Friday, April 13, 2018

An Easter People

The last several weeks have been extremely busy for all of us preparing for and experiencing the most important liturgies of the Church's year. As wonderful as Holy Week and Easter Day are, they are also emotionally and physically exhausting, and so when the vestry members and I arrived at the Nicholas Center for our vestry retreat, I wasn't sure how much energy we would have left to do the hard work of planning for the parish's future. Perhaps it would have been more sensible for us to rest for a couple of weeks before tackling this huge responsibility; but the retreat center was available, that weekend was the most convenient for the vestry members, and we didn't want to wait too long and risk losing the momentum and intimacy we had built during Lent.

It turns out that we still had energy--A LOT OF ENERGY--for the work before us. We did talk about mission and evangelism, including multigenerational Latino ministry, but mostly we shared deeply personal things about our lives; and we discovered as we told our stories, that each of us had arrived at St. Helena's, because someone had invited us. That was a key discovery, and we agreed that our primary focus moving forward needed to be an exploration of different ways to invite new people to join us, just as we had been invited.

We realized that telling the stories of our spiritual journeys and inviting people were intimately connected, and once we had connected those dots, we began to connect others. Our imaginations ran wild, and we began writing all of our hopes for the church on a white board, from grandiose projects for improving the building to smaller goals like holding hands during the Lord's Prayer at 9 am or restoring the labyrinth. This twenty-four-hour conversation was only the first of many, and we will be encouraging all of you to imagine and dream with us. There is virtually no limit to the things we can create, if we simply give ourselves permission to believe in them. That is what it means to believe in the new life that Jesus's resurrection has made possible. That is what it means to be Easter people.

Easter blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! What a joy and relief it is to say those words after the long journey through the Lenten wilderness. We encountered despair, doubt, fear, death, and much more during Lent and Holy Week, and now that all that unpleasantness is behind us--now that we have survived our walk with Jesus to the Cross and death--what do we do next? We focus on the new life that Christ's death and resurrection have made possible.

This Holy Week and Easter Day have been the best of my life, because all of you responded to my invitation to be vulnerable and to share your deep stories of faith. You have showed me and others, your feet, your wounds, your scars, and your Good News of new life, as I have showed you mine. Vulnerability and authenticity are best foundations I know for building a healthy and vibrant congregation. We have survived much, and that has given us the strength to explore this new life at St. Helena's, which we marked on Sunday with the dedication of our new sign, a wonderful gift from our sisters and brothers at Grace Episcopal Church in Hinsdale.

During Eastertide, we will be focusing on our new life in a variety of ways. Today, our vestry will begin its two-day retreat on evangelism and mission at the Nicholas Center downtown. Adult and children's formation will focus on deepening our understanding (and practice) of our Baptismal Covenant. We will host a number of community events, including our Day of the Children celebration with a kung fu demonstration and folkloric dancers on April 29, followed by the Blessing of the Bikes on May 6. And we will begin our work on our evanglism grant from the Episcopal Church on sacred storytelling. I hope that all of you will help us to continue the momentum of our Lenten and Holy Week experience, so that we can all be signs of the abundant life that Jesus has given us.

Easter blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Thursday, March 29, 2018

I Will Go, Lord.

On the Tuesday of Holy Week, Bishop Lee, the clergy, and laity gathered at St. James Cathedral for the annual renewal of ordination and baptismal vows. The bishop also blessed the holy oil called chrism for use in baptisms. The closing hymn of the Chrism Mass was "Here I Am, Lord," and it was very moving to sing the chorus, "Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart." Those verses have always resonated with me in a very personal way, much as the words of another hymn we sang at that liturgy, "Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God, he to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood."

The essential message of those hymns is that, left to our own devices, we wander aimlessly, but if we rely on God to lead us, he will lead us toward new life. We are all called to serve, and God leads each one of us to serve in different ways; but as we enter the Easter Triduum, we must not lose sight that we are taking this journey together, with Jesus and with each other. We will wait together in the Garden of Gethsemane. We will walk together along the path to Calvary. We will witness the crucifixion and mourn together. And we will greet the resurrection with abundant joy--together. And through it all, we must be attentive to God's promptings to each one of us to go where God directs, and respond, yes, "I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart." God calls each of us. Where is God leading you? That is part of the Paschal mystery that we will explore together.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Sign of New Life

On Tuesday, we received and installed our new sign for Wolf Road (see video), which I hope will tell everybody in the neighboring community that great things are happening in our parish. Many thanks to our mission partner, Grace Episcopal Church in Hinsdale, for its incredible generosity in helping us to improve our visibility in the community, so that we may invite new people to join us and be better agents of God's boundless love.

We will dedicate our new sign on Easter Sunday. It seems appropriate that we should mark the new life of our parish on the same day that we celebrate Jesus's Resurrection. I know that St. Helena's has endured several years of struggle and doubt about its future. I can tell you that when I came to St. Helena a year ago, I experienced a parish that was suffering from grief, anger, and distress. In the year that has passed, I have watched these emotions give way to healing, hope, and increased energy for mission. That change has filled my heart with joy.

