Lend me a hand, Francis,
and pull me onto the road
leading to the sun, sunrise and sunset,
ending up who-knows-where in trust.
Take my hand, Jesus,
and pull me out of the sea
ebbing into the past, sunset to sunrise,
leaving behind who-knows-what to trust.
The road is fearfully new.
My doing had a lot of being in it.
Now my being must discover what to do.
The tide of yesterday inevitably pulls out.
Take my hand, Francis,
and walk with me on the way –
you who stopped wondering where you were going,
and help me listen to the birds sing.
Lend me your hand, Jesus,
and keep me from sinking –
you who became small and suffered so in love,
please make my way full of your heart song.
The road is wonderfully new.
I feel guilty for sleeping eight hours last night.
I’m a kitten on grass in a strange backyard.
The tide of tomorrow is pulling down my castle
as the sun dawns on another Francis Day.
After I presented to the BIC’s Theological Study Group in May on our approach to “church discipline,” the convener’s first words in response were, “That was unconventional.”
I was still reflecting on my surprise at that response when I was in Assisi. There I refreshed my understanding of Francis’ radical response to the call of Lady Poverty and his identification with the marginalized. Now that’s unconventional! Like I wrote before, he was presciently rebelling against the beginnings of the exploitative capitalism Americans confuse with “freedom” these days.
It was depressing for Francis to realize the economy of Italy and the church were devoted to war and profit, and violence was always waiting to keep the powerless in line. As he went to the war front in Egypt and resisted writing a stifling agreement about his community for the church bureaucracy, he experienced his own powerlessness and it transformed him. He experienced what Paul was describing when he said his freedom made him a slave to all. And he was doing what Jesus did when he not only took on humanity, but put himself in the place of a slave – a devalued person who can be killed with impunity.
I have persistently railed against the corporate and now “gig” economy as basically having all the elements of a slave economy. But I mostly reacted instinctively. This article provides an interesting back up argument for what I see all around me. In the U.S. we are subject to the premier example of “low-road” capitalism and so many of us think it is better, even think it is God’s will — an inspired economy designed to provide us the freedom of individual choice. I won’t paste in the whole article, but this gives you the feeling for what Francis was rebelling about:
Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. …
A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.
This not only created a starkly uneven playing field, dividing workers from themselves; it also made “all nonslavery appear as freedom,” as the economic historian Stanley Engerman has written [example]. Witnessing the horrors of slavery drilled into poor white workers that things could be worse. So they generally accepted their lot, and American freedom became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage. It was a freedom that understood what it was against but not what it was for; a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter. It was a freedom far too easily pleased….
If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider— one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.
Freely joining the stigmatized
As Francis was limping off into his solitude after being essentially defeated by the entrenched ways of European culture, his defeat was already becoming his glory. It was well-known that he hid the marks of Jesus that began to appear and bleed on his body. The last thing he wanted was to become the object of a curial investigation or a commodity to be consumed by vacationers to Assisi. He quickly became those after he died, but he wanted to die in freedom.
“The five wounds that Francis bore were a body sermon which proclaimed two things: Frist, his abiding desire to stay on the side of the people who went about their whole lives with various stigmas – beggars, criminals, or lepers; second, Francis’ body revealed how much he himself has been injured and humiliated against his will, branded a loser in his contest with the powerful, and clearly conscious of his impotence” (in The Last Christian by Adolf Holl).
It was in this terrible condition that Francis found himself free. He was finally like Jesus at the last Supper giving himself as food to the community in utter, fearless openness, free of the defenses and demands that run our days and make our societies.
In Assisi I saw some splendorous and kitschy crucifixes that belied the wounds of Francis and the the Lord. We’re not so open to freedom. When we see the poor we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I pondered the paper cut of a forgivable slight while Francis received the spiritual slash of the spear.
Freedom the world cannot supply
I pondered the “cut” I felt at the study group, not only because it was thoughtless (and easily excused), but mainly because it was a tiny cost I paid for being “unconventional.” Francis was slavishly following the example of Paul who imitated Jesus by being unconventional for the sake of the salvation of sinners and freedom from death. My marks of suffering with Jesus are probably enough, but they can seem tiny in comparison.
