Hipster Hate and the Bearded Man

by Aaron Alforda6f965536fdee4911834c31293bf2691

Ah, the Hipster. You are so much cooler than the rest of us. How we love to hate thee.

You love old things in a way that seems to be a finger in the air to modernity, and you have an iPhone 6 1/2.

You purchase your western shirt at the thrift store for five dollars, and the plain white v-neck underneath it at Pretentious & Co. for 50.

You smoke American Spirit cigarettes because they’re all natural, destroying your lungs with no chemicals added.

You speak passionately about societal issues without lifting a finger to solve anything.

You feel superior to everyone around you, and it shows.

And, perhaps worst of all, you wear your facial hair ironically.

The Bearded Man finds this offence most egregious, because he does not want to be perceived as one of “them”. The Bearded Man should wear the beard simply because he likes it. But the Hipster, oh the Hipster! You know that moustache looks strange on you, and you know that we know it looks strange on you, which is why you call it “ironic”. But we both also know that you kind of think it actually looks cool, in a non-ironic sort of way. It hearkens back to the time of gentlemen, but now you’ve added a self-referential awareness that no gentleman would have had in the first place. It’s all so meta it’s just exhausting.

You are pretentious and self-righteous. You are the very embodiment of everything we despise. For all of these reasons and for so many more, we are allowed to hate you. And boy howdy does it feel good to hate you.

But there’s a catch, a catch that makes us hate the Hipster all the more: Hipsters hate Hipsters!

I’m definitely not the first person to write about this phenomenon, but it would seem that, hated as the Hipster is, he is everywhere and he is nowhere. I’m pretty sure I know one when I see one, but no one self-identifies as one. If no one claims to be a hipster, then what exactly is a Hipster?

A while ago I was in the midst of a conversation about said Hipsters, light-heartedly talking about what I hate about them. I was taken aback when my friend said, “But aren’t you a Hipster?”

I was a little offended, but the evidence was there: I like old-timey styles. I wear vests. I like wearing suspenders. Sometimes I wax my moustache into a handlebar. I’ve even worn a bow tie a time or two (though my beard length makes that somewhat pointless).

“What makes you not a Hipster?” my friend asked.

I’d always thought I was styling myself after a kind of bearded CS Lewis, but suddenly I was confronted with the truth: I was a Hipster! My defence was I didn’t love these things ironically, as “they” do, but I didn’t really have an answer beyond that. My only real justification was I shop at thrift stores not because it’s cool, but because I’m actually poor.

Speaking of thrift stores, it was two days later at the local Salvation Army when a man walked up to me and said in a thick, English-As-A-Second-Language accent I couldn’t quite locate, “Escuse me, I like you style. You look bery, um, cool. Like, um, don’t be offended, um, what is the word? Hipster?”

I smiled and sighed and sunk my bearded chin into my chest. There it was. Proof positive, from his strangely accented mouth to my own ears. I was a Hipster.

“Thanks,” I said, my pride getting a bit stuck in my throat as I tried to swallow it.

This revelation got me doing some self-evaluation. What is it that I hate in the Hipster? Pretentiousness? Hypocrisy? Their sense of superior coolness? Well, let’s see.

Pretentiousness. That’s the one where you want people to be more impressed with you than they should, when you try to put forth an image that gives people the impression that you are smarter, more cultured, more important or, at the very least, cooler than you really are. Yep. Gotta admit I have that one.

What about hypocrisy? Yes, pretty sure I’ve got that one well covered, too. I’m sure I have it by the very fact that I think I don’t. First rule of Hypocrite Club? Don’t admit you’re a hypocrite!

Feeling superior? Lordy, Lordy. Never do I feel so superior than when I’m standing next to one of “those” people. Stupid Hipsters.

If you can relate to any of this, then you guessed it: you might be a Hipster, too. Just name any aspect of the hated Hipster, or any group of people you find distasteful for that matter, and if you take off your sunglasses and stare deep into their reflective lenses long enough, you will have to admit to finding it in yourself. Let he who is without pretension cast the first stone.

Biker Dude who hates Hipsters: You are a Hipster.

Redneck-and-Proud Dude who hates Hipsters: You are so very a Hipster.

Guy Who Runs a Website About Facial Hair: You’re so Hipster it hurts.

