A Story of Grace Found
It Snuck Up On Me While I Wasn’t Really Looking
In the spring of 1994 I started dating Ron. I lived in Ventura County, he lived in Orange County. We began to spend weekends either at my place in Simi Valley or his place in Fullerton. I had searched for a church home for years. When we were Fullerton, we started going to Emmanuel Episcopal Church. The first few times I went the Episcopal liturgy seemed a bit odd to me. I had attended a Lutheran church that used a formal liturgy. Unlike the Lutheran church, the liturgy was sung instead of spoken or chanted. Despite feeling a bit out of my depth with the liturgy, I found it was a pretty nice place. It had a nice sanctuary, a nice leader (Fr. Rob), and nice people who were friendly. The messages were nice. Does it seem that I am overusing the word nice? Well, nice is what is seemed, plain and simple.
In March of 1995 I became ill with mononucleosis, which eventually degraded into a really serious case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). In December of 1995 we were married and started going to Emmanuel. Some Sundays because of my illness I would have to stay sitting in the pews for the whole service, because all the activity of standing/sitting/kneeling/standing took more energy than I had available. But if anyone had noticed I was not standing/sitting/kneeling/standing, they did not say anything to me. I just sat there and listened to the “nice” messages and spent a little time with all those “nice” people and the “nice” pastor.
But sometime in that first year I began to take notice of things. For one thing there was no condemnation, no message of being a sinner who was perched with one foot in hell and the other on a banana peel. For another thing, we were constantly reminded not of our inadequacies, but of how much God loved us—warts and all, the gift of Jesus and the strength of His life’s purpose were what Fr. Rob talked about, along with Jesus’ selfless, unconditional redemption of us through His death on the cross. There was never a hint that I was not worthy of his gift, and never a suggestion that I had anything to be afraid of in my relationship with the Heavenly Father.
Slowly I began to see things differently, and to feel things that were new to me. I began to see and feel the effect of living in Grace, and being surrounded by Grace. And I began to feel the inklings of what it was like to be loved unconditionally by God, and what that meant. And I began to feel less like a cosmic screw-up who needed constant chastisement, and more like a child of a Father whose love, patience and forgiveness were given without qualification; whose character of love, patience and understanding would never falter.
As I began to feel these things about myself, I was able to look around me and see this in the other people who attended Emmanuel. Because I did not have to spend so much energy being vigilant in my life so I would not fall out of favor with God. I had the time and spiritual energy to really take a look at who was around me and see them with new insights. I was looking at them with different eyes.
And as a clear and powerful evidence of Grace, an Emmanuel friend helped me start on the path that led to complete recovery from my illness and my life was given back to me.
Still, the realization of the way Emmanuel was different did not hit all at once. Over time I came to understand that Emmanuel was full of people who were loving because they felt loved, who had substance because they were given a bountiful supply of substance. They cared about others because they knew how much they, themselves, were cared for. And I became aware of a loving, giving parish made up of people constantly seeking to not only experience God’s love, but also reach out to others in the hope that these others could experience it, too. And I was learning to love myself more, trust God and Jesus Christ more, and feel the love of coming into my life from the wellspring of the Living God.
Those experiences marked the beginning of a new walk with God. I remember clearly the first time I took a class that Father Paul offered, and learned about getting into The Presence. I was enthralled by the concept of being able to access feelings of Grace at any time, anywhere, by getting into The Presence. And I could stay in The Presence, instead of letting life’s vagaries take me away and leave me on the outside looking in.
And—talking about interesting and novel concepts—how about Fr. Paul’s assertion “Events don’t cause feelings, thoughts cause feelings” for a new idea? (!) Yes, wrapping my mind around that one was a challenge at first. But the concept Fr. Paul brought me which absolutely blew me away, the one that left me with my jaw agape and my head shaking in wonder, was “How would you feel about making a confession of your sins if you knew you had already been forgiven?”
Now, I thought Emmanuel’s leadership was just about perfect back in those days—I felt I could not ask for more. But then we received the gift of Mo Lyn! Though I would probably have said it wasn’t possible to make our worship and our community better, the spiritual depth of our church and of our worship experience increased notably when Mo Lyn joined us. We had an empty place we did not realize was there, until Mo Lyn filled it and our gifts of Grace were increased by her presence.
And now, after 10-plus years, I am steeped in the life of Emmanuel. And I am spoiled beyond explanation. There is one thing of which I am certain: I could never go back to where I had been before. There are many “nice” churches out there with “nice” people and pastors, but when it comes down to the foundation of the church and the life of the parish, there is no place like Emmanuel. I have never—before or since—been to a church where there is so much love, caring, substance and spirituality. And when I think of our mission, “Learning to walk in love, as Christ loved us,” I realize there are few churches which could actually pull this off. Maybe they could put together the form, but the substance would be lacking—as well as the unique spirit.
So now that I have seen, felt and understood the gift that is Emmanuel. I have realized that it is not the only Episcopal faith that has created this place, and it is not only the Episcopal beliefs and practices that have given it life and substance. Emmanuel has a life and substance (and yes, a power) that is all its own. It began in the heart of Fr. Paul and ignited the heart of Fr. Rob, Mo. Lyn, and on through the rest of us. It is a place that is unique unto itself, with its own special life and inimitable spirit.
And that’s why even though I attend an Episcopal Church I do not just say I am an Episcopalian. I am something unique, much more precious and vibrant. I am caught up in the singular experience that is our Emmanuel. And that is why, when asked about my church affiliation, I am proud and happy to say:
“Why, I’m an Emmanuelian! That’s right—Emmanuelian. You’ve never heard of it? I’m not surprised… Can I tell you about it?”