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Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, or out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

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Relevance As Temptation in Ministry

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Acting like Jesus is often highly irrelevant, and yet beautiful, like Pope Francis washing feet.

When Henri Nouwen found himself among the mentally disabled of the L’Arche Community, he learned something about himself: the skills, knowledge, and “value” that he thought he had were all meaningless to that particular community. This caused him to reevaluate his understanding of Christian leadership, which is spelled out in his marvelous little treatise In the Name of Jesus:

“I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love…Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread.” (17)

Of course, this is almost the exact opposite advice many Christian leaders are given today. We go to workshops, drown ourselves in piles of books, and rack up CEU’s as if they are lottery tickets (one of them will be the key to a life and ministry of ease!) all in search of new skills, techniques, and methods. Most of all, we want to matter. Such is a tragic, if not pathetic, position for pastors in the twilight of Christendom, when many in the West view the church at best as little more than a vendor of religious services (marriages and burials, crisis intervention, a baptism to keep grandmother happy, etc.). Pastors are faced with the temptation to be something more, something objectively useful: a “real” counselor, a life coach, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser, a master of conflict resolution. We want something to show that says, “I promise I really DO matter!”

But all of this may be deeply misguided:

“The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?” (24)

For Nouwen, the cure for this temptation is a discipline both ancient and (to the astonished ears of hipster pastors everywhere) relevant: contemplative prayer. Such prayer takes us back to the heart of God, the place of our true identity, meaning, and value:

“To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love…contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite.” (28-29)

To put it another way: church leaders would do best to begin any task, goal, discussion, study, or discernment not by asking “what works?” or “what must we do?” but rather by seeking the face of God.  Amazing things happen when we refuse the temptation to relevance, and instead act, not out of calculated strategies and therapeutic utilitarianism, but out of an encounter with the living God of Scripture and the Church.

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