We’re kind of surprised we suffer at all. Even though Jesus dies for us, and tells us we will be persecuted if we do not conform to the world, we still think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” If we work too hard at anything, we think, “This better be worth it!” When we suffer for something or suffer against something we think we’re extraordinary don’t we?
But suffering for or suffering against are probably too weak as ideas if we want to understand what Jesus and the Bible writers teach. The fighting against or for something will be unconventional for most of us, but ideas aren’t at the heart of things. Francis was not just a great rebel; his extreme obedience was not the point of his life! He was just trying to follow Jesus with all his heart and that was trouble enough.
Right now, the Houston Astros are riding high on the back of a clubhouse motto: Be the best version of the best player you can be. I imagine a few of them are Christians and this fits right into their faith. We could put it up as a motto for our cell: This is a place where you can become the best version of the true self you are called to become. That will cause enough trouble.
And suffering enough trouble is important. Can the poet compose without rebellion? Is there any truth without radical obedience? Like Jesus, my freedom, my poetry and obedience, is an act of heart, soul, mind and strength, in league with the development of my true self and the restoration of creation. My freedom is not a condition monitored by the police. America is not the land of my opportunity.
I am not a slave by birth but by rebirth. Some of us think our present condition of servitude is just our lot, to be rebelled against or obeyed — welcome to the ways of the world. Jesus, Paul, and Francis all know better. They are free to live in the Spirit. The world doesn’t generally like them, but the self-giving love of being among the marginalized tastes like joy.
We certainly have a lot of disappointed prophets in the U.S. these days, don’t we?! They told us exactly what would happen if Trump got elected and they were exactly right. He lies. He incarcerates children. He threatens to do something, doesn’t do it, and then says he did it and people believe him. His yet-to-be-uncovered corruption is like an iceberg ready to sink your Titanic. He’s a racist. It goes on.
The disappointed prophets lament like Jeremiah:
So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips. — Jeremiah 7
Jeremiah 7 is a good read, period. I especially like this line when I read it like an exasperated South Philly native:
“The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven.”
Only I might translate:
“The children watch their phones. The parents go to work. And someone orders Amazon Fresh to make money for the kings of capitalism.”
So what’s a prophet to do?
I’m a disappointed prophet, too. But at least I did not think Hillary was going to save the world or Barack had done so. The Democrats are well on their way to offering some other 70-year-old to lead us like some doddering Robert Mueller supposedly dispensing justice.
I feel sorry for all these old people trying to keep up. They are all older than me! And I had to text Rachel last week to get the name of someone I had known for 30 years because I was about to see them and my old brain could not bring it up fast enough! I’m disappointing enough and Joe Biden is 76! (Mark my words).
So what do we do when our prophecy is rejected?
Keep prophesying. You never know when someone is going to listen for God and hear you.
A good example, at least for me these days, is what happened with the prophecy of the disappointed Francis and Clare of Assisi. Both of them had a dream that their splendid revelation about simplicity, community and love was so basic to the way of Jesus no further improvements were needed. They went about their passionate lives and communities sprung up all over Europe in imitation of them. People hungered to be connected with something authentic, serious and joyful.
But soon both Clare and Francis were pressed for a “rule”
That’s a rule like all the other orders of monastics (which they didn’t really think they were).
That’s a rule like the ones priests lived by under Canon Law (priests they never wanted to be).
That’s a rule according to the best practices of the experts (to whom they didn’t really feel like relating).
People listening for God heard their prophecy anyway, despite all the distractions.
Prophets speak for the Ruler, not the rules
Clare ended up suffering under a rule imposed on her little community in San Damiano based on the Benedictine Rule, which isn’t a bad rule, it just wasn’t what she had in mind after God called her. If she had wanted to be a Benedictine nun, there were plenty of opportunities.
They made Francis write a rule. The first one was a couple of pages long and was mostly quotes from the Bible. The final one, right before he went off to die, was a little more expansive, but was still more a story that a ruling doc.
Really, NOT having a rule was the point! A prophet speaks from God, they are not interested in refining some thought from the past or applying the best thinking of the present bureaucracy.
