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.

Spy Wednesday

Today is the last full day of Lent (which officially ends at the beginning of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday). This day is known as ‘spy’ Wednesday, taken from story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – the Gospel proclaimed at today’s Mass. In his misguided attempt to force Jesus into fulfilling the expectation of a conquering messiah, Judas unwittingly became an agent for those who declared themselves enemies of Christ. He became a spy, looking for and taking the opportunity to betray the Lord.

The Kiss of Judas by James Tissot

It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized how the devil heightens his attacks during Holy Week. In fact, it was two years ago today that I found myself in such serious struggles that I reached out to one of our auxiliary bishops, asking for his guidance on how to deal with a particularly unsettling set of circumstances that was troubling me and my parish. I couldn’t understand why it was happening at one of the most sacred times of the year! Bishop Mueggenborg reminded me that the devil continues to lash out even in defeat, and that holy week – particularly Spy Wednesday – is a time when we are often must under assault.

In retrospect, it seems obvious – I’ve always found holy week to be a time of additional anxieties, frustrations, and conflict as we try to fit all the liturgical and sacramental pieces together. Honestly, it had simply never occurred to me that there was a spiritual element. But of course, Satan is upset! We’re celebrating Jesus’ triumph over sin and death – and more than that, our sharing in that victory! New Christians are baptized, old Christians renew their baptismal promises – heck, even fallen-away Christians make time to come to Easter Masses!

Looking back on holy weeks of years gone by, I can see how the devil has tried to undermine not just the parish celebrations of this holy time, but my own ability to receive the associated graces. I recall one particular Easter vigil where it seemed to me that everything that could go wrong went wrong. Ministers and priest (me!) alike missed their cues, lights & candles were extinguished or lit at the wrong time, music was wonky, and so on – all of my plans and hopes for the Mass went spectacularly sideways. By the time Mass was over, I was a disappointed, angry mess. I tried to put on a cheerful face for the community, but I let my guard down with one parishioner with whom I was friends. As I ranted about all the things that didn’t go right, he looked at me and simply said ‘oh? I didn’t notice any of that – it was just such a beautiful Mass!’ before cheerfully departing with his wife.

It was about that moment that I realized that I had managed to sabotage my own reception of God’s gifts because I had focused things other than Jesus.

I like to think I’m a little wiser and a little calmer now….. though I’ll probably still indulge in at least one private meltdown between now and Sunday. But the nickname of this day has proven to be a helpful cautionary tale in a couple of ways. The most obvious is to be on guard for the attacks of the devil – he wants to sneak in and rob us of the graces & joys of this time! If we simply surrender ourselves to God, accepting that only He is perfect, that battle will be over before it ever starts.

Perhaps the less obvious caution is to be aware that the devil can use us to sneak in, to rob both us and others of those graces & joys – especially if we allow anxieties, frustrations, and anger to drive us to lash out at those around us. We may unwittingly become agents – spies, if you will – of the devil’s effort to deny us the fruits of this holy time.

The good news is that it’s not too late to set – or change – our course. May we do what Judas could not: recognizing and accepting our own expectations & limitations, bringing them humbly to the Lord. We can then celebrate how Jesus transforms human weakness into heavenly triumph as we journey through the Sacred Triduum to Easter Sunday.

So even if it isn’t perfect, may you have a blessed Holy Week!

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Allegorie op de opstanding van Christus, Hieronymus Wierix, naar Crispijn van den Broeck, 1563 – voor 1586

One of the great blessings of Sacred Scripture, the celebration of liturgies, and the cycle of the liturgical year is that the same reading or celebration may convey a new message or unveil a different facet. This year, what stands out to me this Palm Sunday are Jesus’ words to the man only known as the good thief.

There are two people to whom Jesus speaks where an imminent foretelling is offered. The first is Peter, who in his eagerness and pride, assures Him – wrongly – that he is prepared to suffer & die for the Lord. Jesus rebukes that pride even as He shares that He has prayed for Peter and that after his conversion, he must strengthen his brothers. Peter recalls these words at the very moment they are fulfilled, realizes his great failure, and weeps bitterly.

The man on cross is at a different point. He is suffering and dying with Jesus, though not by his own choice. Unlike Peter, this criminal knows that he is not a heroic figure – he goes so far as to rebuke the other criminal, who has demanded that Jesus demonstrate His power by coming down from the cross and taking them with Him. The good thief stands in contrast to that man, and to Peter: “the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes”. Like Peter, he cries out – but with a simple petition: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.

Jesus’ immediate response is one of mercy and assurance: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Even on the cross, after having been abandoned by His friends, betrayed by one of His Apostles, condemned & convicted by His own people, and tortured beyond all reason, Jesus focuses His attention and affection on this anonymous, guilty sinner. And He assures him of an eternal reward that he neither expected nor asked for!

