Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tackling Prayer Book Revision

Much digital ink has been spilled recently on the revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, particularly in the last twenty-four hours following the announcement of four possible paths for Prayer Book revision by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music. In brief, the four possible approaches are 1) total revision; 2) no revision, but creation of a Book of Alternative Services; 3) continued conversation; and 4) deepen our engagement with the '79 book. I don't envy the SCLM, because whichever path is chosen, it will not please everyone. So, I want to thank the SCLM in advance for their good-faith efforts and commiserate with them for all the division and turmoil they will encounter. I'll keep you all in my prayers.

In June 2015, I wrote a post on Prayer Book revision that continues to reflect my thinking. My main concern was that, whichever option is selected, the comprehensiveness of Anglican identity and practice be preserved. If we are truly to practice common prayer, then there has to be some theological and liturgical center that we all share. That would seem to deny an "anything goes" approach, although I realize that we have incredibly diverse theologies and liturgical sensibilities. So, I proposed a hub-and-spoke model in which we retain the current Prayer Book with a few critical tweaks, like updated, gender-inclusive or gender-expansive language, and then authorize a variety of supplemental resources that would facilitate ministry in a variety of contexts. This model largely resonates with option 2. As a progressive inhabitant of the more traditional and catholic wing of the Church, for instance, it would be nice for there to be official options for Marian devotions or the blessing of throats on St. Blaise's Day. I also think it will be important to preserve Rite I as an option for many congregations. In a similar vein, we need to ensure that our plan for Prayer Book revision sustains the life of evangelical, Broad, emergent, and other types of parishes, too.

I have been concerned, however, that in the rush to be innovative, fresh, and creative, many parishes have largely dispensed with solid Prayer Book liturgy and theology in favor of newer resources from other denominations and traditions. I know many people will heartily disagree with me on this, and I respect that. I would encourage all of us, however, to reexamine the Prayer Book with fresh eyes, to return to our roots for a season to rediscover the richness of the common prayer that we DO have. Take detailed notes on what works well and what doesn't in our unique contexts. This honors the spirit of both options 3 and 4: to continue intentional conversation on Prayer Book revision and to deepen our relationship with the current BCP, especially if we've been away from it for a while.

And here's a challenge to all of us. To inform this exploration of our Prayer Book, let's do some reading about it. Let's begin by actually reading through the Prayer Book, including the rubrics to remind ourselves of what it actually says, to discover what it allows and what it prohibits, to identify what may be (out)dated, to appreciate the great flexibility already present. Then, perhaps we can commit to some additional reading, like William Sydnor's short, but useful guide, The Prayer Book Through the Ages. The more ambitious may wish to tackle Marion Hatchett's masterful, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, which I have just begun as an Advent discipline. And there are many other resources, as well. I'm sure I don't know nearly as much about the Prayer Book as I think I do. It is helpful for all of us to be educated about the sources for the current Prayer Book and the rationale for the choices that were made through the complex and lengthy revision process in the 1970s. As daunting and as polarizing as Prayer Book revision may seem, it is a opportunity for us to reflect prayerfully (for we are a people of prayer, allegedly of common prayer) on the riches of our shared life as Episcopalians.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Monday, November 21, 2016

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

"O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear."

On Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, drawing the Church's year to a close, and now we prepare to enter Advent, a season of pregnant expectation. Yet for many in our world, the images of a victorious Jesus reigning in glory may be hard to embrace or to believe in the midst of brutal violence and suffering.

The horrific photos from Aleppo this weekend remind us that faith is often an easy luxury of those who enjoy safety, stability, and the satisfaction of basic needs. One photo showed a father weeping over his child, who had been killed in an airstrike, "I've lost everything," he cries. Reports are coming in of civilian casualties not only from the heaviest aerial bombardment in the last five years, but also from exposure to chlorine gas. One frightened boy, exposed to this chemical weapon, asks a medical worker, "Am I going to die?" Food and basic supplies are running out; hospitals and schools have become targets for violence. Many are urging the international community to take action in response to crimes against humanity. It must be hard for any person of faith--whatever faith he or she professes--to see God in the midst of all this. How can the captives believe in Emmanuel, "God with us," when the exile IS so lonely, when God feels so absent?

It is in the context of this world that we await--anxiously and impatiently--the arrival of the Christ-child. We hope for God's ransom of humanity from its endless captivity. And yet, when the child comes, he grows up to preach a message of peace and love that will get him killed. Jesus ends his life on earth not as a king enthroned in splendor, but as a defeated criminal condemned to a shameful form of death. This is the most unlikely scenario for a savior. The criminals flanking our crucified King of kings and Lord of lords plead with him to save himself and them from their impending deaths, which of course, he does not do. The true victory only comes when Jesus takes death as far as it can go, and then comes back from the supposed point-of-no-return. The crucified human does not do it on his own, but through the strength and power of God, which makes even the unimaginable, even the impossible, possible. That same hope is offered to us: "may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience" (Col.1:11).

The Feast of Christ the King affirms that it is through God's power that we are able to imagine a future beyond death, beyond the bombing and chlorine gas. It declares that we must not let the now define the future. Never allow anything to deny the possibility of hope. If we are God's hands and feet in the world, as St. Teresa of Avila claims, then we should take seriously the psalmist's assertion that "He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire" (Ps 46:9). This is not only a statement of divine power, but God's instruction for our lives. God's power fills us with the strength, power, and endurance to defy destruction and death. If we believe that a helpless child can become a savior that survives death on a Cross, then we too have a chance to overcome our own experiences of death. I believe that Christ the King mourns with us, and says, "I've been where you are; but I survived death, so that you may survive it, too." God IS with us in suffering. The Word became flesh and encountered human suffering in all its grotesque brutality; and yet, in defiance of all the odds, life triumphed over death. Advent is the season when we begin to imagine a different future for humanity that reaches its fulfillment in the reign of Christ the King. For now, we mourn the loss of life, the scope of death's sway; but we look ahead to the appearance of God's Son, and prepare to resist humanity's lonely exile.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why I Protested and Where We Go From Here

My dear sisters and brothers,

I could call this entry, "Winners and Losers, Part II," since I know that people across the country feel that they fall into one of these two camps in the wake of a nasty and polarizing election. As I noted in my last post, I rarely express political opinions on social media or in the pulpit. In general, I try to be non-partisan, so that I can more easily be a pastor to all people, irrespective of their political views. I don't want to be a source of division within whatever parish I serve. Yet over the last couple of days, extraordinary circumstances have forced me to revisit and revise that position for the time being.

