The Pope, The Line, and Who’s Telling The Story?

by Ross Decker Sr

I was on a line with other ticket holders waiting to attend Pope Francis’ Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. The line was astonishingly long. We walked 13 city blocks away from the start of the line at from Madison Square Garden itself to get to the back of the line. Then we waited for the line to start moving so we’d be able to retrace our steps along that 13 Block route back to Madison Square Garden.

The line was a happy one. There was no grumbling at all about the wait, a wait which was ultimately two and a half hours from where I joined the line. Everyone was talking about the Holy Father. They loved the news coverage. They thought the reporters were stunned by this Pope. They speculated about where he was along this day’s itinerary. Would he be late? would we be late? Would they start the Mass before we got inside? Oh, and yes, was that a rainbow?

Our Pope had charmed Washington and New york. He charms everyone everywhere. He brings the Gospel story in a fresh way, making that story present and relative to today. He reminds me of when I first heard Bishop Robert Barron say that the Catholic story was a beautiful story. It just hasn’t always had the right people telling it.

The Holy Father took DC by storm, telling Congress,  “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

A week before, I wasn’t planning on being here. I’d been to Rome and had seen him give the Wednesday Angelus blessing from his apartment window. The following Sunday was the better day, though. We had tickets to the General Audience in St. Peter’s Square and were seated right at the railing. The Holy Father came past us and we were only about three feet from his happily waving hand. So, I reasoned, what could top that?

I didn’t enter the drawing for the Central Park drive through. I reasoned that I may be far back in the crowd, without a good view, I might be uncomfortable, the weather might be poor. My parish had only 16 tickets for the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden. They were to be given out in a lottery type drawing. I didn’t enter. I was quite happy to watch the Pope’s visit on television. I was. For awhile.

As the press began to amp up coverage of the impending visit, some desire to see the Holy Father began to stir. I heard a woman tell a reporter that she was hoping to see the procession through Central Park. It was, she said, a “once in a lifetime experience.” That made sense to me. I wanted to go, but it was too late.

So, when my daughter-in-law, Catherine, offered me the two passes she’d gotten to see the Central Park procession, I was delighted. I was going to see the Pope. To sweeten the pie, she’d gotten the handicap access I needed. Now, I had a whole new view of this Papal visit. I was in. I was a participant.

The only thing better now would be tickets to the Papal Mass. But there were none available. I told a few people that I was hoping to get a ticket should one become available. But none did. Then, after mass on Sunday morning, I was getting into my car. I saw someone I knew driving down the street and we waved to each other. He stopped for the traffic light and then, backed up and lowered his window to chat. We talked about the Papal visit and how energized we all were, how hectic the Holy Father’s schedule would be. As an afterthought he asked. “are you going to the Mass?” No, I said, I didn’t have a ticket. “How many do you need,” he asked. “I have extras.”

The line began to move quickly as we neared the entrance. There was NYPD security on top of the marquee. Police were assuring us that, as long as we had a ticket we’d get in. The line divided to those with and those without bags. I had no bag and slid off to the line on the right. There was one person in front of me. After a quick scan with the wand, I was inside.

I’d missed some of the performances. I got to my seat as Gloria Estefan was introducing Jennifer Hudson. Then came Harry Connick. There was time to buy souvenirs and get back to my seat a minute before His Holiness entered. I was caught up in the excitement. The Pope was in my city and I was seeing him.

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets,” he preached, “that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.”

Capping his whirlwind visit was the trip to Philadelphia where he addressed the sexual abuse scandal.“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. These cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable. Those who have survived this abuse have become true heralds of mercy – humbly, we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value as they have had to suffer this terrible abuse sexual abuse of minors.”

And then, it was over. He was on his way back to The Eternal City of Rome. But he didn’t leave before filling us with hope and love, reminding us of both our value and our neighbor’s. And not before humbly asking us to pray for him. He reminded us that the Catholic story is a beautiful story. And now the right person was telling it.

Syrians, Samaritans and Mustard Seeds

by Ross Decker Sr

He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”

As the middle east continues to be a troubled, unsafe place, thousands of Syrian immigrants pour into Europe daily. Estimates place the number of displaced people at nearly 400,000. We’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories. The photograph of the three year old who drowned on his way toward hope is burned into our minds. Although the wealthy Gulf States have displayed amazing lack of compassion for their Islamic brethren, Europe is responding to the crisis with kindness and care. Germany has set itself at the center of the gracious acceptance of these displaced people. At this point, though, the crisis shows no signs of abating.

