Modern Franciscan Stories

This essay contains several modern Franciscan stories. The main content is a pair of stories told by the Rev. Dr. Remus F. Muray (1913-1994). In the middle of writing this essay, my own spiritual journey brought me to a deeper understanding of how important Franciscan stories are to the Franciscan charism. Remus had internalized Franciscan spirituality in a way that I’ve seldom encountered.

Remus was born in Hungary. His family had a large number of children – I believe Remus was the eighth child. Very early on, it was apparent that Remus was an intellectually gifted child. Remus’ parents didn’t have the means to educate their gifted son, so at an early age, Remus was encouraged to join the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). The OFM saw Remus’ intellectual talent and sent him to Rome to study. In the early 1930’s Remus was awarded a PhD in Theology (Summa Cum Laude). The Franciscan ministers who managed the OFM in Hungary could see another war was coming, so they encouraged every Friar who could get an advanced degree to get one. Remus went to Rome once more and got another PhD, this time in Philosophy (Cum Laude).

The two Franciscan stories Remus told me that I would like to share were both from sometime around the late 1920’s. In the first story, Remus was either a newly professed Friar or a novice. An older Friar-priest required Remus to help him with a prison ministry. Remus was to go down to the Friary’s kitchen and pick up two large baskets of food. The older Friar and Remus then walked to a nearby prison. The prison guard didn’t question the older Friar nor did he ask to see inside the baskets Remus was carrying.

Remus and the older Friar went to the prison chapel where the older Friar was going to say mass. The prison guards gathered up a group of prisoners and filled the chapel. The Friar began the mass and when he came to the sermon he started encouraging the prisoners to repent and turn back to God. After about twenty minutes of telling the prisoners the consequences of their behavior in a rather relentless fashion and how important repentance was, the older Friar suggested that the guard at the back of the room could leave the chapel, because there was another forty minutes of similar sermon material coming. The guard left, and after about ten more minutes of preaching, the older Friar stopped preaching, cleared off the alter and asked Remus to help him unpack the food in the baskets. The food was wonderful, the best the Friary kitchen had to offer, far better than prison fare. The older Friar invited the prisoners to ‘come to the altar and help themselves’.

Remus said the hardened criminals in this prison came to the alter and ate the wonderful food and many of them started crying because someone had treated them as human beings for the first time in a very long time. I asked Remus if the older friar had continued the mass after all the food was eaten and he paused, a peaceful expression came to his face and he said, “No.”

The second story that Remus told happened after he was life professed in the OFM. He was still in Hungary and the date was probably in the early 1930’s.

The bishop of one of the dioceses that bordered the diocese in which Remus’ friary was located was a prince bishop. A prince bishop had fealty from both the church property and the secular property in the diocese. The early 1930’s in Hungary weren’t that far removed from medieval feudalism, so a prince bishop was the absolute power in the lands that constituted his diocese.

The prince bishop decided that he could make more money if he shut down the churches and had his serfs work six days a week and rest on Sundays. Remus heard of this situation and he was scandalized. He and another friar walked to the neighboring diocese and went to the steps of the closed cathedral on Sunday morning and preached. In my own experience, Remus was a very passionate, dynamic preacher. Without a doubt, he and the other friar drew a big crowd. When they were finished preaching, they walked back to their friary.

The prince bishop was furious. Remus and his friend didn’t ask permission to preach. Indeed, they never had intended to ask permission; they just wanted to make a point – and to preach the gospel.

The problem for the prince bishop was that he had no way to discipline Remus and his friend. Friars report through a Franciscan hierarchy to the pope. The prince bishop had to appeal to the pope through his normal church hierarchy. Then the pope would send the reprimand down through the Franciscan hierarchy where it finally reached the guardian of Remus’ friary. In the 1930’s this kind of communication took a very long time – years.

A couple of years after Remus’ preaching adventure, his guardian called him and his friend into the guardian’s office and told them that they were officially reprimanded. The guardian shook his finger at them and said “Don’t do that any more”.

Remus’ personal story continued in a dramatic fashion. The war did come to Hungary. When the Russians occupied Hungary after the war, they dissolved all the religious communities. Remus became a protestant pastor. One of his fellow protestant pastors was an informer to the state police. The informer pastor told the state police that Remus was preaching against the Russian sponsored government. This was not true, but the police came and took Remus to the jail for political prisoners. While Remus was in the jail, he was beaten every day for a year. Then, without giving a reason, the police let him go.

Eventually, Remus was able to escape from Hungary. He lived in Paris, France, for a while before coming to America and finally to Phoenix, Arizona. Along the way, he acquired a wife and a son.

My story intersects with Remus’ story here in Phoenix. At the beginning of my personal Franciscan journey, when I was a novice, my pastor suggested I ask Remus to be my spiritual director. The T.S.S.F novitiate requires twenty-four monthly reports that describe how the novice in question has kept his or her rule of life. I would drive over to Remus’ house and give him my report. He would read it and invariably say “Good Andy”. I would ask him questions about my Franciscan journey and about spiritual topics in general. He gave wonderful answers to my awkward questions.

Some time later, I studied New Testament Greek with him. A little later still, when I was in Education for Ministry and Remus’ son Les was the mentor for our group, Remus accompanied his son to our meetings. I remember one of the first meetings he came to – he said he would just sit on the other side of the room and listen. And that didn’t work very well because when the group started to soulfully struggle with theological questions, Remus was totally incapable of sitting quietly on the other side of the room. He had to be part of the discussion.

I have had an insight into why Franciscan stories are so important. Benedictines deepen their spiritual lives by studying the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict has practical spirit-filled solutions for all kinds of human problems. Franciscans don’t have such a wonderful document. St. Francis tried his best not to write a rule for the Franciscan Order. His advice to the brothers was to read the Bible and obey their superiors.