The reason I joined thousands of other people last night in my clerical collar and rainbow stole to protest and march was not because the Democrats lost and the Republicans won. After all, I spent eight years doing public policy quite effectively with the two Republican administrations of George W. Bush. I am quite used to and supportive of working--and often disagreeing--across disparate viewpoints. This disagreement can be a healthy check on my own narcissism, hubris, and self-righteousness. Partisanship is not what this is about.

It is about the election of a man who has said abusive and denigrating things about women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities, veterans, LGBTQ folk, and many others. This is a man who has consistently lied. This is a man who has bragged on camera about sexually assaulting women. This is a man who has called Mexicans rapists. This is a man who has branded all Muslims as terrorists. This is a man who has stereotyped African Americans as living in hell. This is a man who has openly committed to rolling back civil liberties for LGBTQ people. Our President-elect's rhetoric has inspired and given permission to other citizens to engage in anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic, and generally bigoted behavior. That is intolerable.

We have not seen this degree of demagogic discourse in the public square for decades, and I believe it is the Church's responsibility to serve as a moral voice to oppose and correct these profoundly dehumanizing words and actions. To those people, who caution that we need to give Mr. Trump some breathing room to demonstrate how he will govern now that he is elected, I say this: Mr. Trump already has much to answer for, and there is nothing in his past behavior that would incline me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Quite the opposite. A relationship between President and people is based on trust; and frankly, I don't trust him. He's given me no reason to trust him. Just because Mr. Trump was a candidate until now doesn't mean that he is not accountable for what he said and did during the campaign. It is because he is now a position to make good on his threats to build a wall, or deport refugees, or rescind marriage equality, that we must gird our loins to resist those boasts and let him know we are being vigilant. These threats may no longer be hot air. They may become real very soon.

As I walked off the El last night toward the protest with my sign in hand and my stole over my shoulders, I made eye contact with a white, middle-aged woman, who became quite tearful and emotional when she saw my sign, which said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. - Matthew 5:6  PRAY FOR PEACE, JUSTICE, AND RESPECT." She nodded toward me and thanked me for being visible and present. I patted her arm and comforted her as best I could. I arrived at the protest in front of Trump International, where we shouted for about an hour, and then processed peacefully down State Street, gathering new marchers from curious onlookers as we passed. Of course, there was anger, mocking, and profanity; and I didn't agree with every message that was voiced. I'm not looking for revolution. I'm not seeking to dismantle the "system". I don't think shouting vulgarities helps the cause for peace and reconciliation. I hoped that my presence and that of Holy Scripture would offer an alternative to more extreme, vindictive messages. In any event, I did affirm the right of all of us to gather and participate in our democracy by peacefully protesting. That's why I was there. We continued all the way down the Magnificent Mile; and as the march turned from Michigan Avenue to Upper Wacker, I noticed a Muslim woman, her head wrapped in a scarf, quietly weeping, clearly moved by the show of solidarity. People were sticking up for her, and it mattered. Later, as I stood on the sidewalk on Wabash Street, a young millennial ran by, and then when he saw my sign, he stopped suddenly, and shouted out, "God bless you, Father, for being here and supporting us. Really, God bless you."

As a priest, there were some opportunities for me to offer pastoral care; and there was actually some healing in all of this. Many young people cautiously asked what church and denomination I represented. We talked about religion and Christianity. I was offered hugs. I was asked to take selfies. A student reporter interviewed me for the school paper. A young woman said cheerfully that she liked my stole. Countless people stopped to read my sign--some obviously, but many surreptitiously out of the corner of their eyes as they passed me. I saw the message register on their faces. Many even read the words from Matthew's Gospel, smiled, and nodded. Finally, after three hours, my back was killing me, so I called it an evening and made my way to the El station at Lake and State, still carrying my sign. Several homeless men stopped me to talk and asked me to pray, and I asked them to do the same. When I boarded the El train, three millennials who had been at the protest--an Asian man, a black man, and a white woman--drew me into their conversation. We debated and shared our experiences. I commended them for their commitment and encouraged them to continue to take their civil responsibilities and our democracy seriously.

That leads me to what I believe the Church and all concerned people need to do next. Be a moral force. Speak out against hate and violence. Seek reconciliation and unity, while respecting diversity. Write letters to your legislators. Vote on election day. March and protest if you have to. I have never really identified as a radical or an activist; but I do identify as a committed Christian. I believe in the words of the prophet, Micah (the message on the other side of my sign): "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." There is so much fear and distress that the Church needs to offer protection and solidarity to those who stand to lose much, including their liberty, maybe even their lives. Those like me who respect the democratic process, including the peaceful transition of power and the will of the electorate, are still bidden to admonish our government when it threatens to violate the principles on which we are built. Donald Trump will be our next President, and the best way to help him and our nation to succeed is to assume some moral responsibility for shaping the next four years.

May God bless you all.

Fr. Ethan+

Saturday, November 5, 2016

On Winners and Losers

Yesterday, my husband and I lined up early to get a good spot to watch the parade to celebrate the Cubs World Series' victory after Chicago's 108-year "curse". I should own up right away that I am not a baseball fan, not even a fair-weather fan. Even though I live less than a mile away, I have only been to one Cubs game at Wrigley Field. I can't quote statistics or tell you the names of the players or what position they play. And yet, I shared the fans' anxiety when our 6-3 lead was nullified in the eighth inning, followed by an infuriating 17-minute rain delay. And then, when it was all over in the tenth inning, and the city erupted in a wave of euphoria that I could hear from 52 floors above through my bedroom window, I was overjoyed, too. That may seem hypocritical, but as a Chicagoan, I was deeply moved by a warm glow of civic pride that took me quite by surprise. At the parade yesterday, the crowds parted generously to let a 98-year-old great-grandmother in a wheelchair get a front-row seat at the parade. After all, she had waited longer to see this day than probably anyone else there. Despite our reputation for a corrupt political machine and gun violence, on this day, we displayed and reveled in our best nature. I felt proud to call Chicago my city.

