Pope Francis and the Way of Jesus

The image is captivating.  One man is horrifically disfigured.  His actual malady is Recklinghausen’s Syndrome, one of the abnormalities often cited as the affliction of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.  The surface of the man’s entire body is covered in tumorous growths, ranging in size from a pea to an orange.  He looks as if his skinned has been brought to a boil and then flash frozen.  Others recoil from him, mistakenly believing that he must have an infectious disease.  People cringe, except for the other man in the photo frame.  He is dressed in simple white.  He is an older man.  He looks like he could be your grandfather.  This second man leans forward and offers the afflicted man his hand.  He caresses the first man’s matted hair.  And then the second man draws the first into an embrace, kissing his face.

Pope Francis and RivaThe second man in the photo, the one in white, is Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  He is the Bishop of Rome.  He is, for one billion Roman Catholics, the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth.  He is Pope Francis.

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In my lifetime, I do not recall a public figure of any sort who has elicited such a variety of deeply-impassioned responses as Francis.  Everyone finds something to criticize.  As soon as the Pope was elected, liberals cried foul.  As head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina, liberals claim, Francis was passive and perhaps even cowardly in the face of the military junta that ruled Argentina during that country’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s and 80s.  The Pope has even been accused of turning a blind eye when Jesuit priests—along with countless other citizens—were rounded up by the Argentine government and tortured before disappearing altogether.  One critic says of the Pope, “He doesn’t face this reality, and it doesn’t bother him. [His only] question is how to save his name, save himself.”[i]

Liberals are also concerned that Francis is no more yielding on social issues such as abortion or the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church than his predecessors have been.

Social conservatives are equally discomfited by Francis.  After all, within months of his elevation, Pope Francis gave a radio address in which he offered a dialogue he’d written of a parishioner asking questions of a priest.  The priest says, “The Lord has redeemed all of us with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.”  The confused parishioner then asks, “Everyone, Father?  [Even] atheists?”  To which the priest replies, “Even the atheists. Everyone!”[ii]

Even earlier than that, in a July interview Pope Francis was asked about the Church’s posture toward gay and lesbian Christians.  The Pope stunned his interviewer—and social conservatives worldwide—when he responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”[iii]

And then a week ago, fiscal conservatives came out punching when Pope Francis issued an “apostolic exhortation” (that’s a fancy Vatican name for a speech) in which the Pope condemned unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny” and attacked the “idolatry of money.”[iv]  So upset was one conservative commentator that he said, “Somebody has either written this for [the Pope] or gotten to him. This is pure Marxism.”[v]

Given this across-the-spectrum criticism and constant assault, one would assume that Francis is the least popular pope since the Borgias.  And yet, this week TIME magazine awarded Francis its coveted “Person of the Year” designation.  A few days before that, Alex Beam of The Boston Globe wrote an essay in which he introduced a new psychological and spiritual phenomenon.  These days Christians in other denominations have, Beam says, a serious case of “pope envy.”[vi]

Why is this?  How can we have such a split personality that we will decry what we believe to be the Pope’s politics or positions in the culture wars on the one hand, while on the other hand we find ourselves saying to our friends and posting on Facebook, “You know, I really, really like the new pope!”

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Pope Francis Man of the YearThis is the Gospel passage for the Third Sunday in Advent: 

 Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will herald your way.’”

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Our world is increasingly one in which the lenses through which we interpret the people around us are starkly black and white.  We have the liberal media and conservative radio.  We have the religious right and the spiritual-but-not-religious left.  When we meet someone, or when we are exposed to some new public figure, we immediately begin the mental process of neatly classifying that person according to the bumper sticker on his car, or the clothes she wears, or where—or whether—the family goes to church.  We ask, “Is he one of the good guys, or should I keep my eye on him?”

Our world is also one in which people find themselves bending like reeds in the wind every day under the relentless ideological assaults that come at us from all directions.  Some of us actually take pride in our own barbed words and strident convictions, as we shoot partisan arrows at those who dare to disagree with us.  Some co-opt Jesus and the things of religion to undergird whatever our ideological agenda may be.  Others of us are merely caught in the crossfire.

