In my back yard I have a garden statue of St. Francis. I thought he would be right at home there with the birds, squirrels, rabbits and armadillos. (My son-in-law Bill says the statue looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi, but I insist the hooded figure is St. Francis.)
St. Francis lived in the 13th century. He wasn't the kind of teacher you would expect in a seminary classroom or a church pulpit. He didn't try to command a following. Actually, he was a strange bird, to say the least.
St. Francis took a decidedly literal view of life. For example, while in fervent prayer, he heard Christ say to him that his house was being destroyed and that he, Francis, should repair it. Francis looked around at the little chapel he was in, noted its dilapidated condition and promptly set about carrying in stones and mixing mortar to restore it. Throughout his short life, he was concerned about the repair of broken-down church buildings.
Little did he realize how his life's work would eventually influence a materialistic church to look back toward its Christian beginnings of love and service.
When I sent the idea for this article to the editor of this magazine, he asked me where I was going with this. That was a fair question. I could write about what one Christian could do with his or her life and how it could affect the whole church. I could talk about how churches can get themselves in such a shape that the quantity of members they have (think tithes and offerings) becomes more important than the quality of the members' spiritual life in Christ. Or what about those churches, ministries or individuals who have lost sight of Christ's commission by concentrating on sales of religious books, trinkets and other materials?
And, yes, I realize that some may be a little disturbed because I have a statue of a Catholic saint in my back yard. Now that I've stepped on a lot of religious toes, if you're still with me, let's see where this article is going.
Like the ancient prophets of old, Francis of Assisi acted out his faith. And, like those prophets, people thought Francis was crazy. Maybe he was. After all, he stripped himself publicly of his worldly goods, including his clothes, to prove he had renounced material things. He walked around in brown rags tied with a rope, fasted often and ate from scraps he was given or which others had thrown away. He preached to animals.
During the time of the fifth Crusade (1219), he decided it was better to convert Muslims than to kill them. He left the Christian camp, where he had preached to the Crusaders, and entered the Muslim camp. The great Sultan Malek al-Kamil allowed him to return unharmed, and more than that, gave the Franciscans permission to preach the gospel in Muslim lands. Imagine that!
Paul would have related to Francis. Paul, who called himself a fool for Christ, wrote to the Corinthians: "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God" (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, NRSV).
Though Francis may have been a fool, he shook up the status quo of Christianity. This one man made a difference in his world.
I'm not advocating that you (or me) run around naked or dressed in rags or that we give away all we have and then have to beg for our daily bread. Preaching to animals might not be too effective, either.
But, how's your personal religious world? How's your spiritual energy level? Are you coasting along, routinely going about doing what you feel is your religious duty, but with little enthusiasm? Is something missing?
How about putting aside your earthly pursuits for a while to spend time with your heavenly Father? My daughter Tina calls such special time a God Day. I like that. For centuries Christians have set aside time to fast, going without food so as to focus on God. In our hectic world, we could also "fast" from television or video games or surfing the Internet for a day to make time to communicate one-on-one with him.
He might be trying to get your attention, you know. Maybe you need a spiritual recharge. Maybe your Christianity has been battered around and needs a bit of repair. Why not take time to find out?
Sheila Graham is a freelance writer and speaker on religious topics, including the role of women in the church, women of the Bible, the family, the environment and other Christian-related subjects. She holds degrees in religion from Azusa Pacific University's Haggard School of Theology and from Claremont Graduate University.