Papal Ponderings at the Sweet Sistine

If I were Pope Benedict XVI I might have just clicked the heels of those magical red shoes three times and wished for an extra dose of papal energy rather than resign.  After all, it has been 723 years since Pope Celestine V called it quits, the only other pope in history to voluntarily resign.


Unfortunately, Celestine’s story, while precedent-setting, did not have a happy ending.  Pietro del Morrone, as Celestine V was called before he became pope, was an Italian hermit and monk who was known for sleeping on bare rock in a cave on a mountainside.  He practiced mortification of the flesh by wearing a horsehair shirt and an iron girdle which caused deep cuts and frequent bleeding.  Pietro attracted such a following that he started a new branch of the Benedictine order.

In 1292 Pope Nicholas IV died, and scheming cardinals became deadlocked over his successor.  They decided to elect the feeble 84-year-old Pietro, thinking that he could be easily manipulated for their own ends.  Evidently, Celestine was also heavily influenced by the King of Sicily, which led to the appointment of other cardinals who took advantage of the pope who didn’t want to be a pope.

Celestine V soon realized that he had no aptitude for popehood, and things went from bad to worse, prompting him to resign after just five months.  The day before he left office, Celestine signed a legal document that gave him the authority to resign.  The document was written by a cardinal who promptly became the next pope, Boniface VIII.

Celestine simply wanted to go back to his cave and live as a hermit.  Boniface, however, was a tad insecure and suspected that the people might rally around Celestine.  Boniface had Celestine arrested and imprisoned in a castle, where he died shortly thereafter.

For the next 721 years no popes voluntarily resigned until February 11, 2013 when Pope Benedict announced, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise.  In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, …both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Benedict’s resignation took most of the Catholic world by complete surprise.  Why would the most influential religious leader on this earth, presiding over 1.3 billion Catholics, freely give up his power?  After all, when popes are elected they are no longer human.  Or so they seem. Few are privy to the inner workings of the Curia, the episcopal administration at the Vatican, but there have been rumblings. Vatileaks, political intrigue, corruption, sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement: it’s no wonder Benedict had enough.  Would you want to deal with all of that at age 85?  There’s a reason why no cardinal over 80 years of age is permitted to vote for the next pope and why almost every corporation or business has a mandatory retirement age.  For United Methodist bishops it’s 72.

At last Wednesday’s final public address before 100,000 people packing St. Peter’s Square, Benedict made an uncharacteristic personal comment when he said, “The Lord seemed to sleep” at times during his eight-year tenure.  I applaud Benedict for his courage in admitting that the Catholic Church deserves stronger leadership than he is able to offer.  Benedict has given Catholics a gift: the opportunity to elect a new pope who has the energy and inspiration necessary to lead in the 21st century.

I love the Catholic Church and will be praying this week as the 115 elector cardinals begin their secret conclave to select the next pope.  If I could vote for pope, I’d click the heels of my red shoes three times (I wonder if his shoes are for sale?) and look for these qualities.

Leadership and management experience:

A 21st century pope must have the ability to set a vision for the future and inspire Catholics to share their faith with a world that yearns to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ.  Of necessity, the pope will need experience at many different levels in the Catholic Church and be willing to risk moving in different and daring directions for the sake of a God who is continually making all things new.

At the same time the pope must have the skills to build teams and delegate shrewdly, deal with a shortage of priests and a shrinking church, and manage a priestly hierarchy that in the past has tended to minimize or ignore misconduct that has caused unspeakable human sorrow.  To his great credit Benedict realized that he was not able to manage the complexity of his office.

A Global Understanding:

A 21st century pope must be familiar with technology, social media, and the impact of globalization on the church.  In electing the next pope the cardinals must acknowledge that 42% of Catholics live in Latin America.  The Catholic world no longer revolves around Italy and Europe, and the Pope must understand the hearts, minds, and spirits of people who live in the fastest growing Catholic countries.  In addition, the pope must lead in interfaith dialogue, seeking common ground with other religious traditions in order bring shalom to our world.