In this context, what do we make of the new pope?  Who is he?  What is he?  Well, Pope Francis is not Jesus.  As an Episcopalian, I will dissent from my Roman Catholic friends and say that Pope Francis is not even the vicar of Jesus.  Pope Francis is also not a liberal.  And he’s not a conservative.  The Pope is one of those rare figures who breaks our categories to pieces and will not be pigeon-holed into a formula we can easily extol or decry.  So, what is he?  Religion journalist Tom Krattenmaker proposes this:

“The pope is not a politician, a media loudmouth, or an activist.  He is a religious figure, wholly dedicated to representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ as he understands it to a world caught up in a thousand other things…Prophetic is probably the best word for the role the pope is playing—not in the sense of predicting the future, but of standing outside of business as usual and speaking hard and inconvenient moral truths.  Has someone gotten to the pope, as [one commentator] suggests?  Yes, actually.  Jesus Christ apparently has.”[vii]

What is a prophet, other than someone who heralds the Way of Jesus?  And what happens when that trail is blazed?  Jesus himself tells us: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

When Vinicio Riva, that severely disfigured man—the one others assumed was contagious, whom no one else would touch or even approach—was embraced by Pope Francis, Riva said of the experience “The pontiff’s hug was like paradise.  He didn’t even think about whether or not to embrace me.  I felt as though my heart was leaving my body…I felt only love.”[viii]  In that embrace, the Pope rendered a man who had been considered unclean, clean.  He acknowledged life where the world saw only fear and death.  He raised Mr. Riva to walk proudly as a child of God.  He gave good news to the poor.Blind receive site

That is prophetic action.  That is what it means to herald the Way of Jesus.  That is why, despite the fact that Pope Francis will not fit neatly into our ideological categories, we find ourselves so drawn to him.

Even if we allow the prophetic actions of someone like Pope Francis to break through our ideological barriers, to grant us new eyes to see what it means to herald the Way of Jesus in our world, in our cynicism we might be inclined to claim that the Pope’s pedestal helps him do these things.  It’s easy to be prophetic in the limelight, with all the grandeur of the Catholic Church behind you.

And yet, it was leaked by a Vatican insider a week ago that Pope Francis regularly sneaks out of the Vatican at night in the garb of a lowly priest—something he also frequently did as Archbishop of Buenos Aires—and gives money and food to the street poor.[ix]  No cameras, no lights, no accolades.  Just prophetic action that heralds the Way of Jesus.

The Pope is a man.  He is flawed and faltering and sometimes mistaken.  We should give him a break.  We should also put away our “pope envy.”  Our attention should be on how common and simple Francis’ actions are and how accessible they are to us.  This Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, we, too, can herald his Way.  We can be those who are “dedicated to representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world caught up in a thousand other things.”

In a divided world, we can set aside partisan ideology.  We can smooth our barbed tongues and offer words of grace.

We can slow our hurried pace and extend an embrace of love.

We can offer to the world, in public and in private, images that cause hearts to rise from their chests.

We can declare the unclean clean, grant new sight to the inwardly blind, and give hope to the poor.

We needn’t be a reed bent and broken in the wind.  We can be prophets, this day until the day the Lord comes.


Lost in the Wilderness

Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains at sunset

Two weeks ago my cousin Rachel got lost in the wilderness.  She was visiting a friend in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  Rachel went for a hike in the morning by herself.  She walked a long way into the wilderness, and at some point she paused to look around, realizing that she didn’t recognize any of the landmarks.  Somehow Rachel had strayed unwittingly from the trail.  At an elevation of six thousand feet in late November, it’s chilly at noon, and by the time the sun begins to dip below the Western lip of the mountains, it turns stark cold.  Rachel had no food.  She wore no heavy coat.  She began to panic, and she kept walking, sometimes in circles, always farther and farther into the wilderness.

By nightfall, it was clear that Rachel was missing.  Search parties were dispatched.  They had to zigzag their way up and down the mountains, walking difficult terrain, fording icy streams, and climbing steep slopes.  Searching for a single person in that huge range was like searching for a needle in a haystack.  There was no straight way to get to her, because she kept moving.  It was frightening for those who love Rachel, and it was frightening for Rachel herself.

Rachel wasn’t discovered until the next morning.  By then she had hypothermia and had to be airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Chattanooga.

This story has a happy ending.  Rachel will be o.k.  But many like it do not end well.  Statistics show that in a recent year seven hundred forty-two Americans died from exposure to cold[i], many of whom were lost outdoors, in some variety of wilderness.

Anyone who has ever been a Cub Scout, or taken hunter safety, or had a conscientious grandfather take him camping has at some point learned the bedrock rules for what to do if you’re lost in the wilderness: S.T.O.P.  It’s an acronym.  Wanting to refresh my own memory, I consulted the web site of online camping coach “The Hiking Dude.”[ii]

The voice of one crying out, "In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!"

The voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!”