In order to deepen their spiritual lives, Franciscans retell the stories of St. Francis’ life and ministry. The Franciscan story that has come to the fore of my life is the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers. He would throw money at them from a distance. One day, on meeting a solitary leper on the road, he got off his horse, embraced and kissed him. Francis turned back to get on his horse and when he was facing the leper again, the leper had disappeared.

St. Francis’ attitude toward lepers changed from that day forward. He said “What was previously nauseous and revolting became a source of sweetness.”

As a Third Order Franciscan of some thirty years now, I believe I’ve been in a prayerful discussion of what it means to kiss a leper at least once a year for each of those thirty years. Every Franciscan has a different answer to this question. Every answer is valid and useful. And I want to hear every answer. Each answer helps me refine and deepen my own answer.

The introduction to this essay mentions several Franciscan stories. Three of those stories are Remus’ stories. Remus was wonderful. My own story intersected with Remus’ story by the grace of God. At the end of his life, Francis said “I’ve done my part; now it’s time for you to do yours.”

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Our common life together: the public good

The twenty-five cent word for ‘the public good’ is commonweal. It seems to me that the commonweal is under threat. If the commonweal were a large piece of cloth (like those huge American flags you sometimes see at sports events) and we the people are standing at the edges of the cloth, trying to hold the flag off the ground while the cloth itself is tearing. The source of the tearing, emblematic of the commonweal under threat, is the topic of this essay as well as what a Christian answer to the problem might be.

On the healthy side, the commonweal is people taking care of each other. The commonweal is made up of people who believe unconventional processes produce positive outcomes. The commonweal supports people who work hard in the hope of bettering themselves. At its best, the commonweal is tolerant of different races, beliefs and behaviors.

At its best, the commonweal also contains people who express widely divergent opinions on serious issues of belief and behaviors. When the commonweal is working, we are accept each others’ failures. When the commonweal is working we are all part of a diffuse love relationship.

We live in a time of revolutionary change, mostly created by and with computers. Living in such a stressful environment is painful. It’s painful even for the people who are successful at using computer tools to promote themselves and their careers.

The radical change has crept up on us in an incremental fashion. There are computer chips running car engines, refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, all kinds of robotic manufacturing machines. This change didn’t happen all at once, but it has happened. The most amazingly powerful computer change has been in cellular phones. Cellular phones have gone from something laughingly called a ‘brick’ to smart phones. Computer addiction and smart phone addiction sound like urban legends but are none the less true.

Radical change is coming to us down the internet. There is sufficient evidence to believe that the internet is the radical change itself. And this has been a popular point of view. But recently, someone used a three dimensional printer to print a gun. Someone else used a three dimensional printer to print a bullet. I don’t know if the bullet worked, but the gun actually fired a bullet. The printer generated gun is a very poor gun. The amazing thing is this – the file set used to make the printer generated gun was downloaded over 100,000 times before the government shut down the site.

The printer-generated gun ends the discussion about the meaning of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Printer-generated guns are going to get better the same way computers have improved over the years. At the same time, three-dimensional printers are going to improve in a similar way. I’ve seen three-dimensional solutions for robots, mechanic’s tools and food. The possibilities are endless.

The government shut down the web sites that posted the three-dimensional gun and bullet, but it’s really naive to expect the government to control three-dimensional guns. The government ends up playing ‘Whac-A-Mole’ with new web sites and new three-dimensional gun files popping up all over the internet.

And so we react. We want something, perhaps we want almost anything, to be the same. But things continue to change. The most visionary thinkers repeatedly fail to understand where we will be in just ten years, much less in a generation.

People are reacting to radical change in violent ways. America has this fascination with guns. This facilitation is not helpful. I understand that a gun is the ultimate way of controlling another person’s behavior. The people in the gun culture don’t seem to be thinking beyond the fact that they will have that special kind of power over someone else.

If you think beyond the reality of “stop or I’ll shoot”, there are some nasty consequences. Even if the situation begs for the use of lethal force, when someone is dead the person holding the gun that caused the death becomes a different person. Those kinds of justifiable homicides are rare. What’s more common is accidental homicide. This is the ordinary gun owner who then accidentally shoots his family member or his neighbor.

Look at George Zimmerman. Even if George is found not guilty, not guilty is not the same as innocent. Beyond the ultimate loss of innocence is the fact that George’s life has changed forever. He has the kind of celebrity that no one would want.

Guns aren’t the solution to the kind of radical change our society is experiencing. Guns aren’t going to stop the evolution of three-dimensional printers or any of the other fundamental and radical changes going on in our society.

Besides the fact that the gun solution can’t practically effect the radical changes we see happening, the gun solution is a fear-based solution. Basically, it says “I can’t trust my neighbor and I may have to shoot him.” Fear-based solutions don’t have the depth needed to create a new future.

Of all the fear-based reactions to radical change, believing in an imminent apocalypse is the most unusual. A number of apocalyptic theories are present in today’s world. The zombie apocalypse is a light-hearted effort to portray the results of radical change in a way that we can see, understand and dismiss.

A large number of books and movies portray a science-fiction post-apocalyptic world. I don’t give the zombie apocalypse much credibility. I don’t think a zombie apocalypse is very possible. Some of the ideas presented in science-fiction, however, hold a frightening grain of truth. There could be a global viral infection that defies our best attempts to cure it. There could be a catastrophic asteroid impact. We could blow everyone up with nuclear bombs. Dr. Stephen Hawkins has been pushing the colonization of Mars because he believes the human race will do itself in. He makes good sense to me.

