Tag Archives: St. Francis

Do we need simplicity skills?

Jonny Rashid often calls me a monk, which is more than a little bit true. It is very true that I admire the Christian radicals who created intentional communities in reaction to fellow-believers getting swallowed by the empire, and I admire how they multiplied monasteries when the Roman Empire fell apart. Believers gathered around Jesus and formed an amazingly creative response to the utter chaos and violence around them. They responded to their challenges with radical simplicity. As a result, their network of intentional communities preserved the truth about Jesus, provided a social safety net, and formed centers of creativity and charity that were rare points of light in Europe for hundreds of years. I think they flowered with Francis of Assisi. All the values that held the communities together: poverty, chastity, and obedience are extremely unpopular today. So people often ask the question, “Do we need to think about simplicity?”



You might like to start with my favorite movie: Brother Sun, Sister Moon. In this clip [link], Francis and his newly-minted band of monks are working in the fields outside Assisi and dealing with the new poverty they have chosen. I like the heart of what they are doing, especially the way Francis receives the bread he’s begged with radical gratitude. His single-minded focus turns the hot, impoverished day into worship.

I don’t know what you think of these monk people: scary maybe, from another planet, embarrassing, quaint. Regardless of how you feel about them, they are successfully working on being simple. God did not give it to me to be a monk, but it was given to me to be simple, same as the rest of us.

The heart of simplicity

To get started on disciplining ourselves for simplicity, we will one main thing. That is, we focus on Jesus and let everything else follow who we follow. Jesus said,

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy (or single), your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (see Matthew 6:19-24).

That is probably the key teaching on simplicity. Simplicity is about being basic, unclouded, whole. Simplicity is about being radically centered, not just frugal or generous. Simplicity is not mainly an economic matter. The pure in heart, the simple, the single-minded, will what they do from one reality: faithfulness to Jesus, no matter what their circumstance. That willingness is the character trait upon which simplicity skills are founded. Eternity is centered in our hearts so that reality gives our hands their focus.

We usually think of simplicity in terms of money. We are living in the United States, after all — and those people care about money! Not that everyone in the world isn’t pretty much obsessed with it, too, but Americans are schooled to see themselves as part of an “economy” and to see their consumer choice as an expression of their “freedom.” No matter how many times we are instructed that the president can’t really do all that much about the economy, the presidential election is going to be about jobs, when it should probably be about drones.

We need simplicity skills because our relationship with money (and with most everything else about us) is not so simple. We are at the center of a schedule that cannot be juggled properly; we are at the center of a communication system that overwhelms us — we can’t even figure out how to use the machines we have to use to run it; we are expected to be the center of an enterprise that sells our time, our communications, and our future — in terms of debt. The decisions we have to make are weighty.

Here are two ideas that I find important as part of my own simplicity skills for dealing with money. I wouldn’t say they are easy, but they are basic skills for using the tool of money in a radical way.

Be frugal. Budget with a vision. James 4:13-17

We should not construct our budgets as if our lives came from ourselves and as if the future were in our hands. This is basic Christianity. We say things like: “If I live, I live to the Lord. Whatever is at the heart of God, that is what I want in my heart.” I don’t think anyone writing the New Testament is sitting around waiting to find the perfect choice to make so they don’t mess up eternity. God can be trusted for the future. They are moving with the Spirit and focused on that one thing.

I have had the distinct pleasure of walking with people who are getting married this year. Some of them have already talked a lot about their finances and others almost not at all. Some are easy-going about how to organize their budget and assets and naturally want to share. Others are quite nervous about how sharing is going to work out and are naturally protective. Maybe that reflects how they first attached to mom and felt she was generous or withholding. Who knows? But how we handle our money as partners and as a community is important.

A basic simplicity skill is budgeting our money. We should know what we have, what we usually spend, what our goals are. We should not have to go to the ATM to find out what we have before we buy a snorkel for our vacation. We should not put it on the credit card and fix things up later. We should have a radical strategy for how we spend so our money is used for eternal purposes.

Be focused. Know when to kill the fatted calf. Luke 15:29-30

Throwing a lot of cash at an over-generous party might seem like the opposite of having a disciplined budget and being aware of how one is spending down one’s assets. If we did not live in eternity, scarcity would, indeed, be a huge  problem. If you kill the fatted calf too often, there isn’t another calf to eat! You know about the calf, right? If you are a subsistence farmer/cow raiser, the succulent meat of the cow you fed a special diet to plump it into shape is a very rare treat. You don’t eat it until you are celebrating the Eagles winning the Super Bowl, or your sister finally gets her BA.

