Thanksgiving in Advent

A more appetizing offering than those recently offered around here (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Advent and, belatedly, happy Thanksgiving! I know it’s been a hot minute since I’ve posted anything in this space – in fact, yesterday’s post was a long-unfinished reflection that I decided to wrap up late in the night. Thanks to a glitch (probably prompted by the flickering lights as Seattle deals with early snowfall!), it got published before this post. Rather than find and fight the gremlins on my computer and in the cloud, I decided to just roll with it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It hasn’t been lost on me that the last couple of things to be put on this website – and that have been front and center for the last six months – have been relatively heavy posts. Not a few of my parishioners expressed some consternation at the rather dour outlook I was presenting. Not only was the financial picture strikingly negative, but a particular point stood out for some:

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.

Though not intended to be a direct statement on the life of my own parish and her people, it prompted at least a few folks to question just that. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in Firefly where Kaylee asks Simon “isn’t there anything about this place you’re glad of?” Unlike Simon at the time, I am quite ready to answer in the affirmative: absolutely, yes!

On that front, I’ve recently made a more conscious effort to take time daily to review what blessings, graces, and joys I experienced recently. With the beginning of Advent this last Sunday, I was particularly struck by some very clear blessings and joys – not just in my own life, but in the life of the parish.

The first is simply the beginning of the Advent season. Here at Saint Mark – a parish that prides itself on taking pains to celebrate the liturgy worthily and well – Advent is an opportunity to really mix things up. Out go the regular flowers in the sanctuary, in comes the wreath! And not just any old wreath, but a four foot by four foot ring of decorated greenery, with beautiful, tall candles, raised up by well-ornamented brass stands (re-purposed candlesticks, I think, but I haven’t looked too closely). It’s quite lovely. And I always get a kick out of the pomp & circumstance of the blessing of the Advent wreath at the first Mass of the weekend.

Accompanying this is the addition of a new pew missal for our congregation: the Source & Summit Missal. I chose this missal specifically for its emphasis on chanting the Mass – it contains the full antiphons for every Sunday Mass: entrance, offertory, and communion. Now every parishioner who so desires may join in chanting the antiphons – as is both their right and duty! We practiced together before Mass and boy, did it pay off. For the first time in a long time, the congregation and choir sung the antiphons together- lifting their voices as they chanted ‘To you I lift up my soul, O God . . . . ‘. The choir helped keep the tones with a few hand bells, used sparingly but to great effect.

Capping off the first Sunday of Advent, we concluded the last Mass and then immediately had a brief indoor Eucharistic procession – exposing the Blessed Sacrament and processing around the inside perimeter of the parish. The pastor had the bright idea of leading a hymn as we processed, but he forgot the second verse (!) – but it was no less beautiful for his lapse in memory. I was heartened to see that easily half of the congregation stayed for the procession, with most of those joining in walking behind the monstrance. As we ended with the Tantum Ergo and benediction, I couldn’t help but again be moved, and grateful to be praying among so many devout and reverent brothers & sisters in Christ.

Why share all of this? In part, because good news seems awfully hard to find lately – despite the pandemic concluding and normalcy being within reach, it sure seems like a lot of us are still struggling to find peace and joy in the world. If you’re a member of my parish, maybe you’ll join me in seeing some of the graces that are peeking out behind the clouds. I’d be interested, by the way, in those that you see and would like to share! And for everyone reading this, regardless of parish, I hope hearing about these things still helps encourage you. It is good to know that we’re not alone in this: not only do we all struggle at some point, but we’re in it together – accompanied and buoyed up by the Lord.

Finally, to that end, check out this rather wonderful folk group I discovered recently. The first song in this playlist (‘Rain Clouds’) has been theme song lately – you’ll notice that some of my writing here is rather shameless inspired by the lyrics. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. In any case, God bless you this Advent – may it be full of graces & blessings.

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.