The Francis Effect: Is This the Next “Great Awakening”?

The Next Great Awakening?

Might Pope Francis be the defining witness for the next “Great Awakening”?

I started asking that question as I watched and listened to Pope Francis as he made his made from Havana to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

We were on a “Fall Foliage Cruise” where I was speaking on the way religion in Colonial New England contributed to the formation of our nation. As is usually the case, it’s the story of particular individuals who at a particular moment in history acted in particular ways that influenced the events that followed.

One talk focused on “The Great Awakening,” the spiritual revival that spread across New England in the middle of the 18th Century. It’s key witnesses were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, followed by Francis Asbury.

As I watched and listened, I began to wonder if God has called this particular Pope to this particular moment in time to bear witness to the gospel in a particular way that will awaken us to a way of witness that transcends the often mean-spirited, contentious, politically-polluted ways of some of the supposedly “evangelical” figures who have dominated the news in our time.

Francis’ Way of Witness

In both his words and his life, Francis demonstrates a way of witness that is:

Rooted deeply in the past, speaks courageously to the present and points prophetically to the future. Everything about Francis grows out of the long traditions of the Church while connecting with the needs of the present and calling us toward God’s vision of the future.

Nurtured in and by the Church. Francis is not making this stuff up on his own the way political candidates frame their message to impress the constituency they are trying to win.  Everything he says and does is grounded in the faith and social convictions of the Roman Catholic Church.

Lives into the vision of God’s Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ, coming on earth as it is in heaven. He shows us what it looks like to take the gospels seriously, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus—words that are noticeably absent from some of the politicians who supposedly are the representatives of Christianity in America today.

Draws people in rather than driving people out. As I watched the massive crowds that were drawn to him, I remembered Jesus’ promise, “If I be lifted up I will draw all people to myself.”

Consistently directed toward the “least of these.” Consistent with his chosen name, Francis consistently challenges those of us who “have” to be personally engaged with the “have-nots.” Some of the most moving moments were the times he took children into his arms the way his Master did.

Works relentlessly for reconciliation and peace. His message to the United Nations was a prophetic witness of Jesus’ call for his followers to be peace-makers.

Respects national loyalty without surrendering to it. Francis is the same person in every nation he visits, never allowing any nation’s flag to take priority over the cross.

Challenges every political party without becoming the possession of any of them. Politicians who attempt to co-opt Francis for their agenda are consistently frustrated by the consistency of his message.

Maintains the integrity of his own faith tradition while providing space for others.  The Interfaith Service at the 911 Memorial was a powerful witness to the common values that are shared by every major religious body in our nation.

One of the CNN reporters who traveled with the Pope from Cuba through the U.S. simply called his visit here a “come to Jesus moment” for all of us.

I’m still a Protestant. There are points at which I would disagree with the Pope. But if God can use him as the harbinger of the next “Great Awakening,” you can count me in! At least it’s worth praying for!

Grace and peace,

Jim

Kentucky Carnival or Constitutional Crisis?

The Carnival in Kentucky 

As one of my friends likes to say, You can’t make this stuff up!

The political carnival surrounding of Kim Davis’ release from custody in Morehead, Kentucky, could have been a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, complete with her husband in overalls and a straw hat straight from the “Hee Haw” costume rack.

Now, the circus has temporarily closed its tent with Davis permitting her deputies to issue marriage licenses without her name on them but questioning that they are valid. The politicians and preachers supporting her have framed her actions as the conflict between her conscience and her job; between the authority of God and the authority of the law as interpreted by through the legal process, all the way to the Supreme Court.

Taking this media sideshow seriously, I remembered a powerful conversation in  “A Man for All Seasons.”

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More:  Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

More get’s it right. The same laws and legal process that prohibits Davis, in her role as a government official, from contradicting the ruling of the Supreme Court are the same laws that protect her (and my) religious freedom.  This is not about religious persecution.  It is about respecting the Constitution. The Presidential candidates who are using this case to pour gasoline on the fires of bigotry and fear know better.

Honoring the “Hedge” of Separation 

Whenever faithful people have tried to tear down the laws in order to defeat the devil, things have turned out badly. The Puritan founders of New England tried it. For John Winthrop, who gave us the image of the “city on the hill,” civil and religious authority were “two twines” that could not be separated.  The Pilgrims who came to New England were convinced that they were called by God to establish the New Jerusalem, a distinctively Christian community in which civil authority would fulfill God’s will.

Enter Roger Williams who, because of his profound commitment to the integrity of the faith, called for a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”  Martin Marty says that Williams “drew the line between church and state not out of love of democracy but to keep the church pure and out of the grasp civil meddlers.” (Pilgrims in the Own Land, p. 78)

Williams was banished from Salem by the combination of religious and civil powers who saw him as a threat to their authority.  But time was on Williams’ side.  One-hundred-fifty-two years later, our forebears adopted a Constitution which begins, not “In the name of God,” but with “We the people…” and in which the only reference to religion is in Article VI which declares: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

I give thanks that my religious convictions are protected by a Constitution that protects every one else’s convictions as well.  Three cheers for the Constitution!

Grace and peace,

Jim