Sunday, September 25, 2022

Bro-nasticism!

When I first started lifting back in college, I became initiated into a tight fraternal community without even knowing it. I didn't really know what I was doing in those early days, but I watched and imitated the experienced upperclassmen, for whom lifting was clearly a way of life. I especially remember a huge, jacked RA named Dave, who would give me--this scrawny, struggling kid--fitness tips in a very chill and gentle way that never made me feel embarrassed. Dave was only the first among a whole community of other gym bros, who would see each other in the weight room, with AC/DC blasting on the stereo, and give a spot on the bench press or allow each other to work in between sets. We may have moved in different social circles or cliques, but the air was thick with testosterone and there was definitely a bond. In time, I went from being an apprentice to being a full-fledged master of gym life and culture, who in turn, mentored other newbies.

In the years that have followed, I've worked out at a lot of different gyms--Gold's, Bally's, Philadelphia Sports Club, LA Fitness, Planet Fitness, Equinox--and I've always felt that shared, bonding commitment to lifting as a way of life. This ethos of masculine camaraderie is what I playfully call bro-nasticism. In the Christian tradition, monasticism was a community of people (usually exclusively male or female, but not always) who shared a common rule of life, with fixed times and patterns for prayer, meals, work, and other daily activities. The monks or nuns organized their shared lives to provide communal support for their quest for holiness and greater intimacy with God. Walk into any gym and you'll definitely identify a few guys for whom lifting is their love and obsession. You can tell that they have a regular pattern of lifting and nutrition that undergirds their daily lives; and they perceive the same in you. There is a kinship that develops when you realize that the patterns and rituals of your life match those of the person standing next to you. I have had made many friends at the gym by striking up a conversation with the bro doing curls on the bench next to mine.

Sadly, with the event of iPods and smart phones, there is less interaction and camaraderie than before. We put our earbuds in and tune everyone else out to focus on our work. And yet, there is still great energy that comes from working alongside others who share the same level of drive and joy from lifting. I continue to meet people of all genders, ages, and skill levels who share a smile, exchange a nod of recognition, or pay a compliment about another's gains. And with the advent of social media, a similar kind of community has emerged online. The bond may not always be explicit, but there is a shared sense of community among us. 

Historically, the weight room has been largely a masculine space that is perfectly suited to both straight and queer male bonding; but I love that there are plenty of cis and trans women who share in the bro-nastic lifestyle and bond, too. In one of the gyms where I currently lift, there is a woman in her sixties or seventies, whom I see almost every time I go; and she is crushing it with the same level of drive and commitment as I. She always makes a point of greeting me by name, asking what I'm lifting that day, and exchanging friendly banter. She's def a member of our tribe. I feed off of her positive energy, and it inspires me. The weight rack may be a traditionally masculine space, but it doesn't have to be a toxic one. There should be room for the feminine, too.

As a Christian, the lesson that bro-nasticism has taught me is that there are different embodiments of community, of shared values and identity, that can knit human beings together. Nowadays, there is so much division among the human family around politics, social issues, and a variety of ideological fault lines that we need to seek out new opportunities to bring people together. Jesus's inner circle in Jerusalem was initially very skeptical, even hostile, toward Paul's evangelism to non-Jews in the Greco-Roman world. But Paul was able to convince them that Jesus had always intended to grow the circle wider, to expand the community of shared identity and faith beyond the tight-knit core close to where the movement had started. At its best, the gym, like the Church, brings together people from all races, genders, political affiliations, classes, and other attributes around a shared commitment to a way of life. Both the Church and the gym commend discipline, fellowship, and a certain type of holiness of life. And for anyone that has gotten injured working out, there's a sense of fragility and humility, too.

For those who might think that I'm overstating the case, I can only tell you what I have experienced. I realize that not everyone will find in the gym what I have, and that's OK. The gym has indubitably been for many a place of intimidation, sexism, classism, and other ills. What I am describing is aspirational in bent, commending us to seek out other spaces that we can sanctify and build community around shared values and identity. The gym has been mine for over 33 years. What's yours? Where can you find that pervasive sense of kinship?

Abundant blessings,

Fr. Ethan+

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Queering the Church

"‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." - John 16:12-13

This blog entry is written to the many queer folk who have reached out to me on Instagram lately to share their struggles reconciling their faith as Christians with their sexual or gender identity. Thank you for entrusting me with your stories, and I'll share a bit of mine with you in return. Hopefully, it will give you some comfort and encouragement as you work to craft your own way forward, as I have. 