This moment has served as a stark contrast to the other great winner-take-all contest: the US presidential election. You will not see me post political comments on social media, even though I do hold very strong personal opinions about candidates and issues. As a priest, I have decided that to do so would be to foster polarization within the congregation I am called to serve. But I will admit as we enter the final days of the campaign season that I have found the polemics and rhetoric wearying and distressing. Instead of bringing out our best behavior, the various political campaigns (and media outlets) have veered alarmingly from traditional standards for civil and respectful discourse. Abusive, ad hominem attacks have taken the place of thoughtful debates of ideas and policy proposals. I am eager for it all to be over. Whichever candidate breaks through the 270 threshold, I think we need to acknowledge that this polarizing, divisive campaign season has revealed fractures in our electorate, in our civil society, that we need to address. What we all need now is a remedial course in civics (remember that class from high school) to remind us about our values and the obligations of being a good citizen.

Last Sunday, we heard the Gospel story of Zacchaeus, the tree-climbing tax collector from whom Jesus seeks hospitality. Zacchaeus too was the subject of nasty public discourse: "All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’" Jesus defies public opinion and engages the tax collector as a friend, knowing that what matters is not the person's status and role in this world, but the cleanness of his heart and actions. Jesus responds to Zacchaeus' promise to return four-fold any unjust financial gains by proclaiming, "‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’" The story's focus on undermining the conventional paradigms of the lost and the saved, of winners and losers, is a sobering call to re-examine our own consciences in a world that seeks to turn human beings against each other. What would it look like if we could learn to be not only better Christians, but better citizens, galvanizing around shared values and achievements, grasping at hope in the face of overwhelming odds, even a 108-year curse? In a tight race for victory, let us never forget that winning is as much a matter of character, as it is about numbers, power, or metrics. It is in the way we play the game that we state the kind of people we really are.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Holy Habits

For most of the last month I have been traveling, visiting family and attending a variety of church functions. It feels like I've spent more days in airports and hotels than I have at home. It has predictably been challenging during that time to maintain a regular schedule of disciplined sleep, eating, exercise, and prayer. I relaxed my usual routine, but instead of being freeing, it has actually felt very unsettling. It has been a huge relief to return home to a stable pattern of living, to the grounding of holy habits.

Maybe that sounds pretentious, dull, or overly pious. And that wouldn't surprise me. After all, in 2016, discipline is counter-cultural, especially when it pertains to religious belief and practice. Athletes embrace discipline as a an indispensable pathway to excellence; and yet it is strongly resisted, even among many clergy. But I believe discipline is a indispensable pathway to--well, not excellence, in a competitive sense--but to greater faithfulness and spiritual maturity. There's no doubt about it; discipline can be hard, unpleasant. So many days I'd rather just lounge on the sofa in front of the TV, and sometimes I do. Sometimes, I'm just lazy. I still believe, though, that discipline has value, and we need to work on it. Our cultural valuation of immediate gratification lets us off the hook way too easily way too often. In addition, our preoccupation with novelty and devaluation of discipline can feed into our impatient expectation to see instantaneous results. But excellence in any human endeavor requires patience and an unwavering commitment. As one of my mentors once said from the pulpit, "don't you want a religion that requires something of you?"

One of my trips this month was to Atlanta for the 2016 Society of Catholic Priests Annual Conference. This year the conference theme was priestly formation, which not only includes the structure and content of academic preparation, such as seminary, but also the spiritual shaping of priests, both new and seasoned. Over three days, we prayed, sang, and worshiped together. We heard scholarly presentations and engaged in deep theological reflection. We formed and nourished friendships and offered each other emotional support. Though the discipline of prayer and study can be exhausting, I always find those few days exhilarating, as well. I come back home feeling recharged and renewed in my commitment to do better, resolved to pray more regularly, to go to spiritual direction and sacramental reconciliation, to eat more healthily and exercise more. As Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson declared at the conference, the job of the priest is to work to become holy. Pretentious, dull, or pious as that assertion may sound (I can see people's eyes rolling), it's still true, and that is humbling ... and daunting.

This message was reinforced this past week, when I attended our diocesan clergy conference. Over two-and-a-half days, we explored the development of a personal rule of life. As a member of the Society of Catholic Priests, I have already vowed to keep the Society's rule of life, but the clergy conference raised a number of personal dimensions that would enhance my health and well-being, and as a Christian, my faith. These commitments, whatever we discern them to be, will take discipline, too. One of the confessions I made is that I often rely on the accountability of other people who love and care about me to endure in my spiritual disciplines when I don't have the willpower to keep myself on track. My husband has said to me more than once, "Ethan, aren't you supposed to be saying Evening Prayer right now?" "Hrmph," I reply, and then shuffle sulkily toward my study to pray. I'm very grateful to him for holding my feet to the fire, for all my adolescent sulking.

At least once a year, I listen to the sermon the Rt. Rev. Rodney Michel preached at my ordination to the priesthood, which reminds me of the vow I made to practice holy habits. It is a sobering experience. Holy habits do take practice, a lifetime of practice, as it turns out. I always pull the earbuds out with a sheepish determination to do better. Nobody said it would be easy, but then most things worth having don't come without a huge amount of commitment, even when that commitment is uneven and halting at times. Yet this reminder of my imperfect discipline never feels shaming, because I know the bishop's advice came out of love. As our clergy conference speaker, the Rev. Charles LaFond, expressed it, "I love you too much to let you mess up like this." The tough love is encouraging, even though it is also intimidating. I will end by sharing with you the words that the good bishop offered me:
"As a priest, Ethan, you will be a servant of the servants of God, a friend, a companion, a marker on the road to the life of holiness that every believer is called to. You will model for others how to hold one another up in prayer, and by your presence you will help God's people remember that each relationship we experience is precious." 
"Remember the awesomeness of priesthood: you will now bless and consecrate, forgive sins, dispense the Word of God and his holy sacraments, and stand at the altar to make Jesus present in the Sacrament and in the moment, and that is awesome. Ethan Alexander Bingham Jewett, please stand. Remember that God does not expect you to be successful. God asks only that you be faithful: faithful to the Lord and to the Word of God as you will promise to do here today; faithful to God's people; faithful to your family; and faithful to your own self. Be diligent in your prayers and study of the Holy Scriptures. Administer the Sacraments and preach the Gospel and model quietness, peace, and love among all people. Remember to keep balance in your life and make time for your beloved and your personal relationships. [...] Say your prayers everyday. Our Blessed Mother intercedes for the ordained--continually ask for her prayers and her love. And finally, keep your eyes on Jesus."
Thank you, Bishop Michel, for this advice about holy habits. And I now pass this advice on to you, my sisters and brothers, as I resolve to do better.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Ladder

"I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared." Exodus 23:20

Earlier this week, my mother and I teetered precariously on ladders, stretching and stapling wire mesh to screen in the large front porch of her house. The siding had just been replaced and painted, a new metal roof installed, the windows re-glazed, and now we were tackling the porch. We spent all day in the heat and humidity of central Florida, swatting mosquitoes, with our staple-guns, hammers, and X-ACTO knives in hand, trying not to get our feet tangled in electrical cords and the front yard's tortuous vines. It had been a long time since my mother and I had done a project together, and we discovered to our surprise that we actually worked quite well as a team. We had a delightful time despite the sweat and fatigue of the project, which didn't always go to plan. Getting the screen up perfectly taut without any ripples or gaps is challenging; it takes great patience and persistence. Sometimes we had to take a few steps back, unstaple the screen, and start over. After seven hours in the heat, it was a minor miracle that we were still speaking to each other. 

