Chasing Francis

Re-post from elsewhere in 2008

I just finished reading Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron (as in, within the past hour). It is sending me back into my intense fire for St. Francis (I affectionately call him “Frank”), and with Francis, seeking to fall madly in love with Jesus himself.

I recommend this book. Cron is a first-time novelist; his main job is serving as an Anglican priest in the USA. And while this book may not be one of those masterpieces of English literature with phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that stun you with their beauty or that you want to read aloud as they trickle into your brain, inundating your senses, overwhelming your universe, it has a profundity of a different sort. One of the impressive aspects of the book was when it read as though it were a real pilgrim telling the tale.

But I don’t think Cron was trying to write the Great Twenty-first-Century Novel. He wanted to introduce people to St. Francis, and why God’s Jester (Jongleur de Dieu) is as important and cool and relevant to us in our situation today as he was in the 1200′s.

And Frank is cool.

This is the guy who danced when he met the pope, he was so excited. This is a man who was so serious about peacemaking that he walked into a Muslim city besieged by Crusaders to gain an audience with the Caliph! A bit extreme, but real, genuine, powerful.

When St. Frank preached, he didn’t want merely to produce scholasticism and dry knowledge, dead to lie dormant in the crypt of the mind. He want to blazon the Living Reality of Jesus forth into peoples lives, into their hearts. So he put on the world’s first-ever living Nativity scene. His friars would do crazy, silly stuff, like spit coins out of their mouths into animal dung. If discourse failed, then he would sing. Indeed, this jongleur would take up sticks and pretend he was playing the viol as he danced through the streets singing the songs of the extravagant love of God for a fallen yet beautiful world.

The Canticle of Brother Sun, a version of which I posted as a weekly poem here, is the first recorded poem in the Italian vernacular. The arts remind us of Beauty and the grace of the One who created Beauty, Who transcends all and imbues it with His life, love, and power. The arts can draw us into a world of mystery and mysticism that Lee Strobel never can.

And God, despite the fact that He has chosen to reveal Himself to us, is a vast, beautiful, intensely powerful Mystery. He invites us to enter into the Mystery of Him (this is what mysteries are to be done with), to join in the intimate, ecstatic dance of the Three-in-One, as Father, Son, and Spirit sing the universe into existence.

The world of mystery with a God of power who is also love and holiness and justice and who gives us peace and calls us to care for His good creation — this is an exciting place to live.

And St. Francis wants to draw us into it.

As someone who is part of a church on the verge of explosion, rupture, disintegration, conflagration, and institutional ruin, Francis is calling.

And when I hear his call, there is inevitably another Call, and it is sometimes louder, sometimes gentler than Frank’s.

Listen God is calling,
Through the Word inviting,
Offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy.
An African praise song we sing at Graduate Christian Fellowship

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What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.