent display at Grace, voicing the hope of many for a more just world through this reform. Spaces are limited, and we invite attendees to RSVP by email as soon as possible.  

This Sunday, the first day of the New Year, we will hear the blessing of God to us all:  

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26). 

God knows and loves our desire for belonging, for grace, for peace. May we all feel this constant love as we enter the New Year and find new strength to bring the light of this love to the world. 

Dear friends, 

What does joyful anticipation feel like in a post-pandemic world?

Something we anticipate each year in the Children, Youth, and Family Ministry is the Bishop’s Pageant, a cherished holiday tradition for many. Our excitement is heightened this year because we will offer our first in-person Pageant since 2019. Racks of costumes are being rolled out of storage, casting calls made for a multitude of angels, and a donkey prepared by its loving hander for its journey to Bethlehem (via the South Bay). 

At the same time, we are monitoring the high rate of respiratory illnesses in the Bay Area and the particular impact this has on the young and other vulnerable groups. This is shaping our planning for the Pageant. 

Some changes to the Pageant this year include asking all attendees to register in advance to attend and inviting participants and audience members to wear masks. Further adjustments, under the guidance of our Diocesan leadership, may be necessary. 

This introduces a note of caution into one of the most glorious displays of unbridled joy the cathedral offers. The excited correspondence I have had with families preparing to come to the pageant – in some cases, a pageant they have been attending for the past decade or longer – leaves me with no doubt that this day will still be the joyous event we are all anticipating. 

The last few years have demonstrated the great capacity of the Grace Cathedral community to experience profound joy in any circumstance, regardless of what unanticipated developments occur around us. Individually and as members of a great family, we may need to continue to remain vigilant this Advent season, to respond to unanticipated changes that lead to us masking where we would rather smile at each other, spending a day at home where we would prefer to be at our beloved cathedral. 

We can still anticipate the joy that awaits us this season. It is a joy we felt ripple around us during our service to mark the start of Advent last Sunday, embodied in the fragrant wreaths we wove and candles we lit. It is a joy that will wash over us during our beloved Advent Procession this Sunday, as well as the Advent Tea that will follow it, with its glorious cornucopia of sweets and opportunity to peruse the wares of our beloved Stitching Ministry. It is a joy we can anticipate eddying through the concertsservicesAdvent Sale, series on contemplative practices, and myriad other ways to experience this most special of seasons. 

Most of all, it is the joy unbounded we anticipate as we look towards Christmas. 

God is with us always, holding us in every joyful and challenging moment. Nothing can prevent the Advent of the Christ Child. This is the great Good News of Christmas we receive each year, the joyful promise that no other circumstance can diminish. 

Thank you for being part of the Grace family! 

Dear Friends, 

Last Sunday, the Grace Cathedral Youth Group served lunch with the GLIDE Foundation in the Tenderloin, working as part of a team of volunteers from across the city.  

After we walked back up the hill to the cathedral – and the youth had given me time to catch my breath – we reflected on what we had seen and felt. We shared our sorrow that many people in our city experience food insecurity. We also shared moments of grace we’d witnessed. One of us had seen someone give half their ration of food to another person who had missed out on the lunch service. We all were moved by the care and compassion GLIDE staff, volunteers, and lunch guests had shown each other. 

Witnessing a situation where suffering is present can be challenging. It is tempting to try to “fix” things or to just turn away. But staying present in a situation, observing it with love and an open mind, is central to Christian practice. It is how we remember that we are all members of God’s great, beloved family. 

This Sunday, Grace Cathedral will observe the Children’s Sabbath. This observance invites faith communities to contemplate the challenges children and families face. The Children’s Defense Fund, the organizer of the Children’s Sabbath, states that over ten million children in the US experience food insecurity. Such a statistic can paralyze us with negative emotions or make us cast about frantically for ways to “fix” this. A Sabbath invites us to be still, pray, and listen to the Spirit’s voice. This ancient, sacred practice can strengthen us in our social justice work, renewing our capacity to love and care for each other. 