I came to Florida this week, not to staple and hammer, but to celebrate my sister's fortieth birthday and my niece's eleventh. When I think about the good relationships I have with my family now, I also remember those days growing up when they weren't so good: the misunderstandings, the quick tempers and tongues, the regret of things said or left unsaid. It took us a long and tumultuous journey to get to the good place we are now. It is not perfect, of course, but there are unexpected moments of grace that make me grateful and hopeful. That day on the ladder was one of them. Many families have similar stories. The good (or bad) relationships we have are fashioned by our choices and experiences, and yet I'd like to think that God has some hand in them. The Bible is full of stories of divine messengers (from the Greek, angeloi = "messengers") or angels communicating God's word and will to humans. I'm sure there were hasty moments when I did not heed God's advice to hold my tongue or to bear with patience a difficult conversation. There were undoubtedly urgings from God that I ignored in order to follow my own flawed judgment. I bear full responsibility for those failings, but I am grateful that God did not give up on me and continued to whisper in my ear and inhabit my dreams. And so does God with us all.

"Jacob's Dream" by William Blake, 1805.
The Church celebrates the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels this week, which emphasizes God's desire to speak and be present with us in our daily lives. In joy, pain, confusion. All of it. Whether the traditional image of gossamer-winged messengers resonates with you or not, the idea that God seeks to encourage us to walk in paths that lead to abundant life can serve as a source of comfort and strength. The decisions are ours to make, but God offers us a vision of what could be and guidance to get there. In the famous passage from Genesis 28, God speaks to Jacob in a dream and presents a vision of a ladder to heaven on which angels are ascending and descending. Jacob's ladder was probably grander than the aluminum one on which I worked and sweated this week, but both have been symbols to me of deep relationship. I have always imagined it as a metaphor for the back-and-forth communication between God and creation. It is an analogy of our ongoing relationship with a Trinitarian God that seeks us out in the unfolding of creation, the bread and wine and sacramental life of the Son, and the sanctifying guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as a people that participates in God's activity, we are often messengers of God to each other, as well. When we offer words of comfort, assistance in time of need, or nourishment when we are running on empty, we bear God's message of new life. Sometimes, God leads us forward through each other to the place God has prepared for us. Sometimes, it takes a person or a family quite a while to get there. When we sing the classic hymn for St. Michael and All Angels, "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," we should not only command the ranks of angels to sing God's praise, but challenge each other to be God's messengers in the world.

The Lord is glorified in his holy ones; O, come, let us adore him.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Of Giant Crosses and Ketchup Bottles

One of the great joys of being between parishes is that I now have time to read, write, and travel. As my husband and I drove through the endless corn and soybean fields of southern Illinois a couple of weeks ago, we stopped at a few curiosities along the way: North America's largest freestanding cross in Effingham, the world's largest ketchup bottle in Collinsville, and a vintage Route 66 service station in Mt. Olive. Fun and kitchy, to be sure, but also reminders that people find identity and meaning in all kinds of unexpected things. They are markers of a people's history that have become cherished across generations, and so, are worthy of study. These three detours provided a thought-provoking contrast to the much grander stops on our itinerary, such as the St. Louis Arch and the Lincoln Presidential Museum. The first, where I became reacquainted with my fear of heights, serves as an awe-inspiring monument to engineering ingenuity and prowess. The second chronicles the life of one of our most revered leaders during an agonizing period in the nation's history. As signs of human achievement, and national crisis, and local pride, all of these markers of our lived experience have the potential to teach us something important about our faith.

"Fall Plowing" by Grant Wood (1931)
One of these insights is that we need to study subjects that we don't tend to examine through theological lenses. This became abundantly clear last week when viewing the special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, "America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s." The exhibit was a commentary on the multiplicity of American artistic perspectives in response to the Great Depression, including the agrarian Regionalism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, the Realism of Edward Hopper, the Modernism of Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe, and many others. What it conveyed to me was the variety and uniqueness of these lenses through which artists attempted to process America's economic time of trial. Images of agrarian abundance and industrial might, for instance, were expressions of an American ideal of prosperity, which served as both aspiration and nostalgic escapism. But in periods of adversity, those symbols of life on the other side of want and barrenness are important for survival. Americans in the 1930s must have felt defeated and hopeless, and yet some found ways to cope.

"Crucifixion" by Jan Provoost, 1500
The same was undoubtedly true for those who witnessed the Crucifixion. The Cross on which our Lord Jesus hung must have seemed so overbearing and oppressive that artists throughout the centuries have been deliberate in depicting it as insurmountable. And yet, there was life on the other side of death. What was an instrument of defeat, the Cross, was transformed into a sign of God's victory. The planks of wood nailed together in Provoost's painting at right represent a criminal's shameful death, and yet the meaning doesn't stick. And even the tomb is not able to contain the new life of the Resurrection; it becomes a sign of the destruction of death itself. Later, in the midst of Roman persecution, the early Christians must have found signs of new life in both the trivial and the important to bear their sufferings.

Things are not always what they seem. A giant ketchup bottle or vintage service station may be a community statement of civic pride. A series of abstract strokes of color on a canvas may express the anxiety of a lost generation or a tortured conscience. When we examine the world, we should be careful of accepting what we see at face value. And we all may see those same things differently. Signs of decay may hint at signs of life. The trivial may point to the important. The crucified criminal may point to God.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

*Pause at the Asterisk

Open thou, O Lord, my mouth to bless thy holy Name; cleanse also my heart from all vain, evil, and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding; enkindle my affections; that I may say this Office worthily, with attention and devotion, and so be meet to to be heard in the presence of thy divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I always begin my recitation of the Daily Office with this prayer taken from the Anglican Breviary, because it reminds me of the posture of attentiveness with which we are called to pray. Prayer is not supposed to be perfunctory or distracted or incidental. And yet, I have been known to rush through reading the psalms (and everything else) during the Daily Office, especially if I'm standing in a crowded train or bus struggling to turn pages and flip ribbons in that fumbling, one-handed manner without dropping the book or falling over a nearby commuter. As the bus jerks and jostles me, I am grateful for those days when I can take my time to savor the Word of God over a leisurely sipped cup of coffee. On busy days, there is probably little attention and devotion, and an abundance of wandering thoughts. Sometimes, all I can manage is to just get it done, so I can move on to the next thing.