Simplicity is also about knowing when it is time to kill the calf and celebrate. Simplicity is not all sweating in the field being poor. It is sharing our bread and praising God. Of course, some of us kill calves we don’t even own yet, hoping we will get some joy out of it — that is a little backward. The skill is to have the joy of eternity in our hearts and to celebrate it, not to celebrate in order to get some joy. We might see some joy looking backwards, but we get it by living forwards.


fatted calf | the classical beaver

Maybe we should all have a “fatted calf fund” as part of our budgets.  Some of us may be living under our means already, so we always have money with which to bless others. But some of us have not mastered money-making and spending yet, so we might need to deliberately put some money away for the time when we need to buy the piece of jewelry, or send someone on a trip, or take a friend to dinner, or buy a forty dollar piece of meat or  a wonderful carrot at Vedge. That’s radical budgeting, too.

I hope my two suggestions spur your imagination for how you can be simple in practical ways, in that you discipline your money, and other things, to move with Jesus in this wild world. One person told me, “Wow! Being simple is complex!” Well, I guess so. But the heart of all that disciplined living is simple. The main thing is being faithful to the Lord who is so single-mindedly devoted to us.

The ABCs of the E Word — Blab

Francis famously preaching to the birds

The following catchy phrase is attributed to a very famous evangelist, Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

Well…he didn’t really say that, as far as we know. It sure sounds like him, though. He did say this in his Rule of 1221 when he told the brothers not to preach without permission: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

So OK, Francis was misquoted. I suppose that means Jesus was misquoted and now we are lost in some postmodern morass of meaninglessness where words have been emptied of content altogether. Spare me.

It is easy to point out the inexactitude of data from the past. You can also count the typos in this brief essay. While we’re at it, many of you are probably reading this rather than doing your data processing job, so you know, personally, that data from the present is probably faulty, too. But you cannot doubt that Jesus, Paul, the prophets and Francis of Assisi relied on words, whether someone recorded them with absolute accuracy or not. They were blabbers. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The B of the ABCs of evangelism is blab.

Isn’t preaching just blab?

The evangelicals who dominate a lot of the religious airwaves in this country with endless preaching would be ashamed of me for saying Jesus “blabs.” (But they should at least congratulate me for going a..b..c.. about something). As far as a lot of believers are concerned, Jesus found various natural pulpits, like on a “mount,” and held forth like a good preacher — and we have only improved on his style by moving things in out of the weather. In a reaction to a lot of believers (particularly the pharisaical evangelicals people love to skewer on sitcoms), many people, Christian and otherwise, would like to pretend “holding forth” is about dead — even though, as someone said (probably misquoted here), “the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news.”

It is a message. We need to blab. Francis modeled his life on Jesus. But it wasn’t just about the Lord’s life of poverty, it was mostly about His life of preaching. Jesus blabbed. We have no instance of Jesus performing a miracle and not speaking a word of comfort or challenge afterwards. Paul articulated succinctly what Francis and Jesus felt in their souls: “How are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14).

To be sure, words used cheaply, thoughtlessly are worse than no words at all. Marilyn McEntyre  says, “In an environment permeated with large-scale, well-funded deceptions, the business of telling the truth, and caring for the words we need for that purpose, is more challenging than ever before.”

B is for blab

I say B is for Blab because blabbing puts the idea of preaching back where it belongs: out of a “pulpit” and into normal conversation. We normal people can blab. Let the experts “preach,” there is room for them, too. But most of us are on a cell phone all day, not in a pulpit (and Circle of Hope doesn’t even HAVE a pulpit). We can even reduce our blab to a txt. We need to say a lot of things about Jesus.

So here is my exhortation.

1)     Talk about Jesus like you talk about your intimates. Maybe you don’t gossip as much as I do. But I often tell stories about my friends and family. They do great, interesting, moving things. I love them. They teach me things. I tell stories about them. Jesus fits into their circle quite naturally. Jesus is a very close friend of mine.

2)     Get over the idea that you are bringing up the “topic” of religion. Jesus is not a topic. He is not an ideology any more than you are. There is no clearer way for God to make it clear God is personal than to be revealed in Jesus. Talk about first things first: who Jesus is and who is he to you. Megan brought this up in her comment to my previous post. People are usually fine with what you think and feel; most of them are probably interested to meet an actual Christian who is not in a book or on TV.

3)     Also get over the idea that we are not supposed to be serious and intimate until we are having sex. When words began to be suspiciously meaningless to philosophers, the trickle-down effect was to make conversation perpetually “light” — as if when you revealed feelings or thoughts you were invading someone else’s privacy, or you were being intolerant. “Nice” people end up deferring all day to the audacious people who don’t understand this rule of “niceness.” Be yourself in Christ and say what you feel. Why should people be deprived of you? Why should your heart be an ungiven gift?  

4)     Until you get used to blabbing good news, why don’t you come up with the “story of the week” and see how many times you can bring it up? We are always finding interesting things to post on Facebook or to tweet. Why not let your actual face have something to offer? I’m talking about your own story of faith, what you learned, what you experienced in a meeting, what happened in prayer – blab it. Or re-tell what you heard someone else talk about – their struggle, their joy, their interesting take on applying their faith. Obviously communication from the world will try to steer you toward talking about Chevys or the President’s birth certificate or the best chai. That’s all fine, but why should Jesus be excluded? Practice not excluding him.

