Monday, January 12, 2015

A Review of When Saint Francis Saved the Church by Jon M. Sweeney

History is not an easy realm of culture to communicate with the written word. Facts are one thing, but being able to transport the reader into the chronological story is something completely different. Perhaps this is why so many claim to dislike history: They fail to see history as “story”. In essence, history is simply telling the story of what has been, and in ancient times was meant to capture the imagination and enable the reader to travel with the story teller into a place and time of which they were never actually part. The reader becomes part of history and the story becomes part of them. In fact, one could dare say that a true historian is not merely a collaborator of facts, but a teller of stories. This is what author John Sweeney has accomplished with his most recent work, When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages.

“I don’t read many books about history,” a friend of Sweeney tells him as they discuss his new book over breakfast. “It isn’t a ‘history’,” was his reply, and so the book begins. This is not a book of history. It is a story whose seeds were planted many hundred years in the past; in a time that was very different, but also so similar that it could have been written on events that have only just transpired. This is what makes this book so accessible. Sweeney writes in a way that brings the history of Francis of Assisi, not only to life, but to reality. 

The author tells the story of Francis in such a way that captures the reader’s interest and communicates how his life, teaching and ministry are just as relevant today as they were over 800 years ago; possibly even more so. In a personal manner, Sweeney takes us on a journey, not so much by vehicle of history, but conversation. The reader will feel as if they are sitting across the table from the author in a favorite coffee shop, listening intently to a story that they want to be a part of. In light of the popularity of the Catholic Church’s newly elected Pontiff, Pope Francis, and his refreshingly simplistic and holistic approach to the Gospel, the understanding of Saint Francis’ impact on the Church is even more significant for us today. In fact, one might say that this impact is being felt even more in our time than it was when Francis walked the earth.

Sweeney has created a very accessible and understandable book in the structure in which he has chosen to present it. In three parts, he tells the story of Francis in a realistic and demythologized manner. 

Part One: A New Look at Francis

In order to clear the air, Sweeney immediately puts to rest some of the myths and misconceptions about Francis and reveals who he really was. It is much easier to relate to a man than a statue, and it is quite possible that this is the point at which the myths began. There is no real commitment to be made in following a fantasy. But to learn and follow the actions of a man is something that requires more than sentimentality.

So why is the life of a man living on the cusp of a world transitioning to modernity so significant to a culture awakening to the postmodern? Even more specifically, how is this particular segment of “Church” history important to the active work of Christ and a Church that seems to be evolving each day? In a powerful way, Sweeney reveals the deep significance of Francis’ life in the strikingly similar aspects of faith and the critical issues that he confronted within the Church and culture. It is one thing to see a historical figure’s impact on the past, but it is quite another to see that impact being made manifest in the present. The author makes this clear by immediately connecting Francis’ vision for 13th century Christianity with ours in the 21st. What the reader will realize is that the reality of his life and vision for the Church are just as relevant today as they were in his time. The very same problems that Francis confronted are many of the same problems that the postmodern Church faces today.

Part Two: Six Way Francis Quietly Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages   
            
Building on the deconstruction of some of the myths of St. Francis, Sweeney elaborates by focusing on his humanity. The reader will become familiar with Francis’ high regard for friendship and his all-inclusive holistic view of embracing all of humanity as a gift from God. Even before his conversion to Christianity, Francis had a love for others; a love that eventually found its roots in a friendship with God. Francis’ life was intertwined with friendships and this extended to all aspects of his life, faith and view of the natural world. The author elaborately describes how Francis not only embraced the familiar, but challenged his followers to also the reach out to the “others” of life, the marginalized within society and even the non-believers; most significantly Muslims. 

Sweeney also illustrates how Francis’ spiritual vision embraced poverty and living a life that was radically different to the religious leaders of his time. These were the same religious leaders that he insisted did not have a special divine link to the spiritual, but that all people had access to a deeper and more fulfilling spiritual life. The practices of the spiritual were not religious mandates that only pious clergy were called to, but holistic disciplines that each human could live out.

Going further, the author touches on Francis’s natural view of humanity’s spiritual unity with nature and all living things. Francis saw that humanity was not only being called to love one another, but having the natural instinct to care and love nature and the living creatures that populated the earth. This was an active and fluid love that called for care, not simply sentimental emotions. There was a oneness in Francis’s vision to the created order as something to be embraced, a vision that he held to ever in the facing of his own death. Life, death and all of creation was not inherently evil to Francis, but a unity of life created by God in which each human is an intricate part of.

