by Will Fletcher.
My first encounter with St Francis of Assisi came from reading this Ladybird book of Saints. The image I had was of someone who preached to animals and released captive birds – a real-life Dr Doolittle.
As an animal lover he became something of a hero for me. Then, as with many other people, my next encounter came with singing the hymn supposedly based upon his words – Make me a channel of your peace. Whether or not these words are the authentic words of Francis, it furthered my image of St Francis as someone who sought peace and harmony between humanity and the natural world.
Over the years, I have obviously come to realise that Francis’ character is far more complex, and that nearly all the information we have of him comes from others many years after the events of his life. My wife and I are currently in the middle of reading a daily devotional A Month with St Francis and the image presented is very different from this meek and mild saint that I grew up reading about.
In the early days of this devotional it includes words about poverty and austerity, about what it means to be crucified to the world, and about Francis considering himself the vilest of all humans. Is this really an example we should continue to follow today? Is it really going to attract people to the Christian faith? Would it be better only to focus on his words about nature and quietly let slip all these harsh words?
This may well seem a tempting approach. The Church is constantly trying to find ways of engaging with a society largely alienated from it, we attempt to find easy ways of relating to people where they are and to not place large expectations on people early on. In addition, we recognise the importance of celebrating who we are in God, and wish to build people up, rather than bring them down. Indeed, these difficult words of St Francis seem to come far more from a time when the physical and the body were looked down upon by many in Western society, and denial of the flesh was the appropriate course of action.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. I wonder whether, in an attempt to encourage people to engage with Church and Christianity, we have made it too easy with too few expectations? If we fail to speak of the cost of discipleship, are we in danger of making Christianity appear to be just another commodity that people can choose or ignore? As soon as the commodity stops providing our needs, or we recognise that this commodity is now costing us, we may make the decision to stop making use of it, secure in the knowledge that God loves us anyway and it doesn’t really matter.
If we make Christianity only about building people up and ensuring them of God’s love for them as they are, what do we say when people don’t feel that love? Is it all nonsense? Has it all been imagined or made up? Having an expectation of cost and difficulty, alongside the message of God’s grace and love, suggests times when the predominant experience is love, but also times when it feels harder.
Finally to resist calling all people to have a humble view of themselves (even if we may not want to go to the extremes of Francis’ vileness), is to fail to address those who need to hear that they are not perfect now, but change is possible; as well as allowing others to think about themselves far more highly than they ought. That we have all fallen short of the glory of God is one of the great equalising factors in life. Is not the heart of the good news that God’s love for us came ‘while we still were sinners.’ And there are people who really need the opportunity to acknowledge that they have sinned, and then to hear those words of forgiveness.
This is not to say that we should return fully to the days of condemnation and seeking everyone to see themselves as miserable sinners. However, let’s not throw it out completely. Let’s not offer cheap grace, but rather free grace that comes with an ongoing cost. I wonder how Church would be different if we placed expectations on people and openly talked about the cost of discipleship?
 Romans 5.8