Sunday, February 04, 2007

Reluctant Saint: St. Francis of Assisi

I have been doing a little freelance writing again, which has kept me away from writing as much on my blog. I am currently working on writing theological reflections on movies that pastors can use in sermons. Here is my first example, from a documentary called Reluctant Saint, which is also a book that I own:


Have you ever been driving down a road and saw a beautiful sunset over a field of winter wheat, and you had to simply pull off of the side of the road and watch as the sun slips under the horizon? Have you ever been driving toward the hills, turned around a corner, and been amazed by the beauty that you see? Do you remember climbing a tree as a child and looking down on everything around you and feeling like you perceived the world in a whole new way? I hope you have.

I remember being a young man taking a number of children on a camping trip as a reward for good behavior in our summer outreach program. One of our tents did not have all the equipment it needed, so the boys slept in their cabins and I slept out under the stars. As I did this I noticed the world in a whole new way. I started hearing things I had not heard and seeing things happen that I had previously ignored. And somehow, alone, under the stars, God seemed strangely present. It made me want to sing a song, but I did not know what song to sing.

In the Bible, we find several places where the natural world around us proclaims God’s glory, and teaches more about how awesome and wonderful God’s world is. Several passages from Scripture like this are found in the Psalms.

Psalm 148 says this:
1 Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise him in the heights above.
2 Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
3 Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.
5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
6 He set them in place for ever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.
7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding,
9 you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and maidens, old men and children.
13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to his heart Praise the LORD.
(New International Version)

The Bible, from beginning to end, points to nature as giving evidence to God the Creator. In the Old Testament Law, we are to take times after planting and after harvest to remember God’s goodness (Leviticus 25). We are told to consider the lilies of the field when we are tempted to worry (Matthew 6:25-34). When Jesus wants to teach something, he is always talking about a field or calming some waves. We are encouraged to think of God as our Rock (Psalm 19:14), or look at our own spiritual lives as like a tree planted by a good water source (Psalm 1).
The problem throughout history is that it becomes easy to go from seeing God’s presence all around us through what he is doing in nature, and worshipping the natural world itself. This has certainly been an issue with friends of mine, who say that spending a morning on a hike in the woods is as much church as they will ever need. It was also a challenge throughout history, including Bible times. The apostle Paul said in the book of Romans that we can often move from worshipping the Creator to worshipping the creation (Romans 1:18-32). How do we find the balance of seeing God at work in creation, without going to the point of worshipping what God made?

One of my personal heroes from church history helps a lot in this matter. His name is Francis of Assisi. And recently, I just watched a documentary about him called “The Reluctant Saint”, which is loosely based upon a book with the same title by Donald Spoto.

Francis was a social activist and an itinerant preacher in the 1400s in a small town in the northern part of Italy. After living a wild life in his teen years, he felt called to give up everything to follow Jesus. He spent a lot of his time caring for lepers. But he also spent a lot of his time preaching along the countryside to people about Jesus.

His most famous creation is what we know as the nativity scene or the crèche, which he created to help people understand more about the birth of Jesus. So he gathered up farm animals, dressed up some of his disciples, and talked about the love God had for us by sending us Jesus as a little child born in a manger.

As he was dying, he decided to create one final song of praise to God for his goodness. And like many Psalmists before and songwriters after, he chose to describe the goodness of God through what he saw in nature. The movie “Reluctant Saint” shows this poem, called “Canticle to the Sun” in video form as it recounts the life of Francis. Look up to the screen as we hear Francis of Assisi’s final prayer (Go to special features, and show the “Canticle to the Sun” excerpt. It should last about 2 minutes).

Do you notice how he thanks God for “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” without lifting them up to be worshipped? He thanks God for how the things in nature have blessed him and served him, and reminded him of God’s goodness to all of us.

A lot of us sometimes wonder where God is, and why he does not seem to be as present as we want him to be in difficult times. And, we wonder if he is even there at all. Yet, the Scripture says that we can learn a lot about God simply by looking at the world around us. We can see his power. We can see his beauty. We can see how creative he is. And, occasionally when seeking God in the midst of his creation we can see his sense of humor (if you disagree, consider the duckbilled platypus).

Romans says it this way, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what was made, so that people are without excuse.” (TNIV).

So, as you go through your week the next week, don’t fall down and worship a pretty flower. There is no need to hug a tree. However, it is important that you do take time to go to a place away from people in a park, or out in the woods, and just look around. As you are sitting or walking in that place, take time to give God thanks and praise. He deserves it! Then, let the things that he has made all around you be your prompts to remind you of things to be thankful and praise-filled about.

1 comment:

Gretchen said...

Beautiful post. I've been catching up on blogs and as I read this one I noticed that no one had commented yet. It's so good to praise God, and nature is an amazing display of who God is by what He created! Love that Francis!