It seems there has always been someone in society we love to hate. Before the Hipster, there was the Yuppie. Before the Yuppie, the Hippie. Before the Hippie, the Beatnik. And before the Beatnik… the Hipster. It all comes full circle. I suppose it doesn’t take too much digging to figure out why there’s always somebody to look down on. I don’t have to deal with my own flaws if I think that someone else’s are worse than mine. What was it That Guy said about splinters and logs?

Speaking of That Guy, he did exactly the opposite of what we are so prone to do. Rather than labelling people and finding reasons to despise them, he saw their individual humanity and loved them. More than that, he happily accepted the derogatory labels others put on him: Drunkard. Glutton. Sinner. He let himself be hated to the point of accepting death.

So, it would seem that the moment we hate someone, or feel disgusted by a certain cultural group, or merely look down on someone, that is the moment they look exactly like Jesus. Conversely, it’s only when we can admit our own hypocrisies and failings that we can be delivered from them.

Does this mean we can never have a laugh at how ridiculous the Hipster can be? Perhaps not, as long as we have the humility to admit we’re laughing at ourselves. Because, Lord, help us, we’re all Hipsters in need of a Saviour.

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The Gospel Life: A Holy Family

by Aaron Alford

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“A Quiet Moment”, by Timothy Schmalz

Recently I heard a message that made me think of something I’ve always taken for granted. Christians accept that Jesus, as the Son of God, was incarnate of the flesh and born of Mary as a human being. But how much thought have we given to the life he chose to lead after his birth and before his public ministry?

As we look through the Old Testament, we see many prefigurements and foreshadows of the miraculous birth of Christ. In the book of Judges, an angel appears to a barren woman and proclaims to her, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son.” Her child, Samson, is dedicated to God even before his birth, and is raised according to the vows of a Nazarite.

Hannah was also thought to be barren when she prayed for the gift of a son. God heard her prayer, and she gave birth to Samuel. In gratitude for such a miraculous birth, Hannah gave her child to the Lord’s service, and Samuel, who would become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, grew up in the Temple.

In the New Testament we see John the Baptist, another child of remarkable beginnings, whose mother Elizabeth was well past the age of conceiving. He too is dedicated to God, and lives a life quite apart from the world. Most scholars agree that he would have been part of the desert monastic community of the Essenes.

Yet Christ himself, the most miraculous of all miraculous births, dedicated to God though he was, did not grow up in the Temple, nor did he take the vows of a Nazarite or live a life of monastic asceticism. As far as we know he did not spend any significant time as part of a community such as the Essenes. It certainly would have been a valid choice for him to be set apart in such a way, and perhaps would even have been an asset to the ministry he would begin later in life.

But this was not the path he chose for himself. Instead he lived most of his life in complete averageness in the unremarkable town of Nazareth. For thirty years (give or take), he lived a quiet life among family and friends who knew him simply as Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter.

Why?

Of course we cannot know every reason, but I believe one reason is that he came to show us just how holy and beautiful a thing a family is. Christ was not made holy by being separated from a family, but instead made the family itself holy by becoming part of it.

Not only did he become part of a family, but in his infinite humility he subjected himself to all that being a son entails. He learned to walk by holding Joseph’s pinky finger and wobbling toward his mother. He learned to talk from staring into his mother’s eyes and listening to the strange sounds coming out of her smiling mouth. Perhaps he learned patience by watching his father at work, carefully crafting his wooden creations, smoothing out each line and correcting each corner. Perhaps he learned grace by watching his mother bring a warm meal to the family down the street who had fallen on difficult times. Joseph was not a priest, and Mary was not a prophetess, but Jesus’s first earthly experience of love came in the embrace of Joseph and Mary. Perhaps he learned to love, just as he learned to walk and talk, by watching the way Joseph and Mary gave of themselves to one another.

“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” -Luke 2:51,52

In the life he chose to live, in his obedience to his earthly parents, Jesus assures us of the sacred calling that being a mother, a father, and even a child is. Mary too, in pondering “all these things in her heart” points to the high calling of parenthood.

