This week marked the feast day of Francis of Assisi. Around the world, millions of Christians (and many others) will remember this saintly man, who died on October 3, 1226.
Why is Francis still so revered after nearly eight centuries?
He is well-known as the patron saint of animals, who talked with birds and tamed the wild wolf of Gubbio. So this weekend many will take their pets to church to be blessed.
St. Francis is also known for giving up his family wealth to serve the poor, and daring to touch those with leprosy, following the example of his Lord Jesus Christ.
There is also his famous prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
What, I wonder, would St. Francis say if we could ask him how we should live with the reality of ISIS – that radical and evil group which has beheaded journalists and aid workers and threatens attacks on all who do not accept their bloodthirsty ideology? That forms such a point of contention in the current presidential campaign in the United States?
Our political and military leaders face an extraordinarily complex situation, with limited options. Air bombing can have a limited effect on degrading ISIS capabilities. A coalition of Middle Eastern forces is needed, we are told, to defeat ISIS on the ground. But what other options are there?
A dramatic, little-known story about St. Francis suggests what he might tell us.
In 1219, as the Fifth Crusade was being fought, he undertook a daring mission to Egypt seeking to end the conflict.
He crossed enemy lines barefoot and unarmed, seeking an audience in Cairo with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil. At first he was thought to be a spy. But then he was taken to the Sultan who was impressed with his bravery and listened to him tell about his faith in Christ.
They spoke of war and peace. The Sultan did not convert, but gave Francis a horn made of silver and ivory which Francis took home and used to call his monks to prayer. And a period of peace followed.
But that was long ago and far away. What can we learn from St. Francis here, where we are?
I called my friend Ramez, who leads a Christian ministry in Egypt, and asked if he knew Francis’ story. He said he did, but not the details.
“But it applies to us,” he said. “We’re in the same situation, with great danger here and around the world. These radicals are evil and murderous. We are relatively secure here, but that’s because we have tough and strong security.”
“You’re in Cairo,” I said. “What would say if you could speak to our church here in Charlotte?”
“That evil has to be confronted with force,” he said, “but force is not the ultimate answer. This conflict is producing more and more radicals. The ultimate answer has to be in what Francis did – overcoming evil with love. And you can do that in Charlotte”.
“Most Muslims are moderates, but so many feel embarrassed by being wrongly associated with terrorists. Make your Muslim neighbors, co-workers, students, feel welcome. You might even stop a young one from turning radical.”
Good word, I thought. I thought also of Meredith, a young Wake Forest University graduate we have mentored, who has gone with her husband to live on the Syrian border of Jordan, ministering to the needs of thousands of refugees, Muslims and Christians, telling and living out the story of Jesus.
Most of us can’t make the big decisions. We may not be able to go to Cairo or Jordan. But we can pray for Meredith and others like her. And we can welcome strangers in our midst.
We can start and end each day, praying with St. Francis to Jesus, the Prince of Peace:
Lord, where I am, who I am, make me an instrument of your peace.