St. Peter's Blog 'The Incredible Lightness of Being' from St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – North Wales, PA's Blog

The Incredible Lightness of Being

Image Tuesday, Oct 13, 2015
Author: Pastor Andreas Wagner

This is about thw Life of Francis of Assisi, which we remembered on Sunday, October 4 in church.

Today is the feast day of St. Francis, this saint extraordinaire who gave up a cushy life of wealth and privilege and became one of Jesus' purest and most influential followers of all time. We have all heard the name Francis a few times in recent weeks I suppose, but this is the original Francis we are talking about, the standard bearer for Christian service, in whose name animals and pets are blessed every year, for Francis of Assisi was a man close to all of God's creatures. Some eight hundred years after his death, his life and example are still as inspirational as they have ever been.
 
Well, I should be careful here. As with all great men and women, especially saintly people, there is two ways of looking at it. On the one hand you can get discouraged by the weight of someone's moral superiority, which is always a danger when we tell the stories of truly great men and women. You go away and say, "Oh, I would never be able to do something like he or she did." And you shut down and try to live your life free from the weight of higher expectations. It's the "I'm just a regular guy/gal" reaction. Or you look at their life as a phenomenon of nature, a gift that God has given us, that is not meant to judge us but to give us an idea of what can be possible when we follow Christ. I look at the story of Francis much in the same way as the famous woman in the New Testament who, when rejected by Jesus, said she would be happy with some of the crumbs that fall off the master's table. In the same way, I am happy with some of the crumbs that fall off the table of Francis' life for me to digest.         
 
To describe Francis' inspiration, where should we start? We only have 12 minutes, according to the preaching expectations of modern parishioners. That's a bit more than 15 seconds per year of his life. Let me start here: Francis' life reminds me of an unlikely title of a book, Milan Kundera's "The unbearable lightness of being." I warn you: the title of this book may be the only thing that connects Francis with Kundera or some of his main characters, mostly Bohemian intellectuals, but "lightness of being," that phrase describes him very well in my opinion. Amazingly, with all the serious life decisions that Francis made: giving up the fortune and security of his family, venturing into service among people with infectious diseases, counteracting the church's affair with power and pomp by his humble example, Francis never developed gravitas. Instead, he displayed an incredible and most unusual sense of the lightness of being. And unlike Kundera's troubled characters, his sense of lightness was very bearable and indeed, authentic.
 
Unforgotten is his Canticle of the Sun, in which he displayed a child like appreciation of nature. In it, Francis called the sun his Lord brother and the moon and the stars his sisters and the wind and the air his brothers. I wonder how the discussion about the environment and climate change would play out in our times if we had a bit more of that sense of deep mystical connection to creation? Would we talk about nature as "our resource"? Would we follow the same narcissistic approach of nature serving our needs? In the original Italian, an Umbrian dialect, the phrase "Laudato si, mi signore," introduces each new part of the canticle, "be praised my Lord." For human's relationship with Mother Nature, this sort of poetry might be more important than we think: it is hard to praise and abuse at the same time.
 
In his poetry Francis displayed a quality that Jesus often demanded of his followers when he said, "in order to "get" the kingdom of God, and in order to get into it, you have to become like a little child." In other words: learn to experience the lightness of being! Of course, easier said than done, especially when you are hit by disasters, illness and problems, which 95 per centof us are. How can we be light amidst the heavy things of life, the heart breaking stories, the conundrums? Francis' answer would not have been any different from Jesus: practice a child like trust.   
 
It was precisely Francis' lightness of being that helped his movement become incorporated into the church in the form of the Franciscan order. You might think that yes, of course, church officials would flock to Assisi to find this extraordinary man and convince him to start a church order. But that is far from the historical truth. Church officials tended to be very suspicious of grassroots movements embracing Jesus' original example. It made them look bad, because church officials at the time were not necessarily spiritual people; often they bought their offices with family money.
 
Francis simply was not confrontational. He didn't accuse the leaders of the church of corruption, and he could have. He didn't judge the lack of spiritual life in Rome, and he could have. He didn't chastise the connections between money, power and the hierarchy of the church, and he could have. A certain fellow did exactly that about three hundred years later and it broke the church in pieces. (Hint: His initials were M.L.) But Francis really had no interest in judging. He just lived what he believed in. And anyone who has ever tried to do that, live what you truly believe in and don't judge others, will immediately respect this simple follower of Jesus.
 
Here is one last example of how Francis' lightness of being blessed the people of his time. In 1219, in the midst of a disastrous Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt and a nephew of the great Muslim warrior Saladin, in his camp on the banks of the Nile. Francis, who opposed the warfare, hoped to bring about peace by converting the sultan to Christianity. He didn’t succeed, but came away from the peaceful encounter with revolutionary ideas that called for Christians to live harmoniously with Muslims.  What a concept! And of course, he wrote the beautiful prayer, "Lord, make me an instrument of peace."
 
I hope we call can take a few crumbs from Francis' table this morning, whether it is his approach to nature, to animals, to peace or to life itself. I hope we can all enjoy a certain lightness of being. Francis would be enchanted by that.

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