Back when I was first exploring ordination to the priesthood, I suffered a bit of an identity crisis. I told my parish priest that I felt like the Episcopal Church, even as progressive and LGBTQ+ friendly as it is, was forcing me to choose between my identity as a gay man and my vocation as a priest. It had taken a lot of courage and struggle for me to come out and to launch myself back into the world with a more authentic expression of my selfhood. 

In my very queer heart, I felt that belonging and leadership in the Church had some very costly strings attached. Conform and assimilate, that was the message I kept hearing. I felt pressured to walk the straight-and-narrow, avoid drawing attention to myself, and above all, refrain from doing anything "provocative" that might freak out straight people. Yes, I got piercings and tattoos, lifted weights so I would look good with my shirt off (and I still do, no apologies!), and danced in clubs with my friends like millions of other urban gays. And I was happy, despite all the shade and raised, judgmental eyebrows. Over time, though, my bright flame dwindled to a flicker, and it sucked the joy out of life. It made me stress over whether I had a future in the Church. My parish priest put it to me very matter-of-factly, but pastorally, "Well, Ethan, you don't have to get ordained." "But," I said in protestation, "God has called me to be both my gay self and a priest." "Well then," he replied, "you have to find a way to be both."

I have spent the last fifteen years or more attempting to do precisely that. And I have talked to many other queer clergy and laity in a variety of denominations who have expressed the same struggle and disappointment. The thing is that we queer folk (and I know that's a huge and diverse panoply of identities) aren't going out of our way to be recalcitrant, or provocative, or nonconformist. I know we're a bit extra, but we're not trying to freak out straight and cis people. It ain't about them. We are simply trying to live out our truth with as much integrity as we can, AND--this is the important part--we are offering the Church the wisdom of our rich and joyful experience over the centuries. I and others like me are here to queer the Church, and the Church desperately needs it. Congregations across the board are hemorrhaging members, and there are good reasons for it. One is that the Church is out of touch with where people, including young queer people are, and they have a low tolerance for inauthenticity. You better be keeping it real, or people are going to call BS and move on. And that's what happens.

I remember attending a Pride parade one year and wondering if the variety of people there--people I
knew and cared about deeply--would be welcomed and celebrated by the Church, even in a denomination as forward-thinking as mine. A great number of parishes urged people to "come as you are," and I thought cynically that it probably didn't include the dykes on bikes, circuit boys, leather daddies, bears and cubs, drag queens, trans folk, and other core groups within our community. You know the bawdy and gritty spectacle it can be. I mean, can you imagine the faces of parishioners if the Pride Parade just showed up in their pews on Sunday morning? More than one set of pearls would have been clutched. But I say, don't tell queer folks to come as we are and then have a meltdown when we do. Don't say, "all are welcome," and then take it back. Yes, we're messy and fierce and tragic and perhaps overly sexualized; but that's all part of the fun. It makes life joyful and worth living. Thanks be to God.

Now, granted, a lot of progress has occurred since those early days before I was ordained, but here's the message that many of us in the Church continue to hear loud and clear. The Church is happy to welcome queer folk as long as we assimilate and conform to heteronormative standards on a wide range of issues. For me, being queer has been the experience of rubbing against the grain of societal norms--whether inadvertently or on purpose--by the way we dress and present to the world, the things we do for fun, the ways we have sex or don't, the ordering of our relationships, the way we gather and interact with each other. Being queer brings with it being part of a culture (indeed, several cultures and subcultures) many cishet folks just don't get. Let's just say, its a queer thing. They ain't gonna get it, honey.

In theological terms, what I am offering here is an apologetic on (defense of) the value of queer Christian identity and expression to the life and witness of the Church. Even our Lord and Savior acknowledged to the world before he left it, that there were several truths he had to tell it that it just wasn't ready to hear--yet. But someday, he said, people's ears would be able to take in and integrate these other truths without saying, as Jesus's disciples did earlier in John's Gospel, "‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’" (John 6:60). It is not the job of queer folk to make the Church comfortable. That's not my problem or yours. Rather, it is the job of queer folk to keep it faithful to the teachings of Jesus. And that's always been a scary enterprise. The Church for sure has a lot of hang-ups, taboos, and problems that aren't mine. But happily, as members of the Body of Christ, we can help.

