What the Pope Can Do and Canít Do

September 26, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


One of the most oft remembered talks here at Judson happened one night when our now deceased Minister Emeritus, Howard Moody, advised us that we were going to be disappointed in Barack Obama as President. It had just become clear that Clinton was not going to be president and that Obama might be. It was eight years ago.

He quietly laid out the obstacles facing the President, including the grotesque racism that has followed him. He warned us to be careful in the size of our hopes. Today I am going to do the same thing. If the Pope is doing anything right, he is claiming legacy as his leadership, not change. Change is pompous; legacy, respected and redeemed, is liberatory. Like the great Music Man in the musical, the Music Man, he stands in the shape of the town statue, not against it, in order to tell the town that they had trouble right there in River City.

The Pope already has done a lot. He has led us into the belly of the Vatican whale and the climate whale and the capitalism whale and then stepped outside of these multiplying captivities, long enough to help us look at them. That’s what a leader can do. That’s all a leader can do and that’s all a leader should do. When leaders do too much, they lose the abilities of their followers to follow. “Never be afraid of your traditions. Do not be ashamed of your elders,” said the Pope in Philadelphia. Claim them. Continue them. Deepen them. There is nothing wrong with Jesus. There is a lot wrong with Catholicism. There is nothing wrong with the gospel. There is a lot wrong with Protestantism. Like we said last week, there is nothing wrong with NYU. There is a lot wrong with NYU Corporate.

By the wy this is NOT agreeing with Yogi that the Pope is déjà vu all over again. It is another thought. The Pope is going to do something new and it will be gradual and it will be careful and it will make the old new. That is change. Making the OLD NEW.

My new favorite book on management is an old one. It is called

Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace by by Gordon MacKenzie. The wisdom in this book is to both enter the belly of the whale – test the divine guidance – and then to stand outside it and learn from your experience. Mackenzie argues that the best leaders take their hair out of the hairball and look around. Otherwise you are condemned to be linked to the mess. You can unlink from the great mess we have made for the whales and all of creation. You can take a look around. You can, like Jonah, be vomited out of the whale, by the grace of God or personal persistence, or just plain luck. You can be forgiven by refusing God’s order to go to Nineveh and even have a second chance to go there. You can mass the bread and drink the wine of Jesus over and over and over and have more chances to understand it’s meaning than you deserve.

Many experts agree with me. Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council on the Family “He is very Jesuitical in saying or doing something that seems to push discussion further down the road than he actually intends to go.” Andrea Gagliarducci, a Catholic journalist ad traditionalist who often writes pieces that are highly critical of Francis, “But that pushes everyone further down the road than they intended to go.”

Francis is working very hard to change the consensus within the church rather than imposing it. This spiritual maturity is the very best thing he is doing. Why would we want a Pope who behaved pontifically? Why would we want an infallible Pope? Isn’t it great news that we have a Pope who is fallible? Who is putting new meaning into the words Pontifical and Infallible? Isn’t this what we Baptists mean by soul freedom, the priesthood of all believers, the self-governing, don’t tell me what to do kind of churches.

Leaders have terrific problems. Their first problem is figuring out what kind of God would send them to Ninevah in the first place. Why not a nice post in Northern California or near the Galapagos? Their second problem is how to interpret their history. Everything the Pope does right is a subtle and not so subtle rebuke of the past. He doesn’t live where Benedict lived. Isn’t that embarassing to Benedict?

Doesn’t a good leader bring the past and all its hairballs along with it? The third problem is how to create just enough resistance to actually make change but not so much that somebody organizes against you. Already the coalition that elected Frances is breaking down. If it breaks down too much, the Pope will end up in endless stupid meetings talking about himself. Or having his emails scrutinized. (Yes, Hillary.) Saul Alinsky always argued that good leaders are two inches not two feet ahead of their people.

The pope can model spiritually mature leadership. That is no small thing in a world where spiritual maturity is scarce. Pope bobble heads? Pope Soaps on a Rope? Wanting to touch the Pope as if the Pope had more stuff than you have in touching that neighbor you keep refusing to visit because of her overfilled cat box? You have the touch. Not the Pope.

To wean ourselves off fossil fuels we will need some combination of edict and invention.

My prediction is that the Pope will give more than crumbs to the GLBTQ community and that he will move to ordain women, likely in his fourth or fifth year. Change comes from being in the belly of the whale long enough to understand your own internal logic. The Pope’s internal logic is too inclusive to continue these injustices. He surely needs pushing. He surely needs sobering. He surely needs to tend all the hairballs in his own system. But my imagination tells me he will be singing Zippedy doo Dah on the way out of the Vatican, just like Boehner did this week. Enough will be come enough and he will do not what he can but all that he can.

Sometimes it is a good idea not to follow God’s early guidance. Sometimes we have to test God. How else would the priesthood of all believers arrive? It could be that to mature what we really need is time in the belly of the whale. You ‘ve been there. You know that time in the belly is good time. Not everything happens at once. Because we have so long been so spiritually immature, we need time to mature the internal logic that the Pope is showing us. We need belly time, as well as traffic jams. We need to not touch the Pope so much as let the Pope touch us.

We are spiritually saturated this week. Full Moon. Yom Kippur – where one of the texts is always Jonah and the Whale. Id – where parents got the chance to have their kids home from school another day. Alternate side of the street parking cancelled all week. And now we go back to spiritual school.

It is time to give the Pope a chance to fail. To become what the rest of us really are, which is imperfect. Some of us are even imperfectionists. We may need to learn what life is like without being perfect. Now we need to learn about the Pope and help him refuse to take the pedestal or praise. Can he take criticism or objection? Does he know how to trust God and keep showing up in Ninevah? Yes the bloom is going to come off the Papal rose. Watch this week, when his antagonists shell their ammunition. But roses don’t always bloom. They need the fallow time too. That’s what belly time is. It is fallow time. Then along comes God vomiting us back into the second and third chance to fail, so that we may mature. God is a God of the whales and the weather, the dark time and the light time, the hairball time and the time when we untwine and untangle.

In Mayan thought, there is a word “Neter.” It means “of many comes the one.” Not from one comes the many. Of many comes the one. Leaders emerge. The strongest leaders have the strongest people, not vice versa. If we spiritually mature, the Pope can spiritually mature. People get the leaders they deserve. Read Erik Ericson’s great biographies of King and Luther and Gandhi. How did they excel? By having fantastic internal personal conflicts which they resolved. People get the leaders they evoke. I’m sorry. I know that is very insulting to the American people at least congressionally. Time for a little belly time.

Caleb, Yom Kippur, jumping into the lake.

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