The voice and vision of the young will be woven into our Children’s Sabbath. Youth will read scripture and the Prayers of the People, and children will be invited to create prayer ribbons. Our service leaflet will feature art pieces on the justice theme by law students at the University of San Francisco. I am grateful to the Rev. Timothy Seamans of the cathedral School for Boys, Dean Stephanie Carlos, and Heidi Ho of USF for their support of this initiative. I am also grateful to the Rev. Anna Rossi, the young people from the Grace congregation, and CSB for contributing to our Sabbath observance. 

The following Sunday, October 23, civil rights hero Dolores Huerta, the co-founder with César E. Chávez of United Farm Workers of America, will preach at the 11 am Choral Eucharist. Ms. Huerta’s ongoing advocacy for the rights of the working poor, women, and children has transformed the lives of countless people. Dolores Huerta’s remarkable career demonstrates to us all that change is possible and that seemingly immobile systems of inequality can be altered by individuals and communities acting with courage and compassion. 

Later this month, the Children, Youth, and Family Ministry will observe a different kind of event as we host the Edge of Halloween Treasure Hunt on October 30, from 2-4 pm. Halloween has a particular resonance for children. They know things that are scary and hard to understand are as much a part of life as hopeful and joyous things and that all these things can belong together. Our treasure hunt will invite children and families to go on a journey through the chambers and soaring halls of our great Gothic cathedral, a space that reflects the great mystery, the light, and shade, of life. We are excited to welcome children and families from across the city for this free, fun event.  

Thank you for being part of the Grace family! 

With gratitude,

Steph McNally 
Associate for Children, Youth, and Family Ministry 
stephm@gracecathedral.org

Greetings, 

Labor Day is said to mark the “unofficial end of summer.” I wonder what this expression evokes in you? 

As a teacher, the end of summer has always meant the return of students crashing like a wave through the door of a previously quiet classroom, transforming everything in their wake. 

As the Associate for Children, Youth, and Family Ministry, I enjoy surfing this wave weekly, gathering with our cathedral’s youngest congregants at 11 am each Sunday for worship, learning, and play. Our children have so much to teach us. They have an innate sense of the sanctity of nature. They know instinctively the truth of the psalm we hear this Sunday, that God’s creation is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14 NRSV). Our young people can teach us how to sit with this creation, immersing ourselves in the wonders of a shell, a strand of seaweed, and the grains in a handful of sand. 

The sensibility of a child, the capacity to love the environment for the miracle it is, maybe just be what we need to save the world. 
Families with children are invited to gather at Crissy Field for a morning prayer service at 11 am this Sunday, September 4. We will worship and enjoy food and fellowship with each other. Please email me with a map and further details! 

We gather outdoors to mark the beginning of Creationtide, a season that celebrates our divinely created world and calls for us to protect this fragile and threatened paradise. This season is observed throughout The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, traditionally culminating with the Feast of Saint Francis. At Grace Cathedral, we’ll hear its themes, especially in the people’s prayers, and extend the observance through October 9, the eve of Indigenous People’s Day. 

On Sunday, September 11, there will be two special opportunities for the congregation to gather. Our Congregation Town Hall Meeting will take place at 9:30 am. Then, after the 11 am Choral Eucharist, we will gather on the plaza for Congregation Sunday.
Our Grace Cathedral Youth Group will host a fundraiser for the Grace Cathedral Racial Justice Youth Pilgrimage to Alabama and Georgia in the summer of 2023. Jewelry, baked goods, and hand-made cards will be on sale, with all funds contributing towards youth participation in the pilgrimage. I am inspired by the desire of our youth to undertake this pilgrimage during their (often brief) summer break.  Our young people have an innate sense of fairness. They respond passionately when they can see something is unfair and refuse to accept that there are systems of racism too big or perpetual to be dismantled. I am so grateful to the cathedral for providing our youth with the opportunity to act on their desire for justice and change. I would be delighted to hear from you if a youth in your extended family or community would like to attend. 

