Monday, May 31, 2010

Francis of Assisi: Power of Simplicity

Ironically, Francis became one of the most significant reformers in the Church over the past 2000 years, pointing untold numbers to Christ. While he sought a life of simplicity, he was used in extraordinary ways. Precisely because he did not seek greatness, God placed him in a position of remarkable leadership—both during his lifetime and in the centuries that have followed. “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled,” declares Jesus in Matthew 23:12, “and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Not wanting to be in rebellion against the church, Francis and the brothers who had gathered around him went to Rome to receive official recognition of their movement by the pope, Innocent III. The most powerful pontiff ever, Innocent III was used to controlling kings around Europe and found no time for the dirty bunch of beggars who came to see him.

Francis before Innocent III

That night, however, the Lord intervened. In a dream, Innocent saw the cathedral of Rome beginning to collapse. It was suddenly upheld in one corner by a simple man wearing a brown peasants robe. Recognizing this simple man as the leader of the beggars who had tried to visit the previous day, Innocent summoned Francis and the brothers. After hearing their story, he gave them verbal approval for their little community, which was soon to mushroom into a worldwide missions movement.

Indeed, more than any lead figure during the Middle Ages, Francis helped to save the Western Church from collapsing under the weight of power-hungry leaders like Innocent himself. Restoring the focus back on Jesus, ministering to the masses and preaching the Gospel around the world, Francis is deeply appreciated by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

Who Do We Want to Model After?
Many American churches and Christian leaders today share a closer affiliation with the success mentality of Innocent III and his quest for power than they do with Francis and his humble service to Christ. We think that Christian leadership has to do with power, numbers and money.

How can we get back to the simplicity of serving?

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Francis of Assisi: Prayer of Simplicity

Francis’ emphasis on littleness—being a minor player in life—stood, and still stands, in contrast to the way many in the Church have conceived of leadership. Instead of position, Francis sought humility. Instead of being served by those lower down the ladder, he served others, especially those in the lowest, most broken places of life.

Francis Serving the Leper

In the Gospels when the original twelve had one of their squabbles about who would sit in positions of honor, Jesus rebuked them: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Such is the heartbeat of Francis’ famous prayer. A radical call to simplicity and humility, these petitions will substantially change our focus in life if we pray them with sincerity.

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred . . . let me sow love.
Where there is injury . . . pardon;
Where there is discord . . . unity;
Where there is doubt . . . faith;
Where there is error . . . truth;
Where there is despair . . . hope;
Where there is sadness . . . joy;
Where there is darkness . . . light.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled . . . as to console;
To be understood . . . as to understand;
To be loved . . . as to love.

It is in giving . . . that we receive;
It is in pardoning . . . that we are pardoned;
It is in dying . . . that we are born to eternal life.

What a powerful prayer! How often we have heard it said that if we want to see prayer answered quickly in our lives, just pray for patience or humility. The very day we do so, the Lord brings circumstances into our lives that try our patience and call us to cultivate humility—often in painful or unexpected ways! So it is with these profound words of St. Francis. If we honestly pray this prayer we will open ourselves up to be transformed by God’s Spirit from the inside out!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Brothers Join Francis of Assisi

Following Jesus’ direction for his life, Francis continued to restore the church building of San Damiano. Ignoring those who taunted him for wearing poor clothes and begging for supplies, Francis set his face like flint in obedience to God and faith that he would not be put to shame (Isa 50:7).

Not everyone thought Francis was mad, however. Bernard of Quintavalle, one of the wealthiest nobles of Assisi, was watching the young convert very closely. Knowing Francis since a child, Bernard was convinced that Francis’ profession of faith was genuine. One evening Bernard invited him for dinner and a night in a comfortable bed. Pretending to be asleep, Bernard kept awake to see what this radical Christian would do that night. After a bit of time, Francis slipped out of bed to spend several hours in prayer. Bernard watched as Francis whispered again and again, “My God and my all,” and was rapt in God’s presence.

Bernard was right! He knew it—Francis was the real thing. He had not only given up his family money, he had given his heart completely to God. After a hard day of laboring on the church building, Francis—much like Jesus—spent the solitary hours of the night in intimate prayer.

The next morning, Bernard joined Francis—the first of the Little Brothers in what was to become the Franciscan movement: the Order of Friars Minor. Bernard sold his extensive holdings and gave the revenue to the poor. Then he joined Francis in his simple lifestyle of manual labor and ministry to the needy.

Needless to say, the addition of Bernard gave people of Assisi a new perspective on the work of the radical young believer. Francis’ eccentric lifestyle was not some passing fancy; rather, it was the evidence of a genuine repentance and the beginning of a life committed to Jesus. It was also the beginning of a new movement which was soon to grow with explosive force. Bernard’s presence added tremendous weight to the movement. He brought respectability and permanence. The fellowship of the Friars Minor was begun.

