One book that’s been particularly formational for me the past three summers is Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis. This book is the only novel I’ve ever re-read, and reading it truly is – in the words of Jo March – like “being home again.” I don’t want to spoil any elements of this book for you if you haven’t read it; however, I will say that it’s about pilgrimage – a journey closer to the heart of Christ through looking at the life of St. Francis of Assisi. As I have visited and revisited this book, I find I’m on a pilgrimage of my own. This pilgrimage is one of deeper trust, transparency, and authenticity. It’s one of learning to live an unprotected life, one that’s open to loving others with the love of Christ.
Here’s one segment of the book that speaks deeply to me, an interaction of a Franciscan friar with the main character:
“Do you know how Simon Tugwell described Franciscanism? He called it the ‘radically unprotected life,’ a life that’s cruciform in shape,” he said, opening his arms to mimic the posture of Jesus on the cross. “It’s to live dangerously open, revealing all that we genuinely are, and receiving all the pain and sorrow the world will give back in return. It’s to be real because we know the Real. Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian?” (71)
An unprotected life. Sounds risky, right? It sure does to me. I prefer to have control over who I am, how others perceive me, and how I allow myself to be perceived. It’s easier to minister to some individuals over others, and if I have the choice, I’ll choose to be present to the individuals I’m most comfortable with. I like to know that in ministry, I’m going to be comfortable and set at ease and that the Holy Spirit will draw me to those familiar spaces. It’s in these spaces where I feel most prepared and able.
However, I’m quickly learning in the hospital setting that there are many situations where I feel uncomfortable in providing pastoral care. I’m often with individuals I would probably never cross paths with in my everyday life – people I would never know how to relate to or talk to. It’s vulnerable, scary, and very uneasy. In these moments, sometimes I just want to flee the hospital room because I feel too young, too incompetent, and too ill-prepared for the task at hand. But the Holy Spirit compels me to remain present. I don’t have the words to speak, so I absolutely must pray for Him to direct my speech and even my silences. And as I open my mouth to speak, I absolutely know that my outward ministry is coming from the heart of God, not from my own effort or ability.
I firmly believe that before one can be truly vulnerable to others, he or she must be vulnerable to God. For He’s the One who formed our hearts and continues to form them. And He formed the hearts of all who are made in His image – all those He calls us to reach with His loving arms.
I’d much rather cross my arms over my chest (and figuratively over my heart), putting up my guard, allowing vulnerabilities to be well-controlled and curated. But Christ calls His people to live life just as He lived – a life in the very shape of the cross. A life that is open to others, arms outstretched. This is the horizontal life. But without the vertical life – the relationship between God and self – the cross-shaped life is incomplete. Jesus had close communion with His Father, allowing the Father’s will to shape His earthly ministry. Only when Jesus was connected with the Father in unity could He share the heart of the Father with others. His vertical life informed His horizontal ministry. And as humanity hurled loads of pain and sorrow at Jesus, He gained strength from His Father to respond with compassion. When we’re in the trenches of being present with others’ pain and sorrow, I believe with all my heart that the Father gives us that kind of strength, too – a strength to respond with lives of compassion.