In his speech before Congress Pope Francis managed to rise above the fray. With no histrionics, he spoke directly and simply, yet profoundly. The speech surprised me; he managed to address the divisive issues that have become occasions for the two parties to shout across the aisle at each other. He spoke in such a way that all of us in this divided house could listen.
Not forty-eight hours later came the report that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone as a way to make a stand for her opposition to gay marriage. Since the news came out, there have been as many interpretations of that visit as there are positions to take. And regardless of the Pope’s awareness and degree of complicity, that meeting has enormous symbolism. I’m not ready to make a personal judgment; however, for the symbolic impact of that visit, I am disappointed.
It’s disappointing to me because Kim Davis is the icon for a brand of Christianity that is disdainful to me. It’s a brand of Christianity that makes our faith more about the rules than about relationship, and especially rules about sex. I wish we could just get off of that. Every time I turn around, someone else is reinforcing the ridiculous notion that the Christianity is mostly about rules, and we’re concerned about the sex rules more than any others. It’s maddening.
While I’m disappointed that the meeting happened, I’m not losing much sleep over it. While I was impressed with the pope’s speech before Congress, I never went over the moon about it. He represents a change of tone from the Vatican, but perhaps not much else. A friend, who is a good Roman Catholic and an astute observer of all things Catholic, often reminds me that nothing of substance has changed.
Leaders inspire us. Leaders disappoint us. Sometimes leaders just downright make us mad. Just ask the members of my congregation.
The whole back and forth saga of the pope’s visit to America — and I have to imagine that it feels the same for both conservatives and progressives — is a reminder that while leaders have influence, real change is not going to happen from the top down. Bernie Sanders (another leader who inspires me and who I’m sure will disappoint me and enrage me) reminded students at the University of Chicago this week that real change, deep change never happens from the top down. It always happens from the bottom up, beginning at the margins and moving towards the center.
Earlier this week, I facilitated a bible study with a group of about 20 women. Part of our study was about the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 10:2-16, if you want to read it), a difficult text where Jesus pits scripture against scripture. On the one hand he holds up the inviolability of the marriage covenant; on the other, he cites the Mosaic law which allows for divorce in certain occasions, a legal move which was only available to the man.
The study led us into conversation about marriage, about the difficulty and hard work of relationships, especially relationships like marriage. And it led us into the tall grass of a conversation about same sex marriage.
I fully celebrate that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters can now be legally married. The sealing of their covenantal love is just as holy and just as wonderful a relationship and covenant as heterosexual marriage. I also know that not everyone in the congregation I serve shares that opinion.
The conversation we had yesterday would not have happened a dozen years ago in this place. Partially, it’s a sign of the rapid change that has happened in the larger society.
But I’d like to think that the priority we’ve placed on having deep and meaningful conversation in our congregation has contributed to the change. Over the past dozen years, we have created space for lots of conversations about lots of things. Forty or fifty people meet every week for bible study. We host conversations about the intersection of faith and life. We talk a lot these days about the rapid changes in our society and their impact on the church. Every council and team meeting includes time for conversation and prayer. At any given moment in time several groups, including our staff, are reading and discussing a book together. We have hosted authors to lead us in conversation about things that matter. When space is created for people to listen to one another, space is also created for the Spirit to soften our hearts.
It’s not the kind of change that happens rapidly; it’s not always even visible. But it’s the kind of work that forms and shapes us as the body of Christ, forming us as individuals, and more importantly, forming us as a corporate body, so that our thoughts, words, and deeds are in greater alignment with the work God is doing in the world, so that we are participating with God in bringing about the kingdom.