I am also grateful for the opportunity I was given last week to take part in the Grace Cathedral mission to the border, a pilgrimage organized by the Rev. Dr. Greg Kimura, with the Rev. Canon Anna Rossi, our Content Marketing Manager, Alina Dennis, and members of our congregation in attendance. We visited schools and shelters supporting children and families awaiting resettlement in the U.S. I have shared my reflections on this transformational experience in this blog post, which features images captured by Alina Dennis. I pray we can continue to build relationships with this community and the organizations providing it with stability and hope. 

Special events coming up in the next few weeks include: 
  • Congregation Town Hall Meeting: Join us for our annual Town Hall on Sunday, September 11, at 9:30 am. Dean Malcolm Clemens Young will lead a discussion of the congregation survey results and provide updates on cathedral life.  
  • Congregation Sunday: After the 11 am Choral Eucharist on Sunday, September 11, join us on the plaza for one-on-one exchanges with ministry representatives. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about what ministries do and how you can get involved in them! 
  • Visitor Experience and Cultural Membership Photo Shoot: Volunteers of all ages are needed for a Grace Cathedral sightseeing visitor photo shoot on Wednesday, September 21, from 11 am – 1 pm! For more information, please email Julie Knight by September 18. 
  • Yoga for Change: This morning of gathering with good intentions to benefit The Community Preschool takes place on Saturday, September 24, at 10 am. Your participation will help support student financial aid, daily nutritious meals, and our dreams of opening a parent resource center. 

Thank you for being part of the family of Grace! 

Steph McNally 
Associate for Children, Youth, and Family Ministry 

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of being part of the Grace Cathedral mission to the border, led by the Rev. Dr. Greg Kimura.

Among the places we visited, one that stands out to me is Canyon Nest, a school for 3 to 10-year-olds in Tijuana created by PILAglobal.

To reach the school, we needed to walk some distance along a rocky track. Sleepy-eyed stray dogs watched us as we jumped back and forth across a foul-smelling stream. 

Before the teachers at the school could greet us, the space did. The courtyard, with its shade, warm colors, and art station, all spoke welcome.  

Inside, a beautifully arranged classroom awaited the children, its easily accessible shelves filled with crafts and toys waiting to be held, squeezed, and used to make magical creations. 

Costumes and props spilled out of baskets on the stage in the dramatic play area. 

Everywhere there were invitations, stated and implied, for jugar, for play. Every aspect of this school has been designed to build joy, encourage curiosity and reinforce how loved and valued they are to each child.   

This site of learning and joy is built adjacent to a shelter for 1700 people seeking asylum in the US. Many of the children who attend this school, and their families who have risked everything to bring them here, have living situations as precarious as the dwellings we saw built on the dusty slopes of the canyon. 

The lead teacher of the school, herself from Tijuana, shared how much planning goes into the school’s curriculum. Children at Canyon Nest differing levels of literacy; most have experienced trauma. The teachers work with constant care and thought, providing a meaningful learning experience to every child who comes to the school. 

And more and more children are coming.   

That day, I saw incredible teachers who could not be rewarded enough. The CEO of PILAglobal, who led our visit, shared that the organization prioritizes the funding of teachers and teaching assistants, many of whom are drawn from the community, over all other resources. I can’t stop thinking about these teachers. I suspect it is because I feel hope in reflecting on them. 

Photo Credit: Alina Dennis

Join us online for a very special Bishop’s Pageant at 11 am on Christmas Eve.

As a result of discernment by members of the Office of the Congregation, and at the direction of our Bishop, we have decided that, despite our earlier hopes to meet in person, this year’s Bishop’s Pageant will be held online only. 

We have made this decision out of an abundance of caution. It’s a decision informed by the arrival of the Omicron variant, and the uncertainties this brings.  

