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3 Reasons Pope Francis’ Visit Could Change America

3 Reasons Pope Francis' Visit Could Change America

Pope Francis will be arriving in Washington, DC tomorrow, and we locals are getting ready for a huge celebration. Public officials have warned us to avoid travel for the next few days. We’re expecting the roads and public transportation to be flooded with thousands of pilgrims making their way to see the head of the world’s largest Christian communion. It’s gonna be a beautiful mess!

Francis’ visit to the United States will be an enormous spectacle. I have no doubt that many will find it inspiring and uplifting. But what’s the ultimate impact? Could Francis’ time in the US make waves that go beyond traffic delays and photo ops?

Here are three reasons that the Pope’s arrival could mark a tipping point for American culture:

1. The Pope inspires us to move beyond the culture wars. If you’re like most Americans, you’re exhausted from the endless ideological battles that have consumed our country in recent decades. So often in these battles, Christianity has been used as a weapon to attack others and score political points. It’s no wonder that millions of Americans have given up on organized religion altogether. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being manipulated for political advantage.

And yet, most of us are still hungry for something that goes deeper than the numbing consumerism that we are constantly being sold. We’re disgusted by the right-wing, imperial Christianity that justifies foreign wars and domestic discrimination, but we long for the heart of love that we once found in Jesus. We are hungry for the genuine gospel of peace, reconciliation, and justice.

The good news that Francis preaches cuts through the hypocrisy of American political discourse. Francis reminds us that, in Jesus, it is possible to work for the protection of all life – including the unborn threatened by abortion, the natural world threatened by climate change, and the poor who are being crushed by ever-widening income inequality and economic injustice. Pope Francis breaks down the Republican/Democrat binary, holding out a vision of the Reign of God that challenges all political ideologies.

2. Francis is unifying the Christian community. Just as the gospel message dissolves the hostility of the political culture wars, it also has the power to overcome divisions within the church. For hundreds of years, the Christian world has been divided between different Christian denominations, each one claiming to be the one and only true church. The emergence of Pope Francis, with his broad-minded ecumenism rooted in an evangelical mission, encourages us to reevaluate the sectarianism of centuries past.

This doesn’t mean we all become the same. There are important reasons that I am not a Catholic, and that the Pope is not a Quaker. But our differences are relativized in the light of our shared experience of Jesus Christ in our lives. The barriers between us are broken down by a common recognition of the challenges that face us as a species, and the extraordinary measures that we must take together to avert ecological catastrophe and economic atrocity. Our shared calling as disciples of Jesus and heirs of the Reign of God is so much greater than the many ways that we are different from one another. What would it look like if we committed ourselves to working together in all those areas where we are already of one heart and mind?

3. He builds bridges with skeptics. Pope Francis has shown himself to be a universal Christian leader, with relevance far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic fellowship. His compassion and demonstrated love for the marginalized speaks to the heart of the spiritual-but-not-religious, agnostics, and the countless other Americans who want something deeper, but cannot in good conscience accept the Christianity presented to them by mainstream Evangelicalism.

Most of these folks are probably never going to become Catholics, but that’s not the point. Francis is a major Christian leader who is showing himself to be a compassionate, principled human being. It’s sad to say, but for many Americans, that’s something new.

For an historically Protestant nation that is increasingly fed up with George Bush Evangelicalism, Pope Francis’ visit is an opportunity to present an alternative vision for what life with Jesus can look like. This pope is connecting with millions of Americans who don’t consider themselves Christians, but who find themselves resonating with the simple, radical faith of Jesus.

This is an exciting moment. I’m looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to my city and nation. I feel hopeful about the kind of positive change that his visit could bring about in the spiritual life of our country.

What are ways that we can amplify the volume of the gospel message that Pope Francis is bringing to our national stage? How are we, as followers of Jesus, preparing ourselves to reap the harvest of this visit, as thousands – perhaps millions – are brought into a new awareness of what a radiant, loving, faithful life in Jesus can look like?

I’d love to discuss these questions with you in the comments below.

Related Posts:

Why Pope Francis’ Climate Encyclical Matters

Pope Francis: A Social Justice Pope?

What’s the Point of Worship?

Worship is a big deal for Quakers. And it most definitely has been for our community here in DC. Between 2009 and 2013, I’d say that we spent upwards of 90% of our time and energy organizing worship meetings, spiritual retreats, and other events with a spiritual, contemplative focus. It would have been fair to describe us as a worship group.

Our focus has changed significantly in the past year. Rather than emphasizing Quaker meeting for worship, we’ve spent much more of our time getting together in small groups, having discussions, throwing parties, and reaching out in our neighborhood. We still worship, we still pray together, but I’m not sure that worship group would be the right label.