The Book of Common Prayer notes on page 583 that "an asterisk divides each verse into two parts for reading or chanting. In reading, a distinct pause should be made at the asterisk." I have been in congregations where the asterisk is completely ignored, and in others where the pause is so long and plodding that it makes me want to jump impatiently out of my seat. I think there is wisdom in that tiny asterisk, whether the pause is long or short, because it forces us to take a breath and stop. We should do a lot more of that. The pace of the world is so furiously fast that we often fail to pause and think before we speak and act. Our attention seems to be dominated these days by the relentless threat of terrorist attacks, the never-ending ping-pong of presidential campaign rhetoric, and the instantaneous reactivity of social media. I often feel weary, and wish I could take a break from this assault on my senses. I need to recharge my batteries, but there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight. It just never stops. I need an asterisk for my life. Who's with me?

Earlier this week, I was beginning my morning commute standing impatiently on the platform waiting for the train to come. Seated next to me was a transit employee in her fluorescent vest, who eyed my clerical collar and struck up a conversation. She asked if I was a priest and where my church was, and after I explained what the Episcopal Church was, she introduced herself as Leticia and requested that I keep her in my prayers. I offered to lay hands on her and pray with her right there, if she wished. She readily agreed and told me what she would like to pray for. So, we prayed amidst the morning hurly-burly in the background, and she thanked me profusely. And I thanked her. Leticia offered me an opportunity to pause. We had forced an asterisk into the day's script. We had created a moment for attention and devotion and to thrust our wandering thoughts aside. It was wonderful. I wonder if our inability to pause is a function of habit, and whether more moments for intentional reflection and retreat from the maelstrom might be available to us if we simply learned to pay closer attention to the opportunities already available to us in regular unfolding of our days. Maybe that little asterisk is an open space to let the Holy Spirit in and speak to us.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Voice is Heard in Orlando

Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. - Jeremiah 31:15

When the news hit me of the mass shooting in Orlando, I was stricken by a sense of powerlessness in the face of so much violence and grief. It is hard to know how to respond to trauma on this scale without feeling that what we do is an empty gesture. One acquaintance of mine rawly declared that "thoughts and prayers" are a trite and perfunctory response to tragedy. "My prayers are with you in this terrible moment," is the sort of thing people feel socially obligated to say. After hearing it so many times, the words, however sincere they may be, lose their impact for the grieving. After all, people are devastated and terrified; they need something more concrete and actionable than a formulaic expression of solidarity.

I struggled with this. There was a very big part of me that resonated with my friend's sobering challenge. Are my thoughts and prayers just an easy, phone-it-in response that doesn't ask much of me? It doesn't inconvenience me, or make me go out of my way. It doesn't force me to change the pattern of my daily routine. It costs me nothing. I realized, though, that prayer--as unsatisfying as it may be for some people--is the foundational Christian response to everything in life, including tragedy. Our main job as Christians IS to pray. The whole pattern of our faith is grounded in prayer: the Daily Office, the Eucharist on Sunday, anointing, marrying, burying. It is all prayer. We pray for God's presence and activity among us in all of the moments of our existence; we call upon God's power to transform us when our own resources fail us.

As I walked into the cathedral to say Mass yesterday, I thought carefully about how the Church could be useful to the grieving. "OK," I thought, "let's own the grief and anger and pain and fear. That's where people are. The Burial Rite from the Prayer Book. Black vestments. The readings appointed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents." So, we did what the Church does in these moments: we prayed--hard. Praying isn't a passive act. Praying activates us to bear the Gospel into the world, to respond to the rhetoric of violence and death, of hate and despair with Jesus' message of love and healing and new life. Praying, both publicly and privately, is the act of drowning out the messages that destroy with the Good News that builds up. That's one reason we pray without ceasing. We keep preaching the Gospel over and over again, because the world desperately needs to hear it. The Evil One is a liar, don't you dare believe him.

Rachel's lament over her children.
Perhaps some of us pray the familiar words so often that we forget what we're calling upon. In morning prayer, for example, the collects reach out to God for peace and protection: "O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we surely trusting in your defense, many not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." In the aftermath of a tragedy like Orlando, these words take on renewed meaning and power. They are relevant; they matter. Engaging the biblical stories of Rachel weeping for her children--the tribes of Israel that were gathered for deportation to exile in Babylon--and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by King Herod enfold our current tragedies within the larger story of God's action and salvation. There is kinship between then and now, between Ramah and Orlando, between the babies martyred by Herod, and those martyred by Omar Mateen. But these stories are also linked to the assurance in the Revelation to John that "death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." God urges us to respond to tragedy by working to bring this New Jerusalem into being with our hands, and our feet, and our lips in prayer.

Jesus gathering the Holy Innocents to himself.
We were a small congregation in the cathedral chapel, but the sincerity of the prayer was palpable. There was no doubt in my mind or my heart that we were doing something meaningful and healing. After the requiem was over and the chapel emptied, two men entered to sit quietly and pray. One shared that he was having a lot of trouble with his grief over the Orlando shooting, and the other that he was angry and discouraged over a recent disappointment in his life. I laid hands on both and prayed with them, and I suggested to one that he read psalm 35--a source of great comfort to me when I felt I was being badly treated. The look of profound gratitude and comfort on both of their faces was very moving, and I was reminded that praying is the action the Church does best. Prayer is the center from which we become agents of God's healing, whether in activism, interfaith collaboration, liturgy, or the pastoral care of each other. May the Church never lose sight of its power to offer the suffering the gift of new life.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Grace of Faith and Family

This past week, I received a very special gift in the mail. My maternal grandmother passed away last year, and so my mother and my aunt have been cleaning out her house before putting it on the market. They had been digging through endless boxes of old receipts and tax returns, news clippings, and mementos for weeks. When I opened the mailing envelope, I found a very old Book of Common Prayer, an 1892 edition. My grandmother wasn't an Episcopalian, so I knew it wasn't hers. It turned out to belong to my great-great-grandmother, Grace Ella Jewett. Her name is embossed in faded gold lettering on the lower right corner of the soft leather cover. I don't know if the book's fragile condition is simply a result of its age or a lifetime of devoted use.

Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Allegan, MI
The Jewett side of my family came to America in 1638, and settled in Rowley, Massachusetts. They were definitely not members of the established Church of England. My family were Dissenters, that is Puritans, and included several ordained ministers suitably named after Old Testament prophets. When my great-great-great grandparents moved west to Michigan in the middle of the 19th century, they were among the founders of the local Episcopal Church, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Allegan, MI. My grandmother revered my great-great-great grandmother, Constance Ashley Bingham Jewett, and when she died, requested that she buried from the church that her ancestor had founded. It was a privilege to preside from the altar to which great-great-great grandma Constance must have looked as I buried her descendant, using the Rite 1 service that must have been familiar both to her and her daughter, Grace, whose Prayer Book I now have in my hand.

The Jewett women, including my grandmother, Helen, 
and her grandmother, Grace, both seated.
There is something very grounding in the artifacts of those who have come before us. They remind us that they and we are linked in a heritage of common worship and spirituality that invites us into a mystery greater than ourselves and our own experiences. In addition to Grace's Prayer Book, I also own an ivory rosary owned by my late paternal grandmother, which is sadly missing its crucifix. I still use it on occasion, just as I opened the 1892 BCP this week to read Evening Prayer, like my great-great-grandmother must have done. As I flipped through the book, it fell open to the page that contained "The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth." This place was bookmarked by a page torn out of a King James Bible, the second chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which begins, "my son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding [,,,] Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God." In the moment, it feels as if I am being offered a word of life from the distance of four generations, perhaps that I might be nourished with a verse that might have consoled or challenged a family member I never met. We never know how the Spirit will speak to us or through us. In response, I can do no better than to read the prayer that my great-great grandmother Grace saw fit to mark for herself:
"O Almighty God, we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast been graciously pleased to preserve, through the great pain and peril of childbearing, this woman, they servant, who desireth now to offer her praises and thanksgivings unto thee. Grant, we beseech thee, most merciful Father, that she, through thy help, may both faithfully live and walk according to thy will in this life present, and also may be partaker of everlasting glory in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Many thanks, dear God, for preserving this legacy of Grace, that I too might be preserved and put to your service.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

This is the Lord's Doing

"This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes." Psalm 118:23

As many of you know, I say the 12:10 Mass every Monday in St. Andrew's Chapel at St. James Cathedral in downtown Chicago. I always begin by welcoming everyone grandly to the Cathedral Church of St. James in the City and Diocese of Chicago. The space is small, but that doesn't mean the welcome should be! The cathedral is just a couple blocks away from Michigan Avenue, the major tourist destination known as the Magnificent Mile. We often get visitors who are in town for sightseeing and business meetings, as well as folks from the neighborhood. It is a mixture of tourists wandering in from the street to see the building's architecture, homeless people looking for a refuge from the danger of the streets, and people searching for a quick lunchtime Mass. Attendance at Mass is never high, and usually ranges from 3 to 6, including me. But I'm glad the cathedral is there to offer sanctuary--in whatever form people are seeking it. For many, it may be their only experience of the Episcopal Church, so despite the modest attendance, the stakes are still high.

Most are not Episcopalians, which has taught me to be more mindful of leading worshipers through the service. The team that revised the Book of Common Prayer did not assume a largely uninitiated crowd when the rubrics and stage directions were crafted, and so I've had to make up my own, lest a deafening silence greet me at the places specified for the people to respond. At the Dean's encouragement, I always preach a short homily on the feast or readings of the day. For the most part, I preach extemporaneously, because I think it's good practice for a priest to offer a word of life without rehearsing.  After all, many of the pastoral situations in which we find ourselves require us to offer something useful on the spot--theology, a prayer, a verse of Scripture, an anecdote. Preaching off the cuff is not a skill that comes naturally to me, so I value the opportunity to practice. I am getting better. There are some days when I think, "now, what the heck was that about, Ethan?" This week's homily was pretty darn good, last week's less good.

AND YET ... we must never discount the role of the Holy Spirit in liturgy. This week, I was approached by a woman who had been at Mass the previous Monday, the day after the Feast of Pentecost. She told me how much my sermon that week had helped her. I had preached on the verse from Psalm 118, "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes," and my words had resonated in light of her experience as a person living with a chronic disease. I don't know exactly what I had said, but I do remember preaching that it is hard for us to trust that God is acting and shaping us in moments of adversity. I also recall being underwhelmed by my performance at the time. So, I was grateful that the Holy Spirit had been present with us that day, compensating for any of my self-perceived deficiencies and making the Word something living and nourishing for her. After she had shared this with me, we prayed together for her healing, and I was reminded that none of us ever knows how the Holy Spirit will use us.

Alleluia, the Spirit of the Lord filleth the world: O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Monday, May 2, 2016

From Cairo to Istanbul: A Reflection on Multi-Faith Society

In Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
On Friday, I returned from a two-week vacation in Egypt and Istanbul during one of those rare windows when a priest feels he can take time off without feeling too guilty. It was a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime trip. I felt a bit like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, experiencing just about every form of transportation imaginable. I rode a camel past the great pyramid of Cheops, slept aboard a felucca floating down the Nile from Aswan, zipped down Alexandria's congested side streets in a tuk tuk, and soared above the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon. And, of course, there were the more pedestrian airplanes, buses, trains, and ferries that shuttled me from historic site to historic site.

We covered a lot of ground. Ninety-five percent of the Egyptian population lives in about 4% of the country's territory--the fertile land on either side of the Nile--so, we saw nearly the entire nation, from Cairo in the north to the Sudanese border on the south, from Hurghada on the Red Sea coast to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. As soon as I landed at O'Hare, people wanted to know what I had seen.
  • The Sphinx. Check.
  • King Tut's gold funeral mask. Check.
  • Luxor and Karnak. Check.
  • Abu Simbel. Check.
  • Hagia Sophia. Check.
I saw it all. And was it hot? folks asked. "The heat, my God, THE HEAT," was all I could think to say. Around 100 degrees everyday in Egypt. But those are not the stories I want to tell. This is neither a travelogue--although I did write one--nor a bucket list on which I can now cross off signature achievements. This is a reflection on living peacefully in a multi-faith society in an era of extremism. I bet you didn't see that coming.