The ability to connect:

A 21st century pope is aware that the world ultimately changes because of the ministry of the laity, not that of the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests.  By identifying with the hopes and dreams of ordinary people, the pope needs to be able to speak our language at same time as he interprets theology and doctrine on behalf of the Catholic Church.  The charisma of the pope is transferred to millions of disciples of Jesus Christ through teaching, equipping, making available the sacraments, identifying with the poor, leading as a servant, and unleashing passion.


A 21st century pope knows his own gifts as well as limitations.  Benedict had the courage to admit that he was no longer up to the task of being Pope.  In a system where popes “pope” until they die, Benedict said, “No.  I love the church too much to keep on.  It is in the best interest of the Catholic Church for a new pope to be elected.”

A Deep Spirituality:

A 21st century pope is, above all, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.  Catholics look to the Pope for prayer when they are struggling, strength when they are weak, hope when they are in distress, steadiness when they are in crisis, spiritual food when they are starving, theological depth when they are challenged by the secular world, and empowerment to fight injustice and poverty.

In short, we need a pope who both does and doesn’t want to be pope.  Whoever is elected pope this month must not accept the office in order to wield power over others or seek personal status.  Yet the pope also needs to have the necessary skill set to lead and is ready and willing to humbly say, “Here I am, Lord,” if called.

The election process that begins this week is short, but it can be nasty, brutal, and intensely political.  Special interest groups will make their voices heard, potential candidates will be vetted in the press, and some people will no doubt be victimized and hurt.  What is meant to be a holy process will seem at times unholy.

The deck is stacked against any pope exercising too much adaptive leadership because of the weight of ponderous traditions that seem immovable.  Therefore, the new pope will need enormous strength of character and depth of spirit to chart a bold course for the future.

I have no idea who the frontrunners are, but Irish bookmaker Paddy Power ( will gladly take your bet.  Sorry, it’s illegal to place bets on the pope in the USA.  Fortunately, you can play Religion News Service’s “Sweet Sistine” March Madness-style bracket tournament if you want to join the fun.

sweet sistine

Meanwhile, Benedict will no longer wear his red shoes and has chosen to wear brown shoes given to him as a gift from a trip to Mexico.  As Benedict begins the last part of his life as a pilgrim (his word), he will spend a few months in the papal summer home outside of Rome before returning to the Vatican to lead a life of prayer.

Thanks be to God for His Holiness Benedict XVI, Emeritus Pope, and thanks be to God for the new pope who will be elected in the Sweet Sistine Chapel.  United Methodists are praying for you!



Do Something Great

It’s a messy thing, this democracy of ours.  Government of the people, by the people and for the people is beautiful yet fearsome to behold.  When a country is founded upon freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equality for all, fierce disagreements, chaos, confusion, political posturing, and down and dirty fighting are inevitable.

That’s why I love Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday honoring the birthday of our first President, George Washington.  It reminds me how precious our freedom is, especially when we are not of one mind.  The first Presidents’ Day was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22, 1796, during the last full year of his presidency.  Today the holiday honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in particular as well as all of our other presidents.

“I am keenly aware of my aloneness.”  In the movie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln thus describes to his wife a dream he had in January 1865, shortly before his inauguration for a second term.  The number of dead continued to mount in the Civil War where 750,000 people died, which was almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today.   The pain of every death weighed upon his heart.


The toll of this brutal war would not be redeemed unless slavery was ended, but it was not assured simply by a military victory for the North.  Lincoln was committed to keeping the Union together as well as abolishing slavery, which was deliberately omitted from the U.S. Constitution a century before as an unsolvable problem.

Lincoln had declared that all slaves were free in his January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, but it was merely a proclamation.  If the13th Amendment to the Constitution were not passed before the Civil War ended, Lincoln would no longer have the authority of War Powers, in which case the Emancipation Proclamation could be declared illegal, throwing the country back into the abyss.

