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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.


“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” – John 12:8

HomelessManI always took that to mean: don’t worry about the poor so much – they’ll always be there – concentrate on me. But I’ve seen a different side of the poor lately that got me thinking.

Is it possible that Jesus was talking about the faithfulness of the poor? Did He mean that “they’d always be there for you?” like your Mom, Dad, good friend, sister or brother are there for you?

And what about the rich? Are they “here for us”? That hasn’t been my experience.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matt. 19:23

I’ve been out of work for about 10 months, and I never expected to be in this situation, nor could I have imagined it. I’ve worked hard my entire life, from picking corn and peaches on a farm at 14, to stocking shelves in high school, selling watches and diamond rings when I was single and on my own, to pressing through many years of midnight shifts in downtown Detroit so I could provide for my wife and kids. I’ve never asked for – or expected – help from the government or anybody else.

On October 31, 2008 I was laid off from a job I’d had for 14 years, and where I was feeling pretty secure. At least until new owners took over a few years back and mismanaged the company to death. Then the economy tanked, along with the automotive industry and its thousands of small suppliers you never hear or read about.

In the past, getting a new job was never more than a day away for me. But this time is different. Really different. There are no jobs in the Detroit area for me.

I’m a 56-year-old copy editor who’s highly regarded by co-workers and bosses – but accolades can’t get me a job these days. I appreciate them, but money is the bottom line, and if anybody’s hiring, they’re looking at entry-level college kids who make $28,000/year.

And you know who’s reached out to us in our time of need? Has it been the company owners we know, or nearby churches that are sitting on millions of dollars for future building projects? Or my former boss – who stiffed us out of COBRA benefits – who lives in Grosse Pointe Shores and has a condo in Harbor Springs?


Not one.

Not even a phone call.

“The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” – Pro. 14:20

Life is a challenge for the poor. And I’m just discovering this, because I am now one of the “newly poor.” I am seeing things and experiencing life with new eyes. I have a renewed empathy for the poor, the hurting, the dispossessed. The homeless are no longer those sad souls who shuffle along with their life’s belongings in a bag or a cart. They’re somebody. I see them and say “that could be me.” Maybe it is me.

I have to say here, though, that I’ve always had some empathy for the poor, and that’s because of my Dad. I’ll never forget the day we were driving down Howard St., heading toward the Ambassador Bridge on the way to our cottage. Our cottage? Yep. We had a cottage in Canada. Where do you think I picked corn and peaches – in Detroit?

All I remember was that I was riding in the back of my Mom’s ’56 Ford station wagon with my brothers and sisters, and we suddenly veered to the side of the street. What’s going on? Lock the doors everybody, we’re in a bad neighborhood. My Dad actually got out of the car! I don’t remember if my Mom questioned my Dad or not, but I can imagine she was scared and didn’t know what he was doing. But she knew him. She knew the guy she’d married, and she loved him for the quirky, loving man he was.

You gotta be kidding me, Dad. Don’t go near that filthy man carrying that bag over his shoulder. What are you doing?

But he calmly walked up to this man – a poor man – put his hand on the man’s shoulder, pulled some cash out of his pocket, and gently handed it to the g78290-main_Fulluy. I think the poor guy was dumbfounded, because I don’t remember seeing his mouth move or him shaking my Dad’s hand, or anything. I just remember that my Dad walked back to the car (of course, we had to quickly unlock his door), sat down, slid the gear lever down to D and drove off. Never a word about it.

That still impresses me to this day – nearly 50 years later. WOW! What an example of God’s love to the poor. Thanks Dad, and thanks Mom, for being the parents who always modeled that love to us. You taught us to look past our fears, our prejudice, our insecurities and our failures, to see others the way God sees them. Thanks for the lesson.

In my current distress, I’ve become keenly aware of those who have drawn near to us. Actually drawn close, like when my Dad walked up to that guy on Howard. Close enough to touch us, to smell us, to look into our eyes. To hear us. And they have.

These are the ones who struggle every day to feed their own kids, pay their bills, put overpriced gas in their cars and hopefully hold on to their own modest jobs.

These are the ones we will always have with us. And thank God we do. Because they empathize when we’re down. These are the ones Jesus spoke of when He said: “You’ll always have the poor among you.”

Among us. With us. Close. Touching. Seeing. Hearing. Responding. Giving. Loving.

Not next to us, or close to us, or near us. Among us. One of us.

I thank God for our friends and family who have been a blessing to us, without being asked but feeling for us and responding kindly. I thank God that I’ve had tons of time with my grandkids that I never had while working. I thank God that I’m not alone in this – my wife and I stand together, as we have for 34 years, through the better and the worse. Mostly the better. Thanks, Sharon.

And I thank God for my kids, who are all grown up with families, responsibilities and challenges of their own. They’ve grown up to be pretty empathetic individuals, and what else can you ask for? The love of God runs through all of them and flows out to people all around them. They’re special people, and I am deeply proud of them. However, I’m glad they don’t have to change my diapers yet – and I hope they never will – but I think they would if they had to, and that means a lot to me. Thanks, Jesse, Ben & Sarah.

“Praise the Lord.
Praise, O servants of the Lord,
praise the name of the Lord.

Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of their people.

He settles the barren woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.

Praise the Lord.” – Psalm 113

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