Not Sure About Visiting?

We would be happy to answer some questions you may have.

For All the Saints

Knowing that to observe an All Saints Sunday is to summon a sense of deep gratitude for our faithful friends and loved ones, today seems to be a good time for me to remember the wit and wisdom of that late Baptist preacher and ecclesiastical provocateur, Carlyle Marney. Once, when Dr. Marney was asked by a theological skeptic whether or not he had ever actually managed to see the omnipotent and omniscient God of the Bible, the old preacher remained thoughtful and silent for a few seconds before he answered, “No, but I have known a couple of Jesuses in my lifetime!” In other words, as an article of faith, Marney felt that he had experienced a God made fully visible among the flesh-and-blood people that we sometimes call “saints.” But perhaps we can also speak even more adequately about the kind of people he had in mind by borrowing one of the evocative phrases Marney coined to recall some of our own “balcony people,” those influential souls who may now be gone but whom we will nonetheless remember forever as the kind of Believers whose lasting, positive impact continues to leave a rich residue of blessing spread deeply across all of our lives. In fact, I now suspect that the memories of even a few faithful balcony people may yet be able to help us overcome any residual reluctance we may feel in talking about “saints.”

Now frankly, among most of us low-church Protestant types, open mention of saints and sainthood never really seemed to catch on as essential components of our vocabulary and grammar when talking about our faith, and that’s a crying shame, if you ask me. Honestly, I recognize that within our familiar ecclesiastical circles, any talk of venerating other human beings generally tends to set off some sort of theological early warning siren, and the result is that we usually opt to leave those backyard statues of Saint Francis safely in the care of our Catholic neighbors. But in retrospect, it is now clear to me that I was raised to maturity as a Protestant kid back in the bad old days when all things Roman Catholic were regarded with a generous dollop of suspicion. I think now that my own elders may not have been able to fully explain their ecclesiastical objections on the basis of any actual evidence. Back then, they only made it seem obvious that any public exaltation of the Christians who had successfully managed to live and die while maintaining a stalwart testimony of faithfulness was nothing more than a papal conspiracy intended to confuse little Evangelical boys and girls. I guess you could say that my tribe insisted on leaving the lighting of altar candles, the peal of church bells, and the heady aroma of incense in the sanctuary as pretty much the exclusive domain of those odd neighbors who curiously ate their fish on Friday nights in the Spring. They were the noticeably religious folks who ran around our suburban subdivision with ashen smudges on their foreheads and obscure Latin phrases on their lips, while we were the devoutly spiritual people who knew that it remained our sacred Christian duty to stay noticeably pure. In practice, this usually meant that we tried diligently to achieve our goal by faithfully reciting to one another endless and forever evolving lists of presumably fun things that other holy people like us should never even think of trying in our spare time. However, I must admit that this never really seemed to work as well as we had imagined, largely because many of these rigorously holy people who insisted on remaining safely cloistered in the legalistic confines of our small congregation often appeared as if they had been weaned on dill pickles. By contrast, I could not help but notice (while I was enviously eyeing them over the fence) that the Catholic Believers who lived across the street seemed conspicuously (and often, almost riotously) joyful much of the time they remained under my careful surveillance. So, who really would have ever imagined on the basis of the Christian Scriptures that all of our earnest efforts at trying to stay so noticeably pure would turn out to be such a consistent buzz-kill? But I digress. So, let me again turn my attention back to the subject at hand: Who exactly are the saints of God?

At the very outset, it strikes me that we have perhaps been missing out on something very essential, especially given the way that we always insist on reciting together the Apostles’ Creed from our Nazarene hymnal each time that our congregation gathers to witness folks getting in over their heads during the sacrament of baptism. For in the way that we confess those ancient words of faith, there seems to be no chance for any of us to separate what it is to live out the reality of a “forgiveness of sins” from the Creed’s testimony that God’s New Creation is meant to be rendered visible by the “communion of saints.” Who knew? Instead of spending all day laboring so self-adoringly as our own publicists on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, the Creed is instead inviting us to abandon all those fantasy images of our idealized lifestyles to simply invest with other Believers in those Great Invisibles of the holy life, engaging in daily disciplines of regular confession, prayer, fasting, faithful service and sacrificial obedience. But what may come as an even bigger surprise is the way that what we do while living out the daily liturgies of our worship together turns out to be the practice of truly world-shaking and death-defying significance. For when you get right down to it, staying together long enough to be shaped into a community of obedience by means of our worship often turns us into an entire congregation of God’s conscientious objectors capable of living in stark contrast to the dominant culture around us.