I get the discomfort of people outside the queer community. What we have to throw down is a lot to take in. Discomfort is a normal human response to the unfamiliar; but it's also a reaction to the threat of violating entrenched taboos, norms, and the enjoyment of privilege. What queer people bring to the Church in all our fabulous noncomformity is a yet another opportunity to dismantle some of the structures of patriarchy, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, racism, and other structures of oppression. To queer the Church means, in general terms, to open it up to hearing and embracing new truths offered, not just by LGBTQ+ folk, but also by black and brown people, women and others whom patriarchy has kept contained on the margins, and with whom we queer folk must stand in solidarity. We have learned a lot of valuable lessons about what it looks like to be in right, mutual relationship, to quote one of my heroes, Carter Heyward. The Church would be crazy not to learn what queer people have to teach, alongside and on an equal footing with the truths of other communities. What we have to teach will benefit everyone, not just the LGBTQ+ community, if only people would be open to hearing some new truths.

So, to all of my IG followers that have reached out to me, I want to say that, despite its many faults, the Church is a sacred institution with much love and belonging that's still worth investing in. It's not perfect, to be sure, but it still has infinite potential; and we queer people have to steward it for the next part of its journey to realize that potential. We need to queer the Church by being obstreperous, truth-tellers from within, so that it can more faithfully reflect the extravagant love of Jesus, who excluded no one. My advise to you is to be the Spirit that bears witness to your own authentic experience and share it without fear. God loves you in all your fierce queerness, so don't apologize. The Church often lags beyond God's love and grace, so don't mistake one for the other. Above all, girl, live your life, and live it abundantly.

Blessings,

Fr. Ethan+

Monday, September 5, 2022

My Soul is Being Mended

"And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray."
- Matthew 14:23

Much like my Lord and Savior, I've needed time and space to clear my head. The last two years have been so disorienting and benumbing that I needed to retreat to a place of quiet for refreshment and restoration. The last time I wrote anything here was in the wake of George Floyd's death in the full flush of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clarity and confidence had eroded as the world unraveled turbulently and unpredictably around us. During my daily recitation of Morning Prayer today, though, the following words came unbidden to my mind: "my soul is being mended."

What an extraordinary message to receive as the fruit of prayer. The interesting thing is that I knew that this message was not simply aspirational, but true. The knitting back of the threads of my well-being will, of course, take some time after all that I have been through, and I imagine the same is true for many of you, too. If I'm honest, I must admit that my life had been stuck in a kind of holding pattern, not crashing and burning, but not thriving either. Just treading water, getting by. Sometimes that's simply the best that we can do. But it was discouraging, and the signs were all around me. My personal prayer life dwindled to a trickle. I became disconnected from longtime friends. I went through periods of stress eating and put on weight, and then lost it. I often lacked motivation to engage in meaningful work.

Now, to be fair, there were moments of joy that kept me afloat in the midst of the spiritual lethargy. I came alive when doing HIV/STI testing for high school students. My parish family at St. Helena's were the constant loving presence that kept me from feeling barren. And, of course, the gym and my work as a personal trainer served as a spiritual retreat where I received vital endorphins and a sense of achievement. And then my partner and I discovered that we'd be moving to Philadelphia for his schooling and my new job as a nonprofit CEO, and I wondered what it might mean for both of us.

It turns out that a change [of scene] is as good as a rest, as the old adage goes. My bishop was wise and compassionate to suggest that relocating might be just the tonic I needed to bounce back from my world-weariness. She was right, as usual. Situating myself in a new space acted as a kind of reset button, and I noticed that once I was planted in new soil, growth started to happen. I resumed my daily practice of Morning Prayer. I reconnected with old friends in Chicago and Philadelphia and made some new ones. I became more consistent with my eating and working out. My passion and enthusiasm for meaningful work started to return.

Perhaps just as importantly as the feeling of refreshment was greater clarity and certainty about my vocation as a priest, and what that might look like in this new place. For a start, it means practicing greater integration between my Church life and my gym life, and between my Christian identity and my queer identity. Theologically, it means starting with the mystery of the Incarnation to develop a deeper understanding of embodiment and the role of fitness and athleticism in fulfilling Christ's commandment to "do this in remembrance of me." But more on that in future posts.

For now, I commend the following prayer, "For the Good Use of Leisure," as a text for your own reflection and healing.