Among the several apocalyptic theories the religious apocalypse is to me one of the most interesting. The people who champion an apocalyptic point of view usually lack a historical perspective. They typically take up the Book of Revelations from the Christian New Testament and apply allegorical and numerological verses to the present time – basically the Book of Revelations is written in code. The Book of Revelations is written in code because a straightforward presentation of the political content of the Book of Revelations would have resulted in an increased persecution of Christians. Reputable biblical scholars have an explanation for the various coded sections of the Book of Revelations. But even these scholars will not commit to the idea that their interpretations are correct. There is no way to know what’s correct. The writer of the Book of Revelations didn’t provide a translation key for the coded sections.

A fundamentalist evangelist like Hal Lindsey has specific translations for all these coded sections. And surprise, surprise the translations Hal supplies are pointed to the present age instead of the first century Roman Empire. Hal uses the Book of Revelations to scare people to death. Hal has made a very nice living off his books and DVDs.

The problem with Hal’s approach, other than the misinterpretation of scripture is that every generation has produced a prophet or two in Hal’s mode. In St. Francis’ time there was a fellow named Joachim. In the mid 1800s there was a fellow named William Miller. All of these self-styled prophets pointed to explanations of the Book of Revelation found in their own time. Many such prophets even pick out specific dates when Jesus will return. Miller picked October 22, 1844. All these dates so far have come and gone.

The truth about the apocalypse is that we are living in a time when everything changes almost at once. Things certainly change faster than the normal person can absorb the change. The apocalypse promises an end to life as we know it. An end to life as we know it is happening as this is written.

In contemplating what a Christian response would be, I found myself asking what Jesus would do in the face of radical change. When Jesus was asked what the most important law in the Bible was, he answered with two commandments: “Love God,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). The person asking the question then wanted to know, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30). The parable offers a very radical definition of who my neighbor is. There is no way to escape the description of a neighbor presented in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In all the back and forth about Trayvor Martin and George Zimmerman, the fact that George shot and killed his neighbor has been lost. I don’t believe that George set out to perform such an unchristian act. Our lives are full of unintended results. Sometimes the things we do produce unintended consequences. I’m very certain that George didn’t foresee that he might end up on trial for second degree murder.

St. Francis gave expression to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” with his life. Once he entered his ministry, St. Francis spent every waking moment trying to be a better Christian by ministering to the common good. The product of that effort is clearly stated in a prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Other scriptures are also relevant to understanding a Christian response to radical change. One scripture is from the Gospel of John (12:25). “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” These words are difficult. They speak of people being separated into righteous and unrighteous and no one wants to be lumped with the unrighteous. The fear-based responses to radical change are trying to hold on to life the way it is, but we continuously move forward into a new life. There is no salvation in trying to preserve things as they are. It’s best to honor what was and give thanks for it and move on.

Scripture also says perfect love casts out fear. From 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The path away from a fearful response to radical change is through love. Love your neighbor as yourself.

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Jesus looks at a sinner

There is a new entry at the bottom of the ‘About’ page if you want to know more about me.

Sin is such an interesting topic. It has captured the attention of the greatest of Christian writers down through the centuries. Who can forget St. Augustine of Hippo’s “Lord grant me chastity – but not yet”. The first century expert on sin is St. Paul. It’s difficult to talk about sin without involving St. Paul either as a protagonist or antagonist. St. Paul’s famous quote is “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) . My impression of Jesus and the topic of sin shows him forgiving sin. I’m glad to have my sins forgiven. Jesus didn’t usually stop with forgiving sins. He usually continued with an admonition to “go and sin no more”.

It seems unfair to look at sin without looking at the context in which a particular sin exists. The context for sin most people are familiar with is a context of human frailty. Christian fundamentalists address the subject of sin with what they call the plan of salvation. The plan of salvation is a set of scripture verses (mostly taken out of context) that form the talking points for the conversion of a non-believer. The first scripture verse in the plan of salvation is “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This statement on sin from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is completely true but taken out of context, it is designed to crush someone whose only context for sin is human frailty. I don’t see Jesus crushing anyone in the gospels, except for the moneychangers in the temple. In each situation where Jesus is one-on-one with sinners he’s healing infirmities and forgiving sins. There’s no crushing.

There are some very large Christian institutions built around the concepts of Sin, Sinners and Sinning. I don’t think this is Christian. I think it comes from a desire to control the behavior of other people. If you can convince someone they are a miserable sinner, the control of their behavior is assured.

St. Paul gets a lot of criticism for changing the focus of Christianity. It’s probably more accurate to say that the force of world events changed the focus of Christianity. In the year 70 BCE, the Roman general Vespasian began the process of putting down a Jewish rebellion that ended up with sacking Jerusalem and destroying the temple. Jerusalem was the center of the new Christian faith at that time. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the focus of the Christian faith moved to the Christian churches in the Greco-Roman world. St. Paul was the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles. The kind of Christianity that St. Paul preached and lived eventually became the dominant expression of the new religion. What St. Paul has to say about sin becomes very important.

St. Paul’s converts lived in a society that was very promiscuous. St. Paul was brought up as a Pharisee and studied in Jerusalem in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 23). The large difference between the morals of a Pharisee and the morals of an ordinary member of the Roman Empire is the context for St. Paul’s writing about sin. St. Paul is trying to save his converts from what would be normal Roman practice so that he can bring them to the love of God present in Jesus. St. Paul is waging a war of words against sexual immorality. Considering the social context his converts existed in, this makes perfect sense.