Everyone wants to know if I felt safe. After all, this is Egypt, where Mubarak was ousted a mere five years ago during the Arab Spring that saw the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a failed, short-lived experiment in Islamist government. I admit that, prior to the trip, I was nervous; but the Egypt I found wasn't the Egypt I expected. There wasn't one moment when I felt endangered because I was an American or a Christian in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. No, I didn't fear being abducted by ISIS. In fact, I found both the Egyptians and the Turks warm, hospitable people who were thrilled to see American tourists. In Hurghada, we stayed at a vast, high-end resort with the largest swimming pool I have ever seen, and it was empty, I mean EMPTY. Virtually no one in the lobby, by the pool, or on the beach. And this was usually the high season. But since 2011, people are too frightened to travel to Egypt, except apparently the Russians. Tourism, once Egypt's largest industry, has sadly been gutted.

Sherif explaining hieroglyphics to our tour group.
One of the most sobering lessons I learned on this vacation is that Americans are grossly ignorant and misinformed about the nature of Islam and the state of the Arab world. Our tour guide for most of the trip was an Egyptologist, named Sherif, who instructed us in hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian religion, and the development of Islam in Egypt. Why are most of the faces of the gods and pharaohs scratched out at Kom Ombo? Because the Christians and Muslims were hot to discredit and efface evidence of the pagan religion they sought to supplant. Why are the statues of so many gods and pharaohs in the Egyptian Museum missing their noses and beards? Christians wanted to vandalize these ancient Egyptian symbols of power and wisdom, which were associated with the traditional religion. Both Christians and Muslims have a lot of vandalism to answer for.

With local children near Karnak
But Sherif also shared later stories of Muslims and Christians living together successfully in a multi-faith society. About 90% of Egypt's population is Muslim; the other 10% is Christian, mostly Coptic. Sherif described how the two faith communities respect and support each other. If there is a funeral, people from the neighborhood, Muslims and Christians, attend. If a couple gets married, the neighborhood takes up a collection from everyone, both Muslims and Christians, so that the newlyweds can open a business or begin to build a nest egg. During Ramadan, many Christians fast out of sensitivity to their Muslim brothers and sisters who have to work--many in the extreme heat--without food or water. And in both Egypt and Turkey, there were signs all over alerting us that the Pascha was nigh. I think the Kingdom of God looks something like this.

This is not, of course, to view a complex, multi-faith society through rose-tinted glasses. I am not recommending that we become dewey-eyed idealists, but to recognize the danger of painting Muslims or any group as the evil "other". The image the American media portrays of Muslims burning American flags and beheading journalists is xenophobic hype that uses religious extremism and incidents of terrorism to essentialize a whole class of people for political gain. Donald Trump's Islamophobic and isolationist rhetoric bears no resemblance to the rank-and-file Muslims I encountered in both Egypt and Turkey. They were mostly lovely people, who worked and prayed in varying degrees, like Christians or Jews or Buddhists.

In Little Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
Instead of extremists, I met people who were kind and hopeful, whose children played joyfully in a mosque courtyard in Old Islamic Cairo while worshipers conducted their purifying ablutions before kneeling to God in prayer. I witnessed Coptic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians observing the sacraments in their churches down the block from their Muslim brothers and sisters. I entered Little Hagia Sophia to be greeted by a local who couldn't wait to get my shoes off and give me an impromptu tour, to show me the cistern that had supplied water to the baptismal font, to guide me through the postures of Muslim prayer, and to translate both the Greek and the Arabic on the building's walls.

This trip became a sort of pilgrimage, not only to architectural sites that I had longed to witness with my own eyes, but to people striving to live faithfully with God and each other in an era that emphasizes estrangement and mistrust. There were moments when I felt the Egyptians and the Turks were realizing the peace and unity of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, so much better than we have been doing here. I perceived that God was present in Greek, and Arabic, and Latin, and Turkish. In the current political climate, we need to challenge the deeply divisive and dehumanizing speech we hear in the daily news cycle and in the public square. Hear what the Spirit is saying to God's people.

May the peace and joy of the Resurrection be with you all.
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Twelve Years

The readings during Eastertide have showcased the disciples' difficulty in recognizing the Risen Lord. Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener when he appears to her in the empty tomb. Thomas is highly skeptical until he puts his hand in the wounds in Jesus' hands and side. The disciples don't recognize Jesus on the beach until they cast their nets and lug them out of the water heavy with fish--153 of them, to be exact. What is extraordinary about these stories is that the experience of new life is greeted initially with uncertainty, and even suspicion. Instead of shouting the good news from the rooftops, everyone is a little tentative. Haziness and confusion surround the truth of Jesus' resurrection. No one seems to see what's right in front of their eyes. Saul of Tarsus, as a matter of fact, emerges from his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus blind as a bat, completely helpless and vulnerable. 

Last Sunday, as I stood at the altar celebrating Mass, I was also celebrating the 12th anniversary of my baptism, recalling my own experience of profound vulnerability in the chilling water of the font. Like Saul, I had assumed a new identity. I hadn't, of course, been in the middle of a murderous rampage when the call to follow Jesus came, but it was no less transformative for me. It was a pivotal step in a lifelong struggle to know God that has always been characterized by failures, mistakes, and cluelessness, as well as grace. For twenty years, I walked away from God out of hurt and anger, and I languished in my perception of his absence. Maybe it's good to have time to cool off, so that when God calls again, we are receptive to the divine urging. That's what happened to me. Fr. Steve Martz asked me one Sunday, "are you not receiving communion because you're not baptized?" I responded, "yes," "Well, would you like to be?" he continued. "Yes," I said without skipping a beat, shocking myself. "Now, where did that come from?" I puzzled. I had been sought; and I had been claimed. I knew that God was speaking to me the first time I heard in the hymn that "Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God; he to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood." 

And I was rescued. Twelve years ago I wouldn't have thought it possible that I would spend my time the way I do. My baptism ultimately led to a new life that has given me so many moments of joy and fulfillment. In the past few days, I have celebrated the Eucharist in my parish and in the chapel of our cathedral, offered counsel to people struggling with homelessness and spiritual barrenness, enjoyed the preaching voices of some really insightful parishioners, and shared coffee with friends learning about their vocations. I have also continued to learn about myself, about my own tentativeness and blindness, about the ways I fail to see both the crucified and risen Jesus around me. I think we spend our whole lives trying to know Jesus better. It begins in baptism, in promising to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers." And in repentance, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being. It is in doing these things that we like Peter attempt to convince Jesus, "you know, Lord, that I love you." It is a daunting and overwhelming call, but I am thankful for the 12 years that I have been saddled with it. Thank you, Lord, for the grace of a new life, and thanks to the many people that have helped me shoulder the burden along the way. I am truly grateful. I pray that you will be there for me for another 12 years, as I will try to be there for you.

