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Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories

Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories

by James C. Howell

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pastor Howell has written a modern-day hagiography--a chronicle of the lives of the saints. Howell's saints are not just those canonized by the Church but a motley array of believers who "stretch our imaginations and stand as imperatives, calling, wooing us into a higher, holier life." Some of Howell's selections are predictable, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, but lesser known figures also get their due; he writes passionately about Clarence Jordan, the Georgian who founded Koinonia Farm (an interracial Christian community where members shared property in common) in 1942. Nor does Howell limit his vision to Christians. Another of his heroes is Natan Sharansky, a Jew who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union for nine years because he supported free speech and the right to emigrate; in the Gulag, Sharansky was sustained by a Psalter given to him by his wife. Although a concern for social justice permeates the text, Howell is also impressed by saints who have expressed their love of God more contemplatively. In the chapters on prayer and teaching, readers meet Monica (mother of St. Augustine), Henri Nouwen, C. S. Lewis, Karl Barth and Teresa of Avila. Howell's book is not unique; Joan Chittister and many other Christian writers have paid homage to their heroes in similar collections, and there is nothing particularly distinctive about this one, yet it is an inspiring read. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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Upper Room Books
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5.58(w) x 8.41(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It is the paradox of history that each generation
is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

—G. K. Chesterton

If we look into the lives of the saints, we had best brace ourselves for a shock. Saints are not like the rest of us, only more so. They do not epitomize in some grand fashion all that our culture holds dear. As Carroll Stuhlmueller suggested in Time, "Saints tend to be on the outer edge, where the maniacs, the idiots and the geniuses are. They break the mould." And Martin Marty was right when he said, "A saint has to be a misfit. A person who embodies what his culture considers typical or normal cannot be exemplary."

    We are trained to be suspicious of misfits, for they threaten the status quo. But frequently it is the outsider, the strange one, who helps us see the truth of things. In her great story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor tells about a family that has a minor car accident out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, a violent man called The Misfit (who is no saint!), stumbles upon them and terrifies them all. The grandmother pleads for mercy and tries to tell him that if he would just pray, Jesus would help him. "I don't want no hep," he says, "I'm doing all right by myself." Saints do want hep. They know they need help, that by themselves they merely live and then die. They depend on God.

    In that sense, they are the misfits—for we live in a culture where needing help is despised as a sign ofweakness to be avoided at all costs. But that is where we must begin, with misfits, who are not like everybody else, who stand out in their dependence upon God. A saint is incapable of blending into the landscape and has no desire to fit in. It is the strangeness of the saint that enables her to pique our curiosity, to point the way toward what is truly precious. Jesus said Christians are to be in, not of, the world (John 17:14-18), so we need not be surprised when somebody who follows Christ lives in an odd, contradictory, and seemingly crazed manner.

A Cloud of Troublers

The Bible has its share of bizarre, contradictory characters. Noah hammered away on his ark while no one else was calling for rain (Genesis 6). At Shiloh, Hannah prayed so intently (and no one had seen such praying before) that Eli perceived her in terms utterly familiar to his culture (and to ours): She must be drunk (1 Samuel 1). The apostle Paul crazily advised the early Christians not to marry, to shirk circumcision, to miss out on business opportunities because of their commitments to Christ and the church. He landed in prison, ridiculed as either a "disturber" or a "fool" (Acts 16:20; 1 Cor. 4:10).

    Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego might have been tempted to blend in with Babylonian society, to eat and drink and worship as the Chaldeans did (Daniel 3). Nebuchadnezzar erected an astonishingly skinny, ninety-foot-tall statue of gold on the plain of Dura and expected all the residents of Babylon to bow down and worship. Three Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused—and were summarily threatened with being cast into a blazing furnace. But, in an early instance of civil disobedience, they refused to bow down. When threatened with being toasted in the fiery furnace, they made a most astonishing reply. They did not say, "God will rescue us." Rather, they said something more profound, more faithful, and even more shocking: "Our God is able to rescue us from the flames. But even if God does not, we still will not bow down and worship" (AP). Three misfits, who nevertheless are not alone in their strangeness. As children sing in Sunday school, "It's cool in the furnace!" Nebuchadnezzar peered into the flames and saw not three persons but four walking around, not even breaking a sweat. It was their oddness that led the king of Babylon to inquire about their God.

    The early centuries of Christianity produced an intriguing assemblage of men and women who could be counted as "just plain weird," so zealous and strange was their embodiment of the faith. Simeon Stylites, in a feat worthy of Guinness, climbed atop a sixty-foot pillar in the year 423 and didn't come down until they hoisted down his corpse—thirty-six years later, Simeon having spent all that time in prayer. Origen, a third century theologian of unsurpassed genius, castrated himself. Vibia Perpetua, a twenty-two year old mother, deliberately courted martyrdom; in the year 203 she was gored by a bull in a Roman arena. If these misfits have lessons for us, they are subtle, far from obvious.

