Posted by: 15shekels | August 18, 2011

Ordinary Saints

“Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.'” -Exodus 10-12

“Don’t call us saints; we don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” -Dorothy Day

There is nothing wrong, in theory, with celebrating the faithful members of the church who serve God and others in exceptional ways. At their best, such celebrations encourage both the celebrated and the celebrators. I am certainly inspired and moved when I read about the courage of Daniel in the lions’ den or the peace and love of Stephen as he prayed for the forgiveness of those who were stoning him to death. I am inspired and moved when I read about Corrie Ten Boom hiding Jews during the Holocaust or about Mother Teresa devoting her life to caring for lepers in India. These faithful men and women can give us a picture of the fruit that radical love of God can bear.

And yet, when we put these people in stained glass windows and call them saints, it can be a cop-out for the rest of us. When we call them saints in the “better than the rest of us” sense, we create an “us” and “them” that allows us to dismiss their great courage and great love as something laudable but not accessible to us. Calling them saints allows us to continue living selfishly and mundanely, because we tell ourselves we aren’t as strong or as good as they are. It allows us to hold God at arm’s length and tell Him, like Moses did, to go find someone else who is better qualified.

Shane Claiborne has taken the Biblical call to sell his possessions and give to the poor literally, and a few years ago he moved into an impoverished neighborhood in East Philadelphia to live in daily community with the poor and the downtrodden. He expresses frustration at the way people paint him and his friends as saints:

“Sometimes people call folks here at the Simple Way saints. Usually they either want to applaud our lives and live vicariously through us, or they want to write us off as superhuman and create a safe distance.” (Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution, pages 132-133).

He writes, “It’s easy to see these things as spectacular, but I really believe that’s only because we live in a world that has lost its imagination. These things were normal in the early church. It’s just what conversion looked like. We must be careful not to allow ourselves to be written off as radicals when church history and the contemporary Christian landscape are filled with ordinary radicals.” (132)

I returned to Cambodia a few weeks ago, and I was struck once again by the people who are responding to the problem of sex trafficking in the region. Before I met these men and women, I elevated them to superheroes in my mind. After all, what rational and normal woman devotes her life to living in a house with 30 traumatized young girls who have just been rescued from forced prostitution? What rational and normal man ventures into heavily guarded brothels with hidden video cameras to obtain evidence of the selling of children for sex? Who does that? They have to be some kind of saints, right?

I was surprised to find that the men and women in these roles are completely normal and completely relatable. They make corny jokes and they make mistakes. They are from the Philippines, Australia, Indiana and Texas. They aren’t made of stronger stuff than you and me, but they do know a secret.

They know that all God asks of us is faith and obedience, and He does the rest. He says, like he said to Moses, “Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” As I discussed in my previous post, the Holy Spirit does the rest of the work. Power from on high. The people I met are to be admired: for their faith and for their obedience. But we don’t get that from trying to emulate them. We get that from clinging close to God and spending as much time as possible with Him through prayer, through reading His word, and through spending time with other people who love Him. The faith and obedience come from getting to know Him. And the “saintly” works flow out of that faith and obedience.

Furthermore, these saints that I met are not living austere, joyless lives in strict service to God (an easy thing to miss, as those stained glass saints never really look happy). They are some of the most joyful people I have ever met. They know another secret— when we live in radical obedience to God, He floods our lives with joy and purpose such as we can never experience apart from Him. Even when life is painful or dangerous, we have the surpassing joy of His love and presence, and the thrill of knowing we are doing His work.

And so, the truth is that it doesn’t take martyrdom or a vow of chastity to become a saint. All it takes is faith in Jesus Christ. In his epistles, Paul constantly uses the word “saint” to refer to all believers. He writes “to the saints in Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1), that “all the saints send you greetings” (Phil. 4:22), and about the importance of “service to the saints” (2 Cor 9:1). In one of my favorite passages he writes,

“…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 12-14)

If we let God rescue us from the dominion of darkness, we are no longer defined by our sins but by our shared inheritance. And by our shared titles of “saint.”

So we can no longer applaud those “super-Christians” from a comfortable distance. We’re in this together. And, if you simply let Him, there is nothing that God cannot do through your life.

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