There are many exceptional people and Christian saints who overcame less-than-perfect and even horrible childhood and family situations to become great examples of love and faith, but there are many more who were able to become exactly who God intended them to be because of the families in which God placed them. It’s in a family where we learn virtues such as sound morals and Christian doctrine, and perhaps these are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about what we want to teach our children. The most important thing, however, the first and best among anything else a child can learn, is love, for love is the source of all that is holy. Not only must we teach children honour and courage, but we also have to live out grace and humility before their watching eyes. When Joseph fell short and asked his wife’s forgiveness for an unkind word, little Jesus was watching. It is in seeing this day-to-day vocation to love —the calling of every family— that children remember the delectable scent of holiness. They will remember it just as warmly as your home made cookies, and they will want to live in it. That kind of love can make a saint out of anyone. So what saint may you be raising?

As a parent, you have been given the highest and holiest of callings: to teach another human being to love. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t back down from the task. God himself has assured us not only of the sacredness of the vocation, but his faithfulness to meet us there. He will give you the grace to live it, if you have the humility to accept it. No family is perfect, but love can make any family a Holy Family.

Beards In Action: We Really Did It!

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One January day a few months ago, I said to my friend and fellow YWAM worker Chris, “I’ve been thinking… What if we hosted an outreach team from the Bearded Gospel Men community?”  “Let’s do it!” said Chris (who immediately began to let his beard grow). We had a specific week we’d need to slot it into, and it would be short notice to pull a team together, but we figured if we even got just a few guys out, it would be worth it.

So I put out the call (and kept harping on you guys!), and two friends came out to join us: Jacob Johnson from Portland (aka Beard Central) and Josh Seehorn from Athens, Georgia. We spent a week together serving people from the low-income and street community here in Modesto, and in a word, it was awesome. There are so many stories to tell from this time, and over the next couple of weeks you’ll hear some of them. For now, suffice to say that it was extremely cool to see new relationships form between our volunteers, us, and the people we serve.

Although we called it the ‘Beards In Action’ week, we wanted to let this week be focused not just on the actions of serving, but on making those actions opportunities to engage people in relationship, to get to know their stories and who they are. It’s a very good thing to serve people, but real change comes to both parties when we get to know one another. And that’s what has been great to see this past week. 

It was cool to see Josh, who just completed running and hiking across the entire country, engage people wherever he went. He loves meeting folks and beginning conversations, and his openness and friendliness with people was great to see. It was also a true blessing to see Jacob’s warmth and gentleness with each person he met and in each situation in which he served. Both of these Bearded Gospel Men are awesome guys, and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them.

I also want to give some thanks to someone who was not able to join us, but  who was present nonetheless.  Doug at CanYouHandlebar (www.canyouhandlebar.com) graciously sent us the gift of several of his excellent products, along with a whole bunch of his Wisdom and Initiative Beard Oils to give to bearded friends we met along the way. It was so cool to be able to tell a friend who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to have the luxury of something like beard oil about my friend back in Michigan who wanted to send along his greetings and a gift. I think in particular of our new friend “Grizzly”, who is currently homeless. When I gave him some oil, he got the biggest smile on his face and said, “Wow, man. You really made my day!” So thanks for that, Doug!

We were able to partner with several ministries throughout the week, and you should go check them out. Advancing Vibrant Communities (www.vibrantcommunities.org), The Vine House (www.lovemodesto.com/less-fortunate/vine-house-ministries), and Love Modesto (www.lovemodesto.com) are all doing truly inspiring things in our city, and it was a pleasure to work alongside each one of them. I’d encourage you to find out what may be happening in your own city, and see if there are some opportunities to serve.

And of course, I couldn’t talk about the Bearded Gospel Men ‘Beards In Action’ week without mentioning the Third Annual Northern California Beard and Mustache Competition! This was a fun night (even if it did go a bit long, with too few chairs!) of celebrating all things beardy, and meeting some really interesting people. Josh and I both entered the competition, and although our beards are big, there were beards even more impressive than ours! But we had a good time with each other and the people we met, and that’s really what it’s all about.

So what began as a little idea to get a couple guys together from the BGM community turned out, in the end, to be even better than I could have hoped. Which of course means you should stay tuned and be ready for the Second Annual Bearded Gospel Men ‘Beards In Action’ week next year!

 

Beards and Burritos: The Plan Comes Together.

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Do you long for action? Excitement? Burritos?

Well get ready, cuz here it comes! The Bearded Gospel Men “Beards In Action” outreach experience is happening!

You may have read last week’s blog entry about the idea for this project, and I’m happy to say that things are starting to come together for this unique outreach experience. We have set the dates of the trip for Sunday, March 30th through Sunday, April 6, 2014.

