Monday, June 28, 2010

Francis of Assisi and World Missions

Mural of Francis and his first companions

Preaching the Gospel to all of Europe and bringing spiritual revival to Christendom was wonderful; however, for Francis and the brothers it was not enough. They desired to preach Christ’s love and atoning death and resurrection to the whole world.

Francis himself had a burning passion to preach Christ to the Muslims. Although they were the archenemies of Europe—and although Francis probably assumed he would be martyred in his mission—he set about to take the Gospel to the Muslim world. On his first attempt in 1212 he suffered shipwreck and had to return to Italy. Undaunted by this delay, Francis set about a second time in 1214, going through Spain and attempting to cross over to Morocco. Somewhere in Spain, however, he was waylaid by sickness.

Determined to share Christ with the sultan of Egypt, Francis embarked on a third journey in 1219, this time achieving his desired destination. Crossing from the Christian territories in Palestine, Francis was captured by Muslim forces and brought before the sultan. Although the sultan did not convert to Christianity when Francis shared the Gospel with him, he did promise better treatment of Christians taken in combat.

Missions Around the World
Over the following decades Franciscan missionaries began to evangelize the far reaches of the world. Friar William of Rubruck traveled to China and back, making a voyage—and some accompanying maps of the known world—similar to the later work of Marco Polo. Friar John of Montecorvino likewise preached in India and then China, arriving just after the death of Kublai Khan. He became the first bishop in China.

Upon the discovery of the New World, Franciscan missionaries risked their lives to share the Gospel in both of the Americas. While the history of the conquistadors is marked with violence, greed and a quest for power, the Franciscan missionaries who often accompanied them leave behind a very different story. Filled with the same compassion as their founder, Francis, and inviting multitudes into the personal relationship with Christ that Francis knew, the Franciscan missionaries marked the beginning of the modern missions movement that has circled the globe.

Although Protestants today look to Martin Luther as the one who articulated their theology of justification, they can look to Francis of Assisi who laid the foundation for the renewal of world evangelization. (In fact, Luther, Calvin and other Reformers never caught on to the need to engage in World Missions. They were so engrossed in reforming Christendom that they neglected preaching the gospel to the non-Christian world. It took several generations until the Moravians and Pietist renewal of Protestantism caught on to the idea of world missions.)

Only in eternity will we have opportunity to know just how many godly Little Brothers—Friars Minor—were sent around the world as missionaries, often laying down their lives for the spread of the Gospel. Only then will we begin to know the tens of thousands who came into Christ’s kingdom as a result of their labors!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Monday, June 21, 2010

Explosive Ministry: 5000 Join Francis of Assisi

Francis’ order of Little Brothers exploded with fire! Men from all stations of life began to join the movement. They were sent out to preach the Gospel two-by-two across Italy and soon across Europe.

Just eight years after Francis and his band of 12 men received approval from Innocent III—no less than 5000 friars were part of the movement! Imagine if that happened today—if a young man in his twenties from your hometown were to begin a mission organization that multiplied into 5000 strong on the field within eight years! That is precisely what happened in Assisi.

In May 1217, all 5000 brothers gathered for the first comprehensive gathering of the Franciscan Order, known as the “Chapter of Mats.” Assembling at the little stone chapel of the Portiuncula, the Friars Minor held their first general chapter—general council—sharing the great works God had done, challenging each other spiritually and establishing some organization for the movement and its work across Europe.

They divided the map of Europe into various provinces, Francis in charge of France, and five of his closest colleagues over other areas of Christendom. While Francis was never able to go on the preaching tour of France that he had hoped, his virtual army of preachers canvassed Christendom. Although the Church was long established in Western Europe, the Gospel had not truly reached the rank and file of common people. The Franciscans addressed that lack and brought Jesus’ love to the general population, especially in the growing towns of the thirteenth century.

Ministry Across Europe

Friars became very popular among the multitudes. Because local clergy were often poorly educated and known for sexual immorality, serious Christians chose to listen to the Friars rather than the parish priests. Beguine complexes almost always asked for a Franciscan Brother to be their pastor. As a result, most of the Friars Minor became ordained so that they could perform pastoral duties and provide pastoral care for the people.

