St. Francis, Pray for Us

St Francis Feeding The Birds
Today (October 4) Christians around the world celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the bright lights of the Church and one of the most venerated religious figures in history.

The life and witness of Francis is as relevant to the world we live in today as it was 900 years ago.  He was one of the first critics of capitalism, one of the earliest Christian environmentalists, a sassy reformer of the Church, and one of the classic conscientious objectors to war.

Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, born into a society where the gap between rich and the poor was increasingly unacceptable.  It was an age of religious crusades, where Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the name of God.  Sound familiar?

Francis did something simple and wonderful.  He read the Gospels where Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, “consider the lilies and the sparrows and do not worry about tomorrow”, “Love your enemies”  —  And he decided to live as if Jesus meant the stuff he said.

Francis turned his back on the materialism and militarism of his world, and said yes to Jesus.

One of the quotes attributed to Francis is a simple and poignant critique of our world, just as it was to his:  “The more stuff we have the more clubs we need to protect it.”  It does make you wonder if he’d be on Wall Street protesting today.

With a childlike innocence, Francis literally stripped naked and walked out of Assisi butt-naked to live like the lilies and the sparrows (and to become the patron saint for the flower children).   He lived close to the earth, and like Jesus became a friend of the birds and creatures, whom he fondly called “brother” and “sister”.  In light of that, many Christians brought their pets to Church yesterday for an special all-pets-allowed service, an annual tribute to Francis.  And many a bird-bath dones his iconic image.  But it’s easy to turn our best movements into monuments.  His life was a powerful critique of the demons of his day, which are very similar to the demons of our day.

One of my favorite stories of Francis, was when he decided to meet with the Muslim sultan, during the 5th Crusade. It was a tumultuous time.  War had become a necessity and a habit, and was baptized by much of the Church.  Francis was sent off as a soldier, but he could not reconcile the violence of war with the grace of Christ… and so he got off his warhorse, and put down the sword.    He pleaded with the military commander, Cardinal Pelagius, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused. Instead, Pelagius broke off all diplomatic relations with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. The sultan in turn decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian would be rewarded with a Byzantine gold piece. Francis, however, pursued his vision in steadfast faith, surmounting all dangers in a journey to see the sultan. He traveled through fierce fighting in Syria and inevitably was met by soldiers of the sultan’s army, who beat him savagely and put him in chains, dragging him before the sultan himself. Francis spoke to the sultan of God’s love and grace. The sultan listened intensely and was so moved that he offered Francis gifts and money. Francis of course had no desire for the money, but he gladly accepted one gift, an ivory horn used in the Muslim call to prayer.  He took it back with him and used it to summon his own community for prayer.  Both Francis and the sultan were transformed by that encounter.

Brave New Films

In an age of religious extremists, Francis offers us an alternative. We have seen religious extremists of all stripes, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, distort the best that our faiths have to offer and hijack the headlines with stories of hatred.  We’ve seen Christian extremists burn the Koran, blow up abortion clinics, bless bombs, baptize Wall Street, and hold signs that say “God hates fags”.  But Francis invites us to become extremists for grace, extremists for love.

Although the Church is prone to forget his witness or to make a monument of his movement, there is a whole world remembering his radical witness today.  We celebrate his critique of an economy that left masses of people in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish.  We rejoice in his love for the earth as we work to end the ravaging of our world. We remember his witness that there is a better way to bring peace than with a sword.  And we remember the whisper he heard from God, “Repair the Church which is in ruins.”

Let us do a little something today as a tribute to old Francis.  Maybe we can get rid of some of our stuff or spend some time with a homeless person.  Maybe we can laugh at advertisements today that try to convince us that happiness can be purchased.  Maybe we can hang out in the woods and spend some time with the lilies and sparrows.  Maybe we can take an enemy out for dinner.

These are the words of the famous prayer of Francis.  May the inspire us to become better people and to build a better world:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. 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. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist, and founding member of the Simple Way.  He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world.

