“Blowin’ in the Wind”

popeNow that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been installed as Pope Francis, I must say that I could not be happier with the papal conclave’s choice. Not that the College of Cardinals would bother to ask my opinion on the matter – I’m not even Catholic – but as a student of religion, one who stumbles along trying to follow Jesus, and a lover of startling, historic moments, I am ecstatic.

All the obvious reasons for my joy come to mind. Pope Francis is the first pope from the Southern hemisphere; the first Bishop of Rome born in Latin America; he is the first Vicar of Christ with a Jesuit background, and the first Successor of Peter to take the name “Francis,” honoring the legacy of Francis of Assisi, the medieval saint who so loved God’s creation and who practiced spiritual and everyday simplicity.

But I am most thrilled for Francis because it means the end of Pope Benedict’s reign over the Catholic Church. It’s not that I had anything personal against old Ben (remember I’m not even Catholic), though his role as “God’s Rottweiler,” the theological enforcer of the Church, made me jittery. My grudge with Benedict goes back to September 1997.

It was the Italian Eucharist Congress, and a frail Pope John Paul II was presiding. The Harlem Gospel Singers had just finished performing for the audience when who should walk out on the stage but no other than Bob Dylan! In pinstripes and a white cowboy hat, he sang three songs that night: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” appropriate I think; “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” (classic Dylan); and a salute to the youth in the crowd and the aging pope, “Forever Young.”

Talk about startling, historic moments! But bad-tempered Benny, then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, was not amused. He had failed in his attempt to cancel Bob Dylan’s appearance before the Holy See. Benedict, a classically trained pianist, loves classical and sacred music. But his love for song does not transfer to other musical genres.

He has said that all rock music is the product of Satan, he cancelled the Advent rock and roll concert series at the Vatican begun by Pope John Paul, and took a negative view of using guitars at mass. In his memoirs he sneered about Bob Dylan’s appearance before Pope John Paul II, saying: “There was reason to be skeptical – I was, and in some ways I still am – over whether it was really right to allow this type of ‘prophet’ to appear.”

So while there may be many reasons to be glad for Pope Francis’ arrival – many of these reasons complex, political, and theological – my reason is fairly simple. You have to be cautious of giving your whole-hearted trust to someone who doesn’t like Bob Dylan.

But Pope John Paul II seemed to have liked Dylan just fine. As Cardinal Ratzinger stood coldly by, he delivered a short homily after the concert that included lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” saying: “You’ve asked, ‘How many roads must a man walk down before he becomes a man?’ I answer you: One! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said, ‘I am the life.’”

Interesting, don’t you think, that the then Pope John Paul spoke of simplicity as the road forward. He spoke as Christ being enough. It has echoes of another Paul, the Apostle Paul, who once said that all his spiritual accomplishments, all his religious fanfare, all his ceremonial ballyhoo, all his pompous credentials, and all his ceremonious posturing were now considered garbage. They were trash. Junk. Rubbish. Literally, it was all manure. The only thing that mattered to his faith was Jesus Christ alone.

I am not terribly optimistic that a single man, no matter how many “firsts” are attached to his new administration, can correct years of encrusted arrogance and corruption or replace the accumulated labyrinths of doctrinal and ceremonial complexity with simplicity. But I have hope. I have hope that change is indeed blowing in the wind.

New Audio from Ronnie (April 14, 2013)

New Audio from Ronnie entitled, “True Grit: Living the Way of Jesus” (#1) at Ronnie’s Audio Page.

Pipes and Problems

pipeBy popular demand – and because some like to glory in my personal pain – a reprint:

My yard is full of holes. Big, deep, muddy, ugly, holes in all shapes, sizes, and assortment. It looks like that gopher-groundhog thingy from “Caddy Shack” has been running wild beneath what used be our lawn. But these holes are not the doings of any rodent. No, they all belong to me.

With this spring’s thaw came the disappointing realization that our lawn’s irrigation system is in shreds. Well, not exactly shreds; in drips, sprays, and geysers is more like it. The pipes must have frozen some time in the arctic that was January or February, and now they are burst, it seems, at every turn, corner, and joint.

So the excavation has begun in earnest, and will continue for the foreseeable future. For years now I have lived in the Florida sand and never had a problem with frozen pipes. Never. But this was an unusual winter, one I hope is not repeated any decade soon, and I got caught with water in the lines.

Yes, yes, I know. I should have drained the pipes back in November. Yes, I could have prevented all this digging madness. Yes, if I had known that April’s warming temperatures would produce Old Faithful in at least a half-dozen places in my yard, yes I would have done differently.

But that is water over the bridge and through the pipe now. No woulda-coulda-shoulda will help me with the mess I have on my hands. All I can do is get on with the repairs, sore back, shovel spades, and blistered hands included.

Some faith leaders – entire denominations and religious systems in fact – make a living on the holes in people’s lives, dug there by the woulda-coulda-shouldas. You know what I’m talking about: Precious little time is spent on helping people really do what is best and good. No, all the energy and time is spent pointing out what people have done wrong.

“If you would have made better choices,” they condemn and criticize from their pulpits. “You could have been more prayerful, more disciplined, or more committed,” they say in disaster’s aftermath. “You should have listened to us! Didn’t we tell you this would be the outcome!” they almost gleefully crow, as poor souls stand in the mud and wet cold of all that has gone wrong.

Those in the church (yours truly included) can sometimes pile on with guilt, shame, and finger-pointing when most people do not need to be reminded of what they have done wrong and how they woulda-coulda-shoulda lived differently. When we mess it up, we are usually the first to know.

And when that recognition comes, we don’t need long-winded sermons about a past we cannot change or homilies aimed at mistakes for which there is no do-over. What we need is help repairing the broken places so things work again. We need help digging the holes, bands-aids for our blisters, and a little glue to hold together the new pipes.

Of course, it’s terribly easy to remain disinfected and clean, while standing in a pulpit or sitting comfortably in a pew. The hard work is on your hands and knees in the mud and muck of people’s burst lives. But doing this hard work is where we belong, as followers of Jesus.

When our lives are full of holes, which is much of the time, I am so glad for Jesus’ words when he said that he “did not come to condemn the world” but to “save” it. He came to fix it. If this world needed sermons and lectures, I figure he could have remained far from it, aloof and apathetic.

Instead, Jesus put on the work clothes of human flesh and crawled onto a leaking, broken, and busted world, blistering and bloodletting his hands, hands he never used for finger-pointing. And thank God Jesus did what he did. Because our mistakes are many, the holes are deep, our backs are sore, and we need all the help we can get. Maybe, just maybe, we can give a little of this help to others.