St. Francis: Proclaiming and living the gospel

St. Francis of Asssisi

“Proclaim the gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”

We hear this gem from St. Francis of Assisi often these days. The phrase is introduced as an encouragement to good works, but also, commonly, to subtly disparage proclamation of the gospel.

Two new books insist that St. Francis would never have said those words — didn’t say those words — but at the same time lived out their spirit.

Winnipeg pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci loves to immerse himself “in all things Francis.” Not only is he part of a lay order in the Franciscan tradition, but he has just written The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and Life in the Kingdom, which describes how his Little Flowers Community tries to live out the teachings and example of Jesus, as St. Francis did himself.

In a very different book, Paul Moses details in The Saint and the Sultan the fascinating tale of how St. Francis went to speak with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in the Nile Delta during the assault on Damietta in the midst of the Fifth Crusade.

Together, these two authors remind us why Francis made such a stir in his own time and why so many over the intervening nine centuries have found him a compelling figure.

The Cost of Community

The Cost of Community CoverArpin-Ricci says “it has been a trying journey thus far,” living in community in Winnipeg’s rough inner city. Members of the Little Flowers Community are “slowly and at times clumsily beginning to let [their] lives and ministries be more intentionally shaped and guided by the Sermon on the Mount” — with St. Francis as their guide.

Born into the Middle Ages in Italy, Francis (1181-1226) would have been surrounded by signs of the dominance of the Christian church. Yet, like most people today, he was far from being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Following a traumatic battle with the neighbouring town of Perugia, and then incarceration in that city, Francis underwent a radical conversion. Leaving behind a comfortable home and a devotion to the chivalric military ideals common to his class, he began to wander the countryside with only the clothes on his back. Though scorned by his family and most former friends, he soon began to gather a circle of followers, who were drawn by his devotion to following a simple lifestyle.

Arpin-Ricci, in turn, has gathered a community about him as he follows the lead of Francis. Little Flowers Community grew from a few regulars who used to meet at his home and in the neighbourhood.

Following Jesus in obedience is the cross we must take up daily, says Arpin-Ricci, and that is what he and his community are trying to do. “What emerges from that obedience,” he says, “is the very kingdom of God breaking into the broken reality of our lives, our neighbourhoods and the world to shine as a living alternative of hope and salvation.”

He writes with considerable humility, acknowledging that the members of the community often fall short — though most readers will no doubt be impressed with the way he and his friends put their faith into practice. “If we are honest, all of us are looking for ways to minimize or avoid the true cost of discipleship. As G.K. Chesterton — himself a great fan of Francis — so poignantly stated, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.'”

Arpin-Ricci is not shy about the need to proclaim the gospel. That was Jesus’ way, and according to him, “Proclaiming and living the gospel were tied together intrinsically.” And Francis followed the lead of Jesus. “Francis (like Jesus) preached wherever he went. St. Francis never elevated action over speaking in the task of bringing the gospel to others, but neither did he believe that the gospel message was fully communicated only in words.”

He says that “Allowing this dynamic tension to exist is critical for us at Little Flowers Community.” The poor, he adds, “are able to spot hypocrisy from a mile away.”

Arpin-Ricci compares setting up Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg to St. Francis setting out on a journey to plead with Sultan al-Kamil. While admitting that inner city Winnipeg “is by no means as dangerous as the fierce battleground of a thirteenth century crusade,” he says that for those who chose to move with him into that community, “there has been the willingness to give up the privilege and security of the familiar… for the relative costs and dangers of an inner city community.”

The Saint and the Sultan

The Saint and the Sultan CoverPaul Moses tells us in The Saint and the Sultan “to be skeptical about the tendency in our day to re-cast Francis as a medieval flower child, a carefree, peace-loving hippie adopted as the patron saint of the Left. Francis was far too devoted to suffering, penance, obedience and religious orthodoxy” for that.

Instead, the author insists, he was “on a quest for peace — a peace encompassing both the end of war [Crusades] and the larger spiritual transformation of society.” That is how he found himself in the sultan’s court in Egypt. But his relationship to Islam and the Crusades was distorted or covered up by biographers who wished to stress his saintliness and his desire for martyrdom, and who were eager to curry favour with the powerful medieval popes who organized the Crusades.

The Saint and the Sultan — which has been well received by both Catholic and Islamic scholars — tells the story of how Francis undertook his daring mission to end the Crusades. In 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt.

The two talked of war and peace and faith, and when Francis returned home, he proposed that his Order of the Friars Minor live peaceably among the followers of Islam — a revolutionary call at a moment when Christendom pinned its hopes for converting Muslims on the battlefield.

