The Church of Mercy: A vision for the church
by Pope Francis (Loyola Press, 2014)
Inspiring Radical Servanthood
by Charles Graves IV
“In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians. They must be revolutionaries through grace!” – Pope Francis
Last fall, looking to brush up on my Spanish and continue reading some excellent theology in the process, I picked up La Iglesia de la Misericordia–The Church of Mercy. I have long been fascinated by misericordia, the Spanish (also Latin & Italian) word that not only means “mercy,” but suggests that God records our miseries–remembers our pain–rather than merely pitying our hearts. This compilation of Pope Francis’ sermons, writings, and other addresses during his first year as pontiff (2013-2014) presents a wonderful and challenging series of lessons for anyone looking to further their relationship with Christ.
Divided into 39 marvelously brief chapters of two to three pages each, it makes for a particularly easy read for those who cannot devote long stretches of time or attention at once. In the earliest sections, Pope Francis’ attention focuses most squarely on those areas where he has been most famously prolific–caring for the poor, growing our spiritual relationships with God, and sharing with others the Good News of God’s work in our lives. He is markedly clear and direct, both intensely stirring and unapologetically provocative with quotables such as “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor.” Yet at the same time, he is tenderly pastoral, saying “dear brother, dear sister, this is exactly what the Lord wants, that you say to him ‘here I am, with my sins.’”
Toward the latter half of the book, the pontiff’s attention shifts gradually to focus more directly toward clergy and pastoral leaders, yet still worthy reading for any faithful Christian. “We cannot become starched Christians, those overeducated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No!” he practically shouts from the pages. Instead, he insists that the whole church, with the leadership of its clergy, reorient itself entirely to a model based largely on solidarity–a term which he adopts following a long tradition of Latin-American Catholic theologians, including the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. Here he arrives at the central message: “True mercy, the mercy God gives us and teaches us, demands justice; it demands the poor find the way to be poor no longer.” Upon this mercy, in Pope Francis’ charismatic vision, the whole Church Universal is built. It is not that the church possesses mercy but the reverse–it is God’s mercy that is and must be in possession of the Church.
In its latter chapters, the book comes to some essential final thoughts, especially on the essential centrality of women, using the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, regarding the building up and fulfilling of God’s work in the Church. “Whenever we look to Mary,” suggests the Bishop of Rome, “we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”
I have personally had the great honor to hear Pope Francis preach several times, and every page of this book radiates with the energetic grace with which he has courageously led each day of his life and ministry. Regardless of where you stand in your journey in the faith, Church of Mercy will inspire you to be a more radical, servant-oriented, charismatic lover of Jesus, and to build the family of God in the same mold. And you will be grasped by the subtle, overwhelming misericordia of the Divine wherever your next steps in this sacred journey may carry you.
Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people
by Nadia Bolz-Weber (Convergent Books, 2015)
No Matter Who You Are, You are Loved
by Lissa Barker
When I first encountered this book, I thought that I was going to read a goodie two shoes book about how we should be nice to those less fortunate than we are because God loves them too. Then I looked at the cover—a tattooed lady in a red suit with a halo? This book was going to be different than I expected. I wasn’t disappointed. To try to attach “goodie two shoes” to Nadia Bolz-Weber would be like saying that the Grand Canyon is a big ditch. Bolz-Weber is a tattooed, recovering alcoholic, profanity emphasizing, no s–t Lutheran minister who constantly is in touch with Jesus’ power to recognize the value of every human being and who is everlastingly and unabashedly thankful for God’s grace.
Throughout the book, Bolz-Weber confronts the reader with portraits of people’s transformations (including her own) because of God’s grace and love. These people are not your typical church-going, pledging units that society often describes as empty Christians. As a matter of fact, some of the people she shares with the reader didn’t start out as Christians, and there are those who never (as far as we know) embrace Christianity, but were still teachers of grace. This is what Bolz-Weber learns as she hears her “accidental saints” praying for those we may believe unworthy—the young man who opened fire on Sandy Hook’s students and staff, as well as the the mother who killed her children before committing suicide. These saints left purple tulips at the site of the murders by the mother. I’ll never look at a purple tulip the same way again.
Over and over, the author presents real and unvarnished truths about being pastored by her congregation and about those whom she pastors. She tells us that “we actually have the authority to remind each other of the gospel and defy the darkness of living in a broken world by pointing to the light of Christ.” Talk about refocusing the lens when the world and local news is just too much to hear again. In a description of Ash Wednesday, Bolz-Weber relates that Ash Wednesday is a time when “our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet and in that meeting, we are reminded of the promises of God that there is no sin or darkness or grave that can prevent God from finding us and (loving us) ‘back to life.’” God knows (and I mean that sincerely) that I needed to be reminded of that.
One of my favorite authors, David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, reminds us that ultimately we are all saved by grace. He says that you don’t have to flail about because you are embraced and accepted and when you realize that, you are filled with a desire to serve and give back. He is describing Nadia Bolz-Weber. Her description of the counseling session she had with one of her parishioners, a confirmed Unitarian, who was getting panicked because she was believing in Jesus, is classic. Bolz-Weber told her that often times Jesus “just hunts down your ass and brings you to him.”
Bolz-Weber’s realization that she is beloved by God, filled up with her love for Jesus, and sustained by the Holy Spirit has moved her to form a congregation of people who are exemplars of what Jesus showed us during his ministry on earth. The book has lots of food for thought, a reminder that we are miraculously beloved, and an admonition to go out and find those accidental saints and learn from them. My recommendation is that you read this book.