I suspect for many of you this will not come as a complete surprise, especially in a year that has asked us to pivot and shift so often that it sometimes feels like we are getting tied in knots. I know, however, that this news will come as a disappointment for many. 

Many of us, including many children and families, make an annual pilgrimage to our Cathedral for the Bishop’s Pageant. Many others volunteer their time and gifts, serving as dressers, ushers and every kind of supporter. I am honored to be connected to such a hallowed tradition. 

The good news that I want to share with you is that I believe the Bishop’s Pageant we will offer online at 11am on Christmas Eve, while different, will capture the beauty and spirit of this event. I believe this after seeing the care and joy that many people have brought to the making of it.  

I am delighted to share some behind-the-scenes images from the filming of this year’s Bishop’s Pageant in this blog. I hope these convey something of the heart and soul many have poured into the creation of this year’s Pageant, and what a wonderful event it will be.  

I have spent the most magical few days watching the Pageant being filmed.  

I have had the great privilege of witnessing our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc Handley Andrus, tell, with warmth and profundity, the Nativity story, leading us through the Cathedral and along the road to Bethlehem.  

I have watched a large number of children, from our congregation, the Cathedral School for Boys and the Community Preschool, enact, respond to and gaze with awe and wonder upon this story. 

My sincere gratitude goes to the many that have made this possible, and helped us move, in a span of days, from planning for an in-person Pageant to an online, prerecorded event. First and foremost, I must thank our Bishop, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc Handley Andrus, for his leadership and championship of the Pageant. Thank you to our dean, the Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young, for his great support and wonderful welcome. Thanks also must go our remarkable production and music teams at Grace Cathedral, to the Rev. Mary Carter Greene and the Rev. Anna Rossi for their work on our Pageant script, and to our Communications team for helping us continue to communicate our news! Special thanks to Father Timothy Seamans from the Cathedral School for Boys, and to our many Grace parents, who moved heaven and earth to help us fill our Pageant with shepherds, magi and angels. And a very special thanks to all children who participated!

I can also share that we will be offering a live Nativity Scene, complete with animals, on the plaza at 11 am on Christmas Eve. Children will have the opportunity to come in costume, or to dress in a costume, and participate in our Nativity scene. We would love to see you there.  

Making the Pageant reminded me, as I am often reminded, of the power of seeing the world as a child. There were many times during filming when I was aware I was preoccupied with a multitude of different concerns.

What repeatedly brought me back were the moments of divine beauty and grace I witnessed involving our children: our young Mary and Joseph gathering around “their” newborn baby, eager to meet and know this beautiful child; our Magi carefully cradling their gifts as they processed towards the Holy Family; the faces of our angels lit up with broad smiles as they called out greetings of peace and joy. What I saw that day reminded me of the capacity of children to immerse themselves in the moment, to find sources of wonder and joy in any circumstance. 

I believe this Christmas, our children will continue to find the joy, and the light, to see the wonder in moments that we may find difficult. I have seen our families go through so much, and endure so much, to ensure their children continue to experience joy and wonder.  

I know that, together, we will still be able to ensure this is a very special Christmas for our children, and for all of us. As I was reminded through the making of this Pageant, one of the great mysteries at the heart of our faith is that of a baby, a “poor king” born in difficult circumstances and times, whose birth brought light to the world. This light remains with us always, present always, even in times when it is difficult to see. We can see it in the beauty of every newborn baby, and reflected in the faces of all of God’s children.

Thank you for the blessing of your families, and for being part of the family of Grace,

Steph McNally
Associate for Children, Youth and Family Ministry
stephm@gracecathedral.org

Art by artist Lucy Shin

I frequently hear from members of our congregation how they miss the physical presence of children in Grace Cathedral. Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to connect and build community with our young people through a program of online activities and outdoor gatherings. More recently, our precious young people have been returning to services at Grace. This wonderful development is due in large part to the undertaking of our community to create a safe environment for those who can’t yet be vaccinated, by ensuring everyone who is twelve or older shows proof of vaccination before entering. Still, I know we have missed the presence of children as it was pre-pandemic. We miss the ways in which our children traveled through their cathedral, gathering on the indoor labyrinth, pouring down the central aisle, contemplating and exploring the great spaces and secret nooks of our wondrous Grace.  

