Friday, February 10, 2017

Is There an Ageist Bias in the Church?

Many of you know that I have been seeking a new call since the middle of last year. I have been reviewing parish profiles, crafting cover letters, and interviewing with search committees, trying to convey my vision for a vibrant, life-giving church. The one issue that keeps coming up is the assumption that young families with children are the sure-fire way to promote congregational growth, and that any parish that is not attracting this demographic is in decline. I couldn't disagree more.

Now, I landed in the Episcopal Church in a congregation that was composed mostly of young families with children, and I loved it. There was lots of noise and laughter, making the Eucharist (and the coffee hour that followed) a joyfully chaotic--and yet still reverent--event. Our parishioners were generous with their pledges and their time, but as a mission congregation, we often struggled. In the many years since I left that exuberantly young parish, I have come to understand that it is often elderly and retired people who keep many of our churches chugging along. And I am deeply, deeply grateful to them for their commitment. They are the lifeblood, the ones on whom you can always rely.

And it's not by accident. As I sit in interviews with search committees and vestries, I look around the conference tables and see a preponderance of gray and silver heads, which tells me something important. Elderly and retired folks have the time and energy to volunteer on search committees, vestries, altar guilds, choirs, and outreach committees. They have the freedom to attend meetings during the day when everyone else is at work. Although there are many elderly and retired folks on limited incomes, there are also many who are now enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of hard work and careful planning. They tend to pledge well and participate in planned giving programs. Their kids are grown and out of the house. Some are reaching the end of their professional careers at the height of their earning potential. Others have lost spouses or are geographically separated from their children and grandchildren, and so value the sense of community and belonging the church offers. They always show up for Sunday morning worship. They provide food for potlucks and coffee hour. They iron the altar linens and prepare the sanctuary for worship every week. They coordinate volunteers. The contribute to capital campaigns. They support the priest in a crisis, whether it's a hospitalized parishioner or a broken boiler.

Young families with children, while contributing much to the life of a parish, have a unique set of challenges. Being at an earlier stage in their life cycle, money tends to be tighter. And for low-income and single parents, the obstacles are even greater. In general, young parents earn less at a time when expenses are high. They may be trying to buy a house while they raise their kids, so they likely do not have the resources to be big pledgers. After all, children are EXPENSIVE. Young parents also have very little time, because they are working long hours to squirrel away money for the down payment on the house, the kids' college fund, and fees for their kids' extracurricular activities. Parental commitments like PTA meetings, soccer practice, ballet lessons, and karate classes mean that they feel pulled in many different directions all the time. Evening events, whether they are committee meetings or Lenten Stations of the Cross, often mean that they have to find a babysitter. Sunday mornings are equally tough, because sports teams now schedule mandatory practices and competitions on the Lord's Day, which would have been unthinkable in past generations. Clergy looking to fill the pews and grow their Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) often find that young families are their least regular attendees at Sunday morning worship. Once or twice a month is now becoming a normative standard for many families.

Of course, these observations are not meant as criticisms of young families, but rather as a sympathetic appreciation of the demands on their time and finances. With all of this in mind, congregations should be seeking ways to support parents and help them (and their kids) stay connected to the church and nurture their spiritual lives.

This brings me back to the contributions of seniors to the life of a congregation. Without them, our parishes would be greatly diminished. For example, I recently organized an Inauguration Day collection and distribution of supplies for people experiencing homelessness. Because it was a Friday, almost all of the volunteers were seniors. They made sandwiches, packaged supplies, and went out into the community to distribute the food, clothing, and hygiene kits to our neighbors. It's too bad that Paul didn't include the words, "no longer young or old," to his declaration to the Galatians that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." As I watched everyone joyfully bustling in the parish's dining room to get things done, I witnessed the Church at its healthiest and most vibrant. Jesus never said the body of Christ was a youthful one. Perhaps the body is matured and seasoned, experienced and wise.