Right after Francis died, the new “order” whisked his body into hiding lest Perugia steal it. In an amazingly short time the new leader of the new order, Elias, had a basilica built to house the saint’s bones and all sorts of other intriguing things I recently saw – even Francis’ raggedy brown robe. Ironically, though unintentionally, the basilica attendants made sure I was wearing long enough pants when I entered the church and a priest told me to take off my “Italia” ball cap before I got a peek at it preserved under glass like a treasure. Francis could not have predicted my experience, or that of his robe, either.
The pope codified all the papal bulls regarding the Franciscans so they had a little handbook for how not to get out of control. They got in line. Soon St. Bonaventure had systematized the thoughts and sanitized all the stories.
Governing bodies rarely trust God and others like Francis did — a prophet always thinks something like that. For example, the last oracle of Jeremiah is:
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
shall be burned with fire.
The peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
and the nations weary themselves only for fire.
You might get tired of being rejected
Jeremiah is exhausted, but he is right. I’m not sure the point of saying that is, “Exhaust yourself because you are right” or “Your exhaustion with all these people makes you SO holy.” But if you don’t ignore the prophetic Spirit of God incarnate in Jesus and rampant in the body of Christ, you will very likely get tired of being rejected. Because people will keep making cupcakes for the queen of heaven and the nations will keep wearying themselves only for fire. They’ll wreck the heavens and unleash fire on the earth. We need a savior.
Keep prophesying. You never know when someone is going to listen for God and hear you.
Our Savior has no interest in the end of time, as far as we will ever know. The Lord is going to keep us prophesying until it is time. There is no sense imagining when that time is; we just need to keep telling the truth and living the love.
As far as the church goes, the whole enterprise is a prophetic expression of truth and love. The more we exercise our gifts, including some concentrated bomblets of prophecy, the more people get a chance to turn, be freed from the dying nonsense of the world, and be connected to the Giver of All Good Gifts.
People without Jesus know about those gifts, and people who follow Jesus know even more, now that eternity is opened up to them. Looking into eternity and sometimes speaking things that come directly from it is a joy in itself. Being a prophet is innately encouraging, it is just all that rejection that’s tough.
Francis may have died a bit disappointed in his forties, but his legacy lives on and his prophecy is revered while those who despoiled his beautiful dream are reviled. The despoilers did not listen, but they could not destroy the truth, nonetheless. If they don’t listen to you or respect the church of Jesus Christ, nothing is new – except the prophecy of course, which always feels like it just came right off the delivery truck from the Kingdom of God.
A long time ago now, I was on an overnight retreat and, to my surprise, I found myself left alone for the night, the only guest in the retreat house. Initially, this was a bit scary.
Praying with my body
I was reading a book by Tilden Edwards who suggested my prayer might be better focused if I emulated King David and danced before the Lord. Even now I can remember the horror this thought aroused in me. The house was empty and I was still afraid some great “other” would see me, if I followed Edwards’ advice, and mock me, just like David’s wife had. I later learned just how deeply that mocker was installed in me and how little assistance he needed to lock me up.
But I finally could not let it go; the suggestion was not going away. My logic was something like, “You’ve already gone on retreat, which seems absurd enough to most people. What prevents you from following Edwards’ direction?” So I opened up the creaky door to my room and got out into the hall in my underwear, half expecting a nun to burst in as I tentatively took my first few steps into a body-aware prayer. I still remember how it felt to consciously let my body move up and down the hall and into the presence of Jesus along with my mind and heart. I could feel my strength being applied to expressing my praise. I slowly lost my self-consciousness and became conscious of the Holy Spirit.
But even more, I simply did something with my body. I did not just think about doing it or imagine doing it and count that as doing it. When the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, David whipped off his kingly robes and humbly expressed his praise for everyone to see. He, and the rest of us, never forgot it. The Bible writers were honest enough to include the reaction we most fear in the middle of the story. Disdain, from the outside or in, is often a hurdle we need to overcome to pray at all. David’s own wife looked down on him because he was so “out there.”
The joy of walking
I like dancing. But I rarely feel moved to make it part of my prayer. I do a lot of singing. I like to lift my arms and do other things with my hands when I worship and pray. Sometimes I dance. But I’m more of a walker. This past month I experienced some deep joy as I walked.