The Pope has called for each Catholic parish in Europe to take as many refugees as possible. He has extended the compassionate arm of Jesus Christ toward these afflicted people and welcomed them. It is, he reminds us, our duty as Christians. More than that, it is our great calling. We are to love the world and to love our neighbor in Jesus’ name. It is an honor to do so, regardless of the personal costs. The disciple James advises us of our responsibility on this. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what goo is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Quite a few Christians, Catholic and Protestants alike, have questioned this call. Some think it isn’t safe to do this. They worry that terrorists will slip into our society, arriving as refugees. I have heard others say that, being the same nationality as our enemies, they should be left to suffer and to perish in this horrible predicament. This may even seem to be the sensible thing to do if we are afraid of those nations. Some say that they would prefer to protect what they have and let this poor mass of humans find it’s own way through. But this solution is political expediency, not religion.  But it isn’t a following of the calling given to us by our Lord. Our religion, if co-opted by fear and hatred, is no religion at all.  And, if we turn to our faith only when we’ve exhausted “reasonable” options, we’ve only a comforting philosophy. Not a faith. We pollute our faith when we fold politics into it. Combining those ingredients ruin the recipe. Religion plus politics equals politics.

Let’s look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is one of the most famous parables of Jesus. People with absolutely no connection to faith have all heard of it. A certain man went down the very dangerous Jericho Road. On the way, he was mugged. The muggers beat him very severely, robbed him and left him for dead by the side of the road. His own people, a priest and a Levite, passed him by. They were in a position to help. As religious people, you would reasonably expect that they would. But, they didn’t. It took a Samaritan, in this situation the enemy, who gave the comfort. This stranger, this enemy, went out of his way. He cleansed the wounds, he brought him to an inn, and covered all the expenses.

Well, it isn’t a very big stretch to apply this parable to the immigration crisis. The influx of immigrants is represented by the man beaten on the roadside. The priest and the Levite are the Persian Gulf nations who will not help. And we? We have the opportunity to be the Samaritan. We shouldn’t wish to play the role of the Levite.

It makes sense not to help. It’s safer. It feeds into our anger and revenge instincts. It’s the easy choice to make. But it isn’t what we are called to do.

The Scripture overflows with exhortation to be kind. To do good. To love our enemies. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to be kind to the stranger in our land. Do these people, so desperately in need of our help, possibly have ties to the terrorists who seek to kill us? Yes. But we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. We are to bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us. No, it doesn’t make sense. But we are supposed to do it.

Through the centuries the Church has handled difficult situations with supernatural bravery. Are we always delivered in the way that Daniel was delivered from the lion? No. We are not. But brave Christians have preserved and advanced the faith through the years. Tertullian wrote “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Recent events in Paris have made this a harder choice. And, it has place a solemn burden on our government to thoroughly vet refugees.  Maybe there will be terrorists hidden within the masses who seek asylum. But, if something horrible happens, it will have happened while we were doing good. While we were serving the Lord. While we were loving our enemies and washing their feet.

The parable tells us that the mustard seed is one of the smallest of all seeds. And Jesus says it is an example of our faith. And to follow that illustration, it’s fair to say that our faith, when it is fully grown, should be expansive. It should be welcoming. The birds of the air and the people of all nations should find the mustard tree of our faith to be a safe harbor from the harsh reality of this world. They should find comfort in our branches and stability in our rooting. This is our calling.

Kim Davis, Wedlock and Deadlock

By Ross Decker Sr

I’m pretty sure that you have heard, over and over, that Kim Davis. a clerk in Kentucky, refused to issue wedding licenses to same sex couples because of her deeply held religious beliefs. She took a stand, a stand that prevented some couples from obtaining marriage licenses for a few days and, once again, made Christians look totally foolish.

I’m a Christian. Had a “born again” experience in 1976 and I’ve never wavered from the commitment I made to God on that day. But I never got confused about what that commitment was. It was a commitment to live my life according to the grace God gave me through His Spirit in accordance with His word, the Bible. At no time did I make a commitment for anyone else and in nearly 40 years of following Him it has never occurred to me to extend that commitment to anyone else. No one had to follow the rules I’d voluntarily adopted for myself but me.

