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St. Francis, Pray for Us

by Shane Claiborne 10-03-2011 02:17 pm

Photo by Cathleen Falsani

Today (Oct. 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 gospel 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 off his clothing 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 a special all-pets-allowed service, an annual tribute to Francis. And many a bird-bath dons 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 ours.

One of my favorite stories of Francis was when he decided to meet with the Muslim sultan during the Fifth 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. So he got off his warhorse, and put down the sword.

Francis 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. Our saint 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.

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 Quran, 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 they 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.”

portrait_claiborneShane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.


ED. NOTE: I’m reprinting this article, first published more than a year ago. I believe the message is as timely as ever. Your comments and opinions are always welcome. – Brother Dennis

Sheringham Hall, England

THE UPSHUR ANCESTRAL HOME in England — Sheringham Hall — stands to this day, surrounded by more than 800 acres of lush gardens, forests and fields. Once teeming with high-society folk, carriages coming and going, and throngs of servants waiting upon every need and whim of the householder, the property now belongs to a government trust. It remains a beautiful place, but the old glory is gone.

The Upshur family in America has a rich and well-documented history — one of landowners, military heroes, aristocrats and statesmen. They operated plantations on the choicest land in Virginia, endless fields brimming with slaves who gazed across the ocean toward Africa, longing for their far-off homes and families.

Vaucluse – Hungars Creek

Arthur Upshur arrived on the shores of Virginia around 1637, the forerunner of one of America’s most respected and influential early families. The family grew, prospered and built mansions with names like Warwick, Vaucluse, Rose Cottage and Quinby Place.

Vaucluse — the famous Upshur estate — is located on Hungars Creek, near Bridgetown, Northampton County, Virginia. Built in 1784, Vaucluse is today one of the showplaces of the Eastern Shore of Virginia.


The brick part of Warwick was built in 1672 by Arthur Upshur as his seat on 2,000 acres granted him by “Pyony, King of the Machipungoe” for “four good coats.”

Upshur was truly Lord of the Manor, and it seems that his sense of entitlement gave him free conscience to acquire 2,000 acres of prime forest, farm and oceanfront property from a Native American Chief for a few coats.

Abel Parker Upshur

This isn’t to say that aristocrats are necessarily evil people, but they have a certain bearing that never changes. They are not servants and never will be. They may serve on occasion — maybe even carry some sweet tea out to the slaves in the cotton fields — but they will never be servants. That just isn’t their place in life. They are Masters.

Early American "Servants"

Of course, people in charge need others to serve them, and that’s where the true servants come in.

Frequently we call them slaves, sometimes servants, often volunteers. Even Jesus knew that we’d always have the poor, because he understood that those in charge have an insatiable need to be served.

And it seems they’ll do most anything to ensure the steady supply of servants — from buying them, coercing them, deceiving them or just plain reminding them that their “station” in life is to submit to leadership so the greater good can be served. Of course, the “greater good” most often translates into what’s best for those on top.

The sad truth is that in the same way Masters have a bearing of entitlement, Slaves possess a bearing of servitude, acceptance and defeat. Slaves see themselves as slaves, and innately understand that their role in life is to serve those who lord it over them.

Just look at politicians and how they’ve become our masters — and all while telling us that they’re here to serve us! What a joke. Are they truly our servants?

The truth is, it’s always been like this. Master and slave. Rich and poor. Lord of the Manor and servant. This country was founded like all others — not on principles of equality, but on the backs of the shackled. Ask any Native American how he or she feels about our founders’ statement that “all men are created equal,” and I think they’d just laugh sadly, knowing that their people have paid dearly for not being as “equal” as the European invaders.

Genocide of the Indigenous

I think we’ve got to start asking ourselves why we continually allow ourselves to become enslaved to those who consider themselves rulers. Do we enjoy watching others benefit unfairly at our expense? Do you think in the end that “Pyony, King of the Machipungoe” was happy with the deal he got? How long did those four coats last? “How’s that working for ya’, King?” My guess is that he later resented the white man taking advantage of him, but by that time it was too late. The rich man had become Lord of the Manor, and he’d do whatever was required to protect it.

How does this translate into our life of following Jesus? Aren’t we supposed to become servants? In fact, yes. But the only way it works properly is if we all become servants. Otherwise, some of us have a knack for taking advantage of others. Jesus sets it out for us very clearly many times in the Gospels, but here’s just one passage:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Matthew 23

Jesus actually presents us with a pattern that’s upside-down from the world. He excoriates the religious leaders of the day for their arrogance and desire to use their position for their own gain. He even prophesies their downfall. But Jesus doesn’t say that we — His followers — should be on top. In fact, He says none of us should be called Rabbi — or Master — because “we are all brethren,” equal in the Kingdom of God.

Serve One Another

But wait, there is a way to be the greatest, and He points it out by saying that “the greatest among you shall be your servant.” That can be taken two ways: 1) If we become servants to others, than we will be judged greatest of all; or 2) The “greatest” among us — pastors, preachers, politicians, parents and potentates — are called to serve. Not to rule over others, but to truly give their lives for those “under them.”

Real problems arise in the Body of Christ when men set themselves up to be rulers, apostles, prophets, healers and “clergy.” They separate themselves from the common man and most people think it’s OK, because most of us just want to be humble and do the right thing, right?

Our honest desire to serve God can become misguided by unquestionably submitting to the authority over us, and often plays right into one of the fundamental weaknesses of mankind: pride, arrogance and the desire to gain power, prestige, recognition and this world’s goods.

If “we are all brethren” and none should be called Rabbi, as Jesus said, then why do we habitually cede so much power to those who neither deserve it nor need it? Why do we allow ourselves to be dominated, and then think it glorifies God?

It never glorifies God when a few benefit at the expense of the many. He does not like this. Was He pleased when the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites? Of course not! And when they were free, He didn’t even want them to have their own King. Why not? Because He wanted to be the only Master in their lives, and knew that any man ruling over them would be corrupted by that position. Did Paul make money on the Gospel? No. He worked for a living with his own hands, so that he would not be accused of acting improperly. Paul was a real leader, but truly became a servant to the early Church. Where did it all change?

Don’t get me wrong — the Body of Christ needs leaders, but with leadership comes an awesome responsibility. To become servants. Jesus set the example over and over again with His disciples, and that’s the pattern He expects us to follow. How can we call ourselves followers of Jesus if we refuse to do what He did? It just doesn’t make sense, does it?

How can “leaders” profit from the Gospel on the backs of all those “volunteers,” and honestly think they’re servants? If a politician or a preacher or a potentate says that they’re here to serve you, then you must ask yourself this:

Who's the Servant?

“If I’m in the field, day and night, sacrificing family, treasure, health and relationships for ‘the greater good’ and receive no earthly return (nor do I expect one) — but the Lord of the Manor sits in his position of prestige, power and prosperity, ruling over me and receiving the fruits of my labor — who is the true servant?”

The answer to that is an easy one, and the solution to the imbalance is also simple. Just follow Paul’s injunction to the Philippians:

“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Phil. 2:1-8

We need serve only one Master.

And His name is Jesus.

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