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About the Author

Shane Claiborne

Shane ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way, a radical faith community in Philadelphia. His most recent book, Executing Grace was released in June.View all posts by Shane Claiborne →

  • Morf

    Here’s an article I wrote that strike me as St. Francis-like –

  • April Emery

    I agree that we need to be instruments of peace but I think that being a pacifist is not modelling Christ either. Jesus turned over tables in the synagogue, but he didn’t sin. God told his own people to combat in the Old Testament. I am sure you have some rebuttle to this, and I have heard many rebuttles … but I think the Christian life requires us to look at ALL of Scripture IN CONTEXT and not just magnify the red letters of Christ in Scripture as weightier than others. Sure, if you focus on the Sermon on the Mount it does paint the picture you describe … but there are a plethora of other passages and books in the Bible that hold each other together. If you select one portion and create a theology out of it, it is not sound. “How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is a great example of what I am talking about.

    • Peter Garcia

      I’m not so sure we can be instruments of peace in any other way than to reject violence. Dr. King so prophetically spoke:

      “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

      Partnering with violence, using drone missiles/guns/bombs/destructive rhetoric as a means to an end, defeats enemies but does not defeat sin or strife. We are not called to defeat our enemies but to love our enemies. The practicality of the message (on individual or corporate scales) does not negate its implications for discipleship.

      April, I’d be quite impressed if you can successfully and consistently hold all of the Bible in context and treat all texts equally as you suggest. Jesus’ words and actions of peace and non-violent resistance hold no substance because elsewhere in the Bible there is violence? Did Jesus know the scriptures? Do you think Jesus spoke his words of peace with the texts and histories of God’s people in mind? Does Jesus’ (and later Peter and Paul’s) inclusion of Gentiles into the kingdom mean nothing because God ordained conquests and violence against Gentiles? Paul encourages believers to be perfect as Christ is perfect, but godly people sin throughout the Bible. Does that mean we don’t strive for Christlikeness? Must women forever be the property of men and inherently less equal? The marriage ethics of the Second Testament suggest monogamy, but throughout the Bible there are plenty of instances of polygamy, even God ordained polygamy. 

      What I’m trying to say is that whether you realize it or not, everyone is “picking and choosing.” 

      • april emery

        Your take on the instances prove my point … reading the bible in context would help clear up your questions. I believe in peace as well and doing my part in that … but I also know the example of Jesus being “violent,” the OT examples and the Revelation account of an impending battle to come that will be lead by Christ himself are all examples of the verse in Eccl “there is a time for peace and a time for war.” I am not blood thirsty, nor do I look for ways to express violence, etc … I did not dance in the streets over Osama’s murder …. but I do think the emergent church stance on things is a little too postmodern in their take on the Word and perception of God … I don’t have everything figured out but from what I read in the Word and have learned about exegesis … many of the ideas expressed here are not biblical.

        • Peter Garcia

          When is the time for violence? Or more pointedly, how does the violence in the Bible influence your discipleship and your commitment to Jesus? 

          I’m not so sure that it is fair to equate Jesus turning over the money changers with Israel essentially being told to wipe out people groups in the name of God. They are entirely separate categories with completely different ramifications. Does that violence bother you at all? 

          Does God need to condone and use violence to accomplish God’s redemptive mission within creation?

          • april emery

            Discussing this online in text only leaves lots of room for misinterpretation of what we each are trying to say. I find it interesting that none of you are reconciling scriptural accounts but instead just posing more questions. Of course I seem skewed and in error to you! God is Peace, love and all those other things we find easy to believe but he is also a warrior. Reconcile that in your thinking please. I am not going to comment further because I don’t want to further be misunderstood. Rather I will pray that God will reveal to each of us Truth … regardless of who may be in error. I am opened to being corrected by the Lord if I am wrong. Blessings to you all.

            Ultimately we are brothers and sisters in Christ and our thoughts on the practical aspects of living the Christian life may differ in ways, but at the end of the day we are each equal in our depravity and need for Jesus. I don’t want to get caught up in details that I put a wedge between my brothers/sisters. I have enjoyed the interchange. “In the essential things, unity ; in the nonessential, grace.”

            Grace to you all friends

          • Peter

            “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.  I may never fly over the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army, Yes Sir!”
            When I attended a Native American church, they sang this children’s song every single Sunday for two years I’ve been there.  Why are Christians so hungry for power?