"O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." - Book of Common Prayer, p. 825.
  • What might it look like for you to retreat from the crowds and pray, like our Lord? 
  • What change might be salutary for your well-being and sense of call? 
  • What ways can you rebuild your body and renew your mind?
  • How can you find greater clarity and confidence in your life?
May your soul, too, be mended.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Holy Trinity in the Wake of George Floyd's Death

"Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." These were the words printed on a homemade sign at last Saturday's Black Lives Matter demonstration that began in Federal Plaza in Chicago to protest the police killing of George Floyd. The sign was carried by a mom, dad, and their young son as we all milled about in the plaza before the marching and chanting began; and I wondered whether these parents had brought their child to the event in order to show him what democracy-in-action looked like. Perhaps that's just what they had done, I thought to myself, and I smiled broadly underneath my mask. But to invoke the prophet Micah's words as a fitting commentary on the values that we are supposed to embody, not only as people of faith, by as members of a civil society, that was truly extraordinary. Great work, Mom and Dad.

These three commands from Micah--act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God--are all about how human beings are meant to be in relationship with each other and with God. Trinity Sunday, which we will celebrate this week, explores the deep mystery of the Holy Trinity. That God should exist as three persons, and yet still be one God, boggles the mind when we try to think about it in our limited, compartmentalizing, human way. The Trinity expresses the dynamic of God's action in creation. God's loving, life-giving force is the product of the cooperation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which in theological terms we call, perichoresis, a Greek word that means "mutual indwelling." 

One of the reasons that I have been averse to referring to the persons of the Trinity with the non-gendered language of "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" is that to do so leads us into the heresy of either tritheism (three Gods) or modalism (describing God according to different aspects or modes). To reduce God to three of God's functions is to deprive God of God's fullness. To assign a specific function--say, redemption--to one of the three persons of the Trinity is to suggest that only the Son had any hand in redeeming humanity, because the Father only created and the Holy Spirit only sanctified. It's as if we distilled a human being's identity down to one salient characteristic, instead of acknowledging the richness of their personhood, with its infinite variety, complexity, and nuance. It's dehumanizing.

And yet, that is exactly how we act in our society, when we stop treating people like the full human beings they are and only as Black people, or trans people, or women, or immigrants. We sterotype and essentialize them according to one or a few characteristics, rather than honoring the vow we make in our Prayer Book's Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. To respect a person's dignity is to avoid lumping individuals into a convenient and yet sloppy category like Hispanic, or gay, or even Sanctifier. The society we create is not the product of one person, but the cumulative contributions we complex human beings make (or fail to make) to act justly, to love mercy, or to walk humbly with our God and each other. If we are made in God's image, then we cannot relegate responsibility to create, to redeem, or to sanctify to just one person. It must be the result of our mutual indwelling. The Holy Trinity is not just a theological brain-teaser, it is an image that we are expected to embody in our society's systems and in our daily lives.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, November 1, 2019

For All the Saints

If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, all you have to do is open the Book of Common Prayer--or as it is more casually known, the Prayer Book or BCP. It takes some practice to know how to flip effortlessly back and forth between the different parts of the Eucharist service, as well as the BCP's other resources. The more you do, however, the deeper an understanding you will gain of the "faith once delivered to the saints," as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. The same could be said of the Hymnal 1982. It, too, is a good reflection of Episcopal belief, and on a day like All Saints' Day, when we sing so many classic favorites, our theology jumps out from the page.

In churches that only gather for worship on Sundays, it's difficult to differentiate between the two holy days of All Saints' Day (November 1) and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed (November 2). Parishes with a daily Mass are able to keep them distinct; but for parishes like ours, we have to make the most of that one day when we're all together at the Lord's Table. The hymn we're going to sing at the Gospel on Sunday begins, "I sing a song of the saints of God, patient, and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherd on the green: they were all of them saints of God--and I mean, God helping, to be one too." The saints comprise a dazzling variety of people, both the lofty and the humble.

All Saints' Day, strictly speaking, commemorates those that the Church over the centuries has seen fit to add to its official Calendar of Saints. As this Sunday's offertory hymn, "By all your saints still striving," notes, it includes "apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the noble throng who wear the spotless raiment and raise the ceaseless song." Yet it's not only the greats like the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Luke, St. Francis, or contemporary luminaries like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the unsung heroes who have done great things without official recognition. The verse of the offertory hymn fittingly ends, "for them and those whose witness is only known to you--we give you praise anew."