I raise this issue about ageism in the Church, not because I think it is especially guilty of this bias, but because I think it is an extension of the ageism present in our culture at large. Youth and beauty are privileged and prized. Gone are the days, it would seem, when we showed reverence for our elders and looked upon them as mentors who could help us mature into better adults. Now, granted, age is no guarantee of wisdom or any other virtue, but there is something to be said for respecting the seasoned perspective that experience brings to living, including living as a Christian. There is much that I have learned about being a person of faith and conscience from people that are far older than I. They have taught me how to deepen my prayer life and to practice greater humility, patience, and generosity. They have helped me to take a longer view and put things in proper perspective. They have broadened my appreciation for what is possible. So, I would urge us to be counter-cultural, and to greet our senior parishioners with the same enthusiasm and gratitude as we do our young families with children. A diverse Church is a strong Church. Without our seniors, our congregations, not to mention the Kingdom of God, would be woefully incomplete.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Upon This Rock

Yesterday, I went to see the Martin Scorsese film, Silence. It chronicles the lives of two Jesuit missionaries in Japan and the underground Christian community that sheltered and followed them during a period of intense persecution in the seventeenth century. I will do my best not to spoil the film for those who are planning to see it, but I would like to reference a couple of scenes in light of today's commemoration of the Confession of St. Peter.

With the priests' arrival, the people can once again celebrate the Eucharist and receive absolution for their sins after many years of being on their own. Their yearning for the smallest sign of nourishment for this faith was palpable--the gift of one bead from the priest's rosary was considered an inestimable gift of holiness, a pearl of great price. Their joy over the appearance of the padres was infectious; and at times, I got lost in their emotion, making the sign of the cross or mouthing the responses in the darkened theater, forgetting that I was watching a film, rather than participating in a moment of grace. But then I'd catch myself, and sheepishly return to my limited role as spectator. I was moved by the sincerity and intensity of their piety; it summoned memories of my own swelling emotion and devotion as a new convert not too many years ago. Perhaps that's why I was so easily sucked into the story.

The film also paints the devastating effects of the authorities' coercion of these Christians, driving them to apostasize in order to avoid torture and martyrdom. As the terrified faithful weigh whether to step and spit on an image of Jesus to avoid drowning and burning at the stake, one easily recalls Peter's three-fold denial of Jesus. And of the Church's earliest martyrs. The film's graphic depiction of human suffering inspires profound humility, for how many of us, one wonders, could endure as much? Is there a point beyond which an apostate Christian is beyond God's forgiveness? As priests responsible for the well-being of a vulnerable flock, what is the right thing for Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garupe to do: apostasize to save the people from torture and death or continue to profess the faith and watch them suffer and perish?  It is a morally complex and untidy film that deliberately raises questions that foster uneasiness on many levels, both theological and pragmatic. Scenes of crippling guilt and sorrow, followed by confession and absolution punctuate the film. Relationships get repeatedly ruptured and repaired, with little resolution or clarity.

The Denial of St. Peter, G. van Honthorst, c. 1622
Silence engages the politics of imperialism and cultural domination, as well; and I was sympathetic to the Japanese authorities' contention that the missionary work was subversive and disruptive. I was aware of my postmodern discomfort around the missionaries' claims that the Christian faith was the only source of truth or divine revelation, while also holding fast to my conviction that Christianity is a faith with unique and valid truth claims that we are urged to spread. Evangelism is part of our call to follow Jesus. It continues to be a timely dilemma. At what point does evangelism become disrespectful and invasive? How are evangelism and proselytism different and similar? How does one remain respectful of a different cultural and religious tradition while still commending the value of one's own, especially if one is an outsider?

Finally, Silence stirred in me a renewed awareness of the current persecution of sister and brother Christians around the world: in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in China, in Palestine. Scorsese's film reminded me that the plight of St. Peter, the early martyrs, the seventeenth-century martyrs of Japan, and Christians living under persecution now is largely the same. Christians worshiping in secret and hiding any signs of their faith--a crude cross made out of straw, or the image of a saint, or a Bible--is not merely an artifact of our early history, but the daily reality of many Christians around the world, which we often forget about in our own privileged contexts. Freedom of religion or conscience is not a universal benefit enjoyed by everyone.

In fact, the Church was built (and continues to be built) upon the bodies of St. Peter and the martyrs, on those who make sacrifices of many kinds to profess Jesus as the Messiah.  On this day, when we remember Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built his Church--for all of his apostasy--may we pray for all of the martyrs and confessors who suffer for proclaiming Jesus as their Lord and Messiah. May the Angels receive them into Paradise, into the everlasting rest of God.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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+