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Quezon City, Metro-Manila, Philippines
I am a runner, pastor, sociologist, teacher, and missionary. After living in Chicago for 6 years, I discerned a call to go to Manila, Philippines to live and work among the urban poor, and combine my passions for ministry, running, and the oppressed. After serving in the Philippines in 2012 and 2013, I returned to the United States for two years to finish my dissertation, get ordained, spend time with my family, and work at a neighborhood center in Kansas City. I have recently returned to the Philippines this year (2016) to work again with Companion With the Poor as a missionary. Each day I look forward to how God will direct my steps as I live into His work of restoring a broken world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Truth about Preaching and Missional Orders: St. Francis and Sister Clare

I wanted to post a series of blogs about old and new missional orders, to clear up some of the misunderstanding of these orders. Also, to clear up a common misunderstanding of St. Francis' quote that we are to "Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words." While I think this quote has its place in our church today, I hope that by seeing his life (and others that have made similar commitments), you will understand that St. Francis and other preaching and missional orders, were just that, "preaching" AND "missional" orders. Their impact and influence on the church and the communities to which they were sent, came out of commitments to both the proclamation and demonstration of the good news of Jesus Christ.  I am thankful for the book The New Friars, written recently by Scott Bessenecker, from which I draw the following stories and quotes. I'd really suggest getting ahold of this book if the following whets your appetite, and then not just reading it, but seeing how God might be calling you to one or another forms of incarnational and missional living!

So, without further ado, and as my professor Randy White told us recently before watching a documentary about Mother Teresa, "let me introduce you to a friend of mine. Someone I think you've heard of before, but probably don't know as well as you think."


St. Francis, a ‘lunatic’ for the Lord

Filled with a sense of purpose, Francis rushed off and began the work of rebuilding San Damiano, apparently taking this word from God at face value. He became compulsive about reconstructing San Damiano. Selling his father’s goods to generate some cash for the broken-down chapel rendered Francis a lunatic—or at least extremely eccentric. He became an acute embarrassment to his family, so his father publicly beat him in order to save face and help persuade him to come to his senses. It didn’t help. Unmoved in his mission, Francis was finally locked up in a storage room for two weeks until his father went away on business. His sympathetic mother set him free from his “house arrest,” and Francis essentially ran away from home. He found himself frightened, cold and hungry, his only shelter a dark cave just outside town—hardly a pious beginning to his mission from God.
A final showdown with his father brought him out of his cave for a public trial before Assisi’s bishop, Guido. At the trial, Francis formally broke all ties with his family and paid his father back for the clothes he had pawned for money to help with the reconstruction of San Damiano. The rumors of Francis’s insanity were not helped when he stripped himself of every stitch of clothing he had on and handed it all over to the bishop along with a bag of money. Public nudity, voices in the midst of delirium and estrangement from family—it’s almost as great a beginning to ministry as the shame of teenage pregnancy and alleged angelic visitation.
After more than two years of labor, Francis had made substantial progress on the restoration of three chapels—San Damiano, San Pietro della Spina and Santa Maria della Porziuncula. By that time he had begun caring for lepers, but nothing quite like the Franciscans that we know and love had emerged. Then in February of 1208 something happened that would change the nature of Francis’s work.
Since Francis had restored Santa Maria as a functioning church, services could once more be performed from its altar. It was the first sermon in this now operational church that I believe changed the direction of Francis’s ministry. The priest that morning read the account of sending the disciples with the instruction to “take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). The voluntary poverty of the first followers of Jesus created some sort of seismic activity in Francis’s soul—especially considering the extreme wealth enjoyed by many of the clergy in the thirteenth century. Though he was by no means wealthy now that he had “divorced” his family, Francis did have an extra tunic, a walking stick, sandals and a belt. Inspired by Jesus’ words, Francis turned these items over to the priest at Santa Maria and soon added the ministry of preaching to his mission.
This move to preaching seems to have changed the nature of what Francis was about. It was the vehicle by which many would come to be infected by Francis’s spirit of self-sacrifice and his abandoned service to the poor, and join him in his mission. Beginning in 1208, others responded to Francis’s uncomplicated preaching by asking to follow him. He had no desire to lead others, but neither did he want to stand in the way of those who wanted to work alongside him. One of his first companions was another son of a wealthy merchant, Bernard Quintavalle. On hearing Francis’s simple sermon, Bernard invited him to his palatial home so they could talk in more detail. Joined by a friend of Bernard’s named Peter, they spoke well into the night about the material-free life. The thought of living simply, helping the sick and answering the call of Christ to rebuild his church was compelling to Bernard and Peter, who wondered if this could be God’s call for them too. Seeking the confirmation of Scripture on the matter the next morning, the three young men went to church and opened randomly to three different gospel passages—a common practice in pre-Enlightenment times. The first passage was Jesus’ charge to the rich, young ruler, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The second was Christ’s instructions to the disciples to take nothing for their journey—the same passage that recently had so moved Francis. The third was Jesus’ description of the cost of discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). That sealed it for the two new recruits. Francis was now part of a society whether he sought it or not. Within a year of that event there were about a dozen idealists camping out together and taking Jesus’ words in the Gospels quite literally. (69)