        • You have a rather skewed theology April. For instance, your literal reading of Revelation makes no sense when you’re lecturing Mr. Garcia on context, and the fact that you assume Christ committed or condoned physical violence because he became angry with the money changers and used a whip to drive out animals is very telling. 

          Non-violence is not a post-modern creation, any study of the early church and practices of early Christians reveals that. Christ offered an alternative, a better way to the never-ending spiral of violence. Everything you’re espousing seems to be a bizarre amalgamation of contradictions and shaky inconsistent exegesis. Also, I find it more than amusing when Christians try and negate those with different ideas by claiming things are not “biblical”. That’s a silly thing to say to someone whose worldview is clearly marked by their understanding of scripture.It shows that you leave little room for growth and change even though all of us have an incomplete exegesis.Jesus’s teaching on enemy-love and self-sacrificial non-violence is one of the unique and beautiful things that set apart Christ Followers from the kingdom of the world. What merit is there to a theology that mirrors the world’s ideas of common sense and thinking? How is that worthwhile, and how does it reconcile itself with a man whose teachings were so radical he was murdered for them?I’d encourage you to throw out your modern lens and read scripture IN CONTEXT like you stated above and I’m sure you’ll conclude that Christ not only meant the things he said regarding enemy-love but that his teachings reconcile the violence in the Old Testament in a manner consistent with his actions and teachings on self-sacrificial love. Christ Followers are apart of a radical kingdom that looks nothing like the kingdom of the world – a kingdom that does not mirror the never ending spiral of violence, hatred and retaliation perpetrated by the clashing kingdom of man.

  • Peter Garcia

    These stories and others like them are so important for us to continually resurrect today to encourage us and provide models of love, resistance, and discipleship.

  • Beautiful and poignant. Thank you so much. 

  • brendon pennington

    Amen Shane. St. Francis makes me wanna fall more in love with Jesus. God bless you man.

    -Your Fellow Brother In Christ-

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  • Colin Bain

    The time for violence might be in defence of your life. The time for lying for Rahab was when preserving the lives of her peoples enemies. However, it is a problem that we will always struggle with.

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  • Chris Fisher

    On 16 July 1228 Francis of Assisi was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX. That’s a long time ago, so it’s a little late for questions, but if I could I would like to find out why anyone would say such a strange thing as “Preach the Gospel at all times. Where necessary, use words.” Was it because he was fearful to use actual words to preach the truth of the Gospel? Or was it because he thought that people would see that he had good works and hear the message of salvation without a preacher, something contrary to Scripture’s “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14).

    The admiration of Francis of Assisi in this article seems to be based on the premise that he said this (which is debated) and lived this way and rarely if ever verbalized the truth of the Gospel. True love is not just living the Gospel before them, but telling them the truth of the Gospel verbally. So that they really understand that because of their sin, the wrath of God is upon them (Ephesians 5:6) and that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb of God for that sin. He bore it and by putting your faith alone in the finished work that abolished that sin you are now reconciled to God and no longer under His wrath.

    I regularly meet those who think they can obey the Great Commission without using words. When they hear the Gospel preached they are usually offended and say things like, “I appreciate what you are saying, but I don’t like the way you are saying it.” With a little probing, they are the relationship folks, who think preaching the Gospel means building relationships with the lost, and never mentioning words like “sin,” “Hell,” and “Judgment Day.” They think that real love is to withhold the Bread of life from those that are starving to death. Remember that Jesus said, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

    Listen to the Apostle Paul’s sobering warning to his hearers: “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20: 26-27). Perhaps he spoke about being free from their blood because he was familiar with God Himself warning Ezekiel of his responsibility to warn his generation: “When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezekiel 3:18).

    The Lord Jesus chose Paul as His instrument to proclaim the truth. But the Lord said to him (Ananias), “Go, for he (Paul) is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. (Acts 9:15 ESV)

    Anyone who believes your works get you into heaven is a liar. Salvation is not of works. It’s of faith alone. Don’t be fooled by ear ticklers. Man is under God’s wrath for that sin unless we are drawn by the Holy Spirit, born again and given a new heart by God. The gift of a new heart compels us to put our faith alone in the finished work of Jesus and then we will produce good works because of His grace.

    The Great Commission is not just living it out before them, it’s proclaiming the truth in love VERBALLY. Even if the truth hurts.

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