Cardinal Pelagius Galvani, who was sent by the pope to lead the siege on Damietta, believed that “souls were to be won at the point of the sword.” Francis strongly disagreed, but he did not oppose preaching the gospel to those outside the faith; he risked his life to tell the sultan about Jesus Christ.

Moses quotes this passage from Francis as “the heart [of his] instruction to his followers for approaching Muslims”:

“The brothers who go can conduct themselves among them spiritually in two ways. One way is to avoid quarrels or disputes and to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake, so bearing witness to the fact that they are Christians. Another way is to proclaim the word of God openly, when they see that it is God’s will, calling on their hearers to believe in God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all, and in the Son, the Redeemer and Savior, that they might be baptized and become Christians.”

Francis was a peacemaker, and believed that the best way to change others’ behaviour was to lead by example. However, he was by no means shy of preaching the gospel.

The story of the saint and the sultan is almost a millennium old, but it remains as current as Armin-Ricci’s tale of the trials and successes of Francis’s followers in Winnipeg. How much more timely could a book about peace-making between the Western and Islamic worlds be? Christians in foreign or unreceptive cultures must not presume to act from strength, as the Crusaders did, and as many missionaries did during the time of Western colonial expansion more recently.

But we need not — dare not — be ashamed of proclaiming the gospel, whether we are abroad or in our own cities. St. Francis does have a lesson for us. He said, in effect, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words; live out your faith.”

Tim Tebow’s faith divides football fans

Tim TebowMany professional athletes are known for their faith, but few have been as upfront about it as football star Tim Tebow. His characteristic prayer position — kneeling on the gridiron, fist on forehead, elbow on knee — has even given rise to a new verb — to ‘tebow’ ( His persistence in outward signs of faith — and his talent — have made him a hero to many and a pariah to others.

Following a stellar college career featuring two national championships and a Heisman Trophy, Tebow looked less impressive during his first year as a pro with the Denver Broncos in 2010. This year he faced down an army of armchair critics when he took over as first string quarterback, turning a losing season into a winning one along the way.

Tebow seems to have a knack for separating the sheep and the goats among football fans. Many are convinced he’ll be as successful in the National Football League as he was in college – including a large contingent who think he is, literally, God’s gift to football. Others feels he’s been hyped by religious fanatics beyond his talents, and that he’s over his head as a pro.

Last month, before the Broncos began their winning streak, an article in The New York Times took note of the phenomenon: “At the intersection of faith and football, the fervor that surrounds both Tebow’s beliefs and his struggles in his second season for the Denver Broncos has escalated into a full-blown national debate over religion and its place in sports.”

Newsday proclaimed ‘Tebow-mania sweeps nation! on December 2, following the latest in a series of come from behind victories, this time over the Minnesota Vikings.

USA Today weighed in with ‘Public displays of faith put Tim Tebow in the spotlight”. What distinguishes Tebow from the many other pro athletes who are also very clear about their faith? Maybe it was the John 3:16 eye-black he wore during his college career. Or the controversial pro-life ad he was featured in during the Super Bowl. Or the fact that he said hell awaits those who don’t follow Jesus Christ.

Hard to say, but he has become a whipping boy for those who don’t like religion, or at least don’t like being reminded of it during their entertainment. On the other hand, many Christians feel he’s a hero of the faith, and others simply see him as a great role model in a world which gives so much attention to bad boy rappers and morally challenged movie stars

Tebow himself seems to be taking it all in stride. On the field he thrives on comeback situations; on his website he offers some simple guides to life: “John 3:16; hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard; God bless and Go Broncos.”

For those who want to get to know him better, Tebow has found time to write a book, Through My Eyes. Tebow was one of three top college quarterbacks – all strong Christians – who entered the NFL last year. Mike Yorkey profiled Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford along with Tebow in Playing With Purpose. McCoy is now leading the Cleveland Browns, while Bradford is following up on a very successful rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.

Our man in Cape Town

The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization is taking place in Cape Town, South Africa October 16 — 25. More than 4,000 participants have come from almost 200 countries. Flyn Ritchie, president of Christian Info Society (which publishes this website), is currently there; he sent the following report October 21.

Flyn Ritchie (second from left) with his table group at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town.

Flyn Ritchie (second from left) with his table group at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town.

When I landed in Cape Town the other day, I completed a round trip (of sorts) in my journey as a Christian believer. I am back on African soil for the first time since I was saved, while traveling through Zambia, in 1977.

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my own pilgrimage; but I’ve also developed a renewed appreciation of the simple words and acts, carried out by so many anonymous — and sometimes well recognized — people all over the world.

It is that proclamation of the gospel, accompanied by caring deeds, which led to the dramatic growth of the church in the global south (not least in Africa) over the past century. And that’s what the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization is building on in Cape Town.

Thirty-three years ago, at 25 years of age, I hitch-hiked into Cape Town, on the southern tip of the African continent, after covering the 2,000-plus kilometres from a farm outside Lusaka, Zambia.

I arrived at the farm with some blend of New Age and Marxist beliefs, but became a Christian through the influence of the farmers with whom I stayed and worked for three months — and under the prompting of an Australian evangelist preaching in a local Baptist church.

My life turned around — both spiritually and physically. In the slightly naïve, and derivative, words of a new believer (from my diary): “I can see the Lord has really answered my prayer. By God’s grace, and through the work of the Blands [the farm family], I was saved — and whenever I stop to think about it, I feel really excited and grateful. Imagine me going to heaven, when all this time I’ve been so blind to the truth. All I can say (although it still sounds strange to my secularized ears) is Hallelujah!”

Instead of carrying on my long trip to New Zealand, I set my course to back to Europe, to L’Abri, a Christian community in Switzerland, which my Zambian hosts thought would suit a young man of many questions. Some of my questions were answered there; but I also met my wife Margaret, and we moved back to Vancouver.

Thirty-three years later (missing my wife, five children, daughter-in- law and granddaughter) I am back in Africa, in a reflective mood.

Some 5,000 people crowd the halls and assembly rooms at the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization — including participants, volunteers and others, from just under 200 nations. They reflect the incredible diversity of the church today.

The underlying purpose of the event is to “see Christ’s final command on earth fulfilled — to make disciples of all nations.” From this vantage point, the goal seems within reach.

Every day, I meet people who make it abundantly clear why the gospel continues to spread — why Christianity is both the largest and fastest growing faith on earth.

Let me take just a few examples from Africa. Ntsiuoa, a doctor from Lesotho, works in an AIDS clinic. Asheber, from Ethiopia, says thousands of Muslims are coming to Christ; he and his flock are busier discipling than evangelizing. Sarah, a Ugandan who runs an electricity transmission company, spends the rest of her time working with widows.

Today we visited The Warehouse, which works with churches in rich and poor areas, including ‘informal settlements’ (formerly townships, some might say suburban slums). We toured the Warehouse itself, where the staff and volunteers pray an hour every day before they carry on with their more mundane work. They educate, they train, they provide food, they encourage justice rather than charity – but mainly they “seek to change the lives of the poor by restoring their dignity and building meaningful relationships with them.”

Not all stories at Lausanne suggest victory. At my table group of six people — we meet twice every day — we hear from Hikari that in Japan the number of Christians remains stalled at below one percent; from Paul that many young Koreans no longer buy the ‘soul winning’ approach to the gospel, and are dropping out of church; from Matt that New Zealanders are comfortable and apathetic about the gospel message.

But the key is that they — and multitudes more like them — carry on in their work, spreading the message of the gospel, person by person.

I am reminded of the comments by long-time CBC TV journalist Brian Stewart, who covered many international crises as a foreign correspondent: “I’ve found there is no movement, or force, closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises and the vast human predicament, than organized Christianity in action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good. It is these Christians who are right ‘on the front lines’ of committed humanity today, and when I want to find that front, I follow their trail.”

Kevin Jenkins, the new president of World Vision International, expressed a related approach. Trained as a lawyer, and formerly president of Canadian Airlines and other corporations, he said: “I’m a product of evangelism.”

He was asked by a legal client whether he was at all interested in spiritual matters. Billing out his time at $100, he said “Sure.” In due course, he and his wife became Christians. He added: “When you’re a product of adult evangelism, you have a passion for evangelism.”

Well, that hasn’t really described me over the years. I’ve always believed in it, of course, and when people asked, I’ve always told them I was “saved in Zambia” — rather than that I became a Christian, or something less in-your-face.

Because I was saved — from a life separated from God. I didn’t find God in Zambia, he found me. But I was helped on my way by regular people, some of whom turned out to be more flawed than I could see at the time.

One passage from my diary about the farm in Zambia reminds me of the simplicity of my hosts’ approach. “On Tuesday night, there is always a sort of service in the living room — where Gordon reads from the Bible and explains it; Eddy and Joanna play guitar and lead hymns; and most people say prayers and thank God out loud. But most nights we just pass time in regular ways — reading, talking, playing Scrabble, etc.”

At Lausanne, we have heard many heroic and impressive stories. There are giants among us, and most are leaders in one way or another. But the majority of the participants are still regular folks, representing thousands of other regular folks. And it is the eternal significance of their stories that remains with me in my hotel room tonight as I mull over my return to Africa.