Holy Week can be a deeply painful and emotionally exhausting experience, as we find in our own lives resonances of Our Lord's suffering as he walks to the Cross on Golgotha and submits to a cruel death. What his mother, Mary, and the disciples don't know is that on the other side of Jesus's death is a life more abundant and abiding than anything than they could have ever imagined. Our new sign on Wolf Road is a symbol of the new life that you have earned through your determination to survive and grasp that glimmer of light beyond the suffering and despair. In the liturgies of Holy Week, we will descend into darkness, but we will also pierce that darkness with the flicker of light from the Paschal Candle, to affirm that Jesus descended to the dead and brought all of Creation out of the darkness to redeem them and give them a future worth celebrating. That is the legacy that we will enjoy in the first Mass of Easter, and in an act as simple as dedicating a new sign that says that St. Helena's, has be pulled out of its grief and suffering to become a new creation.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, March 16, 2018

We Wish to See Jesus

This past week, at the invitation of Bishop Lee, I have been in Cleveland, Ohio attending the Evangelism Matters conference hosted by the Episcopal Church. Bishop Lee nominated my friend, Mthr. Mo O'Connor, Zach Dyrda, and me as the three "evangelism catalysts" from the Diocese of Chicago to bring back ideas and learnings from the conference to inspire and share with others. We have spent the last three days with about 400 clergy and lay leaders from across the church to learn how to invite people to join us as followers of Jesus, to network and to form new friendships, but most of all to share our stories about how God has transformed our lives. That is the essence of evangelism: to share our Good News with others, ask them to share their own stories, and then invite them to experience MORE, more belonging, more acceptance, more love, more redemption.

In this Sunday's Gospel reading, the Greeks come up to Philip and say, "sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip runs to Andrew and tells him about the request, and then the two of them tell Jesus. Our Lord's response is sobering. In order to see Jesus, we have to let go of much that makes us feel safe. We have to let go of our egos. We have to let go of our mistrust. We have to let go of our sense of entitlement. We have to learn to be vulnerable, to share and entrust our stories of pain and redemption with each other, and then go out into the world to invite others to be vulnerable with us, for there is no true community without vulnerability and trust. Let me be clear, the goal of evangelism is not to grow the church, to fill our pews. The goal of evangelism is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and bring Jesus's unconditional love to the lost, the despondent, and the discarded people of the world. With such good news to share, we hope that other people will want to join us. But the work before us is to learn to be faithful followers of Jesus by loving others as he has loved us. If we want to see Jesus, then we must speak, and walk, and live as he did.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Saturday, March 10, 2018

This Sunday, We Wear Pink!

Recently, I was re-watching the 2004 teen comedy, Mean Girls, in which a previously home-schooled teenager raised in Africa, Cady Heron, attends a public school for the first time. On her second day of school, Cady is befriended by a group of popular girls known as "the Plastics," who introduce her to the highly nuanced pecking order of high school and the rules of the in-crowd. One of the Plastics, Karen Smith, tells her, "on Wednesdays, we wear pink!" I laughed and remarked that we in the church have a similar set of rules. Twice a year we wear pink or rather--in the language of the Church--"rose" vestments, to signify that we are taking a much-needed break from the austerity and penitence of Advent and Lent.

Advent 3 is called "Gaudete Sunday," and Lent 4 is called "Laetare Sunday," both roughly translating as "rejoice." These Sundays are meant to remind us that even in the midst of temptation, sin, and death, there is a reason for joy, because God is with us in those moments. This Sunday will be special for me personally, because I will be presenting a gift to the parish, a new red cope, in memory of my grandmother, who died three years ago at this time. The cope will be used for the first time on Palm Sunday, when the church again changes colors, from the violet of Lent to the red of our Lord's Passion. Even in the midst of darkness, it is important to remember the light. In response to temptation, God offers us strength. In response to sin, God offers us redemption. In response to death, God offers us life. And that's a reason to pause and rejoice. So, on Sunday, we'll wear pink.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Long Walk

Tuesday was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, so I decided to drive to one of the large neighborhoods behind St. Helena's to deliver the postcards announcing our Lenten services. The weather was beautiful, and the ground was dry and free of snow, so I wanted to take advantage of this rare opportunity to do some hands-on evangelism and outreach. I drove to the middle of each street, got out of my car, and walked to each house, leaving a postcard and one of my business cards underneath the doormat. I very much enjoyed being outside for several hours, feeling the breeze blow through my short-sleeved shirt and doing something that priests have always done, walking the streets of their parish, being visible. It gave me time to just rest and let my mind wander.

The interesting challenge of many suburbs, however, is that this neighborhood, like many others, was deserted in the middle of the day. It was like an incredibly well-manicured ghost town filled with huge houses with tidy lawns and luxury cars parked up steep semicircular driveways. I was shocked, though, to see how many houses still had Christmas decorations up at the end of February! I left cards at probably about 150 houses, and I thought that if the people in only 2 or 3 of them would visit us, it would be worth it. The only other souls on the sidewalk was the occasional person walking a dog. I felt a bit like Jesus wandering in the desert, albeit without Satan appearing, and fortunately, only for a few hours instead of 40 days. Most houses had a doormat with the word, "welcome," on it, and I wondered, that if anyone had been home, how true that message would have been. The optimist in me hopes that most people would be kind and friendly.

At the end of my walk, my shirt was sweaty and my legs ached, but in a good way. It occurred to me that my walk was a good metaphor for ministry, particularly during Lent. Despite all of our technological advances, sometimes there's just no substitute for an old-fashioned technique like walking the streets of one's parish. It's incredibly inefficient and time consuming. It's not particularly glamorous; in fact, it made me feel pretty awkward and vulnerable, as it always does. I realized that I might hear things I didn't want to hear, and so I had practiced beforehand what I would say if anyone reacted negatively to my presence. The fact is that the Lenten journey, like old-fashioned evangelism, is hard. It requires endurance and there's no getting around doing the hard work. It is meant to be fatiguing, because that's the only way we grow, by putting in the time and energy required to be transformed and to transform others. So, who wants to go with me next time?

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+