As the order experienced inevitable growing pains, and debates arose about whether the brothers should work or beg, Francis wrote his last testament chronicling the beginnings of the order and laying out some of his final wishes.

And very happily we stayed in poor and abandoned churches, and we were ignorant and subject to all men. And I worked with my hands and still wish to work; and it is my firm will that all the other brethren should do some manual labor which belongs to an honest way of life. . . . And if we should not be given reward for our labor, let us have recourse to the bounty of the Lord and beg our bread from door to door.

Quite simply Francis wanted his followers to avoid those things that might draw them away from the simple life of preaching and praying and caring for the poor, voluntarily becoming poor themselves so as to stand alongside the dispossessed and diseased. He wanted to imitate Jesus as best he knew how by following Jesus’ commands to the letter. Jesus was God in a human shell with all its frailties and pains and vulnerabilities. If Jesus could embrace the human condition, then Francis (along with Clare and any who sought to follow them) should be compelled to embrace the condition of the least and the lost. The
apostle Paul describes the early leaders of the church in a way that is fitting also of Francis, Clare and their friends, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). (72)
 
Looking at the life of someone like Francis or Clare who became disentangled from the chains of wealth has drawing power. And in a society that has gone mad with materialism, there is something refreshing about simplicity. With the quest for money and things comes a hidden burden, barely noticeable at first but excruciatingly heavy by the time you recognize that you are trapped by your wealth. (72)
 
Eighteen-year-old Clare Offreduccio

Just a few years after the start of Francis’s order, on March 18, 1212, the seeds of another order germinated, this time in a young woman. On that brisk Italian night eighteen-year-old Clare Offreduccio snuck out of her Assisian home for a clandestine meeting. This was not a rebellious teenager stealing away under cover of dark in order to engage in some kind of silly prank or passionate interlude with a young man. On that destiny-forging Palm Sunday evening, Francis wed Clare to Jesus Christ and to a life of voluntary poverty. (69)
The preaching of Francis was a magnet for idealists regardless of gender. Thomas of Celano, the first biographer for Francis, describes Clare as “young in age, mature in spirit, steadfast in purpose and most eager in her desire for divine love, endowed with wisdom and excelling in humility, bright in name, more brilliant in life, most brilliant in character.” For years the beautiful but fiercely independent Clare had spurned the machinations of her very wealthy family to marry her off. There were certainly rich and handsome suitors who would have gladly solved the family problem of Clare’s singleness. To be a wealthy fifteen-year-old girl and unwed was strange in Clare’s day; to be eighteen and single was a downright embarrassment, making it appear that something was wrong with her or the family. And her younger sisters wouldn’t be able to marry unless Clare did so first. Rumors spread and the pressure to marry increased.
On that Sunday evening when Clare knelt to pledge herself to the Franciscan ideal, Francis cut her hair, shaving the crown of her head (a practice of the monastic orders that perhaps harkens back to the Nazirite vow), and then covered her head with a veil. Dressed in sackcloth, she was whisked away to a Benedictine nunnery, as it would have been out of the question for her to live with the dozen or so brothers holed up with Francis. The next day the family patriarchs, learning of Clare’s folly, raided the Benedictine house to “rescue” Clare from her impulsive decision and delusion under the teachings of a madman. But Clare was neither impulsive nor deluded. She pulled off her veil, revealing the tonsure cut into her hair, and claimed the refuge the church afforded those who would make such a pledge. (69-70)

