Pastor’s Perspective. . . May 2018
One of the oddest stories in Christian history is the ancient narrative of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. I first encountered the story in paintings and in the gardens of my Roman Catholic family members. It was easy to dismiss it as another story about those crazy saints of the past, but as I matured in the faith the story began to become more meaningful.
While many know the story, few understand the setting of the tale. St. Francis was going through a time of turmoil and doubt and he sent word to his trusted advisors and friends to ask them to pray and instruct him on whether he should retire from public ministry and live a monastic life in seclusion. Francis spent his time in prayer awaiting a response from others to determine his future path. Imagine the level of trust needed to put your personal future in the hands of other people.
His advisors and friends encouraged Francis to leave the monastery and vigorously preach the gospel in the world. It is here that we find Francis preaching to the birds, for as he made his way to the next town to preach the gospel he happened upon a flock of birds. St. Francis preached to the birds because he took seriously the call to share the gospel with the entirety of Creation. Francis truly believed in the transformative power of the Gospel, a power that is not only evidenced when it touches the compliant hearts of men and women, but which has an inherent power.
Today, after nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, the story speaks to the expectations of my heart and soul. As a young man I would judge my ministry based on its concrete results. I did not understand the planting of seeds or the long process of fruit bearing. I preached to sway an audience or get a response. I did not consider that speaking the truth had its own value. The story of St. Francis reminds me that obedience does not demand the response of anyone but me.
The recent saga of former FBI director James Comey provides us with an example of how our strategies can sometimes keep us from faithful obedience. From all previous accounts he is an upright and decent man. He seeks to live a moral life and to hold himself to a high standard of personal and professional morality. He had earned a reputation as an honest arbiter of truth from both political parties and had earned the trust of the most powerful men in the nation, and then he faced a crisis that no one could have predicted… President Donald Trump.
In this partisan age we can state only one unequivocal fact about the saga of James Comey; that James Comey was fired from his position as the head of the FBI when he lost the trust of his President. Regardless of how this conflict is finally resolved, we also know that, well before his firing, James Comey lost trust in Donald Trump. It might be more honestly stated that James Comey never truly trusted Donald Trump. In his judgement, the President was not made of the right stuff. He was not worthy to be the leader of the nation that Comey so loved.
In his mind, James Comey is a man who speaks truth to power. He is a man whose story is peppered with tales of standing up to bullies and resisting compromise. In his interactions with the President Comey responded in a different manner, by his own words he never told the President the truth. He withheld information and never directly challenged the President. He failed to give sound advice to the man he was charged to inform and advise. There is debate over why Comey kept his silence. Some have alleged cowardice, and perhaps that is true. My inclination, however, is that Comey is not a coward. I believe that Comey’s flaw was a fundamental failure to embrace hope.
Hope is a product of faith. In fact hope can be seen as the evidence of faith. Hope is not contingent on courage, though hopeful people are much more courageous than those who lack hope. The reason for this is that hopeful people believe that no matter the circumstances that we face, good can prevail. A hopeful person is willing to act on faith no matter what the circumstances.
A hopeful person gives one hundred percent to her team regardless of the score. A hopeful parent sees the potential in a drug addicted child. A hopeful physician can treat a critically wounded soldier with the expectation that he can yet have a meaningful life. A hopeful politician shares his unfiltered opinion to the President in hope that his mind can be changed and a crisis can be averted. Sadly, we live in an age of fading hope.
The sad truth is that James Comey never dared to hope that President Trump could be changed. Perhaps he was correct. Perhaps any effort given to communicate his ideas to the President would have been rebuffed. Perhaps he would have been ridiculed and dismissed by the President. We will never know what might have happened if he would have just expressed his deep concerns with the President, but we know what happened when he withheld his advice and opinion: he was dismissed and fired.
The lesson that I am taking from the Comey saga is this; speak the truth in love and never lose hope. Our hope is not based on a faith in Presidents, political parties, or even nations. Our hope is based on our faith in God in Jesus Christ. In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have access to the transformative power of God. We serve a God who asked Abraham to leave his home to follow a promise that his elderly wife would one day bear him a son. We follow a God who changed the heart of Saul on the road to Damascus. We follow a God who sent a young shepherd boy into battle armed with only a sling and seven smooth stones. We follow a God who asked Jesus Christ to carry a cross to a hill called Calvary with the promise that this action would bring salvation to the world and glory to God. We would be correct to say that only fools would believe that victory could come from these situations, yet we affirm the very victory we would have doubted. We serve a God who even today asks us to lovingly and hopefully place our trust in God and has told us that we have nothing to fear.
It is all too easy to forget this. It is all too easy to lose faith in God and subsequently lose love for our brothers and sisters on this planet. The tragedy of lost hope is that it leads to lost love. Our hope is lost when we reject the penitent sinner who has, once again, promised to change her life. We lose hope when we stop correcting our children’s behaviors out of frustration and anger. We lose hope when we stop trying to share the gospel to the lost. We lose hope when we mistakenly believe that our non-Christian neighbors and co-workers do not need our prayers or invitations to faith in Jesus Christ.
James Comey is not a villain. Neither is the President. The truth is that they both represent modern America. We live in a nation that has jettisoned reasoned debate for tweeting our arguments for the applause of our supporter. Why would anyone discuss and debate policy and ideas with someone who we believe to be irredeemable? It would be as ridiculous as arguing with a stone or preaching to the birds.
If we can only learn how to preach to the birds, then we might be willing to share the gospel with even the most unreasonable of human beings. Why do we prejudge those who we believe would be resistant to the message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ? Is it any surprise that the same Francis who shared the gospel with wild animals and birds would also traverse a great distance to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the great Islamic Sultan al-Kamil. While others fought with swords and spears, St. Francis made the journey to share the love of God in Jesus Christ with the enemy of his people. This is faith, hope and love embodied in human action and it is the way that the 21st Century Church must learn to follow once again.
By faith, with hope and in love,