This is why I am looking forward to Halloween this year, and the opportunities it will provide us to welcome and celebrate our children. 

We are holding two events for the children and families of our community. In the afternoon of Sunday, October 31, we will welcome children and families to our cathedral for a treasure hunt. Families will journey through the Nave, solving puzzles and participating in Halloween games, before they are rewarded with treats!  

For those of you for whom the thought of Halloween games inside our cathedral gives pause, I can reassure you part of our brief was that this event be free of ooze, slime and all things gooey. We have designed an event that involves almost no touching of anything. Apart from seeking to preserve the floors and walls of our cathedral, we want to create an event that young children and their families will be able to enjoy safely.  

The architecture of the cathedral itself has been invaluable in creating such an event. Our Gothic cathedral is an inherently dramatic space that relies on the interplay of light and dark to create awe. To enter it is to go on a journey, one that takes us from the dim recess of the Narthex to the dazzling High Altar and back again.  We are surrounded by memento mori, signs of our mortality and of the spirits that live for eternity. There are hidden chambers and grand spaces that make us look up at the light. Our indoor labyrinth invites us to journey to its mystical core and back again.  

Reflecting on our cathedral’s design has given me fresh insight into the original celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints Day, and how these two days must have been so intrinsically linked in people’s minds. The celebration of Halloween, and all the fear and fun of it, must have been enhanced by the promise the night would pass, that dawn would rise on a holy day.  

We have woven the narrative of All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day into our treasure hunt. Simultaneously, we have sought to design an event that will appeal to the children and families of our community that come from other faiths, traditions or are not practicing a particular tradition. We are specifically inviting our families in The Community Preschool and the Cathedral School for Boys, as well as families in Nob Hill, Chinatown and the Tenderloin. I hope there will be opportunities for us to discuss with those attending different traditions that acknowledge and celebrate spirits and the souls of the dead.  

I am excited by the thought that we will be welcoming many children for the first time to the cathedral. The wonder with which I have seen children respond to our cathedral teaches me to look at it with fresh eyes and rejoice in its wonders. Among all the searching and the spooky fun we intend for the event, I also anticipate it will be a day of joy, when the Nave again reverberates with the sounds of children. 

Please RSVP below or on Eventbrite. Spaces for this free event are filling fast! 

In the evening, we will offer a further gift to our community from the youth of Grace. A number of our gifted young members of Grace Cathedral are creating pieces of art inspired by Halloween and other traditions. These pieces of art will be made into a slideshow that will be projected onto the facade of Grace Cathedral from 7 pm. The slideshow will adorn the path of trick-and-treaters making their way through Nob Hill. We will be present to welcome and provide treats to those who come by. I am thankful to our young people who have volunteered to create art for this special slideshow. It will be another way in which we can celebrate the contributions of our young people to Grace, while also demonstrating how these wonderful members of our congregation have been and continue to be present with us throughout. 

Please do email me if you have any questions about this event.  

COVID Safety

Proof of full vaccination is required, except for children under 12. Masks must be worn at all times. Please do not attend if you are not feeling well, have COVID-19 symptoms, or have been in close contact with anyone who is COVID-19+.

What do you remember packing in your school backpack? I remember mine was always crammed with items that stamp me as a child of the eighties: binders covered in pictures of A-ha, tartan pencil cases slathered with Tipp-ex graffiti, the Lucky Troll Dolls I carried in increasing numbers as the math tests got harder. I also remember, in a separate front pocket, the plastic lunchbox my mum packed for me every morning. Long after I should have been making my own lunch, I remember mum continuing to supply me with sandwiches, fruit, muesli bars. And long after I stopped saying thank you, I remember the weight of that box in the bulging pocket, and the reassurance it gave me that I again had been provided for.  