Part Three: Why Francis Matters Right Now

Sweeney concludes by connecting Francis’ vision for ministry and the Church to the here and now. As he does throughout the book, he reiterates that Francis is just as relevant for the post-modern Church as he was in his time. The revolutionary life that he lived is being lived today because of the spiritual simplicity of his message and his example that has transcended time and space. Sweeney calls the readers to reflect on their own “Francis”, in the radically unusual leadership of Pope Francis I. The author calls us to ask the difficult and urgent questions. Is the Church facing the same state of complacency that it faced in the time of Francis? Are we seeing the very beginnings of reforms and deep transformations that will “save” the Church of 2015? Are Christians asking the same questions and desiring the same refreshing wind that blew in the 13th century?

When Saint Francis Saved the Church is a book for anyone who finds themselves trying to find their place in the construct of the post-modern Church. Christianity faces many struggles and complex issues; calling pastors, leaders and the countless faithful who follow Christ to change the way we view the Church. The chaotic world in which we live is forcing us to take a fresh look at the Gospel message and the essential words that Christ has for the world. Francis saw and embraced a similar chaotic world and chose to return to the simplicity of God’s message for all of creation. Is it possible that the message has not changed, but only being rediscovered once again?      
   
Peace and All Good Things!     

You can connect with Jon on facebook, twitter or his blog AlmostCatholic 

  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Day the Angels Fell by Shawn Smucker: A Retrospective Review

It's no secret that 2014 was somewhat of a chaotic twelve months around the world. As we find ourselves facing the dawn of a new year, it's natural for most of us to seek opportunities to increase hope in our lives. Unfortunately, it's often difficult to escape reality while we witness the tragedies that life throws at as. Each of us seek ways of escape; momentary distractions that allow us to regain focus, strengthen our resolve and find our footing on our foundations of hope. For many of us, the escaping into a book is a powerful and effective vehicle to distract the mind and encourage the soul. It's easy to get lost in a good story, but even the best and most creative literary narrative will take the reader nowhere without an effective storyteller. The successful storyteller is one who can temporarily transform reality into what is seen through their creative mind's eye, transporting the reader into another world that engages and stimulates all the senses. This is what Shawn Smucker has accomplished with his first novel, The Day the Angels Fell.

With incredible detail and compelling imagery, this gripping novel of adventure and fantasy, follows the story of Sam Chambers, a twelve year old boy who experiences tragedy in the unexpected death of his mother. Twenty four hours before, attempting to escape a violent thunderstorm, he finds himself seeking shelter in an old antique shop, where he discovers the pivotal words that encompass this book: Find the Tree of Life, carved on an old shop table. With the help of his best friend, Abra Miller, these two young protagonists begin a journey that revolves around this unusual mandate and Sam's keen intuition that it is somehow mysteriously connected to the death of his mother.

Embarking on a quest reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings, these two are tested beyond their limits as they journey through an ancient story that intertwines with each human being who has walked this earth. Confronting both the very crux of both life and death, hope and discouragement, love and hate and even to the very confrontation of the origins of good and evil, Sam and Abra eventually come to realize that they are on a journey that transports them from what they know as real and rapidly thrusts them into the realms of the supernatural. Finding themselves being led toward a final and all encompassing conflict, Sam and Abra begin a struggle of choices that threaten their friendship, as well as the very balance of the world and all created history.  Learning lessons way before their time, they begin to understand the permanence of decisions and consequences, as well as the stark realty that quite often, the desires of our heart are not always the blessing that we hope them to be. It is within this realty that Sam comes face to face with the natural truth that some of things we hope for, although well intended, can result in disaster and border on the essence of confronting evil.

The Day the Angels Fell is a novel that is both engaging for preteens as well as adult. Older children will find the pages of this book to be exciting, thought provoking, and cause them to contemplate the issues of life, faith and finding their place in this world. Adults will discover the same, but will also find themselves recalling memories of nostalgic youth and the simplicity of childhood. While "Finding the Tree of Life", all readers will discover the proverbial message that lies within, as well as be reacquainted with the beautiful story of redemptive history. This is a novel that restores hope, deepens faith and challenges the reader to engage in life for what it offers each day and live each moment to the fullest.

The Day the Angels Fell is available at shawnsmucker.com as well as Amazon. You can also connect with Shawn on facebook and twitter.   

