I was an event recently where someone repeated a phrase that has, I believe, been falsely attributed to St. Francis. Perhaps you have heard it, “Go everywhere preaching the Gospel … and if necessary use words.” I have done a lot of reading and research of Francis and have never found any reliability to this claim. Francis was the founder of a preaching community. He was a self-styled troubadour. He was a poet and an able song writer. He loved words!
Most often people dust off this early version of “fake news” to justify their timidity. The quickest perusal of Francis’ life would show a man who was anything but timid. He went into the Saracen camp to declare the Gospel of Peace. He went into the papal throne room to share his message there. Everywhere he went he verbally declared the love of God and His compassion on all that He had made.
My friend at the event I attended cited this ‘fake news’ to call us to more than words and in that I can whole heartedly agree. I am sure Francis would also agree. That he would agree, though, in no way gives licence to perpetuate ‘fake news’. There are innumerable events in Francis life which could illustrate his clarion call to social justice without resorting to ‘fake news’.
For me Francis is the prototypical evangelist. He is a role model and in many ways is a mentor to me. His love of verbal proclamation and accompanying works of peace and justice set the bar for all of us who follow him. His simplicity and humility ironically set lofty standards.
One of his great principles was his desire to understand. He sought to understand people, in fact all creation. So much of our time in this culture is spent in trying to make ourselves understood but he held understanding in a higher place. It is only as we seek to understand people that we really get to know them. Francis had no doubt that he had the good news and that everyone needed to hear and respond to it, but still he sought to understand so that he could apply the ‘good news’ to the particular wound of his hearer.
From Francis I learned what I have called ‘jujitsu’ evangelism. Jujitsu is a sport in which momentum is redirected. Once we understand the yearning of a person’s heart we can use the momentum of that very yearning to direct them to Christ. Once we understand that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega and in him our deepest needs are met, and we understand what that need is in our friend, it becomes a simple matter to direct people to Jesus!
Seeking to understand rather than be understood is at once simple and difficult. Francis led a life of simplicity but certainly not of ease! It takes effort. The kind of effort we try to expend at Street Hope, where we rub shoulders with people. We talk first about weather but over time we learn about the deep things in our friends’ hearts and we seek to redirect them to Jesus.
Recently I wrote of friends who hate Christmas and I shared a part of our response to that with “Blue Christmas.” I also meet folks who love the season. I like to ask them to unpack for me what they love about the season. I do this in the confidence that they have a God given yearning that can best be met in Christ. It is a simple thing! It is an effective thing! Why not give it a go? And please use words!