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Learning from what’s best

Everybody has an opinion about the new Pope, Francis I. This includes Protestants. From what I’ve read, there are hopeful, exciting things about him yet regrettable positions he has taken on certain social issues and theological stances.

I was reading Lillian Daniel this morning and was struck by her lament, “I am really just tired of myself. In criticizing others in their faith, I hardly live up to the best in my own faith.”

I, too, have grown weary of arguments … mainly my own!

So instead, I note that the Pope’s name evokes some of the very best in Roman Catholic history. Of course, there is Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved religious figures of all time. He has more entries in the Library of Congress than any other person in history! In his life, Francis was not about garnering such attention but lived in solidarity with the poor; in fact, Franciscans are technically called “The Order of Little Brothers” because their founder explicitly identified with the lower classes by taking a vow of poverty. Richard Rohr informs me that Franciscan monks wear ropes around their waist because, at the time of Francis, money was stored in belts. The bigger and thicker the belt, the more money one had; hence Franciscan outright rejected status symbols of wealth and power. He is probably one of the most quoted saints of all time, but my favorite is less famous: “It is not fitting, when one is in God’s service, to have a gloomy face or a chilling look.”

There is also Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuit order and missionary to Asia and India. It is commonly believed that he converted the most people to the faith since Paul, perhaps upwards of thirty thousand. Thirty thousand! I’ve read Shusaku Endo’s Silence and am painfully aware of the unholy alliance between Christian missionary work and imperial domination. Xavier’s Jesuit order developed into a kind of mercenary army in its later history; however, this Francis sought to learn from the cultures he encountered. He once wrote to a fellow missionary, “And if you wish to bring forth much fruit, both for yourselves and for your neighbors, and to live consoled, converse with sinners, making them unburden themselves to you. These are the living books by which you are to study, both for your preaching and for your own consolation.” He, too, identified with those in need, not for his own glory but for a larger purpose.

Pope Francis I undoubtedly meant to evoke both of these men and the best of what they stood for and believed in. That seems to be a great model; so I raise the question, what if Presbyterian pastors changed their names when we accepted a new call?

I realize this is silly, but it does strike me that the Pope’s decision prompted my exploration of these incredible figures of the past. While I’m not going to change my name, I do offer two brief sketches of notable men in Presbyterian history.

John Witherspoon was a clergyman in Scotland who went on to become the first college president of what would become Princeton University. He was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence and taught James Madison, meaning that Presbyterian polity influenced the framing of our Constitution, from the idea of checks and balances to the notion of representative government. Witherspoon was a life-long advocate of learning as a means to strength one’s faith. I have carried two of his quotations with me for a number of years:

“Never rise to speak till you have something to say; and when you have said it, cease.”

“Never read a book through merely because you have begun it.”

Henry Highland Garnet was one of the most powerful and influential African American clergymen during the abolitionist movement. He declared, “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance!” Though the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison thought he was too radical, Garnet’s fiery rhetoric sought to inspire black men and women to live into their God-given dignity as human beings. He walked the walk by recruiting blacks to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Later Garnet traveled throughout Central and South America, extending his message of equality to Latino and Latina brothers and sisters, before coming back to the US to serve as the president of Avery College and as the US ambassador to Liberia. I have always appreciated this quote: “Liberty is a spirit sent from God and, like its great Author, is no respecter of persons.”

You don’t have to change your name to Witherspoon or Garnet, but do take inspiration from the lives of these men. I would encourage you to seek out their biographies and look into the lives of important figures, men and women, in different faith traditions. We can all learn from what is best in others.   

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.


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