The Unlikely Candidate
Last week I went to my dead mother’s 21st birthday party. Admittedly, it wasn’t strictly my mum’s birthday; instead it was the anniversary of the charity that she helped establish 21 years ago. But it felt like she was there all the same. And I know she would have loved every minute of it.
And as we wedged ourselves into the town-centre church to celebrate the thousands of lives of homeless men and women that had been improved by this ever-growing charity, I prepared to speak on the idea of the ‘unlikely candidate’. It’s precisely what my mum was. She wasn’t well educated about the issues of addiction or well versed in the socio-political influences that lie behind the horror of homelessness. She wasn’t much of a public speaker and she wasn’t all that good at managing conflicting interests within a growing organisation. So, yes, she was an unlikely candidate.
Aren’t we all? I mean, if you really think about it, which of us are in any way qualified to do anything that courses with the life-blood of God’s purpose and power? What gives any of us the right to expect God to use us? Aren’t there others with greater skills – and fewer issues? But grace can beat failure any day of the week. And the days when the weak rise up to serve and to lead are some of the most beautiful that we can ever hope witness.
All of which is a long-winded way of introducing a bit of art. Have a look at this picture by the fourteenth century Italian equivalent of Banksy, AKA Giotto.
This little puppy happens to be known by the title The Mystic Marriage of St. Francis with Holy Poverty and you can find it on the wall of a church in Assisi, Italy.
Now take a proper look – a thirty second one.
You begin to see the story after a while. Poverty stands central to the scene, dressed in rags, looking frail, pale and, frankly, a bit rough. But she’s got wings, which is worth remembering. On her right is Christ, and to his right is Francis of Assisi, to whom Jesus is turning as if at the part of the marriage ceremony where the groom, in his final act as a single man, take his soon-to-be-wife’s hand, places a ring upon her finger and declares his solemn vows of fidelity, devotion and love.
There are plenty of angels on either side of the happy couple, and there are personifications of Hope and Chastity among them (I read that on the internet). A couple of angels fly upwards, carrying with them what look like a church and a nice-looking jacket.
At the bottom of the picture are a pair of seriously annoying kids throwing stones and sticks at the bride, while – bottom left – a young man follows in the footsteps of Francis by giving his jacket to another poor, pale figure in rags. Bottom right there are wealthy citizens who appear to be pretty scornful of the whole thing. Maybe they’re just annoyed because they’ve seen what the caterers have got lined up.
It’s an unlikely bit of art, but it makes a point, doesn’t it? Whatever you know about Francis of Assisi, forget that stuff about him being the patron saint of fluffy bunnies. Ever since his life – and death – people have pointed to Francis as the best example of what it really means to be a Christian. He rejected wealth, status and power so that he could serve others. He helped build the local church (literally) and chose to align himself with society’s outcasts rather than their success stories. He gave up everything for the greater prize of walking in the footsteps of the Son of God.
Giotto was right: in many ways Francis was so committed to a life of integrity and service that he became intimately, permanently, devotedly connected to poverty. He chose it, embraced it and found through it great support, wisdom and strength. And poverty – though it comes in rags and appear pallid – is connected to God. Remember those wings?
Where would you place yourself in this picture? Mocking and hurling missiles with the little ones? Trying to emulate Francis? Pouring scorn as you turn your back? Or are you closer to the action: are you like one of those celestial spectators, adding your voice and your support to those embracing a life less ordinary? Or are you ragged and pale, hoping for help? Or does desperation and need feel like something that stirs you to action?
Perhaps it isn’t as clear as identifying one character to sum us up. Perhaps the answer to all of these is to some extent ‘yes’. Aren’t we all a swirl of cynicism and doubt, of wanting to be a disciple and wanting to get as far away as possible, of observer and observed, of poverty and strength, of needing help and giving it? Aren’t we all the brat, the beggar and the blessed servant?
And aren’t we all unlikely candidates for any of this? Aren’t our attempts at acts of kindness and service unlikely building blocks for the kingdom of God? Aren’t these songs we write and sing unlikely tools? Aren’t there other people out there who can do it better, sing it stronger, live it louder?
We shouldn’t let our hesitation or lack of qualification get in the way of our serving any more than we should allow our ego and pride to take the glory.
Many people have wondered what it was about Francis that made him so good a follower of Jesus. I’ve wondered too, and to be honest when I have found visited Franciscan churches in search of the answer I have only ever left feeling less sure of it all. Perhaps that’s because forming a movement, adopting a uniform and creating a system of hierarchy and structure misses the point that Francis – and Giotto – clearly understood.
None of this is about our qualification, our experience or our expertise. As Francis stands there, badly dressed, a little awkward, a little too small and a little too rotund – Giotto has depicted Jesus leaning away from him, head tipped to one side, arm outstretched. He does not look at Poverty – he knows her well enough already – but he looks at Francis with a quizzical warmth that seems to say… I know there are a thousand reasons why you’d say no to this, but – unqualified and unlikely as you are – will you say yes? Are you in? Will you say yes?
Well, will you?
- the death of busyness
- does charity need reinvention?
- social media, christianity and the whiff of hypocrisy (or why I get annoyed with christians on twitter and Facebook)
- Deciding Enough Is Enough
- the way the river flows