The excitement of a family kidnap attempt was not the Benedictine sisters’ cup of tea. They asked Francis to do something else with Clare besides foist her and the unwanted attention that came with her onto their community. Since the brothers were now living at Saint Mary’s, Francis moved Clare into an addition he had made to San Damiano, and she spent the next forty-one years living as austerely as the brothers. She opened the floodgates for young women and was soon joined by her fifteen-year-old sister, Catherine, and eventually by her own widowed mother. Although Clare was expected to live the single life in keeping with medieval norms that associated celibacy with the clergy, she held the conviction that following Jesus is sweeter than yielding to the social pressure to marry at all costs. Writing to Agnes of Prague, daughter to the king of Bohemia, Clare addresses Agnes’s decision to refuse marriage to Emperor Frederick II and join the Poor Clares: “You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Emperor with splendor befitting you and His Excellency. You have rejected these things and have chosen with your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus, you took a spouse of a more noble lineage.”
Within twenty-five years Clare drew fifty other women to the Franciscan life, and just hours before her death she received papal approval for the rule she had written for her community, thereby becoming the first woman to define a rule of life for a community of women. Many men, bishops and popes included, tried to dissuade Clare from the strict rule of absolute poverty that governed the lives of the sisters, but she stubbornly refused to live in any other way. If poverty was good enough for the Son of God, it was good enough for them.
The two movements of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares grew up side by side, each order asking those who joined to pledge themselves to a life of poverty. Francis, unfortunately, did not die soon enough to avoid seeing his order torn from its ideals. He was reluctant to write a rule for the order. He would have been glad for the leaders within the movement to simply require the brothers to devote themselves to singing and preaching, to working with their hands and to living in voluntary poverty. But some leaders, along with Pope Innocent III, deemed Francis’s harsh lifestyle as “too severe for human flesh and blood.” Others tried to push the movement toward scholasticism. This was devastating for Francis near the end of his life. He feared that a devotion to study would distract the brothers from their devotion to prayer, to a life of poverty (Francis liked to say he and the brothers were wed to Lady Poverty), and to simple preaching. In one letter to Pietro Staccia, the provincial minister of the Franciscans in Bologna and founder of a Franciscan house of studies, Francis wrote, “You are trying to destroy my order; it is my desire and will that my brethren, following the example of Jesus Christ, shall give more time to prayer than to study.” (71)

Imitating Christ

Francis’s and Clare’s life illustrate serving as a picture of just how attractive downward mobility can be to the middle class and rich. They embraced Christ’s example and chose a life of poverty. Jesus had promised that the coming kingdom would be good news to the poor. The Franciscans and Clares would embody that reality. They wanted to enflesh this gospel to those at the very bottom of the rubbish heap by stripping themselves of all worldly riches and seeking the endowment of spiritual wealth in its place. They would become real to the poor by becoming poor themselves, imitating Christ who voluntarily chose physical poverty and “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message), entering into the lives of people. They would achieve a kind of incarnation. (73)

*Bessenecker, Scott A. (2006-10-31). The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World's Poor. IVP Books. Kindle Edition. 

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