The social context for Jesus was different from both St. Paul’s situation and our own modern one. One very interesting quote from the scripture about Jesus and sin is “We know this man is a sinner.” (John 9:24). The ‘We’ in this sentence is a group of Jewish authorities. The ‘man’ is Jesus. The reason they know Jesus is a sinner is he wasn’t one of the small group of Jewish men who ‘kept the law’. It was very difficult to keep the law as that process was interpreted by these same Jewish authorities. Basically, a person had to be independently wealthy to have the time and resources needed to keep the law. The independently wealthy constituted about one percent of first century society. The Jewish authorities considered the rest of the Jewish population to be sinners.

The gospel record shows Jesus forgiving sins. There is some disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish authorities about the fact that Jesus forgives sins. However, since the first century theory of sickness blamed the debilitating illnesses Jesus healed as being the result of sin, it was very hard for his contemporaries to deny that he was forgiving sins.

The larger question here is ‘why was Jesus forgiving sins’. In my many years of Bible study I’ve never heard that question asked. For the people who are sick, Jesus is obviously freeing them from their sickness. For the rest of us who are ordinary sinners, Jesus wants us to be free from the constraints of our past sinful behavior. The catch, the price of this extraordinary freedom is that Jesus wants us to live up to the total capability of our human potential. We are, each and every one of us, supposed to be ‘full of grace and truth’.

The social context for sin and the forgiveness of sin in the Kingdom of God isn’t about human frailty. Neither is it about the problems St. Paul was having with his promiscuous converts. It’s certainly not about controlling the behavior of other people through guilt and shame. When Jesus looks at a sinner, the sin is incidental. Jesus is looking a the totality of that person’s potential, should that person be freed from every kind of hindrance.

The Kingdom of God, the new social order Jesus gave his life to create, isn’t about sin, sinners or sinning. It’s about the human potential for love. Jesus loves us in an unrestrained, uncomplicated, unlimited fashion. He wants us to love the people who come into our lives in the same way.

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I see Him and He sees me

I’ve identified myself as a mystic but up until now haven’t tried to explain what God means to me in concrete terms. Explaining God is a difficult thing to do. The definition of a mystic is someone who has experiences of the unknowable aspect of God. Unknowable generally means unexplainable. All the prophets and many Christian saints have had mystical visions. With few exceptions, these people heard what God had to say and tried their best to make practical sense of that message for all believers. In this essay I take up that task.

“I see Him and He sees me.” This saying isn’t mine. I don’t know where it came from. I associate it with St John Vianney (1786-1859). A good friend of mine who had deep knowledge of Franciscan material said that John Vianney didn’t say it. John Vianney and I have something in common (besides the fact that we’re both Third Order Franciscans). John Vianney was a great fan of Eucharistic Adoration. I’ve spent a fair amount of time alone with the Blessed Sacrament.

I’ve spent a few moments considering how to explain the Eucharist as a Sacrament to fundamentalist Christians and gave up on that idea. When I was a fundamentalist, I went to an Episcopal church. I dismissed the rather elaborate version of the Lord’s Supper as ‘ritual’. After that initial mystical experience doing yoga at age twenty, I went back to the same Episcopal church and took communion. What was previously ritual was now liturgy. It was like someone had thrown a switch in my heart. I will leave the understanding of the difference between ritual and liturgy to the fundamentalists.

In many Episcopal churches and most all Roman Catholic churches, a small part of the consecrated bread and wine is put aside and kept in the church for use communicating sick and dying parishioners. This ‘reserved sacrament’ brings a holy presence to the church where it is kept. When I was a new Franciscan, I spent a fair amount of time in this church or that visiting the reserved sacrament. That time in my life, when I was a new Franciscan, was a time of serious change. It was in one of these visits that I came to the conclusion that ‘He sees me and I see Him’.

Mystics are first and foremost disciples. The essential aspects of living life as a disciple revolve around obedience and humility. Jesus calls and a disciple responds with ‘Yes Lord’. The path of discipleship can be difficult.

Jesus called a number of Galilean fishermen to be disciples. For most of Jesus’ disciples answering that call meat that they would:

  • Leave home, family and job
  • Wander around Judea and Samaria and other areas with Jesus
  • Strive as best I could to understand and implement Jesus’ teaching
  • Experience Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection
  • Become an apostle and evangelist for a new religion
  • Die a martyrs death in a foreign land

This list doesn’t describe how hard it can be to live the life of a disciple, but it’s probably close. There are other disciples who never leave home, whose entire spiritual battle is inside their own persons and inside their own communities.

Humility and Obedience are spiritual graces. They are gifts from God. But the life of a disciple is a life of service. Service without humility and obedience looks like something else.

The faith of a mystical disciple is renewed by contact with the Lord. St. Francis described this contact as equal parts sweetness and pain. Until recently, I would describe mystical contact as equal parts sweetness and terror. In the present moment, My Lady mediates these contacts. She is very gentle with me. I can’t speak for all mystics, but contact with God tends to be transformative. People go into such a contact one person and come out another. Activities before the contact that seem reasonable and worthy are no longer adequate.

One of the truths about Jesus that comes from looking at these issues is that continuing intimate contact with Jesus is transformative. The change from Galilean fisherman to martyr makes perfect sense when Jesus is part of the story.

And then there’s Judas.

I can’t help wondering what happened to Judas. He was there with the other disciples. He must have washed Jesus’ feet. He must have experienced Jesus’ soul touching gaze. I’m not sure what happened with Judas. The only thing that makes sense is that Jesus wouldn’t go along with whatever program Judas was proposing.

Judas’ story is certainly difficult to hear. Judas’ failures are human failures.

