Let leaders lead.

Ironically, the day after the Washington Post published an article about President Obama’s  failures as a leader, it praised the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as a true act of leadership that gave way to Pope Francis. Their conclusion: “sometimes the most meaningful way to lead is to know when it’s time to leave.”

While the newspaper and many other critics of the US President rightly point out that “the poor messaging, the lack of commitment to strong, effective government, and the president’s aversion to treating the problem with an aggressiveness that equaled its magnitude” have undermined the president’s authority, it would hardly be considered an act of leadership if the President of the United States simply walked away from his job. To be clear, the Washington Post did not suggest that the President should resign amidst  doubts about his leadership, but the proximity of the two articles and an ongoing debate about a crisis in Washington does suggest a loss of faith in the president and his ability to govern.

Leadership is not and never should be just about charisma and the bully pulpit. If that were the case, the chances for Chris Christie in 2016 are still pretty good. It should also be about the issues. For those of us who believe that Obama can and should do more to fulfill the spirit of his 2008 election there is still (fading) hope, but only if the nation at large finally gets behind him. Good and effective leaders, after all, need a congregation ready and willing to follow.

As it is written in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 13:17,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

To the faithful freedom fighters that may sound heretical, but unlike the papacy, governing in a democracy is as much about the system of government as it is about the person who governs. People are elected with an open and well debated agenda and elections are supposed to matter. Unfortunately, gerrymandered congressional districts and a fractious, belligerent political arena too often stands in the way of change as populist forces can just wait out their opponents from their save havens of political combat. It’s as if the preacher had to put up with spitballs from the front pew with willing parishioners idly standing by.

The real virtue of the 86 year-old Pope Benedict - who as reported by the Washington Post admits that he no longer had the “strength of mind and body” for the job – was the courage and humility to let the Church move on when he could no longer keep up with it. President Obama, while no doubt tired and worn down after 5 years of public groaning, still has plenty of vigor left in him. It’s time for the public to stop bellyaching and focus their soul searching instead on what we can do to make things better until the next election. Then we can decide on a new course.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas

A couple of days ago Pope Francis tweeted…

Christmas celebrations are often full of sound. It would be good for us to make room for silence, to hear the voice of Love.

What a great message for Christmas morning as well – a good day to rise early for quiet and peaceful reflection. Soon enough the world will awake to the  sounds of wrapping paper and ringtones. And for those of us lucky enough to enjoy a holiday feast, the kitchen will then chime in with the clangor of pots and pans.

So before the world wakes up, I am thinking of family and friends and give thanks to all the quiet blessings of life this Christmas day.

Man in the Middle

From a shortlist that included Edward Snowden, Bashar Assad and Ted Cruz, it is a true blessing that Pope Francis was chosen as TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year:

The first non-European pope in 1,200 years is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century.

It is in that spirit of change that the significance of TIME’s choice lies. Regardless of faith and personal circumstance, Pope Francis stirs a real hope that things can and will change for the better. In a year full of disenchantment in political leaders and other agents of change, the Pope holds out the prospect for a renewed optimism.

As “OnFaith” blogger Elizabeth Tenety writes in the Washington Post, progressives in media and politics have embraced with glee the new Pope’s critique on “the “obsessed” narrow-mindedness of those in the church.” The Pope’s message of humility, tolerance and inclusion are indeed a big draw for those of us disillusioned by some conservatives too quick to judge alternative lifestyles and progressive beliefs.

Elizabeth Tenety also points out, however, that Pope Francis is not in fact advocating an overhaul of the core beliefs of the Church. He is no more in favor of gay marriage or abortion than previous popes. The new Pope does, on the other hand, want to change the culture and tone of debate around these (for conservatives) controversial issues in favor of greater reconciliation and understanding. 

In life, as in politics, we may not always agree on what is “right”, but we can usually agree on what is wrong. According to the Proverbs 6:16-19

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

If sowing the seeds of discord – the greatest of these abominations – has had an impact on our lives this past year, then clearly some of the other candidates on TIME’s shortlist deserve their due recognition. The will to overcome and improve the human condition, however, seems to have a greater appeal to the masses. The quest for peace, a sustainable environment and economy, a just government, respect for privacy and civil liberties, human rights and the freedom from poverty and oppression – these are the things we can and should agree on.