Abraham Lincoln was a mysterious, complex man: private, intuitive, politically shrewd, and profoundly relational.  Unlike George Washington, who was one of the richest men in America, Lincoln was a most unlikely president, pulling himself out of poverty by his proverbial bootstraps.  Lincoln had almost no formal education, mourned the death of his first love, failed in business, and had bouts of melancholy.  Only one of his four children lived to adulthood.

In Lincoln we see one of our greatest presidents lead this country through one of our darkest moments by allowing his God-given gifts to guide him.  First, Abraham Lincoln was a man of acute emotional intelligence.  He was the quintessential non-anxious presence who virtually always remained calm and centered even when the storm raged around him.

Much of Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Teams of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Goodwin writes that when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election he appointed to his cabinet three men who had competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination: New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.  There was rivalry, competition, and outright fighting among Cabinet members, but Lincoln managed the intensity of his team with kindness, an open mind, encouragement, and gratitude for the skills each man brought to the table.

Although the decision to seek passage of the 13th Amendment was his alone, Lincoln knew that without input and counsel from others the goal could not be accomplished.  Lincoln had an uncanny ability to individually connect with his cabinet and lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum.  Because he was not threatened by a variety of perspectives, Lincoln was able to build trust and form coalitions that accrued political capital.  Whether in politics, business, the church, or our families, it’s always about relationships, isn’t it?

Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” reputation did not put him above the nitty-gritty of cutthroat politicking, however.  Republicans constituted 56% of the House of Representatives, but they needed a 2/3 vote.  Lincoln’s team did whatever was necessary to win, including arm-twisting, bullying, offering patronage jobs to Democrats, or threatening other lawmakers if they were resistant.

A second gift of Abraham Lincoln was an inner moral compass that pointed him toward true north.  Thaddeus Stevens was by most accounts the fiercest opponent of slavery and had the sharpest tongue in Congress.  Because Lincoln was committed to both ending slavery and preserving the Union, he planned a careful strategy to pass the 13th Amendment.  However, by 1865 Stevens described Lincoln as “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler.”

In a memorable scene between Stevens and Lincoln, Stevens argued eloquently that all men and women, whether in the north or south, should listen to their inner moral compass.  That compass, Stevens continued, points toward True North, to the truth that all people are created equal and slavery should be abolished.

Lincoln’s reply demonstrated his political genius.  “The compass may point true north, but it does not warn us of obstacles and swamps along the way.  If we plunge ahead without heeding the obstacles we could sink in a swamp… and then what good is true north?”  In other words, doing the right thing is not always a straight road.  When both sides are convinced they are right, barriers will usually appear that hinder the road to True North.  If Lincoln had plowed heedlessly ahead without caution, prudent negotiation, and getting everyone on board, the path to equality might well have become sidetracked.

A third gift that undergirded Lincoln’s presidency was his deep compassion for the suffering of an entire country.  At the end of his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln said,  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln insisted that there be no retribution shown to the South after the war was over.  In the movie, Lincoln speaks to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the war, “Once he surrenders, send his boys back to their homes, their farms, their shops…  Liberality all around.  No punishment, I don’t want that.  And the leaders – Jeff and the rest of ‘em – if they escape, leave the country while my back’s turned, that wouldn’t upset me none.  When peace comes it mustn’t just be hangings.”

Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of religion in public life and had considerable contact with preachers of various denominations.  Lincoln’s theology was eclectic and his spirituality authentic.  Lincoln knew who his True North was and relied on God’s power to give him wisdom and grace to lead the country.

On May 18, 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter in his own penmanship to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which had passed a resolution of encouragement and sent it to Mr. Lincoln.  This was his reply,

“Gentlemen: In response to your address allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; endorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you in the nation’s name for the sure promise it gives.  Nobly sustained as the Government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any.  Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the rest, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all.  It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to heaven than any.  God bless the Methodist Church, bless all the churches, and blessed be God, who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches.”