Easter joy and blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Holy Week Message 2016: Tragedy in Brussels

My dear sisters and brothers,

In the wake of the terrorist attack on Brussels this morning, we are urged to realize the significance and call of Holy Week, the journey of Jesus' Passion and death on the Cross to his Resurrection. The following video message offers some points for reflection. As we enter the mystery of this journey, may we be mindful of the context of violence and death in which we often live and offer our prayers for those who are grieving and clinging to life, and for those whose lives have been lost. May their souls and the souls of all the departed rest in peace. Amen.
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

#TractSwarm: The Language of Fasting

On the first Sunday in Lent, I recited the Exhortation from the Book of Common Prayer to emphasize for the parish the penitential character of the season we had just entered. I had never been in a congregation that used the Exhortation, and so this was a new experience for me, as I imagine it was for many of our parishioners. The severe, chastening language of Rite I, including the Exhortation, was a brusque change from our usual affirming and hope-filled outlook. To say in the confession that "we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness" might at times seem over the top and disingenuous for people who believe in the inherent goodness of humanity and see the glass as at least half full.

Yet, it has been useful to step out of our customary ways of praying and theologizing to confront the reality of human brokenness and sin. In a sense, we have been fasting from the normal language that nourishes our prayer and worship, and we miss it. It is a deprivation we feel in our very bones. If the function of fasting is to purify ourselves by dismantling the idols that keep us from a healthy relationship with God, then relinquishing our dependence on our linguistic comfort zone is a step in the right direction. If our customary language obscures the truth about human sin, which we'd rather not face, then it is meet, right, and our bounden duty to take a break from it and use language that forces us to see a different side of ourselves, even if it is our underbelly.

In the midst of all of the harsh "I am a worm and no man" language, however, there is a gentleness that can easily be obscured if one is not attuned to the Lenten theme of God's mercy.  The Exhortation, for instance, emphasizes that humanity is not beyond help or hope. God loves us extravagantly, and for this we are thankful:

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.

Instead of just abandoning us to our endless wickedness, God's people are given useful strategies for overcoming their shortcomings. The Exhortation tells us to adopt a renewed reverence for the Eucharist, to forgive each other, to scrutinize our consciences, and if we are overwhelmed by guilt and sinfulness, to "open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith." In this way, the disciplines of Lent, such as fasting, confession, and Station of the Cross, prepare us lovingly to receive the joy of the Paschal feast. Fasting may take on many forms: abstaining from food or drink, resisting the temptation to judge or speak harshly of others, or adopting a more disciplined, healthier lifestyle that will honor the body as God's temple. However we fast, the sacrifice should dismantle the idols--even our language--that enslave us and distract us from our relationship with God.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Let the Little Children Come to Me

When I came to the Episcopal Church, after a twenty-year hiatus from organized religion, the congregation in which I landed was full of families with young children. Perhaps this is why I've never understood the angst and resistance many congregations express in heated debates about incorporating children into Sunday-morning worship. Having kids in church is as natural to me as having a priest at the altar. In fact, it seems weird to me not to have children in the sanctuary, with all the delightful chaos and disruption they bring. When I assert this position, I am sometimes met with objections, such as:

  • "Well, the kids are noisy and fussy and disturb other parishioners." 
  • "They don't understand what's going on, and they get bored."
  • "We have a wonderful children's program in the basement."  
Yes, kids can be noisy and fussy. They may cry, or babble, or try to make a break for it and run around the sanctuary. They may get bored by sitting so long in an uncomfortable pew, or by the incessant chattering we adults tend to do--what the children at my current parish call, "talky-talky." So, what? It's not the end of the world. And perhaps your congregation does have a sensational Godly Play, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or Sunday School program. Those programs may indeed be very edifying and important. But, in the end, none of that matters to me. The only argument regarding children in worship I really care about comes from our Lord himself:
  • "People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.'" (Mark 10:13-16).  There are similar passages in Matthew and Luke, as well.
In fact, if Jesus weren't a great enough authority on this question, I am absolutely convinced, for what it's worth, that children DO get what's going on. I don't care if the worship is as simple as bread shared around the kitchen table or as rarefied as Solemn High Mass in the Presence of a Greater Prelate presiding from the faldstool. Children get it. And adults may not be able to tell. Kids may not have fancy theological terms to articulate what they are experiencing; they may not intellectually understand what's going on. But they know something special is happening, and they want to be a part of it. I have seen children gaze with rapt awe as the priest consecrates the bread and wine at the altar, and then attempt to imitate the gestures themselves. I have witnessed a six-year-old catechize her three-year-old sister in the sacred mystery of the Eucharist by placing her hands in the shape of a cross to receive the consecrated bread in her tiny palm. I have been surprised to find that the children sitting on the floor shouting remembered some story I told in a sermon about a saint's life, when I was sure their short attention span had led them a million miles away to something far more fascinating. I wouldn't trade these chaotic moments for anything--no matter how polished, choreographed, or talky-talky.

The best way children learn about what it means to be a Christian is to practice, to worship alongside their parents and accept the mysteries that God makes present in whatever ways their developmental stage allows. To practice by doing it over and over again, so that it becomes second nature, embodied. That's what good catechesis looks like. This may include a fair bit of shouting, crying, running around, and general commotion. Perhaps our tendency to blame children for failing to appreciate the very important and serious work we're doing in the sanctuary should be turned back on us. Perhaps we adults should ask ourselves how we've failed to engage children in the joy of the Gospel.  If kids aren't interested in worship, as many adults claim, then maybe we should give them something worth paying attention to. Could it be that they are trying to teach us something important about what worship should or could be? Maybe sometimes worship should be messy and unpredictable. Not a free-for-all, just not tame. Not what adults would have it be. If, as Jesus says, we need to learn how to receive the kingdom of God as a child, we should be trying to learn from children how to to receive Jesus without reserve, without affectation, with the pure joy and commotion of the Hosannas that accompanied his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. I suspect that even then there were children teaching the adults the proper way to behave in our Lord's presence.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+