Mercy

The Church as Field Hospital

Continuing in response to the question: Holy Father, can you tell us how the desire to proclaim a Holy Year of Mercy was born? Where did the inspiration come from? (pg. 5)

I believe that the decision came through prayer, through reflection on the teachings and declarations of the Popes who preceded me, and by thinking of the Church as a field hospital, where treatment is given above all to those who are most wounded. A Church that warms people’s hearts with its closeness and nearness. (8)

What would it look like for the church to serve as a field hospital that genuinely and immediately cares for the "most wounded"? Who would we look to serving and helping? And how would this affect and even reshape the church?

I have spent some time here speaking about one group of people: Victims of Child Sexual Abuse in Churches of Christ. (And in an ironic and infuriating turn of events, it was announced this morning that, as of now, the Vatican is not compelling its bishops to report sexual abuse to the governmental authorities.) I have also in a recent presentation offered an initial reflection about the nature and scope of trauma and human suffering.

But I want to return to this question: What would happen to the church if its life was oriented towards the most wounded in the world (and within their own communities of faith)?

I think the answer is three-fold:

(1) The church would be absolutely devastated. The consequences of decades and centuries of indifference, denial, and ignorance would usher in an unimaginable disorientation as we faced head-on the ferocity and ubiquity of suffering.
(2) The church would be forced to rearticulate the ways in which God responds to human suffering and what the life, death, and resurrection mean for this "new" reality. My hunch is that traditional constructions of sin and salvation would be found to be insufficient. (Forgiveness doesn't do anything for trauma and human suffering!) This would be an important, yet difficult and disorienting work.
(3) The church would be enabled to become the place where redemption in its fullest and truest sense was radically and publicly on display. This is the reason that despite the pain and disorientation that would inevitably result from the turn to the "most wounded", that it would be transformative for both the church and the world.

And how is this done? The last line from Francis says it all...

A Church that warms people’s hearts with its closeness and nearness. (Pope Francis)

The Name of God is Mercy (An Introduction)

As we begin the Lenten season and I begin my exploration of Pope Francis' wonderful book The Name of God is Mercy I wanted to just briefly introduce the text and offer an initial taste of what can be expected. 

Each day through Lent I will be reflecting on an excerpt from this wonderful conversation between Pope Francis and Andrea Tornielli, a veteran Vatican journalist. This book is the transcript of a long conversation between Tornielli and Francis. It is filled with pastoral and theological reflection as well as moving stories that were formative for the man who has since become one of the most beloved and recognized religious figures in the world. It details his own experiences as a priest, and the formative moments which have led him to call the church to a deep and meaningful season of reflecting on and seeking to embody, what for Francis is the fundamental attribute of God, mercy.

The following is a brief excerpt from the preface to the reader that will give you a taste of what is still to come...

The Holy Year is a consequence of this message and the centrality it has always had in Francis' preaching. On March 13, 2015, while I was listening to the homily of the penitential liturgy at the end of which the Pope would announce the proclamation of the exceptional Holy Year, I thought how wonderful it would be to ask him a few questions that focused on the theme of mercy and forgiveness, to analyze what those words mean to him, as a man and a priest. I was unconcerned with getting a few punchy phrases that might become part of the media debate around the Synod of the Family, which often felt like a king of match between fans of opposing teams. Without getting caught up in the casuistry, I liked the idea of an interview that would reveal the heart of Francis and his vision. I wanted a text that would open doors, especially during this Holy Year, when the Church wants to show, in a very special and even more significant way, its face of mercy. 

The Pope accepted my suggestion.  This book is the fruit of the conversations that began in his lodgings in Saint Martha's House in the Vatican on a muggy afternoon last July, a few days after his return from a journey to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay. With very little advance notice, I had sent ahead a list of topics and questions I wanted to cover. I arrived with three recording devices. Francis was waiting for me sitting at a table with a Bible concordance on it and some quotations from the Church Fathers. You can read the contents of our conversations in the pages that follow.

I hope that the interviewee will not be offended if I reveal a backstage episode that I find particularly telling. We discussed the difficulties of acknowledging ourselves as sinners, and in the first draft I wrote that Francis asserted, "The medicine is there, the healing is there -- if only we take a small step toward God." After reading the text, he called me and asked me to add "or even just the desire to take that step." It was a phrase that I had clumsily left out of my summary. This addition, or rather, the proper restoration of the complete text, reveals the vast heart of the shepherd who seeks to align himself with the merciful heart of God and leaves nothing untried in reaching out to sinners. He overlooks no possibility, no matter how small, in attempting to give the gift of forgiveness. God awaits us with open arms; we need only take a step toward him like the Prodigal Son. But if, weak as we are, we don't have the strength to take that step, just the desire to take it is enough. It's already enough of a start for grace to work and mercy to be granted in accordance with the experience of a Church that does not see itself as a customs office but as an agent that seeks out every single possible way to forgive. (xviii-xix) 

The Christian Outrage Machine: A Counter-Proposal

This is a mini-lecture/presentation that I shared today at Oklahoma Christian in a chapel service, and while certainly not everything that could be said is here, this is a good start I hope to a new way forward...