Radical Community
Soon Francis and Bernard were joined by others. They came from all strata of society. Peter Catani was next to join. He was a local priest who had lived in community with other priests (canons) near the cathedral in Assisi. His addition furthered both the respectability of Francis’ group, as well as its diversity. After Peter came brother Giles, a simple peasant living in the marshy valley below Assisi.

Such a community of men from different stations in society was unheard of in medieval Europe. Particularly in Italy, it was unthinkable.

Strata of Society
The different levels of society in medieval Italy are easy to picture when we look at a photo of the Assisi. The higher up one lived geographically, the higher one’s station in life. On top of the hill in Assisi was the castle where the duke lived. Part of the Holy Roman Empire until Francis was about 16 years old, Assisi’s duke was appointed by the German Emperor. All of the Assisian nobility sided with him and lived just below the castle. The height of their large homes symbolized their status in society—they were referred to as the Majores, the “major” people, i.e., playing in the major leagues of power and positions of leadership. The location of their homes also provided protection by its close proximity to the fortress in case the lower classes should ever start an uprising.

Below the nobility lived everyone else. These were the lesser people in society—the Minores, i.e., those playing in the “minor leagues” of life. The Minores included the wealthy merchant class from which Francis came. Their homes were in the vicinity of the Piazza Communal—the plaza of the common people. Below the merchants were the artisans—the cobblers, blacksmiths and the like. Further down toward the valley floor lived the peasant class who worked the fields, which were owned by the nobility and wealthy monastery of Assisi. Finally, in the swampy lowlands one found the leper hospices where the lowest of low lived is squalor.

Just before Francis began his community, Assisi had undergone a political revolution where the nobility who ruled the city were ousted, and the merchant class gained control. Some blood was shed and many of the noble families fled for their lives. No love was lost among the various socioeconomic strata in Assisi!

In light of these political events, Francis’ band of brothers was all the more remarkable. It made a statement to everyone: Jesus is no respecter of persons! He loves rich and poor, and calls them all the same through the Gospel. Moreover, he summons all to live together in genuine community, not segregated by class and income. Francis’ movement would demonstrate true Christian love and fellowship, not only to the divided populace of Assisi, but eventually to all of Europe and finally to the whole world.

Francis’ emphasis was upon being minor—lower, little, humble, playing in the minor leagues. Thus he and his brothers adopted the title “little brothers”—Friars Minor. That title takes on new meaning when we understand the society of the day. For Bernard and other nobility to join Francis, they had to renounce their title and rights as Majores. All the brothers took the mentality of being little and lower.

Philippians 2:5-7 describes how Christ emptied himself when he came to earth:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing [literally: emptied himself],
taking on the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (NIV)

Everyone who joined Francis gave up money and titles and power in order to serve. Just like Christ, they had to empty themselves.

Reflecting on this movement, Christians today need to ask the question: What rights and privileges am I holding on to? What would it mean for me to “have the same attitude at Christ” and empty myself? Finally, am I willing to do just that?

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cost of Discipleship: Francis of Assisi's Commitment

When Francis heard Christ’s voice calling him to “repair my house,” Francis set about rebuilding the dilapidated structure of San Damiano. To do so, Francis needed supplies, and he had a plan. Since he had always had access to family funds for parties he wanted to throw, the young man figured it would be fine to use his father’s money for this noble project. So Francis saddled his horse and took a bolt of expensive cloth to the nearby market of Foligno. Selling both the horse and the cloth, he returned with a bag of gold coins to give to the priest at San Damiano to buy building supplies. Sensing that something was wrong, however, the priest refused the gift.

When Francis’ father, Pietro, found out what his son had done, he was furious. He not only “grounded” Francis but actually imprisoned him in their home. When Pietro went off on one of his long business trips, Francis’ mother released him. Picking up where he had left off, Francis began the restoration of San Damiano. In order to obtain building material for his project, Francis went through the town asking for supplies.

When he returned home Pietro was further enraged to find his son disgracing this well-to-do family by begging. Francis had become the joke of the town, shaming the family name of Bernardone. Infuriated, Pietro dragged his son before the bishop to have him rule in his case. Francis had a choice to make: would he love his family and cling to his inheritance, or would he give his life complete to God his heavenly father?