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Advent Reflections: Christmas Eve



Love

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

John 1:14



Reflection
 
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Take a few seconds and enjoy the silence of this moment. Christmas Eve is finally here. Take a deep breath and rest in the truth of these words of John 1:14. Imagine the essential meaning and implications of this verse. The God of the universe and all that exists came to earth; not by obligation, not by universal mandate, but because of the depth of his eternal love for us. So much so that he was willing to leave the perfection of heaven, and in divine condescension, became man in order to live among us. The God of all created things, cloaked in the vessel of an infant child, all the while never losing His divinity, came to us. The perfect, living among the imperfect. God and man. Complete in both substance and essence. 

 I've always thought that Christmas Eve just seems to have a magical feel to it. Almost a “real time” sense, as if the events that transpired are about to happen for the first time; and in a sense perhaps they are. In Christ, all things are made new each day, as well as each year. The reality of the incarnation is just as true today as it was over 2000 years ago. And as our time together comes to a close, let us carry that with us beyond the Christmas Season. As we reflect over the last month of Advent, let us not think of Christmas Eve as the end of our journey, but the beginning. Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. All things new. Beginnings.

Emmanuel, God with us! He was with us. He is with us. He will be with us. Christ has come. Advent.

Prayer

Lord, today we celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ. As we come to the ending of our Advent journey, we do so with hearts filled with hope, peace, joy and love. To you we give you all praise and worship. Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. 

Amen

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent Reflections - December 23



Love

“The angel answered,“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

 Luke 1:35




Reflection

As we read these words, it’s easy to imagine some of the thoughts that must have been racing through Mary's young mind. “Why me?”, “There’s nothing special about me!”, “I’m not good enough.”, “I’m too young.”, “I’m not ready for this!”, “This isn’t what I had planned!” But yet here she was, facing a choice that was actually not really a choice at all when you think about it. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” God chose Mary. An ordinary woman, with human faults like anyone else, recognized that the love of God was about to overwhelm humanity and that she would be used as its vessel. 

How often do we question ourselves when God wants to use us? Instead of recognizing the awesome fact that the God of all creation chooses to use flawed human beings, we resist thinking that we know better than God. Mary wasn’t perfect. She was afraid, confused and maybe even doubted herself a bit, yet God still chose her. With all her fears, imperfections and questions, she heard the call of God, chose not to hesitate and acknowledged that his plan was obviously much bigger than hers. In love, God chose her and in obedience, she was willing to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”

  As the season of Advent comes to a close, may we set aside our plans, hesitations and fears of imperfection. May we trust in a God that chooses to use us, not because he has to, not because we are perfect, but because he loves us, and nothing more. 
 

Prayer

Lord God, it is in this quiet moment that we acknowledge your presence and perfect love for us. We know that we are far from perfect, and we know that our imperfections sometimes hold us back. But as we meditate on your perfection, help us to trust in you and that your decisions are always right. Give us the strength to step forward when you call, knowing that it is because of your love that you chose us. Let it be only in love that we serve you.

Amen 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Advent Reflections - December 22



Love
 
"and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote,
“His name is John.”
… And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Luke 1:76-79

Reflection

There are not many things closer to a miracle than the birth of a child. With each and every life that comes into the world, also comes a very specific purpose. Each life is uniquely created by God and every parent has high aspirations for their children. When a mother or father looks into their baby’s eyes for the first time, there is no limit to the dreams that they imagine. The love that is created in that moment knows no end and has no limit. Love is such a powerful emotion and encompasses the theme of our verse for today.

These words that we read from the Gospel According to Luke are just a portion of what is often referred to as Zechariah’s Song. Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist, who upon his birth prophetically declared that his son would go before Jesus to prepare the way for his ministry. In that moment, he not only declared his love, hopes and dreams for his son, but the hopes and dreams of the entire world as well.

Zechariah knew that his son was chosen by God to prepare the way for Christ. And although his love for his son outweighed anything that he ever imagined, he knew that his purpose was much more than just carrying on a family name. For in the moment that he gave the name John to his son, he acknowledged that he was destined for something much greater. Zechariah acknowledged that God would eventually use his son, to reveal his love to the world, manifested in the one that John would go before: Jesus Christ.

Prayer

Lord, it’s hard for us to imagine a love deeper than that between father and son. As we read these words of Zechariah, let us remember the deep love that you have for each of us. A love so deep that you sent your only Son to one day die for the same world into which he was humbly born.

    Amen