Maybe you've heard that there are some people in the world who say stupid things. This is complicated by the fact that those who agree with them and those who oppose them typically respond by saying their own kinds of stupid things. 

Two examples that have been cascading through the Christian outrage machine that is the Internet have been Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the country along with creating some kind of database requiring registration and increased surveillance. This could include Trump suggested the closing of some Mosques and the blocking of US citizens from returning home if they visit nations associated with radicalization. 

To pour water on the grease fire, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a school at the center of conservative, though some would say fundamentalist, Christianity, suggested that students follow his example in carrying concealed weapons on campus. The university even provides a free course to acquire your licensure. He suggested that in doing so the school could defend themselves from terrorists. He ended his "sermon" (which never quoted Scripture by the way) by suggesting that these measures would help to "end those Muslims" if they ever came to Liberty. 

My first reaction to both of these stories was... NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHAPEL AUDIENCES.

My second reaction was condemnation. And so I took to the place of reason and dialogue,of good faith and good will to express my rejection of these ideologies: Facebook. 

I signed a Change.org petition asking Church of Christ universities to collectively condemn this rhetoric, I posted a meme about the "liturgical bankruptcy" of Evangelicalism. (Yes, theologians post crap like this.) And believe it or not, I did NOT feel better. In fact, I felt worse. 

Because I found myself in conflict with two fundamental convictions of my Christian faith that I hold dearly and struggle mightily to embody. 

That every human being is made in the image of God...even Donald Trump. That I am called to love my neighbor as myself. 

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? 

Often times people appeal to the capacity to think and reason or to create and to understand the world in which we live. While this has some credence it doesn't make sense of our experience with everyone. Not all human beings contain this kind of capacity, and yet we would quickly affirm that they too are made in the Image of God.

What if the Imago Dei is instead the capacity not to understand God, but to reveal God? 

What if the vision of speaking of us as eikons is that we contain capacity to point beyond ourselves to who God is? 

I want to suggest that the Imago Dei is this:

That each and every human being has the capacity to reveal something about God in an unique and irreplaceable way. 

This is not to say that I cannot learn the same thing about God somewhere else, but that I cannot learn it in this unique and "God-breathed" way from anyone else. And that there is something about God that I can experience, and that particular experience can come through you and only you. 

This is why the Imago Dei imbues each and every human being with inestimable value and worth. This is why it is fundamental to the Christian faith that dignity, honor, and most importantly love be shown to all people. 

Even Donald Trump. Even Christian university presidents who call people to take up weapons in the name of Jesus.

But this brings me to the second conviction that I hold, and which for me, is currently the most difficult text in all of Scripture:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NRSV) 

Another translation articulates that last line like this:

Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV)

I had condemned what Trump had said... My belief that all people her the Image of God and my love of neighbor led me to do that. I rejected the suggestion of Falwell that Christians take up weapons to "end" anyone... My belief that all people her the Image of God and my love of neighbor led me to do that.

But I had also done all of this, in the name of my Christian faith, with an utter disdain for those two image-bearing neighbors of mine. 

In my attempt to fulfill the law, I had undermined it entirely. And this is not a tension easily resolved. 

Karl Barth in his commentary on Romans, which is incredible, comments on this passage:

Therefore—Love worketh no ill to his neighbor. Love is the good work by which evil is overcome (12:21). Love is that denial and demolition of the existing order which no revolt can bring about. In this lies the strange novelty of love. In the cycle of evil unto evil, of reaction to revolution, it plays no part. Love is the inversion of all concrete happening, because it is the recognition of the pre-supposition that lies in every concrete event. Love, because it sets up no idol, is the demolition of every idol. Love is the destruction of everything that is—like God: the end of all hierarchies and authorities and intermediaries, because, in every particular man and also in the ‘Many’, it addresses itself, without fear of contradiction—to the One. Love does not contradict; and therefore it cannot be refuted. Love does not enter into competition; and therefore it cannot be defeated. ... If, therefore as a protest against the course of this world, I cease to love, I thereby simply—do not love God, offer no sacrifice, and do not renew my mind (12:2). This is the relentless, impelling, earnestness of the command of love; and—Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 496-497

So what are we to do? How are we to learn how to live and to love in this way? 

I believe we must rediscover the meaning of one thing: Mercy. 

The words of the prophet Hosea, picked up again by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13, NRSV) 

Pope Francis has called for this year in the Christian calendar to be a Jubilee of Mercy. A year in which the church learns to embody the mercy of God in the world. 

I want to leave you with he prayer that Pope Francis has written to usher in this new year, which just began last week. It seems to me that if we ever needed a year of Mercy, it is now.

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.
Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things;
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
“If you knew the gift of God!”

You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.

You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.

Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.  

We ask this of you, Lord Jesus, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of
Mercy; you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and
ever.

Amen.