Pope Francis stands center stage in these debates. As a moderator and man in the middle, who seeks to surround himself by a congregation of the faithful committed to achieving a greater good, he deserves our prayers and the acclaim as TIME magazine’s Person of the Year.

One Nation under God

While economists, politicians and “corporate citizens” alike regularly talk about sustainability as an economic and environmental necessity, Pope Francis has now upped the ante. Stepping again out of the comfort zone of the Vatican and into the fray of real world politics, the Pope provides a moral imperative against income inequality, which arguably is itself a threat to sustainability.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

The Pope’s message delivered as part of the Evangelii Gaudium is a challenge against the notion of trickle down economics, in which the spoils of the rich are lauded by some as the means to an end of prosperity and justice for all.

In the true spirit of Christianity, the Pope urges that more focus be given to compassion for the poor and disadvantaged. It isn’t charity or socialism he’s lobbying for. His message is against a culture of indifference in which the rich and powerful are expected to win out.  As in Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice”, the Pope makes the case that it is in the greater interest of society as a whole if there if the goals of liberty and equality can be reconciled. Indeed, many economists argue that inequality is a major deterrent to growth.

The Pope’s admonition is in line with his other messages in which he condemns the marginalization of the vulnerable and easily ostracized in society, including those “without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Instead, he argues for more tolerance and inclusion.

In the end, the Pope is not just advocating a utopian world view. His challenge is to achieve a more faithful approach, in which the needs of many are not ignored to the benefit of a privileged few. When he asked for our prayers, Pope Francis is giving us a wake up call. It is not only time for us to pray for him, but for each other. Only then can we be confident of a sustainable and rewarding future.

Brotherly Love

You go girl! With all due respect to those who disagree with Pope Francis’ recent comments on gays, abortion and other liberal social issues, you should remember that God commands brotherly love:

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.

1 John 4:7

The Pope is right to criticize that the Church Is too ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control . Make no doubt about it. The Pope is still far from blessing gay marriage or supporting other liberal social issues. But what he is saying is good news to progressives who feel that you can be believe in God without agreeing with every church policy. In short you can disagree without being disagreeable. Pretty good advice, huh?

Pope Francis isn’t just side stepping the tough issues, either. By focusing his attention on mercy and humility, he appeals on everyone to reject narrow-mindedness in favor of forgiveness. To ostracize anyone who pursues a loving and virtuous existence  - regardless of personal circumstance or sexual preference – is a rather un-christian-like thing to do.

Whether you are gay person trying to just live a “normal life” or a woman facing a difficult decision regarding pregnancy and family planning, there are plenty of difficult challenges to overcome even without the constant judging of others. Let’s leave judgement up to a “higher authority”. Mormon dance champion Benji Schwimmer makes a pretty good case that you can be both gay and a good Christian, if the Church would just let it be. I’m not mormon, but I like his attitude.

Rather than battling against our neighbor, believers of all faiths should embrace what is good in modern society and find ways to promote diversity and inclusion within our churches and public institutions.

Let’s move on, brother.

 

Conquering the Divide

At this point I have to admit that I am not catholic, and I am by no measure a biblical scholar. The motivation for this blog stems from a firm belief that no one should walk alone. Pope Francis’ plea for our prayers appealed to me as a person of faith regardless of my religious orientation.

Belief in God or a greater good provides many people a sense of purpose and hope in the face of the otherwise mundane worries and iniquities of everyday live. With religiously motivated tensions on the rise around the world, spirituality is increasingly seen in a negative light. As Samuel Huntington criticized in his well-known book, “The Clash of Civilizations,” religious fervor and the zeal of Christian and Islamic missionaries pursuing their singular viewpoints threaten to unleash political upheaval, social unrest and violence — hardly an uplifting thought for the spiritually minded. Unfortunately, religious leaders have done little to mitigate these developments in the recent past.