The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, on the other hand, remembers all who have died: my Grandma Kibby; my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cortese, and so on. They may not have had a global impact like St. Joan of Arc or St. Thomas Becket--my patron saints--but they made a huge contribution to the person I am, and I am eternally grateful to them. So, it's wonderful that the Church offers a place in its calendar to commemorate them, too. One of the consistent messages of these two days is that we are called to remember both the Church's greats, and the people that were great for us, inspiring us to strive to become the best versions of ourselves, saints in our own way. And it is an expression of the Church's belief in the communion of saints, or as the Letter to the Hebrews calls it, "so great a cloud of witnesses." We pray for them as they reside with God in heaven, as we ask them to pray for us while we continue our earthly journey, hopeful that we will join them some day.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

This Sunday, in addition to observing the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we will commemorate the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Angels are a curious feature of Holy Scripture and the Church's tradition. The Greek word, angelos, means "messenger;" and indeed, the Bible usually depicts angels as holy couriers, bearing God's messages to humans. Angels are also described as doing God's bidding, such as fighting the Evil One, as St. Michael the Archangel is depicted here in a famous painting by Renaissance master, Guido Reni. But, of course, the angels' primary function, like ours, is to praise and worship God, "Holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!"

Whether you think that angels are flesh-and-blood heavenly beings or simply a metaphor for God's divine communications, angels express human beings' frequent experience of God as distant, inaccessible, and unknowable. Remember, that Moses could not look upon God's face directly, because it would have been too mindblowing to behold, and so could only look upon God's hindquarters, so to speak, as he passed by. Even after that, Moses' face shone with the light of God, which was so overpowering that Moses had to wear a veil whenever he descended the mountain, so that the other Israelites would not be blinded by the light.

In a similar fashion, angels serve as a kind of opaque veil between the unknowable God and our limited human understanding. They represent our need for the message to be tempered in some way, the light dimmed and the content simplified, so that we can process it. That's probably a key reason why God speaks to patriarchs and prophets in their dreams or at night. There are so many more possibilities when we don't limit ourselves to logic and literalisms. Angels and dreams make the barrier between God and humans a bit thinner, so that enough of the light can shine through without blinding us completely.

I think that many of us imagine an embodied, real messenger delivering the divine message, because the messages at times feel so personal to us. Angels transmit not only God's message, but the feeling of God's presence and care. It is as if angels amplify for us the emotional, relational content of God's speaking, not just the words or images themselves. And that gives me a certain joy, knowing that God not only wants me to understand, but to feel in my heart his reaching out to me in love.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Story of Belonging

Anniversaries are a good time to take stock of things. Whether it's a birthday, wedding anniversary, or the commemoration of some other major watershed moment, these days urge us to reflect on where we've come from and where we're going. St. Helena's turns 60 this month, and so I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the parish's long life and the path that lies ahead for us.

I spent some time yesterday at the Starbucks in Burr Ridge Village Center sipping an almond-milk decaf cappuccino and poring over some old dog-eared histories of the parish. I smiled at Peggy Anderson's reverence and wit as she recounted in her elegant, lyrical style some of the high points of the parish's history: the first meetings at Pleasantdale School and Fr. Soukup's study, the burning of the mortgage on September 12, 1976, and the various social and outreach events we hosted: pig roasts and salad luncheons and autumn festivals. Peggy also spends a lot of her history documenting the origin and meaning of many of the features and furnishings of the church building, for as Fr. Johnson put it, "the church has an opportunity, even a responsibility, to encourage beautiful artistic expression as a means of recognizing and experiencing the divine image in creation." It would seem that she and Fr. Johnson were of the same mind on such things. One only need look back at our Advent Service of Lessons and Carols last December to know that the aesthetics of worship have always been and continue to be an important current running through the parish's life.

But what was most compelling about Peggy's history were the affectionate vignettes of the people who have belonged to St. Helena's family over the years. And there were some characters! Fr. Johnson returning from Europe yet again with a statue or another set of gorgeous vestments to support the parish's high-church worship. The arrival of the Petraseks and the Oommens. The wedding of my fellow priest and friend, Mark Geisler. Fred Boskovich dressing up as a clown on the Fourth of July at Pleasantdale Park. A lot of life has unfolded within these walls. Peggy documents meticulously each priest who served the parish over the years, some with long, distinguished tenures and others for a short season, with never an kind word or uncharitable comment. As an historian, she is always professional and gracious. It's a rarity to experience such writing nowadays. What a privilege and a pleasure.

But both priests and parishioners came and went, and most of the people she talks about are no longer around. That should not make us sad. Churches shrink and grow. People are born and die. As I've said to many of you, Jesus started the Church with just twelve of his friends, and so similarly, we are no less St. Helena's because we are few. Most Episcopal churches are small, as it happens. As we cross the threshold of our 60th anniversary, I want to tell you that I think great things are ahead for us, even if we remain small and intimate. Great things lie ahead, because St. Helena's is stiil full of great people, you, who will continue our story of belonging.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+