Giants of the faith and ordinary saints: Choosing our role models

“If we don’t choose the people we listen to, they will be chosen for us ...”
(Photo by: Aaron Burden)
“If we don’t choose the people we listen to, they will be chosen for us ...” (Photo by: Aaron Burden)

We have Sts. Martin, (both Luther and Luther King Jr.), St. Desmond T. Doss and, perhaps, St. Clive (C. S. Lewis), if you don’t look too closely at his thoughts on evolutionary creation, flawed scripture, purgatory or magic. We have people we look up to and back to and remember through sermon quotations and retellings of stories about their lives. But we don’t have enough of them. And we need more.

Saints within Catholicism are just a  way to engage in idol worship, offer prayers to people we really know are rotting in their graves — any good protestant knows the 1,500 years of Christianity after, say, (St.) Constantine in 300 or so, were hopelessly misled in many ways, including their revering of saints. Right? We’ve evolved, improved even though we’re increasingly farther from the time when Jesus walked on earth. We’re smarter now – smart enough to stand on our own, to have moved beyond our brothers and sisters in Christ who came before us and spent their lives serving the poor and infirm and widowed in the literal, grimy, sticky way that Jesus told them to. 

By-and-large, historical Christian saints were nonconformist oddballs. St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most influential Christians in medieval European Christianity because of his radical service to others, was known for going barefoot, and he often looked so disheveled that he was considered to be what is now known in Italy as Pazzo, or a “madman.” St. Basil, also known for walking naked through the streets of Moscow, had a habit of throwing rocks at the houses of rich aristocracy. 

In Adventism, Ellen G. White, the teenage prophetess, was given Popeye-like spinach-strength in order to hold up an old, nearly 20 lb. Bible while she quoted reams of it without looking at the pages. Though not considered a “saint,” in the Catholic sense of the word, she sits on a pedestal as a denominational icon.

The class of deceased radicals that some call “saints” is indeed unusual. They served widows and orphans and lepers and prostitutes when they weren’t overturning baskets of bread and sitting on columns for decades at a time. At medieval orthodox and western Christian feast days set aside to honor saints, the stories of their lives would be read aloud in the dining halls of monasteries — and this would likely be wildly amusing. 

There are two ways to use the mystical-sounding word, saint. One describes a select called few who are identified and venerated by others and the recipients of petitionary prayers in some Christian traditions. Protestant theology holds all true followers of Christ to be saints (“follower” is distinct from “believer” — ‘even the demons believe’). Adventist eschatology clearly supports the later variation, the sainthood of all believers (followers). This is very generous and inclusive, democratic in a literal sense. I support this, and I also acknowledge that we cannot remember every Christian who ever lived, only some.

Yet, I am still pressed to think that we’re missing out on a lot by not making an effort to remember and emulate more of the glaring floodlights in the darkness, even people we have a personal connection to who lived radically Christ-centered lives. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” said St. Paul, to this effect. (1 Cor 11:1 ESV).

Ironically, when we lionize people, we often tame them. We trim the claws that ripped into their opposers, brush the mane of wild ideas and actions into balanced symmetry, train the echoes of their thoughts into pithy epigraphs and inspirational thoughts instead of desperate cries. But to love our neighbors from the past, we must not bear false witness — we must tell the truth about them, speaking the good, the bad and the bizarre. If we don’t choose the people we listen to, they will be chosen for us; intentionality in choosing our role models is overtly biblical.

We need to learn about people who have shared our struggles or our goals, whose resilience after a fall from grace or striving to live like Christ speaks to our personal conditions. They can be passed family members or first responders or poets — position does not matter unless we can identify with their identities or find inspiration in their divergent backgrounds. How do we remember them? In many of the same ways people have for centuries. Listening to stories about their lives from others who were there. Reading their words. Emulating their acts: serving and sacrificing as they did, as Jesus did. 

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