Evangelism is all about blab. It is what normal followers do.

The Common Loneliness — Francis Day 2010

On Francis of Assisi Day, 2010

It could have been that Francis
crawled out into the bushes of La Verna to die
like an old alley cat —
scrawny from fasting
and disappointed that his dream turned so human.

Or it could have been that Francis
longed so much for home, he couldn’t resist.
Like the prodigal son,
he came to his senses
and gave in to seeking the meal his holy memory could taste.

Either way, he ended up in the wilderness
and the mountain was a lonely silence,
like nothing but a frightened man
with nothing to offer but emptiness.
And yet he had to keep going, step by step, up the hill.

Either way, he ended up alone,
experiencing the pain both of separation and union —
like a young man leaving home
and like a father letting go,
and he aware of it all, yet powerless before it.

It could have been that Francis
did very few of the things people recalled.
But what believer is not so lonely
with disillusion and desire
that they would dare to disabuse us of their own story?

The afterlife: False Comfort from the Capuchins

My uniform is pretty simple. In summer it tends to be shorts and indestructible Chacos. In winter I put on long pants and black sneakers. Perhaps I picked up the simplicity from Christians I admire. The Amish have a uniform from the late 1800s which continues to turn heads in Lancaster Co. And I love the Franciscans, especially the Capuchins (after whom cappuccino and cute monkeys are named), who returned to the brown (hooded) robe of St. Francis in the 1500’s, including the rope belt with three knots to remind them of their vows.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus - Today's CatholicBut the Capuchins sent me the worst tract in the mail the other day! (We are on innumerable religious mailing lists). I don’t really want you to see it because you might believe it. I just want to complain. Complete with a picture like the one at the right, they intended to “comfort those who mourn” with a prayer from the “Roman Ritual.”

Almighty and most merciful Father, who knows the weakness of our nature, bow down Your ear in pity to your servants, upon whom You have laid the heavy burden of sorrow. Take away out of their hearts the spirit of rebellion, and teach them to see Your good and gracious purpose working in all the trials which you send upon them. Grant that they may not languish in fruitless and unavailing grief, nor sorrow as those who have no hope, but through their tears look meekly up to You, the God of all consolation. Through Christ Jesus Our Lord.

Prayer that might drive you out of faith

Since we don’t know how to pray, and since the Spirit of God is praying for us, we can say a lot of dumb things when we talk to God and it will be fine. So I am sure many people have prayed that prayer with no great adverse impact. But I want to object to two things in the tract that I think have driven many people right out of their faith, instead of comforting them.

1) As you saw in the prayer, their logic is: God laid the burden of sorrow on you, so you should stop rebelling against that and see your grief as something good.

God does do great things for us when we are grieving. Our losses are primary places where we change and grow and learn to trust God. But our sorrows are hardly God’s plan, like we should spend our days meekly looking up to God though our tears, waiting for him to send a trial! So many people I know have understood this logic and see themselves as the perpetual rebel and God as the perpetual sender of trials to keep them on the track of meekness. It is not a good relationship. If the Lord wanted to send me burdens it was kind of odd for Jesus to become like me to bear them with me and on my behalf.

2) Their conviction is: Dead people are watching us from heaven

In a part of the tract I don’t even want you to see, the friars tried to comfort those who have lost a loved one by convincing us that when people die we have not lost them, they are watching us from heaven and waiting until we join them. Considering that they are watching us from bliss should encourage us to live a good life so we can join them. They are praying for us, even if they are in purgatory.

I can only complain so much, since I know very little about the structure of the afterlife. But I don’t think my dead loved ones leave their bodies and become like angels in heaven (or whatever they are in purgatory) to pray for me to leave this life of tears and join them in happiness as soon as possible. My hope is in a restored creation, not a disembodied eternity. It is OK with me if God works this out any way he chooses (I’m sure she’s glad I’m OK with that!), but I don’t think he is populating  heaven with the ghosts of my loved ones to haunt me.  The friars want me to find comfort in the “real and continual presence of our loved ones.” No, I think they died. When the Lord says the word, they will rise to eternal life if he chooses. How the timing and physics of that works out is not my concern (at least not my prerogative).

I wouldn’t bring all this up, except that a lot of my friends have a secret: they don’t believe a lot of the stuff their religion teachers crank out, especially when it comes to heaven and hell. The Catholic Church, in particular, has accrued so much nonsense in their theology over the years that you have to shut off your brain to go with it; it’s like Mormonism. Just rebelling against the nonsense is kind of a cheap way out. So I thought I’d validate the process of trying to think things through a bit rather than just closing our hearts completely. So what if the Franciscans sent me a dumb tract? – they were trying to comfort me. They’ve got a lot of other things going for them, like St. Francis. Let’s keep talking.