A Simple Way

Some may hear me time and time again mention how I subscribe to a Franciscan worldview. While those who know me well will not be confused by that (due to the themes that play out in my life) – those who hear that term, “Franciscan worldview,” may be a bit curious. Does that mean to preach to birds, and wear a brown habit everywhere I go? Well, no. Does it mean that I’m Catholic or have taken vows? No, to those also.

For years, I have studied Francis of Assisi and have been drawn to him. Of course, the one I am most drawn to is Jesus Christ himself – but in a world of so many contexts, the question of “how do you follow Christ?” is an important one. I believe that Christ calls us to follow Him, not with someone else’s heart, giftings, and callings, but as who he created us to be. The draw that I have with Francis, is that of looking at his life within the context of mine and seeing parallels there. The idea is that “if this young Italian guy can radically walk out his love for Jesus like this, then maybe I can too.” Of course, there were other congruencies that drew me to Francis. He was known to be a troubadour (a musician), his worldview was radically impacted by Jesus calling him to re-build (literally and metaphorically) the Church, and he had a desire to follow (really follow) Jesus into the uncomfortable places – the places that confronted his privilege (he grew up in a wealthy family) and confronted his fear and discomfort with the poor and outcasts of society – in ways that brought transformation. And he was unpretentious – he didn’t set out to change the world, or even become a priest (he chose to never become ordained as a priest, but rather as a deacon). He didn’t just care for the poor and diseased – he loved them with Christlike love, shown by his solidarity with them.

Franciscan Vows & the Reframing of Life

Most if not all religious orders include vows associated with them. The way of Francis includes 3 vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. While I haven’t taken vows (I’m not really a fan of ‘vows’ per se), I have realized that over the years, my fascination with Francis has played out in wrestling with these ways of life in my own context. While we normally picture these different things as (often) highly ascetic values, the way that they have played out (and continue to play out) for me are as: simplicity, purity in relationships, and obedience.

A Material and Spiritual Simplicity

In the U.S. it is pretty obvious how materialistically oriented our society is. The draw of Francis on my life constantly reminds me that life, and even joy, isn’t found in ‘stuff.’ It’s found in connection with the Trinity: a dependency on the Father, an apprenticeship to Christ, and a friendship with Holy Spirit.

The stark contrast of the frantic and distracted chase after ‘things’ (and esteem), with the simplicity of abandoning it all for the sake of the Kingdom is a part of the Francis-draw on my life. Today we might call it “minimalism with Christ-centered purpose.” Author Joshua Becker describes minimalism as, “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.” I believe we see this intentionality radically lived out in the way of Francis, and it has the power to challenge us to do the same. Sure, we may not take it to the extremes that Francis did, but how far will we let it take us? Every step holds freedom for us, but we won’t experience it until we move our feet.

I believe that another kind of simplicity (or poverty) that we see in the way of Francis is a spiritual simplicity. For Francis it was all about Jesus. In a world with Christian beliefs fractured into denominations and movements, the heartbeat that we hear in Francis was a heartbeat for Jesus – and following His way. I believe we’ve made things too complicated, and that following the way of Jesus is not complex, rather it is allowing all the excess of our culture and religiosity to be stripped away to let Jesus be the answer. I believe what we find then is not a complex system of dogma, but a simple way. Simple, but not easy – it confronts all the things that our culture tells us is needed for a blessed life. Rather, life in the Kingdom of Heaven flips the power structure of the world on its head and says ‘yes’ to the kingship of Jesus. The example of Francis is a radical one, because he looked to Jesus, and when Jesus said to do something (in Scripture or by impression of the Spirit) – he did it. No matter how crazy it seemed. Nowadays we could use that kind of ‘foolishness.’ I think the world needs the church to practice that kind of foolishness.