Abraham Lincoln was a regular attender at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, four blocks from the White House.  In order to assure privacy for Lincoln during Wednesday night prayer services, Rev. Phineas Gurley allowed the president to sit in the pastor’s study with the door open to the chancel so he could listen to the sermon without having to interact with the crowd.

One Wednesday evening as Lincoln and a companion walked back to the White House after the sermon, the president’s companion asked, “What did you think of tonight’s sermon?”

“Well,” Lincoln responded, “it was brilliantly conceived, biblical, relevant, and well presented.”

“So, it was a great sermon?”

“No,” Lincoln replied.  “It failed.  It failed because Dr. Gurley did not ask us to do something great.”

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln asked the House of Representatives to do something great so that our country would become something great.  Despite his assassination on April 15, 1865 Abraham Lincoln changed the course of human history.  Lincoln’s legacy will forever inspire and encourage ordinary people like you and me to discover our truest self in Jesus Christ and make a positive difference in our world.  Do something great.




I am ready to share two secrets that only my family knows.  The first is that my four-year-old grandson has called me Crazy Grandma since he could talk.  That is to distinguish me from his other Grandma Lauren.  Ezra has heard other family members calling me crazy because of the unusual races in which I have participated in recent years, so I take it as an endearing nickname.

The other secret is that I have a special sports hero.  Along with millions of other people around the world, you were probably watching the Super Bowl last night and spent the afternoon preparing food and following all the hype.  On the other hand, I was cheering on my all-time favorite athlete, Phil Mickelson, who won the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament yesterday with four phenomenal rounds of golf.  I affectionately call him “Crazy Phil.”

Phil Mickelson

 I’ve never admired another athlete like I do Phil although I’m not really on a first-name basis with him … yet.  Nor do I cheer for any sports team or individual athlete the way I cheer for Phil.  I confess that I have a natural affinity for “Lefty” because I am also left-handed, and I am an avid golfer (duffer).  That crazy Phil.  You never know what he’ll do next.  Here’s what I love about Phil.

  • He’s the most creative shot-maker in golf.
  • He has the vision to see the changing nature of every golf course and adapts his game to the conditions.
  • Phil’s always smiling, has fun on the golf course, and engages the fans as he plays.
  • He is well known as a risk taker, attempting crazy shots that no one else would ever attempt.
  • At age 42 Phil battles psoriatic arthritis, a chronic auto-immune disease, but he continues to persevere and play at the highest professional level.
  • When his wife and mother were both receiving treatment for cancer, Phil became an outspoken supporter for breast cancer research.
  • Phil understands the importance of giving back to the community.  The Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation was formed in 2004 to focus on a variety of youth and family initiatives.   The Mickelsons are also heavily involved in the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides support to special operations military personnel who have been wounded and to the families of soldiers who have died.
  • Phil does everything with enthusiasm, passion, and heart.

Most of all, I respect Phil Mickelson because, as an athlete, he displays the qualities that enable leaders to be successful in their chosen field.  I am convinced that children who have the opportunity to perform, whether in sports, music, art, or drama, learn early lessons that give them an advantage later in life as leaders.  By contrast, children who are only spectators and never get their feet wet in the fire of performance do not always gain the necessary skills and experience to become the best leaders.

I spent most of my childhood playing sandlot games and later organized sports.  At the same time my parents (bless them) made me take piano lessons.  I still remember sitting at the piano at my teacher’s house, which was a block from the elementary school.  For some unknown reason my lessons were during recess, and I vividly remember looking out the window at my classmates having fun on the playground and longing to be there.  That round of piano lessons was short lived.

By performing I learned the necessity of preparation.  It is impossible to count the hours I spent in practice rooms over many years learning to perform on the organ.  Two to three hours a day in college and graduate school, plus many more hours spent mastering the art of choral conducting, singing, composing, playing scales, sight-reading, and analyzing classical music.  Without careful and focused preparation performance was not possible.