Not long ago, Tom Long, one of my retired professors from Princeton, wrote about a mid-level civil servant named Paul Grüninger, who worked in St. Gallen, a Swiss village near the wartime border with Austria. As a rather mediocre student and the son of middle-class parents who owned a local cigar shop, Grüninger finished his university studies after a stint in the Swiss army during World War I and eventually settled into a job teaching elementary school where he would later meet and marry Alice Federer, a fellow teacher. Over time, in a desire to placate both his mother and his new wife, Grüninger applied for a more lucrative position with the local police. The job itself was fairly routine and seemed to involve a lot of paperwork filing standard bureaucratic reports and attending to security details, or so it first appeared. But on one morning in April of 1939, Grüninger was summarily dismissed from his position by a uniformed officer after a police investigation determined that he had really been surreptitiously altering travel documents for Jewish refugees from Austria who had been attempting to flee to the safety of Switzerland in the face of Nazi persecution. While pre-dating the passports of those endangered Jewish refugees, it was now apparent to all that Grüninger had secretly been saving lives at great risk to the comfort and security of his quiet, rather bland and nondescript life with Alice. But now, as the subject of both criminal charges and false, vicious rumors spread by local authorities who were suggesting that he had demanded sexual favors from the Jews that he aided, Paul Grüninger was regarded in contempt as a disgraced criminal by his neighbors. In fact, Grüninger struggled mightily for the rest of his life to make ends meet by selling raincoats and animal feed before eventually dying in obscurity and poverty in 1972. But here is how Dr. Long concludes the story:

“Paul Grüninger is featured in journalist Eyal Press’s book Beautiful Souls, a study of seemingly ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary and risky courage on behalf of others. This is a book about people like those ambassador Richard Holbrooke once described, who sit at desks with two rubber stamps. Use the one marked ‘approved,’ observed Holbrooke, and a person enters safely into your country. Use the one marked ‘rejected,’ and a person might die or go to prison. [But] in defiance of the rules, and often for fathomless reasons, these people pick up the first stamp.”

After these years living with you amid the frequently mundane and ordinary daily-ness of “the communion of saints,” on this All Saints Sunday I am thinking of the extraordinary acts of both grace and kindness that can be seen every time the people of God are together. I’m remembering for example, the testimony of two friends recalling the creative and loving way in which another disciple of Jesus took pains to break ranks with the prevalent prejudice of an earlier day to stand with them when it came time for them to find a place to both worship together and be married, even though the groom would be a Protestant and the bride was seen by others as a presumably dangerous Catholic. Maybe that seems to you like a very small thing, but decades later I can tell you that the sheer courage of that act of grace and spiritual generosity changed the very course of their life together as a couple as well as the story of the family that emerged as the result of their love and marriage. Or I could tell you about some of the fearless households associated with our Celebrate Recovery ministry who have again and again opened up their lives and homes to welcome and embrace those whom the Bible often names as strangers and sojourners, unknown people who have for a variety of reasons become lost and incredibly vulnerable along their way. Or I might also tell you the story of an attorney I know and admire who continues in his retirement to perform effective pro bono legal work down at a county courthouse, advocating tirelessly with his spouse on behalf of single women who are quite often victimized and without the benefit of emergency services and housing in times of crisis and distress. Trust me, I have plenty of stories to tell you, ten full years worth of incredible stories regarding some of the ordinary saints of God who again and again pick up the wrong stamp, the stamp that will be inconvenient and costly and perhaps even more than a bit dangerous to them in some uniquely personal ways. But day after blessed day, these people keep picking up from their desk that often inconvenient or dangerous stamp that is marked Approved, and as a result of their courage somebody else finds their way into the reign of God’s grace and blessing.

How are such saints made, and what is it that they know that the rest of us might wish to learn? Here is the explanation that theologian Arthur McGill offers in his book Dying Unto Life: “Whether people serve themselves or serve others, whether they find [their] identity by having or by expending, is not in their power to choose. This [unexpected sense of identity and vocation] is decided only in terms of the kind of world in which they think they live, in terms of the kind of power which they see ruling the roost. The issue lies at the level of the God they worship and not in the kind of person they want to be. In New Testament terms, they live or die according to the king that holds them and the kingdom to which they belong.” In other words, being one of the saints of God is, in the end, quite simply a matter of knowing where you are as well as knowing bone-marrow deep the One to Whom you truly and finally belong.

“In His holy flirtation with the world,” writes the perceptive novelist and minister, Frederick Buechner, “God occasionally drops a handkerchief . . . [and] these handkerchiefs are called saints.” That sounds about right, if you ask me. For on this All Saints Sunday, Carmen joins me in wishing to say a fit and proper word of thanks to all of you who have so richly blessed our lives these past ten years. You have truly been the balcony people who have graciously and generously brought us again and again into the presence of God, and surely after this decade together you will already know what a preacher like me is likely to say. So, because unexpressed gratitude is of no benefit to anyone, we will simply tell you that we give thanks to God for all the saints of Spokane Valley!

Jeff Crosno