Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) is remembered for being one of the most powerful and influential Pope’s in Catholic church history, but he is also known for promoting and organizing crusades against Muslim rulers in Spain and in the Holy Land, and against heretics in southern France. This is not a great feat to be known for, but something about this Pope goes mostly unspoken of, is that he once had a vision.
During a meeting Pope Innocent III had with John Bernadone, he recounted this vision where the Lateran basilica (a basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) was almost ready to fall down. It is then that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, who was holding up the church with his own back bent underneath it, so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” said Pope Innocent III, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.”
This little man, dressed in rags, who lived a simple life, was the model of reform Christ had for His church in the 13th century, who was also known as St. Francis of Assisi. This simple man who lived a very simple and unassuming life style, established the Order of Friar’s Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the 3rd Order of Saint Francis for men and women who weren’t able to live lives of being itinerant preachers, which was later followed by the Poor Clares. Many of those names might not mean much to most of our ears, but what all these orders represented were safe havens for the poor and for those who desired to care for the poor. This was before social services was popular and goodwill was highly dependent up on the goodwill of neighbors. St Francis was a good neighbor. All of these orders serve Christ’s body in simple ways, devoting their lives to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying.
Now fast forward with me over 700 years, and meet a women named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who joined a Catholic order for women that was birthed because of the simple work St. Francis committed himself to. In 1928 Agnes left her home at the age of 18, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, never again to see her mother or sisters.
Agnes was a teacher, and a good one at that, but she became more and more disturbed by the poverty that she experienced in her new home town. When a famine came to her city, death and misery followed, and violence broke out between Hindu’s and Muslim’s, leaving her city destitute, along with the people who lived there. This was the beginning of her next “calling within a call” to live simply, care for the sick, feed the poor, and befriend the dying as they await their last breath. All this was done with simple, unassuming means, and in the name of Christ.
Years later, and throughout more than 120 countries, her work is living and active, and lives beyond her life. Agnes is also known as Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and leaves a legacy of simplicity, with a passion to be Christ to the vulnerable, the sick, and the marginalized. Mother Teresa inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world.
As I remember the lives of John Bernadone and Agnes Bojaxhiu, I am left with ambiguity, and I question the world view that has been erected in Western Christendom, where the victorious and prosperous church is given more prestige than the poor and suffering church; where Christian ministry is often a movement toward relevance, popularity, social acceptance, and power; where numeric growth is more celebrated than sacrificial living and solidarity with the poor.
Yes, Christian ministry is always wrapped in good deeds and god intentions, but the glamour of ministry and the lure of success seems to get more attention than the Catholic Cherokee Hermit-ess Midwife who most will never know, but lives simply and profoundly influences many people on the margins of society. These stories make us remember that more is often done with less. Bigger growth happens as we become smaller. More radical change happens when we work with less, and have less to distract us. But this is not in our DNA, and we are left asking the question, “How has one small poor man, and one small poor woman accomplished so much?”
The “Christian” answer is “By the power of God, of course,” but God’s power empowered this man and this woman to live a simple, unassuming life, stripped of ego and desire for worldly gain, with a posture of humility and listening as they served others.
Simplicity. Through a very brief observation of two very popular Catholic saints whose legacy’s go far beyond their lives lived on earth, we learn that simplicity of life is a powerful tool in the hand of God to bring about great change in any generation. Names of men and women who had great power but used it for sordid gain, are men and women who you and I have likely never heard of. But saints who have lived simple lives, serving others and caring not about material gain, are known and spoken of worldwide as a model of Christ-likeness.
Let me be clear, I am not advocating a movement towards poverty, and I’m aware that some will only see that. What I am advocating for is a life that is committed to living simply in the midst of so much ‘stuff.’ The age of global advancement is among us with opportunities of great wealth and power, as well as the technology age that gives us access to so much information and opportunities to fill our time in front of a cyber-world-lit-screen.
Consumption is over the top in the West. The good economics of Capitalism has been exploited and used for selfish and evil purposes with seemingly no boundaries. In this unchecked system, life has become complicated and the power and wealth that was given to bless, has been turned inward. Church growth has been more focused on building a healthy budget, acquiring the right property, in the right neighborhood, with the right building space to set one church up for more growth of “butts in seats,” since the business model trumps the Jesus model (no pun intended). I see the simple life as a means for Christ to be truly seen and known in an increasingly self-centered, complex, consumeristic church life.
For renewal to be a reality in the midst of out-of-control globalization, lives of simplicity must rise up all over the world. In our churches, there must be those who commit to living simply; those who are committed to slow and patient discipleship that helps lead and develop men and women to be a holistically alternative community within the machine of global advancement; those who are stepping out of the mainstream view of success, advancement, consumption, and individuality; those who live with less food, less trinkets, consume less resources; those who take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him.
In an excerpt from “Three Temptations of a Christian Leader,” Henri Nouwen prophetically states: “Jesus asks us to move from concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people… The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deeper solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and bring the light of Jesus there.
We must challenge our Western notion of what it looks like to be “leaders.” To follow Jesus in a culture committed to over-consumption, individualism, financial success, and “fast” everything, I believe it’s imperative for the simple life to be mainstream again, as people begin planting roots in particular neighborhoods, living radically different lives that are alternative to the Western story, and more in line with God’s story.
This simplicity must penetrate the church systems and forms that arise in this next era of church planting, business development, and city engagement. The simple life has a powerfully corrective voice to those who only have one eye open to the problem of consumerism, materialism, and globalization. Jesus counter acts oppressive systems through small, simple acts of small, simple people.
This section is best summed up by the words of Tolkien via Gandalf, as he responds in Rivendale to Lorien’s question, “Why the halfling?” for the journey with the Dwarves:
“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things… everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid and he gives me courage” (From the motion picture, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”).