Through the Eyes of Francis

When it comes to celebrating Earth Day, it is hard to think of a more supportive environment to be in than that of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. For many years you have received official certification as an “Earth Care Congregation.” You are mindful of the products you buy.  You take recycling seriously. You have installed 60 solar panels on the church, and you can even get online and find out how many kilowatts are being produced right this second. (Please don’t.)

While all this is highly commendable, it seems that there are so many people out there who don’t take the threats facing our planet seriously – who don’t take global warming seriously. Unfortunately, talking seriously on such matters requires a degree of scientific detail that makes many people’s eyes heavy. And since I am not a scientist, it makes me consider what role I can play in the church to motivate people to want to care for their planet.

With this in mind, I was stuck by a line in an article entitled“Daring to Dream: Religion and the Future of the Earth”: “We are discovering that the human heart is not changed by facts alone but by engaging visions and empowering values. Humans need to see the large picture and feel they can act to make a difference.” (authors Mary Tucker and John Grim in Yale University Reflections Magazine) I take that as a challenge that I can get behind. In our church context then, how can I convey an “engaging vision” that will motivate people to care enough to make a difference?

There are two people who have inspired me in this regard, and they are both named Francis. So first I want to share some of my own reflections on St. Francis – always an acceptable thing to do in this church. Then we will hopefully have some time to comment on the extraordinary contributions of Pope Francis.

* * *

I have had a special fondness for St. Francis for many years. When I was in college I was quite moved by reading “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” – a book that has touched the heart of many generations. Also, it was when I was in college that the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” came out - which focuses on the early years of Francis of Assisi. Though perhaps a wee bit romanticized, the film depicts his renunciation of his inherited wealth and status, and finding joy in the presence of God infused in all of creation. Heck, the movie even simmers with suppressed romantic overtones as his relationship with Claire is explored. (I guess that is to be expected, since the same director also created the film version of “Romeo and Juliet.”) At any rate, the film resonated with me, as I was in a time in my life when I was exploring my faith coming alive, and also struggling with what I was to make of the privileges that I was born with.

Of course, the challenge is always to move past the romanticized version of a life. We do know that Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1181 or 1182 AD, the son of a wealthy merchant. He even fought in a war with the neighboring town of Perugia, and on capture, spent about a year as a prisoner of war.

However, the focus of his attention gradually changed as he experienced a series of personal encounters with Jesus the Christ in dreams, in the silence of a cave, and in meeting a leper on the road. It was while he was praying in an abandoned church that the figure on the cross said to him, "go repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." On turning his attention to God, overwhelmed by the infinite love for him revealed in the virtually incarnate Jesus, and in creation, Francis gave up his inheritance and devoted his life to following Christ.

You wouldn’t say that Francis was an environmentalist in the way we use the word today, but Francis showed his love for God through his deep love and reverence for all of God's creation. It was really because of his mystical and passionate ability to see God in all of creation that Pope John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint "of those who promote ecology." Francis is the patron of those who cultivate ecological consciousness. . . which means a lot more than being the patron of environmental educators. His example really points to a mystical or a spiritual vision for all of the created world as brother and sister, as he describes in his “Canticle of the Creatures.”

Let me give you a taste of his consciousness by reading that canticle to you, which was composed when he was sick at San Damiano, shortly before the end of his life in 1226. It contains three sections: a praise of God for the creatures, a praise for those who forgive for the love of God, and a praise of sister bodily death.

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing . . .
Praise be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light. . .
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather, through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised by You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains  and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with colored flowers
and herbs. . .
Blessed are those who endure in peace
For by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape. . .
Praise and bless my Lord and give thanks
and serve with great humility.

Part of what we have to recover - which has been so thoroughly lost in our modern understanding of the world - is a sense of enchantment, of creation infused with the spirit of God.  Scripture assumes this. The problem is we can't even recognize it in scripture because we live in a world that's been stripped of its meaning and is defined as material only.

Francis distinguished himself by advocating “the equality of all creatures”, and by speaking of “the spiritual autonomy of nature.” Especially in Christian circles, I believe we need to overcome this fundamental orientation of subduing creation, and rediscover the profound humility of St. Francis in relating to all living things.

Aside from his orientation to creation, St. Francis’ radical commitment to rejecting materialism very much relates. Jan Boersema writes: It is absolutely essential for the human race to develop a new and sustainable relationship with the natural environment, characterized by considerably less pollution, resource depletion and loss of natural values, to be achieved through a switch to renewable energy sources, alternative raw materials and wiser use of physical space. This will probably also require a different kind of economy, rooted less in material throughput (amount of material circulating in the economy per unit of time or place).

* * *

Pope Francis consciously identifies with St. Francis. In terms of taking integration seriously, he wrote one of the most thoughtful environmental pieces to come out in recent years entitled LAUDATO SI’: On Care for Our Common Home. It is exceedingly well-structured and very profound. It eloquently blends theology, philosophy, science, biodiversity, global economic inequality, mystery, weak responses, anthropocentricism, and an appeal to the common good. I wish I had time to talk about it more, but know that I highly commend this to you! You can download it for free!

Pope Francis summarizes all this wonderfully when he writes: “[St. Francis] was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openhearted­ness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is be­tween concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

Faith does have an important role to play in rescuing our planet. Gus Speth would agree. Gus has been working for decades as an environmental lawyer and advocate. He has founded major environmental organizations, advised Presidential administrations, headed the United Nations Development Programme, and served as dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.  Listen to what he has to say: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy . . . and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”I find that to be a dramatic and compelling statement!

I feel a need to end on a more hopeful note, so I will conclude by again quoting the Pope’s encyclical: Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an hon­est look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to [this] grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.”

May there be no mistake that this is the proper domain of the church. May our words be wise and compelling, and our hearts be full of both humility and enthusiasm.


Job 38             (selected verses in the Message translation)

In this chapter God finally answers Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:

2-11 “Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?
Pull yourself together, Job!
I have some questions for you,
    and I want some straight answers.
Where were you when I created the earth?
    Tell me, since you know so much!

Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that!
    Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?
And who took charge of the ocean
    when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
    and tucked it in safely at night.
Then I made a playpen for it,
    a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose

12-15 “And have you ever ordered Morning, ‘Get up!’
    told Dawn, ‘Get to work!’
As the sun brings everything to light,
    brings out all the colors and shapes,

16-18 “Have you ever gotten to the true bottom of things,
    explored the labyrinthine caves of deep ocean?
Do you know the first thing about death?

22-30 “Have you ever traveled to where snow is made,
    seen the vault where hail is stockpiled,
The arsenals of hail and snow that I keep in readiness?
    Can you find your way to where lightning is launched,
    or to the place from which the wind blows?

Who do you suppose carves canyons
    for the downpours of rain, and charts
    the route of thunderstorms
And who do you think is the father of rain and dew,
the mother of ice and frost?
You don’t for a minute imagine
    these marvels of weather just happen, do you?

Do you know the first thing about the sky’s constellations
    and how they affect things on Earth?

Can you take charge of the lightning bolts
    and have them report to you for orders?

39-41 “Can you teach the lioness to stalk her prey
    and satisfy the appetite of her cubs
As they crouch in their den,
    waiting hungrily in their cave?

And who sets out food for the ravens
    when their young cry to God,
    fluttering about because they have no food?”

 1-2 God then confronted Job directly:
“Now what do you have to say for yourself?

3-5 Job answered:
“I’m speechless, in awe—words fail me.
   I should never have opened my mouth!

I’ve talked too much, way too much.
    I’m ready to shut up and listen.”