It’s a matter of priorities. For us, the most important order of business right now is to develop vibrant Christian community here in our neighborhood. Weekly worship meetings haven’t seemed like the most effective way to do that. Honestly, worship gatherings present a lot of barriers to the people we most want to be in relationship with. There are lots of folks who will go grab some tacos with us or come to a game night who just wouldn’t feel comfortable showing up at something labeled worship. At least, not yet.

So, instead of spending all our energy organizing worship activities, we’re trying to open up our lives in ways that speak to where our neighbors are actually at. Instead of expecting the world around us to come join us in our little Quaker dance, we’re exploring what it looks like to really incarnate the gospel into daily life in our city.

This isn’t to say that worship gatherings aren’t important. They’re deeply meaningful and necessary. But we’re discovering that the greatest gift we can offer as a fellowship is not a rockin’ worship service – it’s a genuine life in community, where we really come to know and support one another as friends.

Times of explicit worship and prayer are absolutely part of that mix, but it’s more like the beating heart of our shared practice together as a community, rather than the entire experience of what it means to be a friend of Jesus. We’re discovering that it’s helpful for real, human relationships to come first. We want to know one another as human beings, not just spiritual beings.

Lately, Friends of Jesus in DC have begun holding a monthly worship gatherings in addition to the activities of our local missional communities. We come together from across the whole city to celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst. We participate in a shared reorientation of our lives, pointing ourselves towards the living way of Jesus. We grow in a shared life of wholeness, joy, and overflowing love for the people around us.

Our purpose in these times of worship is not to convince anyone of anything. Instead, we are invited to become ourselves more deeply convinced of the meaning and power of our shared experience of God. We are baptized into the living Spirit of Jesus, discovering a communion that goes beyond our human comprehension – a power that vastly exceeds our finite human strength.

What is the role of worship in your life and in your community? Does worship complement and enliven your efforts to grow as a community? How does it energize and equip you to reach out and bless the world?

Related Posts:

Can Worship Be Taught?

Do We Really Need Church?

Does God do Product Placement?

Starbucks Logo SmashedWhat would it be like to go a day without seeing a logo? Would it be weird to live in a place without commercials, sales pitches, billboards? I’ve heard that in Cuba public advertising is illegal, but I admit that, as an American, this is hard for me to imagine.

They say that death and taxes are the two guarantees in life. But advertising comes in a close third. In the United States, it’s hard to go five minutes without being exposed to a commercial message of some kind. Whether on a billboard beside the highway, a glowing square on a website, or the back of your box of cereal in the morning, we are constantly being pitched something.

The most powerful ads just blend into the landscape of our daily lives, like product placement in a movie. Take a look around you right now. I’ll bet you can identify three logos without even getting up from your seat. There they are, gently whispering into your subconscious.

Ads and logos have become such a constant, they no longer merely sell a product. They’ve come to represent an image, a mood, a way of life. The most profoundly successful ads transcend the company-customer binary. We merge. Day after day, our eyes drink them in. These logos become part of us, and we part of them.

How many times do you need to be exposed to a message before you even notice it’s there? How many more exposures before you consciously respond? And how many more times must you come in contact with a sign, a symbol, a message, before it fades once again into the background – but this time, as a constant, a given, a taken-for-granted part of your everyday worldview?

Ask Coca-Cola. They’ve been working on this question for generations.

But what happens when we come to believe that there is more to life than buying and selling, producing and consuming, chasing after personal happiness and comparing ourselves to others? A tension emerges in our lives, a nagging doubt that had always remained safely in the background. We awaken to an invisible struggle.

Before we know it, we are enlisted in a battle between our culture’s godlike images – all the logos and advertisements – and the hidden, alternative power of the divine Logos that is rising up within our hearts. We are invited to choose substance over shadows, the moon itself rather than pointing fingers.

And something still more marvelous: We discover that we, ourselves, are becoming God’s logo.

We always have been. This is what we are created for. To reflect the image, life, and dynamic power of the sovereign Creator of the cosmos. We are made to become a ubiquitous sign of the Spirit that saturates the whole world with the light and love of Christ. When we dwell in the settled joy and peace of Jesus, we become an inescapable logo, ingraining the gospel into the existence of those around us.

This life of faithfulness rarely offers quick results, but we shouldn’t expect that. That’s not how God’s Marketing works. We have a cumulative effect. Our lives exert influence on everyone around us. Slowly. Day by day. Like any good logo, our faithful lives have impact through repeat exposure.