Pope Francis seems to depart from the dogmatic views of his predecessor. Instead, the new pope’s messaging carries a moderate and conciliatory tone. His speech and prayers to the Egyptian people are case in point. In unmistakeable language, the Pope condemns violence as un-christian:

“The word of the Gospel does not authorize the use of force to spread the faith. It is just the opposite: the true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible.”

These are welcome words when we are too often bombarded with images of burning mosques and churches, when the burning of religious symbols and inciting violence toward each other is condoned by some as acceptable or even expected behavior.

I pray that the message of Pope Francis is heard far and wide and that more religious leaders of different creeds speak and act responsibly to promote peaceful co-existence. Only then can we truly have faith that a purposeful and hopeful life will endure.

God’s Green Earth

I tend to pray a lot when I fly. It’s not surprising to me that when I look out of an airplane window it’s easy to thing of God’s grace. Looking out at the blue oceans, green fields and snow topped mountains reminds me that while I do not worship the earth, I am thankful for its natural beauty.

On his recent trip to Brazil, Pope Francis sent a clear message when calling for:

“respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it be indiscriminately exploited but rather made into a garden.”

It’s a simple truth that we all live on, from and with the land. In the midst of scarce resources it is difficult to strike the right balance between preserving the natural resources at our disposal and reaping the benefits of their harvest. To be aware of that choice is a first important step.

And the choices are everywhere. When driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles I noticed the town of Coalinga (you can’t miss it) with its hundreds of thousands of cattle in their feedlots and the unbelievable stench that goes on for miles and miles. I can only imagine what the cattle plantations are like further south of the US border. I certainly don’t want to give up a good USDA, Brazilian or Argentinian steak once in a while, but seeing those cattle farms certainly reminded me of the enormous and sometimes wasteful appetite we have.

Many of the natural resources in Brazil and other (developing) economies are exploited to feed the consumption in more prosperous countries. When you consider the fact that many products are then re-imported at a premium price, you begin to understand why this development is not sustainable and the incentives for conservation so hard to achieve.

Pope Francis is not the first to bring attention to the fate of the Amazon rainforest, but he does go further in condemning a throw-away “culture of waste.” His statements do remind us, however, that it is the Earth which sustains our existence. I won’t wait until my next plane ride to pray for it’s sustainability. Thank God for Pope Francis’s example.

Rocky Road Ahead

As Vatican reporter John Thavis points out, this week marks a “curious milestone” for Pope Francis as he surpasses the 34 days in office that was the tenure of Pope John Paul I before his surprising death in 1978, making way for the remarkable Pope John Paul II.

Elected presumably as a reformer, there is no doubt that Pope Francis has plenty of stumbling stones to watch out for on the lonely road ahead. Financial scandals at the Vatican, continuing scrutiny of sexual misconduct in priesthoods around the world and constant rumors of corruption back in Rome make for a heavy cross to bear on a journey that – one can only hope – leads beyond the necessary, but painful introspection.

As we look forward to the road ahead for Pope Francis, we must pray that he is a capable and enduring reformer, one who can set the sights of the catholic church on the higher and most important goals of peace, compassion and humanity for all people on God’s green earth.  That is the Church that many people are praying for.

So with Pope Francis now more than a month in office, I pray that he continue on a humble and righteous path that never loses sight of the ambitious long term objectives.

Prayers for the Pope

Upon his abdication from the papacy, the Vatican deleted all the tweets of Pope Benedict for good, giving Pope Francis a “clean slate” to begin public diplomacy in the first modern papacy through the reinstated @pontifex account. In his first tweet – like in his acceptance speech and at the inauguration today – the Pope reached out with a simple request:

Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me. Pope Francis.

In a humble gesture, he sends a message to the world that the road ahead will be tough and he will not be able to go it alone. Prayers for the pope will be needed.

A New Age for a New Pope

One day after Pope Francis was elected to the papacy on March 13th, a photo spread around the internet as a witness to how much things have changed in the world. Thousands of smartphones lit up in front of the Vatican to record an historic event. While his predecessor Pope Benedict first introduced the digital age to the papacy with the first papal iPad and twitter account, it is up to Pope Francis to prove to the world that he is truly the first modern day pope.