S: Stop.  Quit moving.  With each step, you have a seventy-five percent chance of walking farther into the wilderness.  As the Hiking Dude says, “Sit down; take a drink of water; eat a handful of trail mix.”

T: Think.  “Go over in your mind how you got where you are.”  What led you here?  Where were your missteps?  What poor decisions did you make along the way, and what warnings did you ignore?

O: Observe.  Get out your map.  Get out your compass.  Let these trustworthy tools orient you.  Determine what direction you’re facing and give clear consideration to whether or not it’s the direction you want to continue going.

P: Plan.  When you are truly lost in the wilderness, this means staying where you are, keeping up your strength, and making it as easy as possible for people to find you.  Drink water and eat whatever food is at hand.  Call out for help periodically, so searchers can hear you.  Build a fire for warmth and to attract those walking through the woods.  In other words, do everything you can to make their paths to find you straight.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ 

Often, when this passage is read or preached during Advent, the emphasis is upon us straightening out our lives, on us getting our act together, on us solving the dilemmas in which we find ourselves, all so that when Jesus arrives our path to him will be straight, and we’ll be ready to meet him.

But that is, according to the Christian way of seeing the world, a lot like continuing to walk once we’ve discovered that we’re lost in the woods.  That sort of bootstraps self-help is liable only to move us farther and farther into the wilderness of our lives.

Consider the businessman who embezzles from his company and then takes a bit more, and a bit more, just until such time (he tells himself) that he can square his personal debts.  In his mind he’s struggling, with a meandering and mixed-up sense of virtue, to get back to good, at which time he really does plan on paying his company back.  And farther into the wilderness he walks.

Or consider the woman who decides on one pressure-laden day to have her six o’clock cocktail at 3 p.m.  Not long after, when she knows how hectic the afternoon will be with kids and homework and sports, she orders the extra glass of wine at lunch.  And some weeks after that—just to ease her nerves for a job interview—she decides to have a quick shot of vodka before leaving the house.  The alcohol, she says, is just to help her deal constructively and effectively with life around her.  But somehow she skips the trail and ends up in a frightening place where none of the landmarks are familiar.

Or consider the teenager who so desperately wants to be accepted, to feel good about himself, that in a group of friends he throws one friend under the bus in order to get a laugh from the others.  He offers the most sarcastic barbs on Facebook and Instagram, always getting dozens of likes on his posts, often at the expense of kids whose wits may not be as lightning fast as his own.  He feels great about his social standing, until bedtime when the lights are turned out and there’s no iPhone between himself and his conscience.  And he shivers as the temperature seems to drop in the wilderness.Lost in the woods

In our lives, as in the literal woods, once we’ve strayed from the well-marked trail, our attempts to find the path again through our own efforts most often merely move us circle-by-circle deeper into the wilderness, where we become hopelessly lost.

What, then, could John the Baptist possibly mean today when he says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”?  Well, notice that John doesn’t counsel us to move toward Jesus at all.  He certainly doesn’t suggest to us that we blaze a new trail.  It’s not paths we are to walk that John tells us to prepare.  What we are to ready are the paths Jesus will walk to find us.  And the only clue John gives us about how to do that is the single word “Repent.”

Repentance is the English rendering of the Greek word metanoia, and it means “a change of mind” or, we might say, “a change of heart,” a “reorientation of the soul.”  And what does that look like?  I actually think it looks a lot like the advice of the Hiking Dude.  It means, first of all, stop moving your life in the same direction.  You’ll only get more lost.

Repentance means thinking honestly and clearly, resisting the compelling desire to self-deceive.  Ask the open-eyed questions of your life that you would ask in the woods: How did you get so lost?  What decisions led you into the wilderness?  What warnings did you ignore?

Repentance means observing with the most trustworthy compass and maps you have—your true friends and loved ones, the wisdom of the scriptures, sages and counselors ancient and modern—the wrong direction your life has been heading.  Name it, and say to yourself that you no longer want to go that way.Lost in the woods 2

Repentance means remembering to nourish yourself with food that gives sustenance.  A steady diet of the bread and wine of the Eucharist is a good place to start.

And finally, most importantly, repentance means doing those things that make God’s path to finding you as short and straight as possible.  So long as we are moving in frenetic, panicked circles, we are difficult to find and difficult to reach.  So rest.  Light a warming fire in your heart by praying for God’s presence and God’s peace.  Call out to God, sending the signal flares that you’re ready to be found.  And be still in your life, and quiet.

The one who is lost cannot find himself.   This Advent, as we prepare for the Lord’s return, do the things of repentance and make the path of the Lord straight.  And God will hurry along the trail to draw you from the wilderness into light.