Friday and Saturday of last week I went to the Called & Gifted Workshop at St Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Perrysburg, OH. With the workshop very much in mind, I in the sermon on Sunday morning, I sketched out some of the themes that caught my attention. Since I have a good relationship with the people at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh (where I served yesterday), I was interested to see how, okay, if, anyone would respond to the sermon.
Providentially the readings for the day (Galatians 2:16-20 and Mark 8:34-38; 9:1) were in line with the theme I developed: That God has called us all to be saints. Our becoming saints is dependent upon two graces (and here I borrow shamelessly from the Called & Gifted Workshop). First, there is the grace we receive in baptism that liberates us from the tyranny of the devil. Second, and along with the grace of redemption, God has given us gifts so that we can share in Christ’s redemption of our neighbor. It is in and through our fidelity not only to the redemptive grace of baptism, but also the unique gifts given to us for the salvation of the world, that we grow in holiness. In other words, saints are Christians who are faithful to their unique calling from God.
After Liturgy I spoke with a half a dozen people who were genuinely excited about the vision I laid out in the sermon (hopefully they will follow up with an email to the Catherine of Siena Institute about participating themselves in a Called & Gifted workshop).
On the drive home I had a chance to think some about some of the pastoral implications of basing parish work in the charism that God pours out in our lives. At first blush I can imagine a parish priest taking umbrage at this suggestions since, not unreasonably, it might be inferred that this is NOT happening in our parishes. While not an unreason conclusion, this is not what I am implying–or at least not what I am implying without qualifications.
What often happens is that while we are more than willing to make use of the gifts people bring to the parish, it is not the gifts that drive our interest. If it were then we would commit ourselves to the disinterested work of helping people develop these gifts.
Instead we typically see a person’s gifts in light of a “to do” list of tasks that the priest or the parish council or the “pillars of the community” see as important. More often then not these tasks are not only important, but essential to the life of the community. But when these tasks become the lens through which we see ourselves, our community and the people God brings to us, we try and fit people into pre-deterimined slots. Again, these “slots” more often then not represent real needs in the community–and that is the problem.
Our to do list very easily lends itself to becoming a “temptation of the right hand.” As we grow in the spiritual life we discover with evermore clarity that the real source of temptation is our attract to lesser goods at the expense of greater goods. All too easily I can allow the real needs of the parish to be both the baseline and goal of parish ministry.
When this happens ministry, for all the evident success, remains external. Relative to what it could be at least, ministry remains superficial and does not result in the transformation of the person or the community. A task oriented approach tends to overlook the new opportunities that God is bring us in and through the gifts He has granted to members of the community. Since God’s gifts to you, don’t fit my pastoral agenda for the community, I simply don’t notice what God is doing in your life (and by implication in mine).
Worse still, I may very well notice what God has given you to do and I actively try and marginalize, or even prevent, that work. I am tempted to do this because that work disrupts my plans for the parish. In any gathering of clergy it is not unknown to hear at least one or two priests praise someone’s zeal and gifts and then in the very next breath let out a long heartfelt sigh and wish: “If only he wasn’t so insistent.”
Let me suggest another approach.
First we ought not to deny that there are tasks that need to be done for the parish to survive, much less grow. But rather then letting these tasks set the agenda, what if we were to ask this: “Looking at the gifts God has given us in one another, what ought we to be about?” The real resources of the parish are the gifts God has given each of us and the ministries those gifts make possible.
For example, after Liturgy yesterday I spoke to an attorney who is often asked to serve on parish council. This is hardly unreasonable, especially from a task oriented approach to parish life. But her real gift and joy is teaching church school. Here’s this VERY successful attorney who is willing to serve on parish council, but who loves teaching preschool kids.
Looking simply at tasks and skill sets brings about a situation in which we ask someone to do something which they are competent in, but which brings them no real joy. And the real joy that they could have (and remember like despair, joy is infectious) is left unrealized.
By looking at tasks and skill sets not only does the community lose a joyful church school teacher, but there is yet another joyless person on parish council. Not only that, by not asking what are the gifts that God has give people, we fail to see in our midst the man or woman for whom serving on the parish would really be a joyful experience.
In my experience at least, nothing breeds resentment in a community like stifling the possibility of joyful participation and service. But in the gifts He has given each of us, God has already planted the seeds of joy in His parish. Our task, as clergy and laity, is to recognize and nurture those gifts so that joy might abound.
So I am not misunderstood let me say it again. Yes, there are tasks that must be done in the parish, the diocese, and for that matter the family, on the job, and in our personal lives. We have to work, we must be productive and effective in what we do.
But productivity and efficiency are not ends in themselves. God has brought us men and women who can be joyfully productive and efficient in the fulfilling of the tasks necessary for the life of the community. But to discover these people requires that we focus not on our own very narrow list of “jobs to be done,” but rather “on the gifts God has given us” in the lives of the members of the parish.
One of the great challenges of being a sinner is that we, I, tend to want to live on the surface. I like living on the surface–I want to live according to the short list of the objectively good things I subjectively call good. This what I think the desert fathers were critical of in their condemnation of living by the senses, or being sensual, or living a life of comfort and pleasure.
I cannot, not make use of my senses, and remember Jesus restored sight to the blind. Nor can I not enjoy the good things that God has given me, since to fail to enjoy them means that I fail to see their goodness and beauty.
But what I can do, and should do, is not allow my life to be driven by the senses or pleasure. Or, to return to our theme, I can resist the temptation to live according to my own agenda as mine and instead follow God as He leads me through the people He brings into my life.
For the parish this means letting go of a task oriented approach to the life of the community and being obedient to God through the gifts He has given us.
One of the presenters at the Called & Gifted workshop, Fr Mike, O.P., writes this morning Intentional Disciples a few words in support of zealotry that are applicable here:
We can’t be zealous in following Christ simply because he can help us lead a fulfilling life, or because he can help free us from attachments that screw up our priorities and make us addicted. We can be filled with zeal in following him only if we believe he is truly God incarnate, the sole Way, Truth and Life. While that zeal and full commitment might be preached differently in different cultures (and inculturation is a key point among many theologians working in non-Western cultures), the starting point is always Jesus, and not the culture [or my short list of what I think the parish needs].
I would propose that it might well be the postmodern West that will be the most opposed to the kind of zeal called for in the Scriptures, and the western consumer-oriented culture in which it might be the most difficult in which to be a passionate – and unencumbered – disciple of Jesus.
I wonder if the most Orthodox parishes, if most Orthodox Christians, can find in themselves the courage, the faith, hope, and love, needed to be as Fr Mike writes, passionate and unencumbered disciples of Jesus Christ.
The poor, meek, sorrowful, persecuted for the sake of Jesus are blessed precisely because they are not attached to things, status, and good feelings, but are attached to Jesus, for whom they willingly suffer persecution. This is a kind of zeal that is seldom found within Catholic [or Orthodox] Christianity these days. We reserve such singlemindedness to the saints.
But what if we no longer reserved singlemindness to the saints–or, and this is betterm what if we ourselves worked to become such singleminded saints?