church blog, one of the regular features I've established is Saints Alive -- little hagiographies of the people who show up in the ELCA and TEC calendar of commemorations. I began by sprinkling our usual weekly rota of features with a bio on that individual's commemoration day, but recently switched to giving the saints their own day on the schedule.
Like most Lutherans, my knowledge of the saints was pretty spotty before embarking on this project. The names were recognizeable, sure; but I couldn't have told you anything of substance about most of them. And, deep down, I suppose I held the sort of knee-jerk inherited reservations about paying too much attention to the sainted faithful: that much of their actual stories have been obscured by imaginative embellishment; that they themselves would say, "Don't pay attention to me; pay attention to Christ"; that focusing on extraordinary, rock-star Christians takes away from the quiet, faithful everyday discipleship of the majority of believers; that -- oh, dear -- celebrating the lives of the saints might make one favorably disposed to a theology of [shudder] works-righteousness.
But after several months of laying aside my enculturated skepticism I've got to tell you all -- I love these people. I look forward each week to learning more about them; especially the less celebrated among them.
Just this week, for instance, I learned about Ansgar of Hamburg, the patron saint of Denmark...one of the ironies of Christian history, since both Denmark and Sweden proved almost impossible missionary nuts to crack for this poor man. He just couldn't catch a break. He toiled for decades to spread the Gospel in the Scandinavian countries, but with little success -- and wound up losing his own diocese to war and the vagaries of politics. After he died, much of the Scandinavian missionary effort fell apart and stayed that way for two more centuries. Ansgar should be the patron saint of every failed mission startup, every pastor who's had to oversee the dissolution of a congregation, everyone whose ever had a great idea for following the Great Commission that's completely blown up in their faces.
Gladys Aylward: another great saint, of modern times (who became the subject of a very good movie, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman). Here was an English parlor maid with no means or education, who after attending a revival meeting was struck with a sudden conviction that she needed to go to China as a missionary. Rebuffed repeatedly by various missionary societies as being an unacceptable candidate, she persisted in this dream until she finally wheedled her way into a job helping an elderly missionary in China; she took her whole life savings, leveraged it into train fare and rode through Asia to get to this remote outpost. Aylward eventually took over the mission, won the trust and affection of her neighbors, eventually founded an orphanage, and during the Japanese invasion of World War II helped save 200 orphans from almost certain death by leading them on an arduous trek through the mountains to safety. And those are just the highlights of a remarkable career. When Inn of the Sixth Happiness came out the Newsweek film critic, apparently not understanding that it was based on a true story, panned the movie as being too fantastical to be compelling -- when in actuality the movie wasn't real enough in terms of adequately portraying Aylward's life.
And -- speaking as a feminist who isn't afraid to use the F word -- how can one not be impressed by the witness of such strong women of history? -- women who usually had to contend against the institutionalized sexism and vocational limitations imposed on them by the very Church that now celebrates them as exemplars of Christian life? I am constantly amazed by the courage, persistence and tough-mindedness of the women who've wound up in the Church's saints' days and commemorations.
It makes me wonder what we Lutherans have lost, in terms of inculcating a sense of identity and aspiration, by more or less kicking the saints of the Church to the curb. And our odd treatment of God's people in history -- our focusing almost solely on Bible stories, then ignoring the next thousand-and-some years of Christian history to fast-forward, sans context, to Luther nailing his theses to the church door 'n' stuff, then fast-forwarding again to the present day and telling one another and our kids, "We're all saints! Yay, team!" -- sorry, but if my kid came home from a history class with that kind of syllabus, I'd be having A.Talk.With.The.Teacher.
But, anyway...I am having a wonderful time hangin' with the saints, old and new. And as the famous hymn says, "I mean to be one too."