Sometimes a Christian client and I are doing psychotherapy together and it is difficult to imagine how they are going to break the patterns of their anxiety or depression. They think they need to think better and it just is not working. Their life and their prayer have a set pattern; nothing new can happen, but things are just not working anymore. Sometimes I suggest they take a walk and spend some time with God, maybe even talk, certainly listen, but mostly just let their body be in the Lord’s presence and see what happens. Sometimes they try it. During their stressful day, they just get up and walk around the block. Instead of dashing home, they go over to the Schuylkill and let the river help them.
When we were following Paul around Greece last year, it dawned on me again that he walked from Philippi to Thessaloniki. Most of the people in the Bible are using their own two feet to get anywhere they go. They don’t jump into the car at the last possible moment to make it to the Sunday meeting, fruitlessly dodge potholes, get undone by unexpected traffic, miss the last convenient parking spot and fastwalk into the meeting, panting for the first few minutes. They have lots of time to be slow. If I walked to my Sunday meeting it would take about an hour and a half. If I walked the route like a pilgrimage to a holy site, it might end up being a supercharged experience I never forgot. But even if I was just taking my time and using my body, I would be more likely to meet God.
My walking experience in Assisi
This year, I was privileged to take the retreat of a lifetime in Assisi. I decided to devote my days to walking. I was a pilgrim visiting sites that were holy to me. But, more important (and in the spirit of Francis of Assisi), I was getting my feet on the ground, going slow enough to listen for birds, look for flowers and experience my whole self in God’s presence: heart, soul, mind and strength. It was wonderful. Every day I had a destination in mind. I put on my sandals and launched out on a route I’d never taken to places I had never fully explored. I do not have a “favorite” day. But I keep telling the story of walking to Porziuncola. So let me see if that inspires you to learn the joys of prayer walking.
I could see that going from my room at the top of the hill town of Assisi way down into the valley below was going to be a challenge. The dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli looms large in the valley landscape and it looks like it is far away. Later Franciscans created a huge, baroque pilgrim-processing center that dwarfs the little chapel which Francis was given as his first official rebuilding project. It is where he lived and died, and it is still the center of the Franciscan world. I was excited to get going; a prayer walk is like a small retreat, a vacation trip from normality to greater awareness.
I enjoyed the brick road I discovered had been built for just such a walk. Along the way I found a little chapel. I stopped in, as most chapel owners in Italy hope people will do — they leave the doors open. I found myself alone. As I knelt and prayed, an old song popped into my head: “See this bread, take and eat and live in me.” I sang it out loud and enjoyed the sound of it echoing in the room. When I arrived at Porziuncola, I was surprised to see a mass underway in the little chapel. As soon as I got to the door, the priest held up the wafer and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A jolt like electricity pulsed through me and I made my way to the altar to receive the wafer. More so, I saw Jesus in the bread, in the place and in me. Being in the presence of the Lord is wonderful.
Knowing I am in God’s presence all the time is great. Putting my feet on the ground and feeling it with all my being is even better. Some people have wondered why I would be so bold as to “break the rules” and take communion as a non-Catholic. I tell them that I was acting in the spirit of Francis, who never met a rule he could not subvert and redeem. As it turns out, I also acted under the guidance of Pope Francis, who made a bold statement on his way back from Romania on June 2: “During the press conference Francis went further. As he explained on the plane, ‘there is already Christian unity,’ according to the National Catholic Reporter. ‘Let’s not wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist.’” Mostly, I was moving where my pilgrimage had taken me.
So why don’t you take a walk with Jesus? Maybe the thought embarrasses you. I can relate to that. Maybe it will take too much time. I can understand that, too. Maybe you just don’t think of yourself as a prayer-walker kind of person and you fear what people would say and how it would feel if you became one. But what will happen if Jesus invites you to walk with him and you don’t go? In fact, life is a pilgrimage. We don’t really know where we are going. We need Jesus beside us to get anywhere at all. Acting like that is true when I pray has truly deepened my prayer.
The church makes decisions and plans in any number of ways. We decided making decisions as a community was crucial in an age where individualism kills the soul, loneliness is epidemic and people really need to see the church in action not hear about it in theory. So our mutual mapping process is central to our calling as a church. It is much more radical and important than we seem to think!
