Domesticating Francis of Assisi

(Today, October 4, is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi).

We have a garden statue of Francis of Assisi holding a bird as he is known for caring for the natural world. Our statue if fairly innocuous compared with other statues or illustrations of Francis talking to a half-circle of birds, deer, squirrels, and other animals, which remind of old Disney movies. Francis comes across an eccentric, dotty yet endearing uncle.

But there is a different story to Francis of Assisi. Francis was not a charming, avuncular monk as history has portrayed him. Rather, Francis was a challenging prophet, who, like Jesus, confronted the political and religious authorities of his time with the truth of the gospel.

Francis lived in the early 13th century which saw the rise of a new economic era in the city republics of upper Italy. A growing population and the economic boom restricted the medieval makeup of cities. The rural economy was waning and next to the aristocracy and clergy, there arose an additional class to which affluent cloth merchants like Francis’ father belonged. New forms of trade developed in the flourishing towns and the upper classes imported and consumed luxury articles like silk and spices from the East. People who once worked the land were uprooted while more and more wage-dependent workers roamed the streets.

This new era was no longer based on the exchange of natural goods but on the traffic of money. Profiteering, speculation, and market swings determined the economic destiny of even the newly poor. At the same time, this early capitalism sustained this new class of people who were profoundly fascinated by money, property, success and upward mobility.

And here enters Francis of Assisi, born into this new wealthy class. His father was a very wealthy merchant of cloth and, prior to Francis’ conversion, Francis was known as a playboy, who was to inherit the family business. Francis became desperately ill and during his recovery he began reading religious materials and the Bible. His encounter with Jesus in the gospels changed his life forever. When he recovered from his illness, he broke with his family and lived in the nearby woods outside of Assisi, following Jesus without a permanent home or any possessions.

The commitment Francis made to poverty must be seen in this context. His break with his family was a rejection of the values of the bourgeois world. When he refused to run the family business he was cursed by his father and regarded as dead to the family. As Francis rejected affluence for poverty, he also rejected the dominant culture and all its values. Importantly, for Francis, choosing poverty was not only to avoid the dangers of affluence but also was a total renunciation of the self and subsequent giving of that self to God.

Unfortunately, throughout history, religious authorities developed two different ways of dealing with prophets—they either expelled them or attempted to domesticate them. Francis was domesticated, robbed of his prophetic sting. The radical stories about Francis were prohibited and his biography was suppressed.

A sanitized version of Francis’  life was declared the official biography which left Francis as the mild, gentle friend of nature—with a few oddities—who loved poverty more than anything else. This is the story that survives even today. Yes, Francis, did preach to the birds, but according to Umberto Eco, he was talking to vultures and birds of prey in the cemeteries telling them the things that the rich city councilmen did not want to hear.

Political and religious authorities were subject to his radical critique. Francis embraced and kissed lepers not only out of love but because he wanted to liberate them from exclusion, from being told that they did not belong. As Eco suggests, leprosy is a sign of those who are disenfranchised, oppressed, uprooted, and pushed around, then it is precisely this spirit of exclusion that Francis was intent on eliminating. His goal was not an aimless and self-satisfying asceticism—rather, Francis sought to live the vulnerable openness of love that gives itself without condition, protection, and reassurance. He was hardly the domesticated, dotty, peculiar monk that history has portrayed him.

(Originally posted in 2011).

Befriending My Depression

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As I meet with a new doctor she reviews my list of prescriptions.

“Do you still need this one?” she asks while pointing at my anti-depressant medication.

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell her my history with depression: “I had my first depression when I was 13 years old, the next one at age 19, another one in my mid-20s, then again when I was 40,” I said. “That last one was deeper and longer than any of the others and I started the medication.”
“Okay,” she said while nodding. “Sounds like you’re a lifer for meds.”

“Yep, probably.”

***

I’ve had this conversation with a variety of physicians, including a dermatologist who said, “You look fine to me!” To which I replied, “That’s because of the medication—it helps me not to be depressed.”

Another doctor suggested I see a therapist and I said, “I’ve done years of talk therapy and have met with four different therapists during my life. I know my depression well enough that if I need a therapist, I see one.

***

My depression is part of who I am and I am well-acquainted with it. When I notice the inner flatness I take a survey: how have I been sleeping? Do I need to increase my vitamin D and/or B12? Do I need to get out of the house and move more? And, as an Enneagram 4, am I veering toward the unhealthy attributes? If so, do I need to do a life correction and move toward the Enneagram 1? Or, is this the return of “darkness, my old friend?”

***

For decades I’ve been ashamed of my mental illness.My friends remember my depression at 19 and describe me as sitting in the corner at Bible Study with a pullover hoodie and greasy hair. I’m ashamed by that description. A few months after I began anti-depressants I wanted to stop because I was “feeling better and don’t need them anymore.” My husband wisely said, “You feel better because of the medication. You have a disease—the mental illness of depression.”

