Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Try Not to Get Worried, Try Not to Turn Onto...

I have an acquaintance--alternately known as a "Facebook Friend"--who despises politics. If a filter were to be invented that could screen out all references to anything vaguely political, he would be the first to buy it. When he announced--once again--to his readers this morning that he would be hiding all political posts, I thought of Magdalene's musical encouragement, at least in "Jesus Christ Superstar," for Jesus to "let the world turn without you tonight."

This week, my politics-averse friend is in good company, because Holy Week is the time when many Christians pull back a bit from the thrum and bustle of worldly cares. This year, for me, it is with a fresh and unusual sense that things are getting on track, and that I can safely tend to my inner world with some firm hope that the outer world will take care of itself just fine without my nanobit's worth of attention.

Last week's spiritual double-header is the source of my hopefulness. First, we saw a guy take Saint Peter's seat who personally invites trash collectors to his Papal Masses and takes the time to cancel his own dental appointments back in Buenos Aires. He eschewed the ostentatious (fake)ermine-trimmed cape-let and jeweled cross to greet the waiting throngs in the simple white cassock. He bowed his head asking for the prayers of his people before he bestowed his first Papal blessing. He used to cook his own meals and still rides in buses. I am Benedictine enough to believe in the value of physical labor for all members of a community, no matter how highly-positioned in the community. It is good that Francis is Pope. I won't engage in extensive criticism of his predecessor, but it seems highly unlikely that this guy will bother with prissy wording changes, like going back to "and with your spirit" instead of "and also with you." Nor is he likely to micromanage his generally well-trained, competent, and dedicated legions of clergy with administrivia like telling them that they must wear clerical collars every minute that they step outside their homes or that the chalices must all be set out on the altars and filled prior to the Eucharistic prayers.

All this seems very, very good.

Second, we watched this bright-eyed little guy go on a prayer pilgrimage through England before his installation as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He recycled the vestments of a beloved deceased colleague, rather than commission new ones to be made for him. He chose as a text for his sermon Matthew's "Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid," and admitted his own trepidations upon assuming leadership. He had the temerity to talk about "obedience to God, both in public care and private love." He is a man well-experienced in the work-a-day world and three times he narrowly escaped death at the hands of terrorists. Again, I do not wish to engage in extensive criticism of his predecessor, but Justin Welby seems unlikely to suggest that Sharia law would be a good thing to implement in Britain. It is good that he is Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the election of these two men, the world has gained two leaders markedly different from the current crop of secular leaders who cultivate the life-styles of rock-star celebrity. Perhaps these secular leaders will emulate the alternative that Francis and Justin embody. "Calmer, humbler world" sounds a lot like the "kinder, gentler nation" that one of our own secular leaders called for a few years back. Will the celebrity-worshipping media heed the current call to sanity better than the last? Francis' first press conference suggests that they might. Even if not, there is still the likelihood that the public at large will at last remember what true leadership looks like. Ultimately gold is much more attractive than glitz.

Yep--it is with heightened gratitude and decreased anxiety that many will be saying their Good Friday prayers for all the world. China, North Korea, Syria, and Russia may all be rattling their sabers, fellow Christians are being martyred by Islamic hardliners, our national debt continues to soar, and in some places kids can get abortions on demand but not large-sized soft-drinks. Everything is not, as Superstar's Mary Magdalene sang, "all right, yes," but things are, overall, just possibly, trending up.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Skin in the Game

The soles in the picture to the left belong to some anonymous person visiting St. Peter's square early this week to pray at the Vatican as the world awaits the election of a new Pope. It was a cold, wet day, as is apparent from the protective foot gear on the person standing next to the kneeling pilgrim. The pilgrim's dirty, naked, vulnerable feet provide a good reminder of what Jesus was all about.

Did Jesus array his apostles in beautiful but frightfully costly matching vestments that set them apart from ordinary people? Did he speak in the elegant language of the educated elite, or did he tongue the popular Aramaic dialect of his first disciples? Did he wine and dine sumptuously? Yes, probably, to this last question, but as a means of reaching the sinners whom he joined at table, not as a customary privilege elevating him above the hand-to-mouth contingency of daily life for most people on the planet at the time, if not also for the majority of people on the planet at this time.

I do not begrudge the opulent architecture of all the Vatican's churches. Beauty is a powerful language for teaching about God, and praying for the protection of these religious treasures is a great idea. A terrorist bomb or two could obliterate these memorials of spiritual magnificence forever, because wealth sufficient to recreate them is no longer in Christian hands, even if there were new Michelangelos equal to the task. Obliterate these artistic splendors, and their power to witness and transform is lost forever.

I do, however, begrudge the grand trappings and lifestyles of the aptly-monickered "Princes of the Church." I wish that I could reproduce here an image of the bedraggled Saint Francis appearing before the oppulently-arrayed Pope Innocent from the movie, "Brother Sun and Sister Moon," but copyright sanctions seem to make that impossible. Who is remembered more today--the bare-footed friar or the wealthy Pope before whom he stood? Similarly, who today could speak most credibly in the name of the carpenter from Galilee?

I include my own denomination within this reflection. I so would love to smack those colleagues who smugly hint online about how busy they are and how hard they work. They are a tad out of touch with the ever-increasing demands in the secular work force, not to mention the stresses of prolonged unemployment, not to mention the grinding systems of poverty institutionalized abroad and increasingly created here at home through misguided social programs. "Pampered" is not too strong a word to describe the level of privilege many clergy are provided, especially considering that the work we do is of the same sort that laypeople do in addition to earning their living.

But--back to this Pope-election thing. One very particular, humble, spiritually-authentic follower of Jesus undoubtedly sits among the splendidly-attired cardinals now gathered in the Sistine Chapel to select Saint Peter's newest successor. Let's keep our fingers crossed (in prayer!) that the Holy Spirit enlightens the Cardinals to properly discern that very particular one. Then let's keep those fingers crossed in prayer that the Holy Spirit will further inspire and empower that person to cast away or clean up everything that would tend to prevent the world from seeing who he truly is and hearing his message that Christ came into the world to save us all. And while we're at it, may that chosen person throw open the doors to all who would join him in his work, so that his people might flourish and not watch churches close for lack of sufficient priests.