If you’re hearing about this trip for the first time, let me bring you up to speed. The BGM ‘Beards In Action’ trip will be a one-week trip focused on outreach to the street community of Modesto, California. It will be hosted by Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Modesto (this is who I work for when I’m not creating funny pictures of beards). YWAM Modesto is focused on reaching out to, and building relationships with, the poor and homeless. We’ve hosted dozens of teams over the years, and participants have often told us that this was one of their favourite outreach experiences ever.

So what will this week look like?

Because we’re focused on building friendships, your outreach experience will be oriented toward creating meaningful points of contact with people. We create these opportunities in a variety of ways. We usually begin the week with a good ol’ fashioned cookout on Ninth Street, where much of our ministry as YWAM Modesto happens (For an extremely cute description of our ‘Ninth Street Café by my friend Chris’s little girl, click here!).  This is a fun, relaxed way of connecting with people, and I can honestly tell you that some of the relationships that began with an outreach team hosting a Ninth Street cookout have been long-lasting and truly life-changing, for both team members and residents of Ninth Street.

Throughout the first half of the week, we begin to get to know specific people from the street community, and as the team gets to know their stories and their needs, we provide opportunities in the latter part of the week to re-connect and serve them in practical ways. This looks a little different with each team, and is often a chance for the team to get creative in how the team can serve. In the past this has included repairing a disabled man’s trailer and its dilapidated roof, working on someone’s car, or simply treating someone to a “day out” who would otherwise have no means of taking break from the street.

We also make sure you get to experience some of the cool things that our part of California has to offer. This may be a day trip at the end of the week into San Francisco, or Yosemite National Park. Whatever it is, it’s always a fun day spent together.

Of course, because this is a Bearded Gospel Men trip, we have to make ‘Beard Life’ part of the experience! On Saturday, April 5, we’ll be attending a beard competition in Sacramento! This is sure to be a fun night, and you will have the option of entering the competition yourself and representing the Bearded Gospel Men team!

Of course there’s another crucial element that will be a big part of this week, which will be experienced each day of the outreach. This part of the trip is what previous teams have dubbed “The Modesto Food Tour”. This involves places like Modesto’s unique Taco Truck Row and its world famous burritos (For more on these burritos, click here!) We will do our best to help you gain at least five pounds on this trip! (That’s the YWAM Modesto Weight-Gain Guarantee®!)

As for the cost of the trip, we will be looking at various ways of fundraising in order to lower the cost for each participant. At this point however, with no extra fundraising, the cost is only $340 per person for the full week. This includes two “in” meals a day, an “out” meal each day, accommodations, ministry supplies, fuel and other expenses. There’s just no better value for your buck!

We are aiming for at least 5 participants, and we’ll be capping the team at 10. So far we have two confirmed participants, including the inimitable beardsman and cross-country hiker Mr. Josh Seehorn.

If any of this tickles your beard, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line at beardedgospelmen@gmail.com. Remember, your beard longs for two things: adventure and burritos. The BGM Beards In Action Outreach experience will bring you both!

 

(To donate toward the trip, click here:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=7USJFAFL2U5J6)

Beards In Action: The BGM Outreach Experience!

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Some of you may or may not know that “The Proprietor” of Bearded Gospel Men does not run this website and Facebook page as a full-time job.  My “real job” is as a Youth With A Mission (‘YWAM’) missionary.  YWAM is an international, ecumenical Christian missionary and humanitarian aid organization that is represented all over the world and involved in hundreds of expressions of outreach and ministry.  I am connected with YWAM in Modesto, California (www.ywammodesto.org). We are a small team dedicated to building meaningful friendships with the street community, with the Church and with Jesus, while introducing everyone to each other.

You may have read the story I wrote about my good friend Arley, who passed away this summer.  (If you haven’t, you can read that here.)  The shortest version of the story is that Arley was just another drunk in the park when I first met him, but through the long, slow work of friendship and the Holy Spirit, his life was dramatically changed.  Not only did he become a dear, close friend, but he also began to reach out in kindness and love to others.  He could easily identify with their feelings of hopelessness, because he had lived there himself. He knew what despair felt like, but he also knew what it felt like to find hope, and to find the love of a Saviour.

My friend Bob is another example of someone who’s life was dramatically changed by the power of friendship. Bob made the miraculous journey from living in profound isolation and two bottles of Jack Daniels a day, to being a joy-filled man in love with God and his local church community.  I mention Bob because of how we met him.