What does it look like for you to live as a sign of hope in a struggling world? How does your life bear the image of the Creator? Are you ready to be God’s logo?

Related Posts:

Does Pinterest Have an Image Problem?

The Ministry of Occupy Wall Street

Why Every Christian Should Walk a Dog

So often I feel like it’s my job to create outcomes in my life. I want to see certain results – whether it’s success in my work, happiness in my family, or deeper connection with the people around me. I often burden myself with the idea that I should be in control of how things turn out.

The terrifying and liberating reality, though, is that my only choice is how to respond to the Spirit’s grace on a moment-by-moment basis. God is the one making the connections, opening up possibilities. I’m not the decider, but I am invited to be a faithful responder. It’s just a matter of staying awake.

Take, for example, a recent walk I took with our dog. Austin was feeling the call of the wild, and I was looking forward to a quiet walk through our neighborhood. But as I headed out, I noticed a man walking down the alley, headed my way. He was a neighbor from down the street who I’d never spoken to, but today he clearly wanted to connect.

I had a decision to make: I could be polite but keep walking, or I could change my plans.

Instead of taking the solitary walk I had envisioned when I stepped out the door, I came alongside my neighbor and accompanied him on the way to the corner store. We didn’t talk about anything profound – the dog, mostly – but we made a connection. We know each other’s names now.

After leaving my new friend at the corner store, I looped back around the block. The dog and I ended up playing fetch in our yard. Austin was having a great time, running up and down the lawn, growling and spinning playfully. That’s when I heard laughter from the group home across the street. One of the nurses who works there was out on the front porch, watching us play.

At first, I stayed in our yard, yelling back and forth with the nurse. But was soon obvious that our conversation was more than a courteous wave across the fence. Once again, I had a choice to make: Would I respond to the opportunity for connection that God was putting in front of me? Austin and I crossed the street and spent some time talking with our neighbor on her porch.

I didn’t create either of the opportunities that afternoon. I didn’t leave the house planning to connect with my neighbors. In fact, I was surprised to find that they were reaching out to me! But I had a choice as to how I would respond. I could take the time, make myself available, and go deeper. Or I could be pleasant and courteous… and keep walking.

Have you been presented with opportunities and choices like this lately? What decisions did you make? In the comments below, I invite you to share about your own experience of these kinds of holy openings.

Where in your life do you experience opportunities to connect with others in unexpected ways? How do you practice awareness and readiness to embrace these openings as they emerge?

Gathered As In A Net

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. […] And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love… Francis Howgill (1618-1669)

When Jesus called his first disciples, he recruited some of them from among the fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. He asked a few of these fishermen to follow him, promising to change their vocation forever. Rather than inheriting the family fishing business, they would become fishers of people.

When I first heard the story of Jesus calling the fishermen, I assumed that ancient Palestinian people fished in the same way that I do. I imagined these men sitting on their boats all day, with poles and string, hooks and lures in hand, catching individual fish and tossing them into a bucket. When I first heard the story where Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to fish for people, it sounded like a leisurely day of sport fishing.

I now realize that the first disciples weren’t fishing as a hobby. They didn’t spend their days with poles and hooks, capturing individual fish. Instead, they used wide nets in an attempt to draw large numbers of fish out of the depths. Simon and Andrew were not out catching fish one by one; they sought to bring many hundreds into their boats with one pull of the net.

The early Quaker movement described the work of the Holy Spirit as this kind of dragnet. They experienced being gathered together as in a net, united in God’s power as a people of God. Just as Jesus had called his disciples into an organic community that became the early church, Friends in the 1650s found themselves being gathered by the resurrected Jesus in their midst.

Having had this experience, these first Quakers also became fishers of people. They went into all the world, gathering seekers into communities where they could experience the unity and power of the Holy Spirit – the fullness of life in the body of Christ.

Living as we do in a society that is so focused on individual experience and transformation, how do we make sense of the biblical model of salvation in community? How would our lives be different if we lived as an organic whole – the body of Christ – rather than as individual believers with our fishing poles?

What implications would this way of living as a gathered people have on the way we reach out to the world with the love of the gospel? How might we participate in ministry that looks more like a drag net than fly fishing? What would it mean for us to be able to say that our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love?

 

God’s Scattered People

One of the things that impresses me most about the Quaker community is the sense of connection that Friends have across geographical boundaries. With very few exceptions, I have found that if show up at a Quaker meeting on Sunday morning and introduce myself as a visiting Friend, there will be warm-hearted people who are ready to show me around their city and provide me hospitality in their homes. Quakers have a sense of belonging that goes beyond the local; I find family wherever I roam.