The Friars Minor made further contribution to Christianity across Europe by infiltrating the newly formed universities. While all of the institutions of higher learning were Christian in their orientation, rationalistic thought had infiltrated their teaching of theology. Combining brilliant learning with vibrant faith, Franciscan scholars helped to counteract the negative sides of medieval scholasticism. In 1253 Bonaventure took the Franciscan chair of theology at the University of Paris and later assumed the position of minister general of the Order. Bonaventure’s personal devotion to Jesus shines through all his writing, and his work Journey of the Soul into God is a masterpiece on the progress of spiritual formation.

There is no way to know the untold numbers who came to Christ because of the ministry of these humble Little Brothers and their determination to share Jesus’ message and his practical love with others.

Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels
Because of its importance, the Portiuncula still stands today. However, to preserve it, the large basilica of St. Mary of the Angels (above photo) was built around it shortly after Francis’ death. Now the simple chapel stands in the center of a giant church building, making visitors use their imagination to picture what it was like 800 years ago in the midst of grassy pastures. Photos are prohibited in the church, so unfortunately I have no picture to provide here.

The Portiuncula and St. Mary of the Angels still serve as the world center for the OFM—Order of Friars Minor. You might find it interesting that because of its importance to the Franciscan movement, the friars who evangelized in North America named one of the cities in California after this church: “the Angels”—Los Angeles.

This site stands as a memorial to several significant things. First, the humble stone chapel reminds us of St. Francis’ simplicity and love of being out in the fields. Second, it calls to mind the revival spawned by the phenomenal growth of the early Franciscan Movement, which was organized and mobilized here in 1217 at the Chapter of Mats. Third, it stands as the center of the ongoing ministry that Francis’ legacy has around the world today.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Monday, June 14, 2010

Solitude and Prayer: The Power behind Francis of Assisi's Ministry

“In repentance and rest you shall be saved,
In quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15 NASB).

On the one hand, Francis and the brothers who joined him threw themselves into ministry for others. Preaching the Gospel, tending lepers, caring for the sick and poor, and raising support daily to provide food for themselves and the poor, they were part of the Evangelical Lifestyle of the New Monasticism. They loved Christ and his people, and they sought to serve the Lord with all their strength.

On the other hand, Francis would often pull apart for solitude and prayer. The above photo is of the Hermitage of the Carceri, a wilderness retreat in the mountains several kilometers above Assisi, where Francis would often pull apart for 40 days of solitude. Here he and other friars would pray, wait on God, humble themselves and fast on bread and water. Not only did Francis maintain this rhythm of withdrawing from the world during the 40 days of lent, he did so during advent and other times of the year.

Seeing the Carceri during our pilgrimage in Assisi was so interesting for me personally. Having read about Francis over the years, I seldom ran across much written on his extended times of solitude. These long seasons of retreat were so important to Francis’ spiritual well-being and ministry, however. They were part of the rhythm of his life, and here is the place where he came.

Rugged mountain slopes characterize this protected ravine which stands above Assisi at some 2500 feet altitude. Being there in person helped me to understand Francis as never before. I especially identified with him because I also love to go to the wilderness for solitude. For my whole adult life, wilderness camping has been my place of extended solitude with the Lord. The basic difference between my wilderness retreats and Francis’ is that I use a portable nylon tent, and he and the brothers stayed in wood huts at some point replaced by a stone structure! These provided the cells—Carceri—for solitude where they sought the Lord.

Solitude: Source of Power and Direction
That time alone with God was significant for Francis because it provided the power behind his ministry. It is those who “wait upon the Lord” who “gain new strength,” states Isaiah 40:29-31. Although vigorous young men stumble badly, those who wait on God will “mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (NASB).

