DiscipleChurch family and Friends:
This Sunday, we continue the entire church’s “Prayer of Saint Francis” worship theme. This Sunday, I will be preaching from the following part of the prayer:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…where there is despair, [let me sow] hope.”
I’d like to make an observation about Saint Francis, partly in response to some comments made to me about why we as a church are “following a Catholic.”
Francis “belongs” to United Methodists, and to all Christians, just as much as he “belongs” to Roman Catholics. Brothers and sisters, Francis is one of us. (And he is also one of them, whomever we need to call “them.” )
Francis lived and died in the 12th and 13th centuries in Italy. It was a time much like our own: The money economy was taking hold; the power of entrepreneurs was growing; there was tremendous disparity between the wealth of a few and the poverty and suffering of the many; church attendance was badly falling; the church had become disconnected from the lives of working and poor Christians and seemed focused on accumulating property for itself; Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness, non-violence and poverty were not taken seriously by the clergy or the laity; violence was rampant in the cities like Assisi and on the roads between cities; war had broken out between Christendom and Islam. Francis’ life cannot be appreciated apart from his time, and his time was much like ours.
During Francis’ life, all of Western Europe was Roman Catholic. Later, in the 16th Century, King Henry the VIII created the Church of England and separated it from the Roman Catholic Church. Then in the 18th Century, John Wesley, who was a priest in the Church of England until the day the died, started the Methodist movement within the Church of England to revitalize a spiritually dead church and to bring the gospel to the poor and working classes. (There are real parallels between the career of Francis and Wesley, because they both strove to follow the teachings of Christ, particularly when it came to the ownership of property.) Wesley’s Methodist movement came here to the colonies before the American Revolution. When the colonies gained their freedom from England in 1783, the Methodist movement in American formed its own church. This church is part of that Church formed here at the end of the 1700’s.
The point is that we are a branch off a branch off the trunk of Roman Catholicism. Francis comes from our common trunk.
Moreover, I believe that the fragmentation of the one body of Christ into separate denominations, each claiming to be the only True Way, is a scandal. I pray for the day when the one body of Christ will be one once again.
As Jesus prayed to our Father (in John 17. 20-23): “‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Finally, the more I read of Francis’ life, and of his writings and impact, the more I recognize Francis to be a true brother in the faith and to be a true spiritual and moral teacher.
Francis went through periods of despair. Francis, at times, lost all hope, particularly toward the end of his earthly existence when Francis considered whether God had actually accomplished what Francis had hoped would be accomplished through his life.
In this season of Lent, it is more than appropriate for us to consider whether Jesus also experienced periods of real despair — in dealing with so much opposition from the religious establishment of his day, in his exhaustion at confronting daily so much illness and suffering, in his frustration with his self-centered, obtuse disciples, at Gethsemane, when he was betrayed and abandoned by his followers, and on the cross when he cried out: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Did Jesus experience periods of despair for the same basic reason as Francis…a loss of hope that God had accomplished what Jesus hoped would be accomplished through his life?
“Despair” is commonly defined in dictionaries as “the loss of all hope.” Not just loss of “a” hope, or “some” hope, but a loss of “all” hope. But I don’t believe that this is an adequate definition for “despair.” My experience is that we can continue to hope for some shallow, trivial things but still despair because we have lost hope in what really matters, in what really makes human life worth living. And my experience is that we do in fact lose hope in a succession of trivial matters through our lives, without falling into despair. We go from lost hope to lost hope to lost hope, when life happens to us and we mature spiritually and emotionally. When we are children, we hope for the day when we will be a major league baseball player and hit the winning home run in the World Series. Or kick the winning soccer goal. Or when we will become a great beauty, courted by a handsome boy. Or when we will be popular and in with the “in” crowd. As we get a little older, maybe we hope for the day when we will make the highest grades or be admitted to an elite college. Or when we will meet the woman or man of our dreams and be blissfully married forever. And as we age, maybe we hope for the day when our children will accomplish all in their lives that we did not in ours, when our children will be able to avoid all dashed hopes. And as we age, we hope for the day when we will be the head of the company and make a fortune. Or that we will be able to avoid all illness and physical pain. And that our faces will not wrinkle, and our bellies sag, and our vitality wane. (Golly. I’m bumming myself out here.) And yet, we can lose these hopes and not despair, not give up on Hope.
So what hopes have you given up on?
And what hope have you held onto that has kept you from falling into despair? Or has enabled you to come out of it?
And if you have struggled with despair in your life, of what have you despaired? Was it partly because you had pinned your hopes, and your life, upon things not worthy of your hope or of your life?
I assure you that I am familiar with despair that is classified as mental illness, otherwise called “depression,” which can be situational or not. I encounter it in adults and children almost every day in this ministry.
But I am writing about a different, although related despair, one that is essentially spiritual, what Kierkegaard termed the “sickness onto death.” Have you ever for a time lost all hope in life? In its meaning? In its goodness? Was a loss of hope in God and in God’s goodness and power behind that?
Francis did. And I believe that even Jesus did. Others who have sought to do God’ s will and follow Jesus in our day have lost all hope for a time.
And they survived it. And they transcended it. They regained their hope. God gave it back to them. They went through the valley of the shadow and came out.
Hope to see you Sunday.
In the sunshine.