There are several insights into Jesus’ person and the nature of discipleship that come out of Judas’ story

  • The story of Judas says it is possible to say no to the blessing Jesus offers.
  • Jesus knew Judas had turned away from him and Jesus loved Judas anyway.
  • Jesus cared about the issues Judas brought to him. Jesus was focused on other issues. Jesus is the Good Shepherd – the shepherd of souls.
  • Finally, what I want from God isn’t what’s important in the special relationship Jesus and I have. What’s important is what he wants from me.

The church is empty.
The lights are off.
It’s just me and Jesus in this holy place.
I see Him and He sees me.

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The Kingdom of God – Continued

I’d rather these essays not be about my ongoing personal spiritual journey. If you want to know more about me, look in the ‘about’ section.

I have a soul friend. He fits the definition given in the Celtic saying “A man without a soul friend is like a body without a head”. My soul friend and I have a continuing theological discussion about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God intrigues us. We want to understand it more thoroughly. We both recognize that it is the primary concrete result of Christ’s ministry. At the same time there is a element of mysticism in the definition of the Kingdom of God. Most of the descriptions of the Kingdom of God are presented in parables. I think Jesus deliberately left some vagueness in the definition. My guess is that the purpose of the vague definition is to allow the reality of the Kingdom of God to be flexible enough to embrace changing human needs.

The other day my soul friend said “The Gospel of John puts words in the mouth of Jesus”. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for someone who has studied the biblical scholarship which supports the idea that the Kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ ministry. The biblical scholarship which supports the idea of the Kingdom of God comes from a group of scholars that have been loosely described as ‘the Jesus Seminar’. The Jesus Seminar’s criterion for understanding the sayings of Jesus is that a saying has to be present in more than one gospel. When this criterion is applied to the gospels the Kingdom of God comes to the fore as the primary intellectual/spiritual content. At the same time, the Gospel of John recedes into the background. Very few sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John have parallel readings in the other gospels.

My first encounter with the Kingdom of God as a theological/spiritual concept was in a book lent to me by a fellow parishioner. That book was “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg. This book knocked me on my heels – and that’s saying something. I’ve been studying the Bible since I was a child. I haven’t been to seminary, but I’ve had the next best thing in theological education from the University of the South’s theological extension course Education for Ministry. After I finished the book, I went back to my friend and fellow parishioner and pointed out that some of the content in this book was so radical it couldn’t be preached from the pulpit. Such preaching would drive people away from the church. My friend agreed that was the case. But, I said, we can present the content of the book at the church in a class as part of our continuing adult education.

The class was a huge success. We decided on six classes, with each class covering three chapters. The first class had about sixteen people. With each class, the number of people grew by about half. After the third class we had to move to a small auditorium. The final two classes had about sixty people.

I wish I could give a definitive reason why our class was so successful. But I can only guess. Marcus Borg is a talented author who presents difficult subjects in a easily digestible fashion. Beyond that, I believe the intellectual and spiritual content of the Kingdom of God as Borg presents it is very satisfying to intelligent, believing people. The widely accepted alternative interpretation of the Bible is the interpretation used by Christian fundamentalists. Christian fundamentalists believe every word in the Bible is literally true. There are a fairly large number of intellectual objections to biblical literalism. Until the Jesus Seminar put forth the concept of the Kingdom of God in my experience there had been no easily accessible way of interacting with the Bible that allowed an intelligent believer to retain an intelligent point of view. The intelligent believers in our adult education class were being fed spiritually in ways that they (and I) had come to believe were impossible to achieve.

I used to work in a computer chip manufacturing plant. When we found a better way to do things (such discoveries were often accidental), we tried our best to make that better way permanent. We would say ‘how do we institutionalize this wonderful new thing’? The obvious question for Christians and for my own church in particular is how do we institutionalize the Kingdom of God? I’m reluctant to say such an action is impossible. But it is almost impossible. To make the Kingdom of God a continuing reality in our lives, we have to be the people God wants us to be. Human beings are that good from time to time. But mostly, we’re not that good and the Kingdom slips through our fingers.

For the hardy few who will take up the task of creating the Kingdom of God in this present moment, it is necessary that you be ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves’. The wisdom is necessary to deal with existing spiritual/political systems. There is a vast amount of energy invested in protecting existing systems. The Kingdom of God is a radical, revolutionary reality. The ‘harmless as doves’ part is needed for the extraordinarily fragile people who will want to be part of your new life.

My spiritual director says the Gospel of John puts words in Jesus’ mouth and I agree with him. The most egregious example of this speech is the ‘I am’statements. In these statements Jesus says ‘I am the ______’. There are seven ‘I am’ statements in the Gospel of John. A complete example of an ‘I am’statement is ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (John 10:11).

In the original Greek, the ‘I am’ part of these statements is read as ego eimi. During the first century, there was a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. In the Old Testament, when Moses asks God what name to call him, God responds with YHWH. YHWH is a Hebrew word that Christians have translated various ways, most commonly as Jehovah. In the Septuagint, the name YHWH is translated as ego eimi. So, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus says ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ people fluent in Greek during the first century would hear ‘I am the God of the Old Testament’ and ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.

The seven ego eimi statements are some of the most powerful scriptures in the Christian Bible. In them Jesus describes who he is and what functions he provides to people who believe in him. The descriptions have such accuracy and beauty that the addition or subtraction of a word would diminish the content of the description. The problem with these seven ego eimi statements is not their beauty or their metaphorical accuracy, but that Jesus most likely never said them.

How the Gospel of John came to be the way it is deserves some attention. The general thought on how most of the canonical scriptures were written is that each book (in particular the gospels) was a collaboration with an older person who was actually one of the original disciples and a younger person who performed the manual aspects of collecting and writing down the oral tradition provided by the older person. Both the older and younger persons are devout Christians. In the case of the Gospel of John, the younger person had wonderful literary gifts as well as a mystical understanding of Jesus. The older person may well have been the disciple John, the beloved disciple.

