I recently led my own parish in our annual Advent Parish Mission. I was nervous, because "a prophet is not without honor except in his own home." But it turned out that people came to the mission because they knew me already and also because my Mass announcements were hilarious (probably).
Prepping for the mission was exhausting. I have a tendency to paint myself into a corner by jumping the gun (double-analogy!). I got so excited about the mission that I came up with a title and a graphic well before I actually had any idea what the talks were going to be about. Basically, I did the last thing first, published it, then realized I had to assemble talks that connected somehow to the title. Fun times.
My office is on the busy hallway, so if I need to think or read or brainstorm, I generally have to run away and hide somewhere. The Adoration Chapel is typically my reading space (who better to read with?), but brainstorm time is in the classrooms upstairs. I get a huge whiteboard, dry erase markers, and a sense that, once I cover every inch of this space with thoughts, quotes, Scripture, and outlines, I'll have a decent talk ready to rock by the end of the session.
This time, however, it took me six brainstorming sessions.
I hated everything I wrote. It wasn't good enough, or if it was good, it just wasn't the right fit. As December 1 was getting closer, my anxiety started to build. What was I missing? What wasn't I addressing? Why doesn't any of this resonate with me?!
Instead of brainstorming, I saundered off to the Chapel for prayer and spiritual reading. I grabbed Imitation of Christ, some pleasantly inspirational Christian books, and Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples. I know I talk about this book a lot, but it has changed every aspect of my ministry, so I'm going to keep talking about it until everyone owns it, reads it, and implements it. Here is the quote that changed my Advent Mission:
When Pew researchers asked American adults a series of question about the kind of God they believed in, a startling pattern emerged: Nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe in an impersonal God.
I had always assumed that when people said that they believed in God, they meant a personal God. What other kind of God is there? Not so. Only 60 percent of Catholics believe in a personal God. Twenty-nine percent said that God is an "impersonal force." Eight percent responded that God was "other," or "both" personal and impersonal, and 1 percent didn't believe in God at all.
...So it should be clear that retaining a Catholic identity does not mean that someone necessarily believes in the God at the heart of Catholicism. How much of our faith can make sense to millions of Catholics when the bedrock foundation - belief in a personal God who loves us - is not in place? (p.43-44)
How do we reach these people? How do we speak into the lives of those who think that having a relationship with God is impossible because He is an impersonal force? I started to reflect on the spirituality of those who do not have a relationship with God. What does Catholicism mean spiritually for those who do not have faith, yet still call themselves "Catholic"?
Enough talks deal out the facts, but do not challenge people to actually change. They aren't practical teachings, but technical. The information transfer itself is seen as good enough, and people are expected to change their lives because now they know the facts. I have grown to resent the lack of challenge and praxis in many of my own talks. After all, most people are not on a truth quest. Most people are on a happiness quest. But the Church keeps dishing factoids and expecting change to happen. Praxis, change, challenge- these things need to be woven into the very heart of a presentation, especially for those that are a part of a Parish Mission!
It is the heartfelt desire of every evangelist to get people to respond to God's call in their lives. The response to God is the key; not the hearing, but the doing. Response.
My last brainstorming session started with a single question: How are people responding to God's love? I came up with five basic responses to God that shape everything else in our lives. There is denial, avoidance, rejection, earning, and reception. Then I focused it on the three central responses and began to research each one, looking for the one way to tie it all together in a meaningful, personal and challenging way. Then I realized clearly what that was: dads.
Spiritual commentators have for centuries seen the connection between one's relationship with one's father and how that gets applied to God. An authoritarian dad sees God as the Law Giver. An easy-going dad makes God's fatherhood more approachable, but at cost of losing His Lordship. Distortions abound about who God really is through this lens of father-experience, but it is also an emotionally gripping point of connection that everyone can sympathize with. Some dads are jerks, some are absent, some are loving, some merely provide while others invest in their kids.
Then I went back to contemplating the pew-sitter who comes to Church maybe once a month or twice a year and wondered: why have they limited their relationship to God to such a small sliver of their lives? And with this final insight, it all fell in to place for me and my Advent Mission finally came together (three days before kickoff, no less!). This was my foundational insight from what I would fashion my mission.
People think that God the Father is disappointed in them.
Traced to the notion of Catholic guilt and those personal moral failures that we all have, I think many people look at their relationship with God and think, "Wow. If God really knows me then of course He is disappointed in me. I'm no saint." They immediately feel cold and distant from God, and since many Catholic parishes do not preach Jesus Christ and the necessity of faith in Him and a relationship with Him, "God" is more of an abstraction, a cosmic thing, an idea, but not a person.
"God is disappointed in me."
You hear this implicit assumption when a person says remarks about something bad in his life: "I guess I had it coming. Things were going really good for a long time. I was just waiting for something bad to happen." Or I'll hear an adult say, "I guess I had too much fun" or "God's getting even with me for my college days" or things along those lines.
What happens if dad is disappointed in you? Maybe he hated your career choice to not follow in his footsteps. Maybe your spouse doesn't measure up. Maybe you weren't into sports enough, liked music too much, or just weren't interested in the things he valued most. The experience of having a father who's whole relationship with his child is disappointment results in one of three powerful responses in the individual.