I don’t like the phrase “mental illness” because of the portrayal of people mental illness in popular culture—scary, erratic, irrational. I want to appear normal, steady, and have-it-all-together, not someone who lives with a mental illness.

***

When I first learned of the “dark night of the soul,” I wondered if that’s what I experienced. I asked one of my seminary professors and he quickly responded, “No, that’s depression, not the dark night.”

“How can you tell the difference?” I asked.

In the dark night you still function in life and you have full expression of your emotions,” he said. “With the dark night God is silent. God’s silence is leading you into a deeper or newer form of prayer.”

***

A wise friend suggested that I “befriend my depression” which seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I’ve pondered this idea and I have come to understand that to befriend my depression is to accept it as an essential part of me as much as my delight at a good joke. To befriend my depression means not disowning and heaping shame on this part of me in an attempt to appear normal. I will never be cured of my depression but medication helps me manage it. I know I will need to introduce this friend to future doctors as “my friend.”

I consider my daily pill as a gift from God. And because that pill is a gift from God it is a daily reminder of my dependency on God. I cannot make myself whole, only God can and there is the grace which allows me to befriend my depression.

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Ashamed No More

blog--2-20-18 broken chains

Millions of people are familiar with Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame beginning with her 2010 TED talk on YouTube. Brown originally thought only a few hundred people would watch the video but it was quickly forwarded and shared around the internet world. She has admitted to feeling enormous shame over doing a TED talk about vulnerability and shame but she is learning to “embrace vulnerability and transform the shame.”

Brown is a social researcher who has studied the connection of shame and vulnerability. Her research reveals that our shame blocks our ability and willingness to be vulnerable and to live, as she describes it, “whole-hearted lives.” According to Brown, there are three universal truths about shame: 1) we all have it; 2) we’re all afraid to talk about it; and 3) the less we talk about it, the more we have it.

The Lent season invites us to face our shame and allow God to transform our shame into honor before God. I read in Leader magazine that “To be shamed, to be recognized as less than the image one has carefully crafted to bestow honor on one’s family and community, destroys people psychologically and spiritually.” The writers continued: “We need salvation from the disgrace we suffer and need to have our honor restored.” This is our Lenten journey—to allow the old patterns of disgrace and shame to be broken by what God has done in and through Jesus. Because Jesus Christ’s shameful death by crucifixion is redeemed by his resurrection, our shame is also redeemed.

To talk about shame in church, and especially in worship, takes courage and conviction because shame touches the deepest places of our hearts. Shame is even difficult to talk about even with those we are closest to, because shame indicates the disgrace we feel in failure—either by actively having done something wrong or by having failed to do something right, as we see in Prov. 14: 33-35: “Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.”

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge, their eyes were opened—dare we say they felt shame?–covered up their nakedness from one another, and then hid from God. What happened after God confronted them? Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. They covered up, they hid themselves, and they blamed others (Genesis 3).  Adam and Eve give us the first example of shame. It seems that shame is embedded in us at a cellular level—and because it embedded in us, that only an act of God can heal our shame through Jesus Christ. The transformation of our shame is a gift from God.

But, while transformation is God’s doing, we cannot be passive recipients of God’s healing, transforming work rather we must be active participants with God. Ever since the day God formed us from the dust of the earth and breathed life into us, we have been called into partnership with God. God seldom works alone. God often works with and through humanity. We are coworkers with God to bring about healing and transformation. We co-labor with God to bring about God’s reign here on earth, as in heaven. We participate with God in our own healing through our faithfulness to God.

As collaborators with God, then we need to consider what we can do to transform the shame in our lives and in our congregations. According to Brown, we need to talk about shame for healing to take hold in the depths of our hearts. This might mean talking privately with a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, or a psychotherapist. Or, we can learn from Twelve Step groups who do talk about their lives and the things they are ashamed about for it is in the talking—the confessing—the shame begins to be healed.

If a church does dare to talk about shame, there will probably be some pushback—or some kind of resistance—because people will not naturally or willingly talk about shame and woundedness. But what if a congregation does embrace God’s offer to heal shame this Lenten season? Then I think we become close to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s preference for a church to be “a church of sinners rather than a church of saints,” as he describes in Life Together.

Brown describes this healing as becoming “authentic” and “risking vulnerability” and she frames this as “wholehearted living.” I would reframe her language to the abundant living of carrying Jesus’ yoke from his promise in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To live as Jesus does gives us an opportunity to live in the Spirit and to take his light burden means to live in freedom from shame and the isolation that being bound in shame does to us. Carrying Jesus’ yoke restores us to honor—to trustworthiness, freedom, and humility. Humility means making peace with our shame because we know ourselves to be both forgiven and loved by the One who is without shame.

This Lent season provides us with a framework to touch those tender, wounded places of shame, to talk about the shame, and in turn, offer it all to God for God’s healing, forgiving touch. God is doing a new thing, recognizing our true nature and making a way for us to become fully human again. By the time we arrive at Easter we can boldly sing with the hymn writer of “And Can It Be”

“My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”

We can joyfully proclaim, “Ashamed no more!”