The first time I came across this passage was through a speech someone was giving at a conference. I recall it striking me much as Lax’s words struck Merton: with a sense of incredulity and naïve wonder. I had never much thought of being a saint. I would settle with being remembered at all.
Lent starts this Wednesday, so its that time of the year where either you’ll google “What is lent?” or you’ll try to come up with something decent to tell people you’re giving up. Giving up things can be beneficial, but the wise people I talk to like to focus on adding something beneficial during these next forty days. Some people like to read something alongside Scripture during Lent that will help them draw closer to God, and sometimes those people will ask people like me what books they might recommend, and sometimes people like me will think of several that might be good and make that recommendation. So that’s what this is.
The more I pray the more difficult I find it to pray. I was taught to pray spontaneously, as if this were the only kind of prayer that was authentic. Written and rote prayers were almost automatically condemned as mere ritual without heartfelt meaning. I admire the concern for authenticity, but I must admit that I lack the imagination, the vocabulary, often the enthusiasm and desire to conjure up new words for God every time I want to pray or am called to pray.
The trait that captures the essence of Churches of Christ most, for so long is the exclusivist or sectarian spirit. In short, we have thought we were the only ones who got Christianity right, and that if you didn’t agree with us, then you were not only mistaken, you were condemned. Yet this is only one side of the debate in our church.
All of us have felt our peers’ desire to do things differently, to see church in a new light; to work towards what we feel like is a real glimpse of the kingdom of God. We are not apologists of the “old ways” or fanatics for everything novel. We found ourselves in traditional ministerial contexts, and not elsewhere, and are trying to live faithfully and authentically in the church contexts that raised us to live faithfully and authentically. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me is one part explanation, one part hopeful dreaming about the phenomenon of us Mosaics/Millenials and our beef with churches.
It is against this unrealistic elitist conception of sanctity that Plekon tries to construct a better understanding of what it means to be a saint, a holy person (hagios). The brilliance of this book is that it is not an academic diatribe, neither is it a sustained theological treatise (though it is both academically sensitive and theologically deep). The method that Plekon chooses to think through sainthood is by thinking about actual saints as he sees them. Thus the book takes us through a host of biographies from persons across the theological and ecclesial spectrum—some living, some having entered their rest.
As I’ve suggested in some earlier book sketches, I think Protestants like myself have a lot to gain by learning from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the ways I’ve grown the most by listening to the Orthodox voice is the way I think about salvation. The way I typically heard the story growing up made salvation a matter of alignment, like applying for membership in the right club, and then a lifetime’s work trying not to get kicked out. And salvation was taught this way because of our underlying theological assumptions. Now, I’m not saying this is completely wrong, but I do think there’s some serious gaps and even errors in that way of thinking.
Last week we faced a set of issues that seem to require us to think along the same lines. Is a deep, radical love compatible with an (albeit partially) socialized healthcare system? Is a deep, radical love compatible with a heritage haunted by racism and slavery? Is a deep, radical love compatible with embracing or excluding homosexual marriage—or indeed, homosexuals in the Church? I offer no answers here, and I’m not interested in hosting or sparking political debates. What I do suggest is that this book offers a great methodological starting-point for thinking through these questions. My suspicion is that, if we follow Jackson’s example of charitable thought, that our answers will resemble love in better and truer ways than they did before–no matter which side one lands on any given issue.