Balancing discernment and decision

A week ago, I kicked off a four week in-parish mission at Saint Mark in Shoreline. Prompted by the realization of significant financial and membership challenges, I spoke at length to the parish about our need to turn to the Lord, inviting and allowing Him to call us to more deeply invest in our community. This necessarily involved sharing the realities of our current situation, including a significant drop in giving (170K difference since 2019), reduced membership, and parishioner engagement at an all-time low. Perhaps most alarmingly, I used the c-word: “closure” – not as an announcement of anything currently being considered or discussed, but as one potential future if we don’t sit up and take notice.

Reactions were varied and – at least among those shared with me – muted. I get that: no one is especially excited about an extended conversation with the doctor who just laid out the grim future they face if they don’t start exercising and dieting right away! I know that feeling well and am familiar with the impulse to simply avoid people and things that remind me of difficult realities – so much so that I preached on my some of my recent personal experiences of this last weekend.

Still, folks do talk among themselves, and some of those conversations eventually find their way to the priest. A familiar theme caught my attention: ‘why isn’t he just telling us what he wants?’ – familiar, by the way, because of the variant that we priests hear all the time: ‘Father, if you need anything, just ask!’

Despite good intentions, there is a subtle – but serious – issue hiding within these statements. It is the issue of discernment, or rather, that of not discerning. Though there are times we need to be told what is called for or even what we ought to be doing, it is all too easy to surrender or even abdicate our responsibility to discern God’s call for ourselves.

We’ve all had the experience of being with friends or family and having someone say ‘you decide’ on the choice of food, movie, or a tv show that we’re going to enjoy. Thoughtfully offered, that surrender can be a real expression of vulnerable trust! But imagine if that happened habitually, often, or even all the time. What might have once been a moment of unity becomes a burden to the one being asked or told to decide – and an expression of disengagement by the person saying it. ‘You decide’ starts to sound a lot like ‘I don’t care’.

And what happens if that becomes the norm? It is inevitable that some, maybe many, of the choices will get a negative response – ‘I don’t want to watch that movie’, ‘That show is boring’, ‘why didn’t we have __________ instead?’. That implied message of ‘I don’t care’ will start to feel a lot more like an overt ‘I don’t care for you’. That occasion of surrender or intimacy has the appearance of a demand to be served and pleased – all without investment from the other person.

This strikes me as a pattern into which it would be easy to fall. How many of us have stories of a relationship where one person insists on having the last word on decisions, setting the priorities, and making all the choices! The domineering husband, the shrill wife, the temperamental friend, the authoritarian pastor – there are so many examples of relationships where abdicating discernment or will is not choice, but an expectation. We might even conclude that this is the norm in giving or receiving love.

Building – or rebuilding – the practice of discernment may require us to critically examine our understanding of relationships. What does it mean for me to be a friend – how am I called to be vulnerable not only to the thoughts & desires of another but also to the vulnerability of exploring & expressing my own thoughts & desires? How do I participate in a relationship with another person, with other people?

In addition to looking at our own relationships – especially those that we have found to be most life-giving! – it will be helpful to consider the example of Jesus. His relationship with the Father & the Holy Spirit, wherein He not only surrendered to the Father’s will, but also participated in the choices made. We can see, too, that with His Apostles, He not only invites them to do the Father’s will but empowers them to discern & decide how that might take shape.

The Mass readings of the last week from the Acts of the Apostles show us how they and the early Christians were not only inspired but actively acting in relationship with each other and the Lord. We take the time every Easter season to revisit these accounts as a reminder that the fervor – and fruitfulness! – that they experienced is offered to us as well. The decision to join in that new life is not just the Lord’s, but ours as well – and the first step is to choose to be an active participant in the relationship with Christ and His Church.

For those interested, this is the homily I preached last Sunday – the second homily of our four week in-parish mission. You can listen to it using the player below or download to play on your device by clicking on this link.