I wonder what our parents will be packing into backpacks this year? What items will they place into backpacks that, in many cases, will be carried by children for the first time in eighteen months? What items of love and care will our children carry back to school, and what prayers will go with them?  

On August 15, Grace Cathedral will celebrate our families with two special events. 

During the 11 am Eucharist, we will hold a special Blessing of the Backpacks.  

Blessing of the Backpacks will now be offered as an online event. We will offer Zoom Time from 11 am until 11:25 am.  Families are then invited to watch the remainder of the 11 am Eucharist together, including the special blessing for all children and families watching from home. After the 11 am service, you are invited to join us for a Zoom Open House, when we will reveal the spaces we have planned for future sessions and answer your questions. 

In the lead-up to the 15th, we have been collecting donations of backpacks and school supplies for Bayview Mission. This drive, conducted by the Congregation Council in partnership with CYF, has meant we can supply Bayview Mission with over fifty packed backpacks for school students in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area. A personalized note will be placed in each of the backpacks to let its recipient know they are thought of, and that our blessings and prayers go with them as they begin a new year. 

Directly after the 11 am service, we will hold a Virtual Open House for CYF programs. This will be an opportunity for parents to ask questions and learn about the exciting activities and programs we have planned for the weeks ahead.  

We are offering a hybrid program from now until the end of September that combines online classes and outdoor, in-person activities. The schedule is posted below. 

It will be wonderful to see you all. 

Please email me if you have any questions. 

Quote from Parent: Tricia Weaver Moss  

The Children, Youth & Family (CYF) Ministry at Grace has provided a haven of connectivity for my kids.  They have been involved since they were baptized, and they love having their own spiritual community at Grace! When the cathedral closed its doors temporarily during the pandemic, CYF offered us a lively and dynamic Sunday school by Zoom every single week!  Despite their physical distance from each other, the children of Grace were able to continue to learn and grow together, sing songs, and create art that reflected the lesson of the week.  During the Divine Creativity series, my kids have studied the Creation story through crafts delivered to us by CYF staff during the week and assembled by the children on Sundays — just amazing!  And, the transition from online learning back to in-person community worship with CYF has been full of joy and inclusivity.  We have noticed how diverse the families of Grace really are, and we always feel welcome here.   

Reflecting on the reading in Daniel today, I found myself trying to remember the first time I heard this most powerful of stories: the casting of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace. I managed a dim recollection of what felt like at least one of the first times I heard the tale. I could mainly recall the emotions this story provoked in my young and fertile imagination: absolute horror at a furnace large enough to burn a person; terror while picturing these three men cast into this roaring, searing firestorm; wonder upon hearing of how these three men emerged untouched.

Reflecting on my own early reactions to this tale gave me fresh empathy for the response of King Nebuchadnezzar. I have heard the tale of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego so many times since the first telling that I know the outcome well (including the details such as the memorable reference to the hair on the men’s heads not being singed.) This familiarity with the story’s outcome has perhaps made the king’s response of astonishment seem somewhat foolish to me. Indeed, I think it is quite easy to read the king as being, in addition to cruel, somewhat simple, an almost comical figure whose face distorts with rage, and who naively thinks he has the means to destroy these men of God simply by increasing the heat of his furnace. It is through trying to read this story from his perspective – imagining his deep, soul-shaking wonder at this seemingly impossible event – that his words take on more power and meaning: “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”

My reflection on the importance of empathy continued as I read John. I was tempted on first reading to do something of a mental eye-roll, and to imagine Jesus doing the same, as I read of his encounter with individuals who questioned everything he said, sentence by blessed sentence. Of course, on closer reading, and with a determination on my part to bring my newfound empathy into action, I could at least begin to imagine how strange, if not downright ridiculous, each of Jesus’ pronouncements must have seemed: so strange that an attentive listener would have had little option to challenge them, in the style of rapid-fire debate perhaps seen on social media today.

