Balancing discernment and decision

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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.