As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have a love affair with simplicity and even what Mother Teresa called “Gospel Poverty”. St. Francis spoke of blessed poverty, what we would today call simplicity, as a virtue. Of course, I am not an ascetic like Francis. I understand the Platonic world of the middle ages, but we have thrown the baby (the teachings of Jesus) out with the bath water (the dualistic worldview of the pre-reformation, neo-platonist church). Here is an exerpt from a post from Oct 2004:
One day when I was a young believer (about 1988), I had a big breakthrough. I went to a party for a family member. The party was all high society, and I felt very out of place. I was the proverbial "Arab in the Synagogue". I felt like "Forest Gump at a Black Panther Party".
Anyway, that night, as I reflected on the evening, a big "yo, duh" struck me, "We as Americans believe we can be Christians and not live the story of Jesus. To be a Christian means entering the life of faith which Jesus lived. We are called to approach life one day at a time and step out in faith to bring the kingdom to our reality one step of faith at a time. An existentialist monk was born that night. Saint Francis relates to this breakthrough because this tyoe of breakthrough is the story of Francis.
Francis' big idea was this.
Here are two stories:
1. Francis began his life of faith by saying one day, "Lord show me what to do and I will do it". That day, he went to church, and the priest spoke on "see all your possessions" and "store up treasures in heaven". So Francis did it. He stepped out in love for God and obeyed. His immediate experience was freedom. Francis fell in love with this experience of freedom and faith and the rest is history. This is the expereince of heaven on earth. We live in the NOW and the life of faith is stepped into in the existential present only. Today is the day of salvation!! Oh, this is so it!!
2. In a second story, Francis, after a day of prayer, asked his friends a question, "Should I spend my life in contemplation or should I preach also?" The answer came back 'preach also'. So he did. Francis was trapped in a Greek gnostic world of only ecstatic contemplation, but Francis found the balance of contemplation and compassionate action. And again, the rest is history!!Francis revolutionized the church by bringing it back to its Hebrew, and yes existential, roots of living the life of faith one day at a time. Right here! Right now! On planet earth!!
Yet, the direct teachings of Jesus to "not store up treasures" and to "sell our possessions' are completely re-interpreted to mean something that is not the practice of the early church. We speak of 'stewardship' which often means make sure you put enough away for retirement. The teaching seems to amount to an exhortation to be better at seeking the Worldly Dream than the world is. What would our teachings regarding sexuality look like if we used the same hermeneutic?
What we teach regarding the Christians relationship to material wealth is important because it is a central aspect of our distinctiveness to the world and because money used wisely is a central way to express compassion for the least whom Christ identifies with (Matt 25).
I believe that Jesus and the apostles gave us at least a general example on how Christians ought to relate in our practice to the materialism that is at the root the “world” (1 John 2:15-17). Also, according to the discipleship motto, “observation, imitation and then discussion”, to understand the simplicity in the Christian walk, we start with the practice of Christ and the early church, then we seek to imitate it as we attempt to understand the principles of this simplicity life through the sayings.
I find it alarming that the church seems to never call the church to “sell all our possessions and give to the poor” or at least “sell our treasures (extravagant stuff)” and give to ministries that are seeking to do justice. Sell your second home or your vacation home and give to the poor like Barnabas did. I am sure many people do this in private which is fantastic, but I am questioning our teaching and our visible practice before an ever observant world. Jesus said “let your light so shine that others see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”. The early church had a distinctive characteristic to its community in that they were not materialistic like the world around them. How can we expect to be a light to the world and yet have lost our saltiness on such a central aspect of the life of the prototype church in the book of Acts?