“Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary,” is another quote attributed to Francis of Assisi that he almost certainly didn’t say.
Francis used words aplenty to preach the Gospel; in fact, he used all the clubs in the bag, all the tools in the toolbox, all the metaphors in the idiom to preach the Good News of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We’re drawn to the quote, regardless, in part because it speaks to the witnessing power of a fully integrated life of faith, and in part because it seems like an “out” – a way we can life faithful to our calling as Christian witnesses without ruffling a bunch of feathers or marking too many waves. And because there are so many parts of Francis’ legacy that appeal beyond the boundaries of orthodox Christianity, the quote fits the ecumenical attraction to the cuddly version of St. Francis.
Francis was endlessly creative in preaching the Gospel. He and his brothers sought to model the troubadours of the era, taking the style of contemporary love songs to deliver Gospel messages (sort of a 13th century version of Contemporary Christian Music). They entertained as street performers – jugglers for God, if you will – using skits and something like performance art to get their messages across. Famously , Francis organized villagers to re-enact the Nativity scene to depict the first Christmas, a feast that wasn’t as widely celebrated then but which his fervor helped envigorate.
But his goal was always, clearly, to talk about Jesus. When he sought to end a Crusade by crossing battle lines to meet with the Sultan of the time, it was a testament to his commitment to peace. But it was Francis’ goal to end the fight by converting the Islamic leader to Christianity, awkward though that might sound today.
And Francis could witness just by walking around, but as I hope I have made clear by now, he did so not by being a nicer version of everyone else, but by being a radically different person altogether.
So to go revisit that not-Francis quote, how willing am I to preach the Gospel at all times? My example is certainly not radical enough to obviate the need for words.
And when it comes to the word-using, I find myself confronted by another famous quote (the legitimacy of which I am unsure), attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful.”
I tend to go the other way on that one. I have seen many a street preacher push people farther from God with their efforts to faithfully preach the Gospel they know, and I see that not only as unhelpful but actively harmful to the effort to spark faith in others. There is, undoubtedly, a vanity on my part of not wanting to be “THAT guy.” But there is also, mixed in, a Socratic-oath-like desire not to do any spiritual harm by hitting people over the head, verbally, in a way that pushes them farther from awareness of divine love. If I’m going to talk about the Gospel with anyone, I want to be sure it’s in a way that will be successful, even if that means picking my spots.
Maybe that’s yet another weakness I need to confront. It is certainly another divergence from St. Francis’ example, who was all witness, all the time, words and all.
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