Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Festival Weekend – Our Biggest Missionary Effort of the Year!

Our festival takes place this weekend - in just a few days. Every year we struggle to get folks to pitch in and help. It isn't clear why. If someone could share with me the reasons for their recalcitrance in this regard I would be really appreciative - I need to learn. It seems completely counter-intuitive to me. This is not to scold anyone, but to confess my abject ignorance here: why do we not want to participate in the most important annual parish missionary effort? I am sure there are very good reasons. I just don't understand – but I am willing to learn. And I want to learn so we can make good decisions about the festival going forward.

The first few years of the festival were a bit mixed as far as success goes. Overall we did well, but we were learning, and we made some mistakes too. That is not a criticism - that is just the way we learn. Mistakes help us get to the solution faster and more precisely than we otherwise would. There is really no such thing as failure in an endeavor like this - it is just a matter of getting more quickly and efficiently to success.

Last year the festival was successful by any possible measure. Except perhaps that we weren't ready for so many people! Thousands of people got to meet us, were exposed to Orthodox Christianity in a positive way, and some stayed and are now our regular parishioners. Thank God! This is exactly why we execute the festival each year. And we made money too - although that is a secondary (but not unwelcome) goal, as we always state.

I think our parishioners do understand the necessity for each and every one of us to engage in ministry. We talk about this rather regularly, and the Gospel is quite clear on this. Christ Himself stated that "I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." That is nice King James English and I like it. But another way to put this would be: I came to serve, not to be served. And the obvious corollary is: if we bear the name of Christ - and as Christians we do - we need to emulate Him and to serve others. I don't read a lot of equivocation there in His words - He is rather clear that we are called to serve.

Again - I think folks get this. But I may be wrong. If so - that is on me. It means that I am not doing a good job of conveying one of the basic Gospel precepts. If this is the case I sincerely ask your forgiveness and hope this post will clear things up a bit.

I've thought about this and talked to my wife and a few other folks about this a lot lately. And maybe the issue is that we try to do too much as a parish. As most everyone knows, I struggle with saying no to just about anything, and I tend to be a bit insistent about our parish being an active one. We are active - there is no doubt about that. And that is good. But is there a point of diminishing returns? Do we do too much? Those are more or less rhetorical questions really. Why? Some will read those words and say: YES - of course we do too much! Others will read that and say no - it is important for us to engage as many people as we can in as many ways as we can, along the lines of St. Paul's admonition that we "be all things to all men so that by all means some may be saved." Is there a right answer? I don't think so - it seems to me that it just depends on each person's own personal perspective.

I think it is important to also share something here that isn't a secret, but not something that I always scream from the housetops either: part of my job is to challenge you. If people do not ever feel challenged spiritually then they are never going to grow spiritually. And if the parishioners do not grow spiritually then how will I give any kind of good answer to the Lord? I have to answer for every soul in our parish - this is the vow I took on the day of my ordination. For me then the real struggle is this: where is the sweet spot? How do I spiritually challenge the parish appropriately? Where is the golden middle between driving folks away and facilitating spiritual lethargy?

I cannot say this for certain, but I am pretty sure that if I asked 50 different parishioners to speak absolutely on this subject I would get at least 50 different answers - if not more! This is not me complaining by any means. I am absolutely thrilled to be the Rector of this thriving community! I think our parish is great! But - I must say that I fully subscribe to the philosophy of our first Rector, Fr. Paul Karas. That is, a parish exists, as it were, on a steep slippery hill. It can go forward or slide backwards - but it can never stay in one place. Given this is true, and 20 years of experience on my part and 30 on the part of Fr. Paul indicate pretty strongly that it is, we have to move forward. If we try to stay where we are we will slide backwards. That cannot be our path - that cannot be our future. So we need to move forward! The man question is: how and at what pace do we do this so that we do not lose folks on our climb?

This is not to say that I am not committed to an active parish. I am - unwaveringly. Our activity attracts new people to the faith. Our activity engages our present parishioners in their faith. But our activity challenges us sometimes - sometimes a bit more than we would like to be challenged. However, I am going to propose that this is EXACTLY the time that we need to be challenged - this is exactly the level on which we must be challenged. Not when we are challenged only in our comfort zone (since this is not a real challenge at all), but rather when we are challenged to get out of our comfort zone - when we have to push ourselves a bit. To go above and beyond what we'd really like to do if we had our druthers, and more often than not, to learn that we can really do MUCH more than we thought we could - WHEN WE ASK GOD'S HELP.

You see, brothers and sisters, we are in a constant struggle. A struggle with unseen powers as St. Paul says, yes - most definitely. But also a struggle with something almost as pernicious - our own zeal for comfort, relaxation, and entertainment. This is what our society values. In a word, directed laziness. Thematic sloth. Don't get me wrong - everyone needs some mind candy sometimes. Everyone needs to relax. We can't always be "on". But the opposite is also true: too much mind candy rots the mind, and if we are always "off" we really aren't living at all. And so, the Holy Church, as a loving mother, calls us to action. Action in prayer. Action in spiritual struggle. Action in spiritual reading. Action in participating in the Divine Services. And action in ministering to others - just as our Lord came to minister and not to be ministered unto.

So what is the answer? As with many of the seemingly unanswerable quandaries we are faced with in our lives the answer is prayer. Prayer for discernment. Prayer for wisdom. Prayer for moderation. Prayer for appropriate zeal. Prayer to overcome the oxymoronic zeal for laziness indicative of our society. And prayer for me too - that the Lord will guide me to lead our parish family on the right path - to lead together with the input of our Parish Council and all of you. This is your parish. This is my parish. This is everyone's parish. We are all part of the parish family. If we all pray that the Lord will guide us then we will do well. And we will happily volunteer for the festival. And we will thank the Lord that He has given us an opportunity to do His work, to serve others, and to bring more souls to the calm haven of the Holy Church for their salvation. Let's not be selfish! Let's zealously share the pearl of great price, our Orthodox Christian Faith, with as many people as we can, so that more and more and more people will join us in the Ark of Salvation, the Holy Church. The Lord has entrusted us with this parish - let us work diligently to make it grow and prosper for our own good, and for the good of all who struggle for their salvation here with us now and who will in the future! The festival is one of the best ways we do this - where we can really shine for the Lord. Join me and my family this weekend to do the Lord's work at our festival!

Please sign up now to volunteer at the link below!

Fr. Gregory

Festival Sign Up Sheet

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