South Ninth Street is an extremely neglected part of town where there are several “residential motels” (not unlike the motel portrayed on the show Breaking Bad). On Ninth Street, addiction, mental illness and despair are common. We as YWAM Modesto fell in love with this place. Since we couldn’t afford to rent out a building on Ninth Street to run a drop-in centre, we came up with the ‘Ninth Street Café’: an outdoor, impromptu café we started hosting each week. We found a nice, wide-open spot on the sidewalk next to the bus stop, set up some tables and chairs, and began serving coffee and donuts right there on the street. For years now, people have come down to hang out with us and be refreshed through smiles and friendship.

Several years ago, a group of Canadians were with us. They were from my home church in Ontario, and they were here for a week of outreach to the residents of South Ninth Street. When we have a team with us like this, we like to host special events for the people of Ninth Street, events that we couldn’t necessarily pull off with just our own small crew. That week, we hosted a big barbecue, serving burgers and cold drinks to whoever came by. Bob, who was living at one of the motels, came by that day. He was so moved by what we were doing that he went out and bought ice cream for everybody. One of the Canadians struck up a conversation with him, and they talked for hours. This was the first time I’d met him.

Later, after the Canadian team had returned home, Bob lost his job. We began to see him more often at the “Ninth Street Café”, and we began to develop a meaningful friendship with him. He began to share more of his life with us, and we began to share more of our lives with him. I found out that he absolutely loved fishing, but that it had been years since he went because of his current circumstances. So one day we went fishing together. Simple things like this slowly became what was, in the end, a life changing friendship for all of us. To make a long story short, Bob came to open his heart to friendship and to God, and eventually went to a 30 day recovery program.  He has been clean and sober for 3 1/2 years now, and is an active and integral part of a local church community. (Actually, he’s currently one of my roommates at the house where I’m living!)

I share Bob’s story because I want you to know that being part of a short-term outreach team really can completely change someone’s life, including your own. When a team comes to serve with us here in Modesto, they are coming alongside an ongoing ministry. We do not do “in-and-out” events. A team that comes to work with us is helping us to develop further and deeper relationships with the people we seek to serve in an ongoing basis.

So here’s where you come in. Imagine a team like that, serving alongside our ministry, made up completely of gloriously bearded gospel men!  The possibilities are truly wondrous to ponder!  With that in mind, you are cordially invited to be part of the very first official Bearded Gospel Men “Beards In Action” outreach team!

We’re hoping to get a group together to come here to Modesto in late March or the first week of April.  Yes, that’s  soon, but it would seem to be our available “window” as YWAM Modesto to host such a team.

The team would be hosted here in Modesto for five days to a week (probably over a weekend, so as to cut down on the ‘days off’ required to come out), and work alongside our team in ministry to the street community of Modesto.

We’ve hosted a lot of teams here over the years, and it’s always an extremely fun and rewarding time of making connections and friendships with the street community, as well as each other, while learning about the nature of poverty and homelessness in America and what the average person can do to help. If you’ve not had a lot of experience with reaching out to the poor, it’s a great way to get your feet wet, so to speak. If you’ve had plenty of experience in that area, it’s a chance to experience it in a different context.

We try to make everything completely relationship based.  This is not an “evangelistic” outreach (though you’ll have ample opportunity to share your life and your faith with people), nor is it merely a work/project based outreach (though you’ll have the opportunity to bless people in very practical ways).  It’s a week to make friendships and connections, and to be changed by them as a result.

Also, there’s a lot of food.  Taco trucks, man.  They’ll change your life. I guarantee it!

The week also includes a “day out”, either to San Francisco or Yosemite National Park or another nearby and awesome California location.  If we can work out the timing, it’s even possible that we could participate in a beard competition night in San Francisco or Sacramento.  Now that could be a lot of fun!

We’re hoping to pull together a small team of between 5 and 10 men.  The cost for the week would be about $300 to $340, which would include housing, groceries for two meals a day and an “out” meal each day.  The rest would go to outreach costs for the YWAM team, including fuel and outreach supplies (i.e. food for a Ninth Street barbecue and any other special events or projects we would do that week, as well as our day out).  How you get here would be up to you.