The problem for this writing team is the same for both persons on the team. The disciple met Jesus on a regular basis when Jesus and the disciple were both alive at the same time. Every time the disciple met Jesus, he had an experience of the divine. Jesus wasn’t just present, he was teaching, journeying from place to place, interacting with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. The disciple’s memory of Jesus is that all of these interactions were also God-filled. The writer is a mystic and has a continuing relationship to Jesus through the Kingdom of God. We should also expect that the writer also has a private mystical relationship with Jesus.

The question here is “What does a writer do when words don’t suffice?”.

If the writer is going to stay with the written word, poetry is often the solution. Add to poetry a kind of prose to get what has been called ‘poetic prose’. This kind of writing is not literally true. The writer is using metaphorical images to illustrate the truth. Instead of presenting a truth similar to 1 + 1 = 2, the writer is saying listen with your heart and hear what the Holy Spirit has to say.

The first twenty years of my life I was a Southern Baptist. I may not have been a typical Southern Baptist, but that’s where my family and I went to church. When I was in high school I had a part time job after school. The bookkeeper at my part time job was a member of the Church of Christ. When he found out I was a Baptist he strongly suggested that I should join the Church of Christ because that was the name of Christ’s church in the Bible. My response to this attempt to proselytize me was that I didn’t believe the Bible should be read in such a literal fashion.

Going forward, my friend the bookkeeper began to look at me like I was some kind of spiritual degenerate. One day, when we were on our way out to eat and the bookkeeper was part of our group, I decomposed the 23rd Psalm. Very simply put, if you decompose the 23rd Psalm by trying to find literal meanings for every word and phrase, the result is a pile of rubble. I said I didn’t want to believe in the pile of rubble. I would accept the metaphorical meaning of the 23rd Psalm. I further said that I believed the metaphorical meaning was that God cared for me and would watch over me even in the face of death. The bookkeeper was moved by my analysis, but refused to change his position on biblical literalism. I said I wasn’t trying to convert him, but was just trying to make my position clear.

The Gospel of John can also be decomposed into it’s constituent parts with a similar result. I don’t read the Gospel of John like a literalist would read it. I read it with my heart. My heart overflows and my whole person is lifted toward God. I don’t want to give up the Gospel of John.

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St. Francis and Holy Poverty

Occasionally, because I’m a Third Order Franciscan in the Episcopal Church, I get asked to explain who St. Francis was and what he did. The following essay is something I’ve created to satisfy that request. There is a significant back-story to my membership in the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis. I’ve gathered up those thoughts and added them to the ‘About’ section of this blog. If you don’t want to read all the other material in that section, just search the text in the ‘About’ section for ‘TSSF’.

St. Francis of Assisi was born Francesco Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone. His birthday has been narrowed down to some time in either 1181 or 1182. He died October 3, 1226. For his time in history, St. Francis lived an unusual life. At the beginning of the 13th century, sons followed a fathers’ profession. The obvious exception was the church where vows of chastity were required for priests and monks. St. Francis eventually ended up in the ‘monastic’ category, but he lived a monastic life in a way that nobody had done before. At a time when nobody did anything out of the norm, St. Francis did almost everything differently.

St. Francis was a mystic who devoted his life to prayer. And yet he was a practical Christian who lived a non-cloistered life. Every person who has tried describe St. Francis’ life and ministry comes up against these two polar opposites and has to find some way to combine Christian mysticism and a Christian life lived in the world in a very practical way.

My solution for solving the multi-dimensional corundum presented by St. Francis is to focus on Holy Poverty. Holy Poverty recommends itself for several reasons. St. Francis elevated the holy poverty we find today in monastic vows to the status of a person. He called this person Lady Poverty. He then said he would ‘marry’ Lady Poverty. The idea to personify Holy Poverty and then bind himself irrevocably to that person came at the beginning of his ministry and is typical of the revolutionary processes St. Francis used.

Holy Poverty isn’t part of our common global discussion of serious intellectual subjects. It’s not even part of the larger Christian Theological discussion. Today’s society doesn’t see the value of Holy Poverty. It’s difficult to imagine someone starting his career today by saying ‘I think I’ll take Holy Poverty as my bride’. In modern society, if you are poor, you are perceived as a failure. It’s just that simple.

Francis takes Monastic Vows

St. Francis’ first encounter with Holy Poverty was with the traditional vow of poverty taken by a monastic. Francis continued to have mystical experiences during his teenage years. These experiences began to convince him that God had some special job for him to do. The content of God’s task wasn’t clear to Francis until he heard the crucifix over the altar at San Damiano Church tell him to ‘Rebuild my church’. San Damiano was in a very poor state of repair. St. Francis had a very literal mind. He understood this mystical vision to be telling him to fix that particular church – San Damiano.

Throughout his life, St. Francis had a very direct way of solving problems. In the case of rebuilding San Damiano, he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s store and sold them. Then, he took the money from the cloth and tried to give it to the priest at San Damiano to pay for the needed repairs. When the priest found out where St. Francis had gotten the money, he refused to take it.

Meanwhile, when St. Francis’ father found out what St. Francis had done, he was livid, because he made a lot of money as a cloth merchant. His hope was that he could somehow purchase a noble title for St. Francis. When St. Francis was young these ideas of nobility and chivalry were particularly appealing. As St. Francis continued to have mystical experiences, he re-framed the ideas of nobility and chivalry into concepts that were God-centered.

