Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Francis -- More than a Change in Tone

It is almost impossible to read a commentary about Pope Francis without someone describing his approach as a "change in tone."

This is a big debate in Catholic circles about the leadership of Pope Francis.  He seems to be changing a lot of things.  Is he changing basic beliefs?  Some say he is just bringing a new style.  Some say he is focusing on our pastoral practices but not changing doctrine.

There is reason to celebrate the expression "change in tone"--those who fear change are reassured of continuity and those who want radical change are also affirmed that their view has a long history of Church support. The phrase is politically ingenious.

However, the phrase lacks bite in an important way:  All of these suggestions are inadequate, because belief and practice are not isolated from each other.

I will go on record in saying that "a change in tone" is one of the worst ways of understanding Francis.

Gridiron Christianity or Locker Room Analysis?

Before a football game, the teams meet in the locker rooms and strategize with mock plays on the chalkboard.  They study the rules and rehearse drills.  They review the mishaps and celebrations from the previous week.

Later, they show up on the gridiron and attempt to turn those plays into reality--all the while experiencing the elements, shouting crowds and on-the-field improvisations.  The lessons from the past and the hopes for the future all intersect in the present moment in the snap of the football. The arrows and symbols on a chalkboard are simplistic representations of a much bigger process that unfolds in the lived reality of the game.  While the playbook matters, no one would ever confuse the playbook with the game itself.

Going from the locker room playbook to the lived reality of the field is far more than simply a "change in tone"--it is the game itself.
How silly it would be for people to debate the correct sequence of plays in the locker room and never step foot on the football field, yet that is exactly how many Christians live their Christian life.  We act like the theory is more important than the practice.  We choose the life of a sports commentator rather than the grunts, tackles and gasps of a first-person encounter.  It makes no sense for football.  Why do we settle for this in our spiritual walk?

We play football on the field but many of us live Christianity in the locker room. 

I know a lot of folks who approach Catholic Social Teaching as a mental exercise.  They spend hours pouring over books and locked in discussions.  They struggle to understand what Jesus meant when he called on people to "feed the hungry," for example.

From the perspective of the hungry person, it matters little if people have the best theology if that theology does not somehow manifest in the form of potatoes, corn and beans in front of them.

Likewise, it matters little if someone can poorly articulate a cohesive theology if they come in love bearing sacks of grain.  On some level of their being, they "get it" even if their explanation would not hold up to an academic critique.

Some say that love by itself is not the Gospel.  I am not sure about that.  What I would argue is that doctrine without love is not the Gospel.

The Good News for the hungry is not the reassurance that well intentioned people are studying the Gospels--the Good News is knowing that the food delivery truck is on its way.

It's All About Love

Scripture reminds us of the Mystery of love--without it, our actions are just a senseless banging of gongs and cymbals (1 Cor 13:1). It is as if what we do does not even matter without love--those actions do not participate in eternity.

God turns chaos into order in Genesis, and without love our actions deteriorate back into chaos. Love, therefore, is the creative expression of God!  Scripture speaks to this in saying, "everyone who loves is born of God" (1 John 4:7). 

Going from noise to music is, literally speaking, a change in tone.  But to stop there in the description is to miss something big: It is also what separates order from chaos.  It separates what endures from that which fades, the eternal from the temporal.  It separates death from life, as James reminds us that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26)--it is not because we "earn" salvation through our own efforts, as the great Reformers worried, but rather it is because knowing Jesus is whole-person endeavor that is much more than just intellectual knowledge.

To the extent that Pope Francis is turning belief into practice marks a change not just in tone but of essence.  He calls on us to practice mercy.  He calls on us to live simply and tend to the poor.  This is not just icing on an otherwise fine piece of cake.  The practice of mercy is not just a softer delivery of the same ole, same ole--it is the difference between the playbook and game itself.  This is Good News.

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