If we are used to the risky work of participating in mutual discernment, our prayer might be, “Oh Lord, that is a lot of time and energy!” But if we are mapping like it is a new beginning, here in our eternal now, then the process teases out all its inherent joys:
It includes the most recent partner, so a living body is strengthened and grows. I want to live in one.
It listens to the latest and greatest word from the Lord, so the soul of our group is fed and energized. I love it when you can feel that happening!
It teaches us the lessons of love that only serious public dialogue can do, so it makes us real in a world of fake. Nothing makes me feel more relevant.
Resistance to the work of love has killed some of the best churches
One of the things I learned in Assisi is how the church bureaucrats stole the heart of the early Franciscan way of “mapping.” Francis called Pentecost gatherings and many of the brothers showed up to have a creative , disorganized, Spirit-led, and often-miraculous time of seeing what God was doing and feeling out what should happen next. It all happened at the navel of the Franciscan world: Porziuncola.
As soon as Francis was too weak to exercise his tremendous weight over the process, as a living “saint,” the Pope-led hierarchy of the church made the brotherhood into an “ordo” (that’s Latin for “order, rank, class”) according to canon law. The order people folded the radical Francis right back into everything he had resisted and made the Franciscans like the other monastic orders he never wanted to join.
Francis never saw a need for a rule or much of a map, but he sure managed to make an impact! He mostly relied on the presence of Jesus and the simple, but profound, style of teaching he picked up from the Bible. His own teaching style was like a living parable that he often explained in proverbial fashion.
In any organization, the “ordo” people have a point and I have reluctantly served it in order to build something for Jesus in this VERY organized United States. But the parable and proverb people have a deeper point, and I hope we never lose track of it. Or, I could say, I hope we never have it stolen from us by people who think they are doing us a favor by conforming us to the prevailing ways of the world.
Practicing discernment is harder, but more important, than interpreting law
Every subsequent Pentecost is going to be followed by “ordo people” talking over the future with “proverb people.” It happened in the early church. It happens among us every year as we map, and that is good for us.
For instance, our pastor, Ben, made a list of things he heard at the recent discernment meeting concerning our next Map. One of the things on the list popped out at me: “The proverbs are cumbersome.”
Since I was probably in Padua when that critique was offered, I have no first-hand knowledge of the context. But I have my suspicions, since I have heard similar things since forever. Similar thoughts have been popping up ever since economic efficiency and Enlightenment/scientific thinking created a pulpit and tried to make Jesus preach from it. I texted Ben a smiley face and cheerfully said, “Perhaps your 10:30 meeting should become a drive-thru!” That would be less cumbersome than relating, after all.
My point was, proverbs of every kind are supposed to be “cumbersome!” — in a good way. Maybe the biggest reason they persist in being hard to handle is because we should slow down and mentalize! — they force us to do that. Don’t you think we should resist assessing whether information is taking 30 seconds more to receive than it should?
The proverbs we have collected so far as part of our Map aren’t “information,” anyway. They are invitations to keep talking, to slow down and listen to God and each other. They are the best little parables we could come up with to express the sense of our discernment about who we are called to be. They are more than the traditional value statements ordos/organizations put in their business plans. They are proverbs like the ones in the Bible, such as, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-5). There’s cumbersome for you!
Here are a few reasons hanging in there with “cumbersome” is good for us.
Cumbersome fights the desire to control the data and feel powerful.
A proverb is designed to be open-ended. One open end faces God, who is going to supply meaning daily (like “daily bread,” right?). The other end is open to the Body of Christ, where ongoing dialogue brings the best discernment to the moment (if we have a “common spirit” as Paul hopes). Chewing on a proverb with others is part of being appropriately out of control. It is another way Jesus heals us from the wounds of data biting us in the butt all day.
Cumbersome develops your spiritual capacity.
It is a difficult world; we can’t afford to be spiritually shallow!
I used to “fight” with a much-loved covenant member who really wanted a Wiki for our teaching, which he thought was splendid. I told him, “I, and others in the Body, are personally much better than a Wiki, which is why you want a Wiki!” But we gave him and other “ordo” people the Way of Jesussite, which will one day have a better table of contents so people can take less time exploring and access what they are looking for.