Longing for community in the Body of Christ

This last Sunday, I kicked off a four week in-parish mission at my parish of Saint Mark in Shoreline. Over the last several months I have been discerning how the Lord is directing our community. Our staff has been brainstorming ideas and our pastoral council has been discussing priorities & plans. Things came to a head a few weeks ago when we reviewed our parish finances and came to the realization that in both finances and membership, our community is facing serious challenges – challenges that include a financial difference of $170,000 in giving between 2019 and now, a decline in membership, and a low engagement from those who are still on the rolls & in the pews.

It is my firm conviction that the final piece is key; our personal investment in the community will bear fruit in all other things. Thus, a parish mission to pray over three questions:

  • what does it mean to be a parish?
  • what does it mean to be a parishioner?
  • how is the Lord calling us to grow as both?

After preaching on all of this (a delicate dance between exhorting, warning, and animating – on Mother’s Day, no less 🙄), I had the blessing of meeting up with my priest support group this week. As I shared my own worries, frustrations, and hopes about this, they brought up a helpful counterpoint: what communities do I myself currently find life-giving, exciting, and animating?

What comes most immediately to mind is a group that I only recently discovered: Doxacon Seattle. By a happy set of circumstances and at their gracious invitation, I was privileged to present at their 2022 convention (this year’s theme was “Is This the Way? Duty and Morality”). I spent several nervous weeks preparing for the convention – it was not lost on me that the intersection of passionate Christians and passionate geeks could be a place where a misstep in theology OR fandom would be quickly jumped on!

I am happy to report that I managed to avoid any great ecumenical or geeky controversy. But what absolutely floored me was how much fun it was to gather with these folks! We spent nearly twelve glorious hours talking about everything we loved – television, movies, literature, podcasts, webcomics, history, whatever! – and ALL in the light of Christ. There were Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians joined in the conversations – and when one person was talking, several others were chatting across the Discord channels that had been set up.

It was wonderful. They have something special, in both mission & community, that is compelling, uplifting, and joyful. Not only do I still fondly recall that day, but it has sparked the beginnings of friendships for which I am already extraordinarily grateful. In fact, the night before I kicked off this parish mission, a group of us spent four hours (!) on a Zoom call talking about our faith, our various fandoms, and plans for how we might invite others to share in them. And to my great delight, a couple of my new friends showed up the next day at the vigil Mass the next day – and we spent another two hours talking after Mass!

It is one of my greatest sorrows that such community rarely, if ever, is to be found in the life of the Catholic Church. There are sometimes glimpses of lively and connected Christian community, but so very seldom to be found in a parish. I recall a classmate in seminary who said that we Catholics are sometimes referred to as “the chosen frozen” by other denominations, at least here in the United States. I wish it didn’t ring so true. And yet, I find that when I need meaningful friendships or personal support, the Catholic Church is not somewhere I can find either one.

So, what are we to do? There’s an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that has been sticking in my head: “Looking for Par’mach in All the Wrong Places“. It’s a bit of a fluff story among the heavy arcs DS9 was exploring at that point, though a well-placed bit of humor that rang true there and now: we sometimes miss what’s right in front of us for having focused so much on what we think we want.

What does that mean for me and my parish, practically speaking? I’m not entirely sure yet, but it seems to me that something of Doxacon needs to come to our community! Oh, I know that many (maybe most) of my parishioners are not sci-fi or fantasy geeks and I know that literally bringing a convention to the parish isn’t the answer. But bringing what they have – forming groups small & large centered around what excites us – seems to be a crucial part of the answer to the questions we’re pondering during our parish mission.

That’s the kind of community I know I long for! And from my experiences with Christian geeks from around the Pacific Northwest & beyond – Catholic and otherwise – I’m confident that I’m not alone. It is Christ that animates and excites us in the context of fandoms & ministry alike. If we are to be enlivened as His Body, Sunday Masses are not the end, but rather the beginning of forming truly intimate and joyful communities.

(For those interested – here is a draft version of the homily that I recorded for my staff & pastoral council to help give me input. The actual homily was edited only slightly for time…..this version is just over 25 minutes long!). Alternatively, you can download it to play on your device by clicking this link.