Today’ s feast – the Baptism of the Lord – marks the end of the Christmas season and the start of “ordinary time.” Surrounded as we are by media that pays attention only to the sensational, the “extraordinary,” this might seem a come-down. But our church has something else in mind.
The root of the word “ordinary” here is the same Latin word from which we get “order,” “orderly,” (and “ordination,” for that matter): the sense is, putting things into proper places and relationships. (Hence “ordination” places a person into a particular relationship with the People of God.) “Ordinary time” is the liturgical season in which the everyday work of the church – disciples working together in an orderly way – gets celebrated at Sunday Mass. We hear Gospels about the ministry of Jesus, so that we learn (or are reminded) how to be a disciple working with other disciples to accomplish the mission He left us. The liturgical color for the season is green – the color of growing things – to mark a time when growth happens in the communion of the church as disciples cooperate in the work of Jesus.
What sort of growth might we hope to see in our parish in this season? One thing I’ve been writing about that would be a good goal is the growth of engagement. Only 24% of our core parishioners are engaged; and 37% are not engaged. It would be great to see those numbers reversed. (The “not engaged” are generally positive about the parish and like it, but aren’t so “on fire” as engaged parishioners are. It’s sort of the difference between, “Yeah, I guess so” and “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to our shared work of discipleship.) Most of the work of the parish is done by engaged members; and that’s true not just of volunteering around here, but of action for Christ in the home, the workplace or school, and in the wider community.
What would it involve to have engagement grow in Our Lady of Grace? This year we’re going to focus on two things: Helping people to understand what’s expected of a parishioner (especially important now, as our parish will be changing due to our budget constraints), and helping people to affirm and encourage one another more consistently and frequently than they now do. You’ll be hearing about expectations later; today, I want to think with you more about encouragement.
Did you ever notice how Saint Paul starts his letters? Usually they’re full of praise for the congregation he’s writing to. He might have difficult things to tell them to correct certain behaviors later in the letter, but he starts by pointing out what they’re already doing well. Paul knows what it takes to help a community of disciples to grow – attention to what’s going well, and pointing that out widely. We could learn from Saint Paul about that.
You can even try a mental exercise: Imagine Saint Paul was visiting Our Lady of Grace: What would draw his notice so that he’d praise those things about us? And since Saint Paul isn’t here, but you are, why not do Paul’s job for him and praise those things yourself? If you see people helping one another – tell them you noticed, and you think it’s great. If you see people giving their time as volunteers, thank them and tell them what it means to you to have a parish where people are helping you to worship, to learn, and to serve. If you notice someone who’s faithfully spending time in church in prayer and that moves you, mention it to them at an appropriate time (not while they’re praying, please).
And when you talk about the parish and people, have the same discipline. Look for things to praise, not to criticize. When you have a thought about what would make the parish better, mention it to someone who can do something about it, rather than as a complaint to third parties of the “Why don’t they…?” variety.
There’s certainly a need for criticism, and for pointing out things that could be better. Criticism can be part of the solution to a better parish – but only if it’s done well. It doesn’t take much time around most parishes – including ours – to hear gossip, griping, and whining that’s simply toxic. Not only does that drive potential members away (who would want to be breathing such an atmosphere?), but it makes it harder even for committed members to stick around.
So let’s work together this Ordinary Time to re-order conversation with one another. God has put us in this work together; let’s make it enjoyable for one another. That would be (in the media’s sense), extraordinary. Until next week, peace.