But, I have to say, wandering around the foothills of the Kingdom of God, taking time, listening, having our normality challenged is SO much better than seeking God according to what we already know in a fashion we already understand. We don’t know anything like we are known, Paul says.
Cumbersome assumes we need help.
I hope we keep resisting well-meaning people who think it is an outrage, or a shame, if they need someone’s help. Collecting stories, parables and proverbs like the early church and first Franciscans is how we form life in Christ together. Proverbs call together a circle of people who add their personal angles to and applications of a big truth. “What is it?” and “Who am I?” are not the only questions! “Who is God? To what is Jesus calling? Who are WE?” are basic questions for forming new life in Christ.
Goodness is not found alone. It usually comes in a way that seems cumbersome to our normality. Solitude always leads to love. And love leads to goodness — both for us and for others. Love of and for others, naturally leads to cumbersome mapping, and irreducible proverbs in the 1200’s and in the 2000’s. I’m glad Jesus is getting us and our brothers and sisters all over the world to risk the miracle of tangible, practical, cumbersome love in an age when it is hard to find.
I don’t know how old I was (jr. high?), but I do know this: I was too young to be the Sunday School teacher for the 5th grade boys. But the church was desperate and I was their boy, so the coach put me in. I am not sure what the class learned except how clever they were to discover that I could be nicknamed “Rod White and Blue.”
But I learned quite a few things! One of them has stuck with me ever since. In order to keep these boys occupied I decided to have them enact the story of Joseph for the church (Genesis 37-50). I have no idea why the pastor let us do this in the Sunday meeting, since it was a uniformly terrible production. But the parents put everyone in a bathrobe and the servant found the church communion chalice in a gunny sack and the whole thing. Perhaps the kids still remember the epic story as a result. I do. I have been pondering it my whole life (and I’m not alone).
Edge and center spirituality
Recently, I learned a new twist to the great story after I read a book about discerning life transitions. I have offered an entire series of messages about life transitions based on this great saga about Joseph and his family, since all the stages are all there and vividly portrayed. But this new book taught me that, in the course of moving through the stages of spiritual development, there is another theme to follow and the author used Joseph to demonstrate it. Ernie Boyer calls this theme “edge spirituality” and “center spirituality.” Boyer sees two spiritual ways in life, reconciling them in the image of a circle, in which the “edge” is our traditional sense of spiritual discipline and the center is a renewed spirituality of everyday concerns. His idea brings Mary and Martha back to living together in the same house, perhaps Mary returning from her hermitage or Martha moving into the monastery.
Boyer encourages us to explore life “on the edge” (following the lead of our apostles, prophets, and artists) like the edge of a wheel, feeling all the highs and lows, coming into contact with the rough surface of the earth, and rolling into what is next. But he also, realistically, encourages us to stop neglecting life “at the center,” which we often despise for its repetition and domesticity, and find the Spirit in what is already established. These two spiritual modalities are often side by side in the New Testament, though the edge is often considered the better way.
You can see how the “edge and center of the wheel” this is a nice metaphor for meditating on our individual and communal lives. Individuality lends itself to a heroic search for the edge. Community leads us to look for ways to develop the sacrament of our routine and the blessings of living as part of the Lord’s body, on pilgrimage and rooted in eternity. There is always a balance of individual calling and caring for others, a balance of looking at our personal career goals and caring for our family, both biological and spiritual.
Joseph learns his relationship with God and his unique calling out on the edge: in his dreams as a teen, in a pit in his twenties, way on the edge in Egypt in his thirties, in prison in his forties (the timeline is subject to interpretation of course). Then in his older years, he ends up in the center of Pharaoh’s household in the center of the whole kingdom and in the center of a famine that gives him the capacity to save his family, bring them to live with him and end up at the center of them again. There is an interesting dance of these complementary spiritual ways in the story. Joseph’s family upheaval spins him out on the edge. Then his great spiritual journey on the edge makes him fully capable of nurturing the center. You can also see this idea worked out from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s mission. At the beginning, Jesus is pushed to the edge by his mother, at a wedding no less. Then at the end, as Jesus turns back toward home, both as a man and God on the cross, he looks to his mother and provides her a home with John, then turns to the Father and says, “It is finished.”