So, Let me get this out of the way straight off. I’m sick to death of Christians taking stands about what other people should do. Before we do that, let’s take a shot at getting better at our own behavior.

I’m not about taking stands. I can’t support someone using their political power to try to force their deeply held religious beliefs on other people. Kim Davis is all that. She’s taking stands. Gays had to wait about a week before they can get married. Not a very effective stand, was it?  She wouldn’t put her signature on a marriage license because she has to take a stand. She can’t go against her word. Or….can she? What about the vow she took when she assumed the job? She vowed to uphold the laws on Kentucky. Now she goes back on her word. Because she is taking a stand.

Her lawyer claims she has been jailed for her beliefs. But that isn’t true. She is being jailed for her actions. And she is being jailed for ordering her subordinates to follow her conscience rather than their own. She’s taken a stand for them, too.

The Bible is written for God’s people. For believers. Never does the Bible put us in charge of what non-Christians do. We are not to tell them how to live. We have enough difficulty keeping our own stuff together. None of us are in the position to tell a non-believer how to live their lives. We  are called to proclaim the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ died for mankind’s sins. It’s accepting that by grace that we are redeemed. It isn’t by living a moral life.So, why would a dutiful Christian try to control the behavior of non-believers when that good behavior makes a non-believer the nicest person in hell.

I’ve lived this life long enough to see someone on staff at his church refuse to attend a wedding between a young couple because he was “taking a stand.” The couple was of legal age to marry, the bride wasn’t pregnant. All the parents approved of the marriage. What was the issue? The pastor of this man’s church was counseling the groom and the groom chose not to follow it. That was a little more than 10 years ago. That lovely couple is still happily married today. But, that guy, related in no way, refused to be a guest at their wedding because he was taking a stand.

A dear friend gave his daughter in marriage. In this case, she was pregnant. People (from the same church), took a stand and stayed away. Though it was none of their business, they didn’t approve. Maybe they thought that if they went to that wedding they’d wind up pregnant too. It’s hard to know what the reason is when someone takes a stand. Both sets of parents approved of the wedding. But, their dear friends took a stand. And they created a host of negative memories that pop up with each anniversary. And, yes, there have been over twenty of those anniversaries.

Now why does Kim Davis refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex applicants? From my point of view, I’d have to say it’s merely because she feels like it. There are certainly no scripture verses to support her deeply held religious views that she should tell strangers how to behave.

That right wing Christians try to frame this as some kind of infringement upon religious freedom is troubling. The government isn’t forcing its beliefs upon her. If anything, it is Kim Davis attempting to force her religious beliefs on the government. I get that religious freedom extends to the individual outside their house of worship. Religion cannot be limited to the walls that surround the church, temple or mosque. The freedom to practice your religion must extend to the marketplace. Christians are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned. We are to bury the dead. We need to be able, for example, to feed the homeless in city parks. To be forbidden to do so, or to be forbidden to mention Jesus’ name does infringe on our religious freedom. But, when it comes to actions that affect others, our deeply held religious convictions, and the extent of our religious freedom, should be to do good and not harm. To be compassionate and not harsh. It is not an infringement upon our religious convictions to stop us from forcing our religious beliefs on others.

We are a nation of laws. We obey the laws. If we have a job which requires that we perform an action we find we cannot do with a clear conscience, we give up that job. We don’t disrupt the lives of others as we protest the law. Don’t refuse to do your job and expect to continue being paid, especially if you took an oath, as government officials do, to do that job.

One thing we can expect from Christians is to tell the truth. Jesus says to let your yes be yes and your no be no. If you promised to do your job, do it. Or resign. If something about your job bothers you and you do not quit, you effectively tell everyone that you are choosing your paycheck over your principles.

I do believe that a church should never be forced to perform same-sex marriages. That would infringe upon their deeply held religious beliefs. But, an individual’s signature on a marriage license doesn’t compromise their convictions in any way. That would be a legal service regarding a legal procedure. Kim Davis would be acting as an employee of the state, not as a Christian. That marriage will be performed without naming God once. Outside the walls of the church, it’s a civil marriage. Religious convictions are not involved.

Jesus never tells us to interfere in the lives of non-believers. I think that’s because we have such a difficult time managing our own. But, there are many verses and parables which clearly tell us that we are to act kindly, lovingly, compassionately. Let’s not worry so much about how important our signature is and let’s start being kind and compassionate when we name the name of Jesus Christ.