Lutherans typically get squeamish when talking about saints. At our latest Regeneration gathering in Chicago (Jan. 29-31), Dr. David Schmitt commented on this. Theologically, it’s a reaction against Catholicism’s veneration of saints. Culturally, it might be stoic German heritage that stubbornly deflects attention. Regardless of its origin, we’ve got to get over ourselves. We have some stories worth telling. And I believe they are critically essential to Christian formation – especially in the 21st century.
I lead our congregation’s annual men’s retreat. Typically, I come up with some theme and I lead a couple of sessions on it. Or I get another speaker to address the topic. This year I decided to have a panel of five men comment on their life in the various vocations of home, occupation, society, and congregation. The panel was age-diverse, from a 20-year-old to an 80-year-old.
Something remarkable occurred. The panel was forthright and honest in telling their stories. There were heroic examples of faith, and crushing instances of failure. In light of such vulnerable revelations, all the pious defenses were let down. Fifty men began to open up, both in our larger group as well as in small groups. We had an hour-long discussion on pornography and sexual temptation. We had a standing ovation for a powerful statement made by our 80-year-old. There was deep sharing, sincere support, gracious encouragement, and spontaneous prayer.
Lifting up the stories of living saints allowed a whole new conversation to take place. The overwhelming response was that this was “the best men’s retreat of all time.” And all I did was moderate. All my grand presentations in prior years paled in comparison to the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.”
Of course we are clearly Christocentric. We want nothing to detract from the cross. But Paul clearly demonstrates that our very lives serve as tangible witnesses to the cross’s power. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). My people are longing for what the Christian life looks like in real life. “Show me how to do this.” We dogmatically assert ”by grace through faith.” Now, what does one’s life look like who rests in the grace of God? What are some concrete and tangible ways in which we “walk by faith”?
Our confirmation students do two final projects: a theological essay and a personal testimony. Call it “head” and “heart.” They generally accomplish the essay very easily. They can spout the “right answers,” and copy and paste from the catechism. Yet most struggle to put their faith in personal and concrete terms. “Jesus is my Savior and died for my sins so I can go to heaven.” That’s the most common result of the personal testimony assignment. It’s causing me some serious reconsideration.
- Do our people have patterns to “imitate”? Which saints do we lift up? A good qualification for an elder: “Would I want my son to follow his pattern of life?”
- What venues do we have for saintly story-telling? Shall I create a space for “testimonies?”
- Does our preaching contain concrete examples of the doctrine we are teaching?
- Is my life as a pastor worthy of emulation? (a sobering thought)
I believe Christians have historically been good story-tellers. Christians are those who know God’s story – creation, redemption, and sanctification. And they know their own story. And they are able to speak of the intersection of the two. For me, this is compelling. I’d like to hear more stories.