Francis knew this secret. Even after a long day of ministry, he would often go into the woods at night to be alone with the Lord. There he would spend time in worship and prayer. At times his companions would come to find him, only to see Francis totally rapt in God’s presence. In addition to these daily times alone with God, Francis regularly withdrew for forty-day retreats at the Carceri.

Francis, of course, was simply following Jesus’ model. In Mark 1 we read about Jesus’ full day of ministry at Capernaum. Preaching in the synagogue and then healing people and casting out demons all evening, Jesus must have been exhausted when he went to bed that night at Peter’s home. Nevertheless, before dawn he got up and went off to a “lonely place” for prayer.

When Peter and the others finally found him, they wanted Jesus to return to the gathering crowd at Peter’s place to continue the healing ministry. However, the Lord shocked everyone by declaring that instead they needed to move on to the other villages, because “that is what I came to do.” In the solitude of that morning, Jesus saw things clearly and he received direction for the day. Although he would return to Capernaum in due time, Jesus knew that he had a different call on him for the time at hand.

Francis followed suit and spent considerable time waiting on God for power and direction in his life and ministry. It is estimated that, at least some years, Francis might have spent upwards of 200 days in prayer at the Carceri. That would be over have been over half the year. Far from being wasted time, this solitude was essential to maintaining his relationship with God and rejuvenating his ministry.

Compulsive Contemporary Christians
Many contemporary Christians can identify with the first aspect of Francis’ life—busy ministry. As a whole, we are driven by a compulsive need to “do something,” whether serving in a soup kitchen, sharing the Gospel or keeping programs running at church. Therefore, we need to learn from the counterbalance of Francis’ life—the intentional cultivation of solitude, prayer, fasting and waiting on God. Of times we have relatively little to show for all the effort we expend. Were we to invest more time in intimacy with God—receiving fresh strength and clear direction—we would, like Francis, have far more fruitful ministry!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Francis of Assisi: Simple Huts and Small Chapel

Francis, Bernard, Peter and Giles formed a small community of likeminded believers, inhabiting two stone sheds used for animals in the pastureland below Assisi. Although the original sheds are gone, replicas have been erected in their place. See photo above.

Christ-Centered Community
The four spiritual brothers slept in the one shed. About the size of a “four man tent” today, the accommodations were barely large enough for four adults to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder. In fact, they drew marks on the ceiling to define where each one’s space began and the others’ ended! The second shed was used as a kitchen. The area in between served for fellowship and prayer.

Soon others joined until the small community numbered a dozen. From all strata of medieval society, they laid aside their differences to live together on equal footing as brothers. This is the point where Francis and his twelve companions went to Rome to receive approval for their community, as described in the last blog.

Little Portion
Upon returning from Rome, Francis and the brothers found their huts occupied by animals. One of the local farmers had claimed the sheds for himself. Rather than causing conflict, the little community moved to another location in the marshy meadowlands below Assisi.

In the middle of one field stood a small stone chapel that Francis loved to frequent. That chapel and the surrounding area were owned by the Benedictine monks whose monastery overlooked the whole valley. Francis approached the Abbot to request the use of this “little portion”—Portiuncula—of land, which the Abbot allowed Francis and the brothers to utilize. The chapel of the Portiuncula has been preserved to this day, with the original walls still in tact.

In April, when we went inside the little chapel just below Assisi, I gained a whole new appreciation of Francis and his companions! I love unadorned, little chapels, and I love the fields. That is where the new community of brothers chose to settle for the remainder of their days. As I touched the stone walls and looked out the small windows, it was amazing to think that these are the very same walls where Francis came to spend time alone with the Lord, day after day. This was the window he looked out to see the sunny sky and the pouring rain. Just being there gave me a fresh appreciation for Francis’ simplicity, his admiration of God’s creation and his humble pursuit of the Lord.

Simplicity of the Gospel
Francis’ simplicity was both in terms of an uncomplicated lifestyle—living in stone huts and then on the “Little Portion” of land with its small chapel—as well as his undivided focus on Jesus seen in his personal prayer life, his serving the multitudes and preaching the Gospel in the common language.

What a powerful model for radical Christians in our day!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers