I was reading Day 3 of the Principles the other day, and my hackles immediately rose. It says that the object of the Society of St Francis is to build a community of those who ‘accept Christ as their Lord and Master.’ And I am taken straight back to being about seven, swinging my legs on the wooden chair of the hut where we have our church meetings and feeling frightened.
‘Lord and Master’ to me means someone who is pointing a long celestial finger, pursing divine lips and shaking his heavenly head in despair at my inadequacies. It’s a bit grandiose, I know, but I am convinced that I am unredeemable. I am so full of sin and wickedness that any Lord and Master would have me out on my ear straightaway. So it’s best to lie low and not be noticed. With any luck, the Lord and Master will be off paying attention to those saintly folks who pray and read their Bibles and raise their hands in the choruses and leave me alone.
It’s a bit of a turnaround from that to accepting Christ as my Lord and Master don’t you think?
But - I remind myself. This is different. This is not then. I am not seven. I can make different choices. I can believe different things.
I read more closely.
Two words jump out.
Jesus ‘calls those who would serve him.’ Okay so I’m being ‘called.’ I’m not being pressganged like reluctant sailors in the eighteenth century – forced with a pistol in my back aboard the good old ship ‘Committed Christian’ and expected to stand in line and do exactly as I am told.
The next few words tell me that’ I ‘Choose for (myself) the same path of renunciation and sacrifice.’
Choose! Choose? There was never much choice about it in my experience. The message was, if you don’t accept, commit, dedicate then you are destined to be lost for all eternity, sucker, so jump to, conform and you might be in with a chance of everlasting life. That is, if you’ve said all the right words and jumped through all the right hoops. And once you’ve done that, it doesn’t matter too much what you do because your name is written in the Book of Life and can’t be rubbed out.
But this Principle tells me that I am ‘called’ and I can ‘choose.’ It doesn’t say anything about the big Monty Python foot coming to squash me flat if I decide it’s not for me.
So reading that the ‘Object’ of the Society of St Francis is 'to build a community of those who accept Christ as their Lord and Master, and are dedicated to him in body and spirit’ can take me right back to being seven and being scared because I didn’t know how to accept Christ and although I had tried when I was five, it didn’t work. But it could also, now, take me to a figure who stands with outstretched hands willing me into love.
So why do I now consider that I might find a place in the Third Order? What is different about this? What makes this bunch of assorted Christians one which will embrace me, especially with my penchant for standing on the edges?
From what I can gather, they are all standing on the edges because that’s where Christ stood and where Francis were most comfortable. On the margins with those who had no place. Outside where the isolated, the rejected and the lonely self-isolate. That’s where Christ and Francis reach out to those who others spurn. Who don’t fit in. Who aren’t certain. Who ask more questions than they have answers.
And the Third Order asks of me a ‘definite discipline and vows.’ I would have thought I would have run ten thousand miles from that with my horrors of being told what to do by a pastor in a black shiny suit clutching a leather-bound Bible and waving it from the rostrum. I would have run a million miles from any structure that demanded I behave in a certain way in order to be accepted, that I conformed to everyone else’s expectations and accept a God made in their image. I would sit on the floor and cover my eyes and pretend I wasn’t there if I was asked to perform in a certain way or use my voice and speak words which were inauthentic to me, and wounded my body even as I tried to utter them.
But this doesn’t feel like that. It’s mine. It’s my calling. For once, I can hear. For once, my ears are open and I can listen. For once, I feel safe and know that nothing bad is going to happen to me if I allow these ideas and these thoughts and these feelings to fill me.
So, the words ‘commitment’ and discipline’ are not threatening if I allow them not to be. They are voluntary, not compulsory.
I have chosen them. They are mine.