It really is a very fun and meaningful week to be part of.  And it would be awesome to actually meet some of you guys face to bearded face. As a side note, it has been statistically proven that taking part in one of these teams will vastly improve and even cause the appearance of facial hair! If an experience like this is something you think you would like to be part of, please send us an email at beardedgospelmen@gmail.com and we can begin to work out the details.

Don’t be too quick to say No just because of cost or distance! There are always possibilities for group fundraisers! Take some time to consider it, and if the idea seems to stick with you, then you should probably drop us a line. As Francis of Beardsisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use beards!”

Good King Wenceslaus and the True Meaning of Boxing Day

by Aaron Alford

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Much has been made in the media about this supposed “War on Boxing Day,” and it’s time someone addressed it!

Okay.  No one has mentioned anything at all about a war on Boxing Day, and most people in the United States have never even heard of it. Still, I feel we need to be reminded of just what the true meaning of this oft-neglected kid-brother of Christmas really is. Let’s keep the box in Boxing Day!

If you haven’t heard of it, Boxing Day is celebrated in Britain and Canada (The Proprietor’s home and native land) and most Commonwealth countries.  For us Canadians, Boxing Day is kind of like the Canadian Black Friday.  (However, Canadian retailers started doing Black Friday sales a couple of years ago, too, so I suppose it’s kind of like Black Friday II: Electric Boogaloo.) It’s the day for big sales and super deals on all your electronic/useless crap needs.  But this wasn’t always the case. Boxing Day used to have much more meaning than that.

Boxing Day has its origins in a practice that used to take place in Britain, in which employers of servants and other tradesmen would give gifts to their employees, often in the form of a box full of presents and bonuses for them to take to their families. The name may also refer to a box traditionally placed at the back of a church on Christmas day to collect offerings for the poor.  In either case, these gifts for servants and for the poor were given on the day immediately following Christmas, which also happens to be the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian Church: Saint Stephen.

And here’s where Good Duke Wenceslaus comes in.

Yes that’s right, “Duke”.

Wenceslaus, you see, was a Bohemian Duke who lived in the early 10th century.  He was a good man, a Gospel man if you will, who was famous for his Christian devotion and especially for his charity to the poor.

A chronicler of Wenceslaus’ life wrote this about him:

“But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you…. (N)o one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Unfortunately, not everyone around the young duke was such a fan, and his own brother conspired against him. He was assassinated at about the age of 30.

These stories and legends about Wenceslaus endured, however. So renowned was he for his love and compassion that his example gave rise to the medieval concept of the “rex justus” or “righteous king”.  It was Emperor Otto the First who later conferred on Wenceslaus the title of “king”, several years after Wenceslaus’ death. These stories later inspired Anglican priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale to write what is technically not a Christmas carol, but a St. Stephen’s Day hymn in 1853.

You’re familiar with the tale he tells, in which the Good King looks out on the snow covered land on “the Feast of Stephen”, or Boxing Day.  When he sees a peasant gathering wood, he sets out to bring the poor man a feast of choice meat and fine wine.  His servant travels with him, but in the blustering cold and wind, the servant becomes faint.  He finds his strength, however, when Wenceslaus tells him to walk in his footsteps in the snow.  The ground itself seems to warm with the footprints of the saint.

And here we come to the true meaning of Boxing Day.

On Christmas day, we celebrate the birth of the eternal and omnipotent God taking flesh and becoming an utterly helpless child. On St. Stephen’s Day, we remember the first martyr of the Church Christ founded. It is interesting to note that young Stephen was himself a deacon of the Church, and his primary role involved distributing the goods of the Church to widows and orphans. It would seem that the day after Christmas was meant to be a day to, in one way or another, remember the poor and the “least of these”. We see that in the examples of Stephen and Wenceslaus. Just as the Christ Child forsook the riches of heaven to bless us, we are reminded to forsake our own riches to bless those around us. As we walk in the footprints of saints such as these, who themselves tried to follow the footsteps of Christ, we find warmth in the ground on which they trod.

So maybe it’s time to reclaim the righteous origins of Boxing Day.  Where are the poor among you?  Who is facing difficulty today? Who is facing hardship in “gathering winter fuel”?  Perhaps we can find a box of blessing for them, and, like Wenceslaus the righteous king, we may ourselves find blessing.

*Special thanks to my friend Sam Tweedle for the title and inspiration behind this piece!

Bearded Gospel History: Misquoting Francis

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“Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.”