With this all said, it goes a bit deeper. Where the cultural idea of today’s ‘simplicity’ falls short in contextualizing the idea of ‘Francis’ poverty’ is in the poverty of downward mobility. Solidarity with the poor, suffering, and marginalized was a huge part of the way of Francis. I’ll say a bit more when I talk about obedience, but one unescapable part of Francis is that there is a special experience of solidarity with Christ and experience of the Christian walk that comes with embracing this poverty, or minimalism with mission. It’s not hidden in poverty itself, but in the heart that learns the freedom of letting go. Letting go of the norms, expectations, and comforts of an excessively consumeristic, get-the-newest-model, own the biggest and best, society. It may look like a downgrade from society’s perspective, but from the Kingdom of Heaven’s perspective it’s an upgrade.

Purity in Relationships

I am not celibate – I’m married with kids. But what challenges and inspires me about Francis is that while he was celibate, it wasn’t merely an ascetic rule for him, but a relational expression of how he followed Jesus. In other words, it wasn’t just about not having sex, but about earnestly holding the honor, dignity, and well-being of others in high regard. One of the challenges of our society (as many others) is that people are often viewed of as less than the image of God.

And that’s the problem.

Let me be clear: I have so much to learn and to still put into practice. I have biases, selfishness, and ethnocentric tendencies, but learning how to operate with relational circuits on, to not react but respond out of love, and to press into humility, are things in which I believe we can learn and be inspired by Francis. So then, purity in relationships means not using people. Putting others first, and pretty much being someone who is devoted to living out (or is at least trying to be on their way to living out) the hesed/agape/steadfast love of God, is what it is all about. Sure, this is something all followers of Jesus should do, but it’s not something that is ‘accidentally’ done. It is intentional. And the example of Francis is a gift, illustration, and caricature (?) to us in how to do it.

Obedience

Nowadays (as many have done over the centuries), we take a lot of liberties in the way we work out ‘following Jesus’ in our lives. However, the point of obedience is that our faith is not something that we sprinkle on top of our lives, like sports, a 401k, or some hobby or interest. Dallas Willard said it well when he said, “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.” In that sense, obedience to Christ is acting – acting as if what we say we believe is true. The thing of Francis is that he didn’t so much ‘do’ following Jesus, but rather following Jesus ‘did’ him. He became completely consumed by His relationship with Christ. He didn’t do the Christian life out of obligation, but out of love. That’s the formational journey that I believe we are all called to.

“Francis and Clare’s agenda for justice was the most foundational and undercutting of all others: a very simple lifestyle outside the system of production and consumption (the real meaning of the vow of poverty), plus a conscious identification with the marginalized of society (the communion of saints pushed to its outer edge). In this position you do not “do” acts of peace and justice as much as your life is itself peace and justice. You take your small and sufficient place in the great and grand scheme of God. By “living on the edge of the inside” I mean building on the solid Tradition (“from the inside”) but doing it from a new and creative stance where you cannot be coopted for purposes of security, possessions, or the illusions of power (“on the edge”). – Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi

The List Goes On

There are many things that encourage, challenge, and inspire me about Francis. For example, the way that Francis led was from within, looking like the brothers, or like Pope Francis has put it: “he smelled like the sheep.” All of the Friars Minor (or literally, Lesser Brothers) were considered equal in status and in worth. The legends that surround his story in things like conflict resolution, I believe, can challenge us to actualize a third way of peace keeping. That it’s not about violence verses passivity, but rather about actively loving through conflict. And then there were the stories of pure, child-like faith. Some of my favorite stories of Francis’ life are stories of how he interacted with those that followed him. Full of humor and personality, I find them encouraging and life-giving for building real, authentic community.

The Painting

When I moved into my current office, I wanted a painting of Francis for it. A good friend of mine is an artist, so I commissioned her to paint a painting of Francis for my space. I noticed that most paintings of Francis are done in typical saintly fashion with him by himself, sometimes with a bird or something. I thought, it’d be meaningful to have one with Francis and a couple of the Lesser Brothers. So, my friend Faith Landry graciously worked with me to create this painting.