When Francis’ used his father’s money to rebuild San Damiano, the father-son relationship was damaged beyond repair. Francis’ father took him to the city magistrate and asked the magistrate to make Francis behave. Francis’ father pointed out that Francis didn’t own anything that his father hadn’t given to him, including the clothes on Francis’ back. Francis, with typical directness, took off all his clothes and gave them back to his father. He declared that from henceforth, the only father he would have was ‘Our Father in Heaven’. It was understood from this statement that St. Frances was taking monastic vows. The magistrate had no power over someone in monastic vows. As far as we know, St. Francis’ father never forgave him.

When next we see St. Francis he is in Assisi, his home town, begging for bricks to repair San Damiano. He was an object of ridicule. He had been a rich young man about the city. And now here he was begging, wearing beggars’ clothes with a rope tied around his waste for a cincture. When St. Francis begged for food, the people of Assisi laughed at him and gave him garbage to eat.

St. Francis made a success of his monastic vocation. He continued to live vows of obedience, chastity and poverty in ways that were radically literal. He continued to have mystic experiences and he began to share those experiences in charismatic, extemporaneous sermons spoken mostly outside traditional church settings. The largest sermon was St. Francis himself. He lived his monastic vows outside of a monastery, right among the people to whom he was preaching.

Francis Writes a rule for the Little Brothers

St. Francis’ personal success brought him a small group of men who wanted to live life with the same simple spirituality that Francis preached and lived. Soon there was a religious order, which Francis called ‘the little brothers’. It was because of his order that Francis had his second profound encounter with Holy Poverty.
Francis’ order was like nothing else in that early thirteenth century society. Traditional monks who also took vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, lived in monasteries. The monks weren’t rich themselves but the monasteries had endowments and were frequently large landowners. St. Francis’ followers lived in the world. Their first house (San Damiano) was and still is owned by a local Benedictine Monastery. St. Francis, during his lifetime, required that his order not hold money or own land. His little brothers were supposed to earn their keep by working or begging their sustenance each day from the people among whom they lived. The Franciscan Order went through a period of explosive growth, large enough that provinces were defined, each with its own minister.
Because Francis was the founder and spiritual head of that order, the church eventually required him to write a rule of life for his ‘little brothers’. Francis resisted writing a rule. He said that the Bible was the rule for his brothers and that was good enough. Eventually, Francis did relent and write a rule. This rule was distributed to the provincial ministers. Very shortly the provincial minsters tracked down St. Francis and asked him to take the rule back because it set such high spiritual standards that the ministers felt nobody would be able to keep it. St. Francis was very angry. He told the ministers to ‘go join some other order’ and walked away from them. Eventually, Francis again relented and wrote a second, easier rule which the ministers found acceptable.
When Francis wrote the second rule to fit the provincial ministers’ requirements, he lost practical control of the order to the ministers.

Francis Receives the Stigmata

St. Francis continued to lead the order he founded with an increasingly austere ascetical life. He continued to preach both to the general public and to his brothers in the order. He helped St. Claire found the Poor Claires and encouraged the formation of the a third order for secular believers who wanted to live a Franciscan life without taking monastic vows. All the Franciscan orders continued to grow. There was and still is something immediate, practical and satisfying about the spiritual life St. Francis shared with the world.

Toward the end of his life Francis received the stigmata. Franciscans understand Francis’ stigmata as a justification of Francis’ life and ministry. In his lifetime many people thought Francis was a living saint. Francis’ stigmata removed all doubt for the people of the early thirteenth century. St. Francis and his entourage became something of a religious side-show. Everyone wanted to see his wounds.

Francis didn’t simply receive the stigmata and then die. He lived another six to eighteen months. He had punished his body throughout his life with ascetical disciplines. He was blind from an eye disease he acquired on a trip to the Holy Land. The medical care available in his life was very poor. And finally, there was some real concern that the people of Perugia (a city near Assisi which was intensely competitive with Assisi) were plotting to steal St. Francis’ body after he died. To avoid the Perguian plot, St. Francis was randomly moved from place to place.

All accounts say that St. Francis endured his failing health, the stigmata and the poor treatment he received with grace and humility.

In Conclusion

St. Francis blazed a trail of uncompromising Christian discipleship. Previous similar examples of radical discipleship were lived by monks or nuns in monasteries. People who live in monasteries are purposefully withdrawing from the world. St. Francis’ life was lived in the world among ordinary people. In the world he told the truth about Jesus, God, Holy Poverty, Christian charity and any other worthy subject to whomever would listen. In all the things St. Francis spoke about, he backed up his talk with a life lived. The practical yet passionate preaching of religious truth and the humble poverty of his life made St. Francis loved wherever he went.

Because of St. Francis I can be an uncloistered mystic. I have a spiritual home, spiritual brothers and sisters who tell me the truth and with whom I am equally truthful. Because of St. Francis the Path grows clearer.

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The Kingdom of God and a Prostitute Named Mary

A large number of books have been written about secret knowledge taught by Jesus to one disciple or another. This special knowledge and the conspiracy theories that surround the dissemination of the knowledge began shortly after Jesus’ death, with Gnostic New Testament writings. The mystery continues to this day as evidenced in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I believe there is secret Christian knowledge presented in the Gospel narrative.