Yet, there is also a shadow side to this tight-knit community that transcends local connections. In my travels, I have experienced Quakers as being ravenous. We are often starving for support, connection, teaching, and pastoral care. Many of us feel inadequate for the task that God has called us to, and we don’t know where to turn for guidance. Lots of our communities, even the larger ones, feel isolated and unsupported.

In this context, a visitor can seem like a lifeline, an opportunity to make a connection with the larger body. For some communities, especially smaller ones, visiting Friends represent a chance to receive the nurture and encouragement that they do not necessarily experience otherwise. Simply by being present and sharing news, visitors open a window into the wider community of Friends; they provide a sense of access to the gifts of the larger body.

Life in diaspora is hard, living as we do in scattered pockets. We are presented with the challenge of being alternative communities in the midst of a dominant culture that does not reinforce – and often undermines – our desire to be friends and followers of Jesus Christ. We are tempted to turn inward, to seek refuge from the world, to become a cliquish subculture that promotes an ingrown sense of identity, even as we fail to reach out to others. We may even become proud of the fact that our neighbors and co-workers do not understand our faith!

Superficially, the choice to close ourselves off promises security and a sense of identity; but in the long run this path leads to ever increasing isolation, fear, and spiritual pride. Fortunately, there is an alternative to this seige mentality. Rather than walling ourselves off, what if we threw open the gates? Rather than waiting for visiting Quakers to nurture us, what if we looked to our friends, neighbors, co-workers? What gifts are already present in them to build up the body of Christ?

What would our communities be like if we welcomed every visitor with the same degree of joy and hospitality that we welcome visiting ministers? What would happen if we sought out the gifts, insight and enthusiasm of the people we are most connected to, whether they currently belong to our meeting or not? How might we be changed by seeking partnership with our neighbors, inviting them to walk together with us in discipleship to Jesus?

In many ways, this kind of life-giving engagement with our local communities is more challenging than the aching isolation that so many Friends meetings experience. The trials of diaspora are many, but they do not require the same level of work, self-examination, and flexibility that we must embrace if we are to become salt and light in our neighborhoods, homes, and workplaces. Making the kingdom of God visible in our world will be a challenge, but one that is preferable to the numbed yearning and isolation that so many of our communities are experiencing today.

Have we hit rock bottom yet? Are we convinced that the hard struggle to bear fruit is more life-giving than the easy slide into despair? Are we as Friends willing to be broken open, to be a seed that dies so that we can yield a harvest many times what anyone would expect? Are we ready to embrace our scattered and feeble condition as an opportunity for Christ’s power to shine through?

Cut to the Heart

On the day that the Holy Spirit comes on the followers of Jesus for the first time, it causes quite a stir. The whole community begins to speak in different languages, allowing them to communicate to the thousands of pilgrims from around the world that have ventured to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. This miracle of speech catches people’s attention, and soon there is a crowd of thousands gathered, hearing the good news as told to each one in their own native language.

This freaks people out, and some begin to speculate that the disciples must be drunk on wine! In the midst of all this confusion, Peter stands up and began to address the people. He explains that the disciples are not drunk, but rather that this gift of language is a sign of a new era. It is an age inaugurated by Jesus, who has sent the Holy Spirit to everyone, regardless of gender, age, class, ethnicity, or any other human barrier. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, immersed into this new life and power that is flowing in the streets of Jerusalem that morning.

The Holy Spirit is so palpably present, that three thousand people are immediately convinced of the truth of Peter’s testimony. The Bible records:

Now when they heard [the message that Peter preached], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37)

The thousands present for Peter’s speech are cut to the heart, because they realize that they have executed the promised Messiah, God’s son. Even though most of them were not in Jerusalem when this occurred, they accept personal responsibility. We did this; we humans killed the one whom God sent to us in mercy. We have become killers of love, murderers of God himself. Where can we turn for help?

Peter answers this question, calling for an immediate response: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit. This is God’s promise for everyone, now and forever: If we turn from our selfish ways and offer ourselves to God, we will receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus will turn our lives upside down and fill us with his amazing life.

Have we heard this message – really heard it? Can we wrap our minds around the fact that we have nailed Jesus to a cross, and yet he returns to us in love and mercy? Are we ready to turn from our selfish, ignorant, murderous ways and embrace the same posture of humility that God has taken with us? Are we ready to be cut to the heart, feeling the wounds of our own violence, committing ourselves to become peacemakers? Are we ready to repent – to be filled with the Spirit that makes real change possible? It’s never too late to turn it all around.