How edge and center spirituality goes together
As I look back over my faith development, I can see how these two spiritualities often felt like they were in competition, but usually ended up in a balance – or at least a truce! When I got out of high school, and out of the kind of Baptist Church that would make me a Sunday School teacher (!), I became an actual Christian. My first mentors in the faith were all people who had great faith “on the edge.” I loved Anthony in the desert, Patrick on his hill, Francis in his cave and Wesley on horseback. It was a real question whether to become a Franciscan or marry Gwen. I just could not get God to let me be a Franciscan — and since you may know my wife, you can see why I did not argue too much with the good given to me in her! But my mentors in history made me feel a bit guilty about my choice. Since an “edge” spirituality often despises anyone who ties themselves to the “center” of the wheel.
Thank God I had the flower-child-recasting of St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon to encourage me. Here is a bit of wisdom stuck in my memory, straight from the script:
[Giocondo] I can take all the rest, the cold, the hunger, but there are days and nights when I’d gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love. I’ll ruin everything you’ve tried to do, Francesco. I can’t go on.
[Francesco] But, but you don’t have to. We’re not a regiment of priests for whom the sacred vow of chastity is a discipline. We’re, we’re just a band of men who simply love God, each according to his own capacity. But if Giocondo finds the lack of a woman distracts him from loving God,then he should marry and breed to his heart’s content.
[Giocondo] You didn’t cut my hair before. You knew I was weak. You knew this would happen.
[Francesco] If everyone took the vow of chastity, the human race would end. Be fruitful and multiply, but with a wife, remember.
Dwight Judy says, “Most of us are not living the highly individualistic life of early hermits in the desert. We live in society, in communities, and in families. Yet the resources from Christian spirituality largely reflect the individual quest for purity of soul before God. Even when engaging in a communal living situation, such as monastic life, our spiritual legacy of prayer and attention to the inner journey helps us primarily with the task of solitary communion with God.” Francis had to assure Giocondo that making love is great. For many of us it is one of the most spiritual things we do. And watching a child born is usually the closest sense of incarnation we ever witness.
The spirituality of the center is the hub of the circle where we live in community and family, doing the daily routine in grace. The turning of the wheel and the bumps in the road usually push us toward the edge, where we meet God in our unique experiences, gifts and troubles. The rarified experiences we have out on the edge then inform our return and they refresh the center. The two spiritualities are woven together in a “coat of many colors,” just like Joseph’s.
Being conscious helps with the balancing
I have a great affection for St. Francis whose “out there” spirituality also built a community who still love to call themselves the “little brothers,” just like he taught Giocondo. I know my balancing act of the two spiritualities, though somewhat conscious, has often careened from one extreme to the other. This blog post arose in a day of retreat out on the edge. But I will be into the community life of Circle of Hope later in the week and August is full of family and friends — and I am still married to my lovely wife! But as much as I long for my solitude with God and the pure joy of revelation and comfort I find there, it is really no less joyful, I think, than having my grandson climb up on my lap as I am lounging, put his little nose on my big one and ask me one of his profound questions. So odd, isn’t it, that we might despise one revelation in comparison to the other, or ignore one and specialize in the other, or fear the edge while we cling to the center or fear the center as we look beyond our edge.
I take heart in the story of Joseph, since it begins and ends with impossible grace. He never knows what is going to happen next, but he apparently knows where he is going. He’s rolling along with God, not assessing whether he is experiencing “edge” or “center” spirituality! He receives whatever comes along. He even tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20).
If you are learning how to have a disciplined spiritual life, the point is: Don’t mistake the edge for the whole wheel. Don’t despise the hub as if it were mediocre or mundane. It is all one life energized by God’s Spirit. From wherever you start today, perhaps clinging to the center too much or aspiring to an impossible edge too much, we all have the assurance that God keeps developing us, just like Joseph developed, by the seemingly unpredictable or even troubling experiences we face. It is all a wonder and God intends it for good.
Last night I was in a rush to get home and enjoy my yearly viewing of Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Still great. This year I was especially moved by how well it points out the sins of the one percent of the year 1200. Pietro di Bernadone (Francis’ father) looks suspiciously like Donald Trump, telling his son to pillage a particular relic when he attacks Perugia in order to save them a “fortune in indulgences” and picking up heirlooms “for almost nothing” in the postwar turmoil. Most years I miss that theme because I am so preoccupied with watching each of Francis’ circle of friends wake up to their longing for faith in a world gone wrong.
