A couple of years ago, a church in my hometown did a very clever thing: they advertised their Blessing of the Animals service with a banner that they posted at the local dog park. As a frequent visitor to the dog park, I thought that was a terrific idea. “All breeds, all creeds,” the banner announced in large letters. And then underneath, in smaller type, it said, “All dogs must be on leash. No violent dogs allowed…” and a number of other requirements for attendance.
And there in a nutshell is the tension that faces all of us in ministry: welcome for all and safety for the community. The church made perfectly reasonable requests, ones I absolutely agree with. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, the requirements contradicted its premise that absolutely all are welcome*. (*Except the dangerous ones.)
My very favorite legend of St. Francis is the story of the Wolf of Gubbio. I return to it year after year and find something new almost every time. And this time when I read it, it spoke to me about the importance of setting limits.
Here’s the story in brief:
A wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio, attacking and killing townsfolks and preying on livestock, and the people, locked in their city, asked St. Francis for help. He went out to talk to the wolf, though the townspeople warned him he would undoubtedly be attacked. But instead, after talking with the wolf, St. Francis extracted a promise from the wolf not to attack the townspeople unlawfully. But he also got the townspeople to promise to provide the wolf with food.
I have to note that the story doesn’t say what would have happened had the wolf not agreed to Francis’s terms of peace. But I also appreciate that Francis is clear in the story not only about what those terms are, but that both the wolf and the town had roles to play.
A couple of thoughts on how this relates to our ministries.
One thing I wonder about is how often we confuse the feelings of danger with feelings of discomfort. Just because something is uncomfortable for our community, just because it challenges the status quo or doesn’t feel quite right, doesn’t mean it is actually predatory. And we do a disservice to our communities when we confuse the two. Disagreement, change, questions, even anger – these are not dangers. And when we try to keep them out, we severely limit ourselves.
On the other hand, I think we can be seduced by the belief that all are welcome to allow behaviors to continue when they shouldn’t. Cruelty, attacks, blackmail, slander, and other vindictive behavior is unacceptable and we do not do our communities any favor when we somehow think it is not loving to put a stop to it.
St. Francis is as loving and accepting a human as walked the face of the earth. And yet when he spoke to the wolf, he made it clear that its behavior was unacceptable. However, what Francis also made clear was that it wasn’t the wolf that was unwelcome, but the wolf’s behavior. Once the behavior changed, the wolf was a favored guest. As the story says,
The wolf lived two years at Gubbio; he went familiarly from door to door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with great pleasure, and no dog barked at him as he went about. At last, after two years, he died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of St Francis.
This Feast of St. Francis challenges me to consider again how our churches can be welcoming for all and safe for all. Safe for questions and doubts and fears, safe for the people who challenge us, safe for people of all ages from all walks of life, a place where even wolves are welcome and fed.