These are the famous words of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Unfortunately, he never said them.

Saint Francis, arguably the church’s most famous saint, is also its most misunderstood.  He is embraced by some as a vaguely pantheist animal lover, and appreciated by others as a completely non-threatening hippy Jesus-follower who liked to hang around bird baths.  But both of these miss by a wide margin who Francis really was.

Francis was born into a well-to-do cloth merchant’s family in Assisi, Italy in 1182.  Dancing and drinking and generally carousing into the wee hours of the morning, in his younger days Francis was famous for being the city’s most enthusiastic party goer.  He was a respected citizen of Assisi, and when the city went to war against neighbouring Perugia, Francis enthusiastically enlisted.  But his first day of battle did not bode well for him.  He was captured, and taken as a prisoner of war.  For over a year, Francis rotted away in a dank cell, breathing in sickness and disease.

Eventually his family ransomed him and brought him home.  There he would remain for another year, recovering from his illness.  Slowly he recovered, but he would never again be completely whole and healthy, and sickness would return to him from time to time for the rest of his days.

The fourth Crusade was set to begin, and Francis insisted he was well enough to fight.  He set out to join a company of men in southern Italy.  He was only a day’s journey from Assisi, however, when he turned back.  The people of Assisi whispered of supposed visions from God which had cut short his journey south.  Most began to conclude that his imprisonment and sickness had taken more than his health: it had also taken his mind!  To his father’s consternation, he no longer attended the parties over which he had once been crowned king.  Instead he spent his days riding the plains beneath the town, and was even known to visit the leper hospice.  He stopped wearing the trendy clothing so readily available to him, and began to wear a field worker’s robe.  The people’s suspicions about his mental health were confirmed when he began to talk of hearing Jesus speak to him in the ruins of old San Damiano chapel.  He said that Jesus had told him to rebuild his church.

Francis had taken this quite literally, and set out to rebuild the ruined walls of the house of worship.  And, as any good young son on a mission from God would do, he began by selling his father’s stuff. His father became so enraged that he actually locked him in a tiny stone closet for several days, eventually dragging Francis before the bishop, demanding justice.  This he received in a form he never could have imagined.  His son returned to him every cent he had taken, and with the money he returned his clothes, and his sonship.  Francis stood naked, declaring that from that day forward, his Father in Heaven would be enough.

Francis would spend the rest of his life discovering the depths of that relationship with his Father, of learning simple trust in His providence.  From this place of profound confidence in the immense Love of his Heavenly Father, Francis began a revolution.

Soon some of his closest, formerly party-going friends, began to join him in his simple life of poverty and service to the lowest and the forgotten.  The movement continued to grow, eventually inspiring thousands to embrace a life of poverty and simplicity.  They spent their days becoming one with lepers and beggars, serving them, and creating friendship.

It’s interesting that so often Francis is seen with little sparrows on his shoulders.  Sparrows are small, and often go unnoticed when compared with lovely little hummingbirds or soaring eagles.  They are dressed plainly in brown feathers, and receive their sustenance, quite literally, off the crumbs from our table.  They do not reap or sow, but their Father in Heaven knows their needs, and sends them our leftover donuts and Big Mac buns.  For this reason they have come to represent the poor, and whenever you see an image of Francis with a sparrow on his finger, it’s saying less about his communion with animals than it is about his communion with the lowly.  It speaks of his humility.

And here, perhaps, is where that non-quote from Francis comes.  The closest actual quote to something like that famous one goes something like this: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our preaching is our walking.”  You see, Francis actually spent quite a lot of time preaching.  In fact, if he couldn’t find people to preach to, he preached to the birds, exhorting them to praise their Father in Heaven.  (They liked very much to hear him preach.  He was one of them.)

What made Francis’s preaching so unique, however, was the authority by which he spoke.  It’s one thing for a wealthy man to tell you to live simply and trust your Father, but quite another for a poor man to do so.  Francis, in his poverty, experienced the Love of his Heavenly Father in such profundity that everything in his life, from his walking and his serving to his preaching, flowed from that deep well of trust.

Francis, the former party goer and respected soldier, became a bearded beggar.  He traded the wealth of his earthly father for the riches of his Heavenly Father.  The Gospel was not for him merely a matter of words, but of trust, of simplicity, and deep joy.

Truly, he preached the Gospel at all times.  May we trust our Father enough to do the same.