Empathy, or an attempt to understand the motivation of individuals or groups, does not always come easily to me, especially when reading a text as familiar as the Bible. What it does do is help me read the text in a new way. It moves me from imagining the Bible to be a tale (nearly) exclusively of God to a collection of books that tell of people, and their struggles to understand signs and sayings that are in every way outside their lived experience and understanding of the world. God, or a godlike presence, may be seen occasionally; for the most part, biblical figures must decide among themselves what they are to do with the wonders they have seen and heard, and how they are to live in the face of evidence that everything they believed to be true is wrong. In this way, their story is our story; figures deserving of the same level of empathy that we hope future generations will show us when they consider our lives and how we responded to the signs and challenges of our times.

My husband and I moved to San Francisco from Australia just over a year ago. I already feel more at home than I ever would have thought possible, something due in large part to the community at Grace Cathedral. Certain things still remind me, however, that I am in a different place than I was before.

One thing that reminds me of this is the school year. In Australia, the teaching year commences in February and ends in November; by September, teachers like myself are anticipating (with deep if unspoken longing) the end of the year. It has been a shock to my finely-calibrated “teacher’s clock” to be involved in back-to-school activities throughout the past month. What is more, I am returning to “school” this year as a student. I have commenced the longest program of study I have enrolled in since leaving college many moons ago: the Education for Ministry (EFM) program.

This program is already yielding many miracles in my life. I know, however, that even a year ago I wouldn’t have contemplated committing to a four year program of study in anything, let alone one with a theological focus. Throughout my life I have enrolled in and dropped out of more short courses than I care to admit; likewise, I have reengaged and dropped out of my faith many, many times. In many ways, my sudden desire to commence a course in theological education is as strange to me as an academic year that begins in September.

On reflection, I can see that this enrollment in EFM is really a culmination of my year at Grace. Following a path that now seems both as circuitous and predetermined as that of a labyrinth, I found my way into life at Grace through firstly yoga, then volunteering at the sublime Bayview Mission, then bible study classes with Dean Malcolm Young and, finally, formation classes with the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger. It was these classes, in particular, that set me on my current course of study in EFM.

I did not really have a concept of what “formation” was before undertaking study with Mark; it’s only now, looking back, that I see how the classes I took between February and April of this year, “First Light” and “Our Ancient Faith, Our New Life in Christ,” were formational and transformational. It seems fitting these classes were held in the lead-up to Easter. They felt for me like a pilgrimage into the heart of my faith and faith itself: a journey through the texts and landscapes of Christianity; across many centuries and terrains; into holy spaces and Holy Lands; from early times of hope to eras of reform; from Nazareth to Jerusalem; from inception to the foot of the cross.

What perhaps “formed” me more than anything was the love and care with which I was welcomed into these classes. A somewhat jaded religious-dropout, I suspect I presented as a challenging pupil; restless, looking for an excuse to challenge a point, seeking any opportunity to present an opinion to the class whether it was sought or not. Nothing I said, or did, was met with anything other than care, interest and love by Mark Stanger. Every question I raised was answered with humor, erudition and profound, unconditional acceptance. It was through this that I learned what was perhaps the most important lesson of all: there was a place for me, as I was, within a church, and within the Church. There was a place, and a community, for me, where the diminished, but never snuffed out, flame of faith within me might be able to once again grow.

It is remarkable how quickly life can change. I live on the other side of the world; I have made peace with the fact that academic years begin in September; I have undertaken a four-year course of study in a field in which I thought I could never be more than an occasional, distracted participant. Things can change so quickly, and so profoundly, that there is often barely time to reflect, or give thanks, even when so much thankfulness is due. I am grateful, therefore, that in the midst of all the busyness of the new academic year, I can still offer my sincere thanks to Mark Stanger; thanks I give, wholeheartedly, as one of the many, many students who have had their faiths strengthened and lives transformed by his teaching and care.