The same was true of sports.  Every afternoon was spent with whatever team I was on at the time.  We did endless drills, sprints, and scrimmages, all meant to prepare us for the rigor and intensity of game situations.  The key was disciplined practice, gaining the mindset of a performer.  Today’s leaders have the same focused intensity of musicians and athletes.

By performing I learned the importance of creativity and vision.  When children are encouraged to be creative performers instead of simply mimicking their teachers and coaches, they develop a unique style that sets them apart.  “Make the music your own,” my organ teacher in graduate school said over and over.  That freedom of expression liberated me from the rigidity of playing Bach in a cookie cutter Baroque style and allowed me to create my own musical personality.

In the same way when children are encouraged to just play instead of always participating in organized sports, they naturally experiment, tinker, attempt crazy things, and discover their own uniqueness.  The best leaders see what others can’t see and know when to color outside the lines to get from point A to point B.

By performing I learned the value of risk taking.  Playing it safe was never in my vocabulary as a child because my parents allowed me to explore the world and my vocation without criticizing or second guessing me.  I was never labeled a failure, even when my first wedding as an organist was a disaster.  And when I was always playing touch football with the boys, I ignored the name calling and followed my heart.

Teaching children how to perform in a supportive context, whether in dance or music recitals, soccer games, writing poetry, or reading the scripture in church, allows them to fail as well as succeed.  The greatest lessons children can learn happen when they are in vulnerable situations where it is safe to experiment, fall on their face, try new things, and excel.

Even when all doesn’t go well, children who live in a secure environment discover that perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and putting oneself out there lead to success.  They also learn how to receive and give feedback and what it takes to assimilate their learning and go to the next level.  Likewise, the greatest leaders are formed in the crucible of disappointment because they attempt crazy things, have faith in their skills, become wiser through their failures, and never give up.

By performing I learned about teamwork.  Most of my early athletic endeavors were team sports where success depended not on one superstar but on the cohesiveness of a team that played seamlessly and selflessly.  I also learned about the importance of flexibility and adaptability.  Sometimes my coach would ask me to shoot more, other times my job was to pass or rebound.  There is no “I” in team, I heard repeatedly.  Eventually, I learned how to build effective teams by observing excellent coaches and teachers.

Great leaders understand that their success depends on the quality of the team that surrounds them.  As a leader, I’m in good shape if I am the weakest link on the team because that means that everyone else on the team is smarter and more skilled than I am.

Finally, by performing I learned about passion, courage, and being part of something larger than myself.  For that I thank Phil Mickelson as well as a host of mentors, preachers, coaches, and spiritual guides whose deep desire to make a difference in the world has inspired me to attempt great things for God.  The greatest asset of a leader is his/her ability to rally people around a cause that will make a positive difference in the world even though others might call it crazy.

I am convinced that God wants us to become performers, not mere spectators.  God wants us to jump right into the thick of life and not watch on the sidelines.  God want us to risk all for the Kingdom rather than sit back and judge everyone else.  At the same time anyone who performs has to be a bit crazy because we open ourselves to all kinds of criticism.

Phil played one of the most amazing tournaments in his career.  The first day he shot a 60 and came within one stroke of tying the all-time lowest round ever in a PGA tournament.  By the third round he came within one stroke of tying the lowest 54-hole score ever in a tournament.  Phil said in an interview after his win, “I wasn’t playing so well at the beginning of the day but regained control of my thoughts so that I could see what I wanted to do.  All I cared about was doing what I had to do to win.”

The crowds adore Phil Mickelson more than any other professional golfer today because he loves his vocation with a passion and feeds off the energy of the crowds.  They call Phil crazy because he generates excitement and expectation.  Great leaders are also crazy because we never know what amazing things they will do next.  Jesus was even called crazy (i.e. he had a demon) because no one knew what would come out of his mouth.

Last November Ezra and I were walking hand in hand in Florida when he suddenly turned to me and said, “Grandma, you’re not really crazy, are you?  You just like to do crazy things.  So I’m not going to call you Crazy Grandma anymore.  I’m going to call you Run Grandma, okay?”   Crazy!