The hidden truth in the Gospel message is the message of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray Jesus said:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your Name,
your kingdom come, …

In recent times, scholars have looked at the Gospels and applied the same standards a newspaper reporter would apply to try and discover what Jesus actually said. A surprising number of authenticated sayings have to do with the Kingdom of God. I’ve been studying the Bible for about fifty years. This scholarship has opened up a new way of looking at the Bible message. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus was actually preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

The most immediate problem with Jesus and the Kingdom of God is that almost all Jesus’ descriptions of the Kingdom of God are in parables. These parables of the Kingdom are open to many different interpretations. There are some common features of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom such as:

  • Jesus was purposely trying to get his listeners to think about their relationship with God in a radically different way. There is something infinite about the Kingdom of God. A person can find the true meaning of life in the Kingdom of God.
  • Spiritual and physical healing a present in the Kingdom of God.
  • The Kingdom of God included Jews from all levels of society who wanted participate in the religious life that Jesus was offering. Gentiles were not encouraged but not excluded either.
  • People in the Kingdom of God live spiritually virtuous lives and have a deep energy to spread that spiritual life to other people.
  • The Kingdom is a meritocracy, but with a large dose of humility present in the people who have been asked to lead.

I have some ideas about the Kingdom of God that are of my own imagining but which fit the information we find in the New Testament.

  • Jesus was the Teacher, the ‘Rabbi’ of a school of religious thought.
  • Jesus’ school was semi-portable. He took his disciples with him when he traveled. There were wealthy people who were attached to the school who took care of Jesus’ food and shelter needs.
  • The place where Jesus stayed would become the de facto school room, refectory and possibly common bedroom.
  • Jesus’ disciples (both the inner circle and the larger group) shared a common life.

My understanding of the Kingdom of God is based on both what I surmise and what I actually read in the Gospel narrative. Every time I hear Scripture read in church, I apply my understanding of the Kingdom of God to that Scripture lesson. One Sunday I gave this peculiar attention to what was being read from the Gospel of Luke:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the wo

We know these things about the context of this lesson:

  • Pharisees were among the rich people of the Jewish first century. One demographic study describes the ratio of rich to poor as 1 to 99 percent of the population. The middle class didn’t exist.
  • Pharisees were serious students of the Law. They kept all the ritual observances and all the dietary requirements. It was very difficult to ‘keep the law’ unless you were rich. When one of the High Priests said of Jesus “We know this man is a sinner,” the High Priest was placing Jesus among the 99 percent of Jews that didn’t have the material resources to keep the law.
  • I’m making the assumption that the ‘woman sinner’ was a prostitute. Likewise, I’m assuming that her name was Mary.
  • The common method for moving goods and people in the first century was some kind of animal. Horses, donkeys, oxen, cattle all carried loads or pulled wagons. These animals defecated in the street. There were no city workers who cleaned the streets. People who walked from place to place as Jesus did wore sandals. Sandals and any kind of foot perspiration plus the overwhelming presence of fecal material meant that pedestrians would want to wash their feet upon arriving at their destination.
  • Servants provided foot washing for their masters. For a Rabbi like Jesus, these duties would have fallen to a member of Jesus’ school. The host, Simon, should have provided a servant to wash Jesus’ feet. Jesus didn’t have a disciple with him when he went to dinner. Jesus didn’t assert his right to a servant to wash his feet. It’s as if Simon had decided he wanted to hear what Jesus had to say but had already decided not to believe what Jesus said was true – so it didn’t matter to Simon that he had been a poor host.
  • By washing Jesus’ feet, Mary was proclaiming her discipleship.
  • Finally, in first century Judea, it was impossible for someone who was a prostitute to give up that profession. Such a person wasn’t just a sinner because they weren’t keeping the law. A prostitute was an active sinner. She would be fundamentally unclean in a way that could not be repaired.

Mary’s Story

The thing that interests me the most about this Gospel lesson is Mary. I believe there is a ‘back story’ to Mary’s actions. If I gather up all the bits and pieces, both known and assumed, I come up with this result.

Mary was a prostitute. She didn’t want to be a prostitute any more and may well have retired from that profession. She could have no social interactions, even in a retired state. She heard about Jesus’ school. She heard that there were disciples in his school that were ‘notorious sinners’ – one in particular would have been Zacchaeus, the tax collector.

Mary undertook to perform Jewish rites of purification commonly used by Jewish women. She dressed herself as a woman who had just been to a rite of purification. She went to Jesus’ school and stood in the back by the door – she expected to be asked to leave.

She heard a discussion about the Kingdom of God led by one of the senior students. Jesus wasn’t there – having been invited to dinner elsewhere. After the discussion there was going to be a common meal.

Mary turned to leave when someone said ,’Come and eat.’ Mary was stunned. And then, there was a general chorus of people asking her to stay and eat.

Mary sat at the table still stunned. The conventional thinking was that her presence at a common meal would ‘pollute’ the meal, possibly even polluting the people at the meal. Mary ate, but ate very little. She spoke, but spoke very little.

When she finally recovered herself, she asked where Jesus was. When she found out where he was eating, she excused herself from the table. As she left the building that contained the school, she began to weep tears of joy. She ran to the dinning room where Jesus was and began to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.

The ‘punch line’ to this story has been preserved in the Gospel lesson. The story would be told down through the generations of believers of the outrageous way that Mary became a disciple. The rest of the story told here is my conjecture. I believe the rest of the story was common place. People who lived in Jesus’ time, who were ‘unredeemable’, would come to his school and be invited to the common meal.

Everyone, even a notorious sinner, was welcome at Jesus’ school.

Finally, Mary’s Story brings the Kingdom of God into focus. Kingdom of God as a real place, with real people. I believe this allows us to go to the next step and say that the people who were in Jesus’ school were trying their best to live the Kingdom of God as Jesus explained it to them and that the Kingdom of God became concrete reality for them just as it became a concrete reality for Mary.

The Kingdom of God also brings Mary into focus. Mary was irretrievably on the outside looking in. But Mary had faith in a God who involves himself in history for the salvation of believers. Mary and Jesus share this faith in the God of Abraham. Mary’s faith saved her.

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