My technology delayed me
Ironically, I was in a rush to get home to watch a movie about my simplicity-adopting hero because my technology delayed me. First, my credit union mobile app would not process a particular check I wanted to deposit — the error message said it could not read the numbers, then it said I had already deposited the check and couldn’t do it again! I spent a while arguing with my phone. I called the bank and was sent to a number that did not answer. Then I went to an ATM only to realize I did not remember the right pin code (since I was retrained to use the mobile app). I finally got home and could not immediately figure out how to use the DVD player because I have been retrained for Roku.
When I sat down for my anticipated reverie, I was a bit exhausted — a bit tempted to give up and scroll through some screens while catching up on cable news, the next episode of the strange and prophetic Mr. Robot, or something numbing like that. Instead, I pressed on and enjoyed watching Francis throw his father’s belongings out the window. In the movie version of his life, Francis is propelled toward his conversion to radical Christianity by a visit to the sweatshop in the family basement he had thus far ignored. His father almost beats him to death after he takes the workers into the sun for an afternoon in which “no one did a lick of work.” I noticed the parallels.
Our dialogue set me up
I was set up for frustration with my commitment/subjugation to various forms of technology by our discussion last Monday of our theology of technology. We bravely waded in to the huge subject and ended up with a rather large summary doc that we have stored in Google awaiting some time when we have enough energy to wade in again. I think we are getting to some good thinking. For instance, we took a few of Circle of Hope’s proverbs and pointed them at technology. Here’s a sample:
Our deliberate attempts to make disciples are “incarnational,” friend to friend, so we accept that what we do will almost never be instant. — Being an organism, being incarnational may not be efficient; reducing processes down to efficiency is not automatically best.
People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ. — Depersonalizing data collection and screen usage could be antithetical to what we are going for.
Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.” — Technology is not intrinsically wrong; it is a means to God’s ends in our hands.
We are “world Christians,” members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love. — Communication technology is amazing, we need to learn how to speak the language and touch the hearts of those submerged in it.
The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us. — In a digitized, mechanized, roboticized economy, it will be a struggle to be personal.
Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility. — Like it or not, the future is rapidly coming upon us. It is not OK to say nothing about what technology is making us.
Francis’ simple joy sets me straight
Today, on Francis Day, I intend to keep it simple. But I do not see my example from the 1200’s as a simpleton. He imagined a worldwide mission of peace and community in Christ. He even went to Egypt and got an interview with the sultan who was warring against European crusaders in Palestine (again, a strangely familiar situation). I think we will end up with some good theology to offer a world beset by virtual bigots, techno terrorists and corporate home invaders because we have the perennial sensibilities of Francis and of anyone who simply wants to follow Jesus simply. As Richard Rohr describes him in one of last year’s best books Eager to Love in the chapter “An Alternative Orthodoxy:”
Francis’ starting place was human suffering instead of human sinfulness, and God’s identification with that suffering in Jesus…In general, Francis preferred ego poverty to private perfection, because Jesus “became poor for our sake, so that we might become rich out of his poverty” (2 Cor. 8:9)…
Francis’ was a radically Christi-centric worldview, but one that nonetheless recognized the Church as the primary arena in which this good news could be protected and disseminated. He was a non-dual thinker….[He saw] the living Body of Christ, first of all, everywhere, and then the organized Church was where the “hidden Mystery,” could most easily be recognized, talked about, developed, and praised. Most of us come at it from the other side, “My church is better than your church,” and never get to the real universal message. We substitute the container for the actual contents, and often substitute our church structure for the gospel or the kingdom of God. Francis was an extraordinary “yes, and” kind of man, which kept him from all negativity toward structures or other groups (p. 84).
I think I can nurture a “yes, and” kind of approach to technology (at least the part I don’t throw out of the window). Today, that means becoming poor in spirit and poor with others so we can be rich in Jesus, It means less stress about the containers and more attention to the contents. It means straining out the gnat of goodness and not swallowing every camel the sophisticating salespeople flash before my eyes. It means wading in and trusting Jesus to save me, again.