Without hesitation Francis made his choice. In an act that symbolized his complete renunciation of his family’s money, Francis took off all his clothes and dropped them at his father’s feet. Surprised by the naked young man standing in front of him, bishop took off his own cloak and covered Francis. This he most likely did out of embarrassment but also to show that Francis was now under the church’s jurisdiction. Francis had, in effect, taken a vow of poverty and was now under canon law instead of civil law. Having abandoned the expensive clothes of his youth, Francis would, for the remainder of his life, wear the coarse brown robe of a poor person as he followed Jesus in unmistakable humility.

Counting the Cost
This famous scene of Francis disrobing before his father took place in front of the bishop’s palace and Assisi’s old cathedral, shown in the photo above. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, the gospel is entirely free, yet it will cost us everything. For Francis, this meant surrendering his family’s name and inheritance.

So often Christians today want to have both—the comforts of the world and the Christ. But repeatedly Jesus calls all true followers of his to make a choice. “If anyone would come after,” says the Lord in Luke 9:23-24, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Spelling it out even further, Jesus asserts in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (NIV). The call of the Gospel is absolute—in comparison to our love for Jesus, our loyalty to all others will seem almost like hatred.

Although we may not need to repeat Francis’ action literally, the Gospel calls every true believer to make the same choice. Will we abandon ourselves so completely to Jesus that we are willing to walk away from everything and everyone else to follow him?

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spiritual Restoration: Christ Calls Francis of Assisi at San Damiano

One indicator that a person has truly been converted is that he or she simply wants to spend time with God. So it was with Francis after his conversion. He invested hours in prayer and solitude, especially at the small church of San Damiano, which was somewhat of a wayside chapel about a kilometer below the city of Assisi. Although the building was in disrepair, it had a beautiful cross hanging in the front. There Francis found a wonderful place to be alone with his Lord.

One day while in prayer Francis heard Christ speak to him: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.”* Taking Jesus’ instruction literally, Francis began to renovate the church building of San Damiano. (In the next blog, more will be said of this project, the resistance Francis received, and what he learned from it all.)

While Francis began with the physical recon- struction of a church building, he soon began to realize that God had much more in mind. The Lord wanted Francis to bring restoration to the Church as a whole. Through his ministry Francis helped restore the entirety of the Church in Western Europe. Christendom was in need of renewal. Problems abounded in the Middle Ages—much of the church hierarchy was focused on power and money, many priests were living in immorality, people of Europe had no access to the Gospel in their native languages, and Jesus seemed distant and unapproachable.

Francis and the brothers who joined him took the spiritual renewal begun a century before by Bernard of Clairvaux and others (see blog on Bernard), and he brought it to the common people on a grand scale. Instead of wealth and power that the bishops enjoyed, Francis chose simplicity, poverty and compassion for people in need. Rather than living in immorality, the Franciscans became known as godly men who were genuinely called preach the Gospel. Instead of Latin, Francis and the other friars preached in the local dialect and helped to get portions of Scripture translated into the common language, so people had access to God’s Word.

Finally, Francis helped to make Jesus accessible to common people. His humility helped them see Christ’s humility and his humanity. His emphasis on the flesh-and-blood Jesus who walked the earth enabled the average person to identify with the Savior. In fact, Francis is the first one to assemble a manger scene at Christmas time, allowing us all to have a visual picture of what Jesus’ birth, his manger and his unassuming beginnings must have been like.

Thus God used Francis to help rebuild his Church in a dramatic way. The young man from Assisi began with simple steps of refurbishing the physical church building at San Damiano—later to become the convent where Clare and other women formed the first group of Franciscans sisters, the Poor Clares. In time, however, the Lord multiplied Francis’ ministry to help restore spiritual life to tens—and perhaps hundreds—of thousands of people across Europe, bringing substantive spiritual restoration to the Church as a whole.

Reflection on Restoration

In some of the same ways, the Church today is in need of reformation in our day. Just like the medieval hierarchy, many church leaders today are caught up with power, numbers and money. Under the label of “leadership” and “church growth,” focus is often placed on furthering our own little institutions while individual people are neglected.

The whole movement of “Christian Spirituality” and “Spiritual Formation” today is a response to the misdirection in much of the institutional church. In short, it is a renewal movement. It is focused on the restoration of broken lives and hopefully a revitalization of the Church as a whole.

Another question we were asked on our pilgrimage is: Have you ever been called to restore something? If you are reading this blogsite on deep wells and spiritual formation, most likely you have been called to spiritual renewal in your own life and perhaps the lives of others. What is the Lord’s commission on your life? What facet of restoration are you called to?

The Lord may have spoken to you in a dramatic way, as he did to Francis, or he may have placed a burden on your heart that simply will not go away. However God has chosen to get your attention, what will be your response? What aspect of restoration catches your imagination? How are you engaged in such renewal? If you have not yet begun, what are some practical steps you can take this week?

2010 © Glenn E. Myers