For anyone who has ever felt unlovable, unforgiveable, forsaken, or alone, this brief interaction between the Lord and the good thief should shine out – a glorious beacon of hope. This gift is not solely for him; it is a gift offered to all of us! Peter would discover this a few short days later when he receives a similar reassurance….and that despite his inability to match the agape (unconditional) love of Christ, offering instead phileo (brotherly) love. It would only be towards the end of his live that Peter would finally willingly suffer with Christ, sharing in the same fate of both his savior and the good thief.

Wherever we are on our own journey of relationship with Christ, we are invited today – and throughout this Holy Week – to draw near to the cross. Perhaps we have run away from the Lord in the past, maybe we’ve even abandoned, denied, or betrayed Him. In the good thief we are reminded that it is not too late to ask for – and receive – the mercy and salvation that Jesus so desperately desires to share with us.

Reclaiming my website

After two years of pandemic and all the crazy that has gone with it, I’m finally in a place personally and pastorally where I have the energy and desire to return to maintaining a blog & website. Things should start looking a little more lively around these parts as I start posting regularly.1 It’s been long enough that I find I am unfamiliar with my own WordPress installation & layout.

One of these ought to help out clean things up…. or at least be good for a Quidditch match?

On that note – expect some changes around here. Boy, is this dusty old theme kind of bland! As I poked under the hood, I realized that the previous theme was the WordPress default theme….from 2016. I’ve moved to a more modern theme, but haven’t even cracked the seal on all the things that change unlocks. In addition to, you know, content, I’d like to have some color, pictures, and generally make this more than a monochrome affair.

Unfortunately, priesthood is quite literally a monochrome affair, so the learning curve is looking a bit steep 🙄

As for content, I’m holding myself to a writing schedule of every single day. That doesn’t mean there will be posts every single day, but I hope to build up enough content that I can produce something interesting, edifying, or at least mildly entertaining several times a week. A lot will depend on how well this gels with my full-time pastoral work. As it says on the tin, this site is a product of my free time! But I’m optimistic.

Finally, you’ll notice that I’ve got some dropdown menus that seem to indicate categories of posts. For now, that’s purely aspiration, but the goal is to slowly start posting reflections & recommendations in those various areas. Like so many, this last two years has (re)ignited an interest in a number of different mediums and sources of edification & entertainment. Especially since I get asked for recommendations of various kinds as a priest, it seems to me that it could be useful – at least to me! – to start putting together my own lists & thoughts.

Alright, that’s enough from me for now. In your kindness, say a prayer for this effort and for me. And God bless you for taking the time to stop by my (slightly less dusty) corner of the internet.

(Re)Learning to breathe

Clara trying not to breath (Doctor Who - 'Deep Breath')
Clara trying not to breathe (Doctor Who – ‘Deep Breath’)

One of my favorite science fiction shows is Doctor Who and one of my favorite actors in the show is Peter Capaldi. He played the twelfth regeneration of the Doctor and was introduced to the role in 2004. His first full episode as the Doctor was titled ‘Deep Breath’ – the antagonists were robots who disguised themselves as people. Their true nature was revealed when the Doctor and Clara (his companion) realized that the robots were not doing something that every human being does: breathing.

Shortly afterwards, Clara is trapped in a room alone with the robots and must hide herself among them. So she takes a deep breath and tries to escape. As you might imagine, it doesn’t last and she is discovered when she must gasp for air. Happily, the robots are eventually overpowered and defeated with the help of the Doctor and friends.

Lately it feels like we’ve all been holding our breath – waiting for the latest cancellation of public services, anticipating the unavailability of our favorite events, or just bracing for the latest development. Whether it is a news cast, official proclamation, or even a letter for your pastor, it doesn’t quite feel safe to breath…..even when we’re the recommended six feet away from each other!

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A Lenten Reboot

Before I was ordained, one of my on-again, off-again past-times was computer tech support. Often under the guise of a ‘small problem’, I would get that familiar call: “my computer is [insert malfunction here], would you take a look at it?”. Before I would come over, I quickly learned to request that the owner reboot their computer – the all-purpose on-off maneuver. The majority of the time, that simply act would clear whatever error was occurring.

In the ordinary course of Lent each year, I find that I have to reboot my Lenten practices at least once….but usually several times. Sometimes the ‘small problem’ that I could easily identify was just that.  A fresh start after accidentally eating meat on a Friday, watching the television I had given up, or otherwise mis-stepping in a little way was easily remedied by recommitting myself to prayer and discipline.

Other times, I found that that ‘small problem’ opened the door to deeper needs that lay hidden or even ignored in my heart and in my spiritual life. It isn’t always pleasant to have wounds or nerves exposed, but the invitation is always to a great conversion, to a more intimate relationship with Jesus.

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