Francis of Assisi

It was the Middle Ages that saw history's greatest saints. A pregnant woman dreamed she gave birth to a dog with a torch in his mouth. Her son turned out to be Saint Dominic. His was a life of humility, holiness, and service, giving birth to a band of Catholics alive and active now, eight centuries later. Legend has it that Dominic once made a pilgrimage to Rome. The pope took him on a personal tour of the gilded, opulent Lateran basilica of Saint John. Alluding to what Peter and John said to the lame man in Acts 3:6, the pope boasted, "Peter can no longer say `Silver and gold have I none.'" But the humble Dominic answered, "No, and neither can he now say `Rise and walk.'"

    Another woman, while her husband was abroad at a cloth fair, gave birth to a boy and named him Giovanni. As an adolescent, he affected a French accent and manners, and played the troubadour so exquisitely that his friends dubbed him "frenchy," or as we know him, Francis.

    His promising future in his father's cloth business collided with an unexpected destiny when war broke out against Perugia. Francis suited up as a knight for battle with the other young men of Assisi, but the result was disastrous. He was captured at Ponte San Giovanni in 1202 and languished, gravely ill, for months. He had visions, perhaps from his fever or perhaps from God (or both), that led him to reassess all he was about.

    Francis began to pray in a crumbling old church, San Damiano, over whose altar hovered a Romanesque crucifix. One day Jesus spoke—yes, spoke—to Francis from that crucifix. "Go, rebuild my church, for as you can see, it is falling into ruin." Francis heard this as a call to rebuild the stone edifice in which he knelt—and did so, with his own hands.

    But the scope of that calling became evident a couple of years later when Francis went on pilgrimage to Rome. Appearing at Pope Innocent III's door in tattered clothes, he was turned away by the guard. But that night, the pope had a haunting dream: The great Lateran basilica of Saint John, the same grand church Dominic had toured, was teetering, on the verge of crashing to the earth—but was being propped up by a mysterious young man, a mere peasant. The pope recognized him as the one who had been rebuffed the previous day. Francis was found, and his new order was blessed.

    When Francis was converted, he indeed initiated a new order. But it was not so much a novel organization as it was a creative way of being. Or better: an older, yet strangely familiar, way of being. Francis sought in all things to be like Jesus. G. K. Chesterton called him a mirror of Christ—in the same way the moon reflects the light of the sun. Christ, being God's son, may seem too bright, like the sun itself, too holy for us to look at long enough to see our lives in him. But Francis, like the moon, is closer to us, a mere mortal, a bearable reflection of the sun's light. Murray Bodo noticed the same thing: "It is easier to rationalize and dismiss Jesus than Francis, because Jesus, after all, is divine and so far above us. But Francis is only human like us. What he is, we can become."

A Startling Naïveté

Bernard of Quintavalle, a wealthy merchant, invited Francis to his home. After the evening meal, they retired for the evening. Francis pretended to sleep; Bernard also pretended to sleep, even feigning a snore. Francis rose and then knelt, praying over and over all night long, "My God, my all." Bernard was touched and asked Francis in the morning how to become a servant of God.

    The two of them went to a church called San Niccolo, where Francis asked that the Bible be opened three times. The resulting trio of verses is utterly familiar, yet most of us never take them seriously: "Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor" (Matt. 19:21); "Take nothing for your journey" (Luke 9:3); and "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves" (Matt. 16:24). Francis, with a startling naïveté, thought he was supposed to do these things. And he did. Bernard too became poor, as did other young men, Giles, Masseo, Leo, and even women, especially Clare. So alarmed were the fathers of the city that they quarantined the young men, fearing (rightly!) that some strange sort of contagion had broken loose.

    In 1984 I visited Assisi with a friend. We toured the city with all its sacred sites, the places where he knelt before the crucifix, where he parted ways with his father, where he cared for lepers. In the evenings, I read a copy of The Little Flowers, those enchanting tales from the saint's life. During our last night at the hotel, somehow I was awakened in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep. For me, that night proved to be like the one Jacob spent by the river, when he wrestled all night with a stranger, perhaps an angel. Intellectually, I had learned much about Francis—but his memory shook me by the shoulders that night. In the face of his oddness, his extravagance, his utter devotion to Christ, I sensed how bland my own faith had become, how comfortably I managed to "fit in" to our culture, risking next to nothing; I was hardly a fool for Christ. I prayed for the rest of the night, as Francis had prayed near that very spot eight centuries earlier.

    Since that night, I have not become the new Saint Francis. But I am at least a little more reckless, a little more passionate about God, the poor, and being holy.

Crossing All Barriers

We almost get the sense that Francis thought of himself as on stage, creating little scenes with lessons in holiness. Francis and his followers were odd, strange, noticeably different—and they transformed the face of life throughout Italy and eventually Europe and beyond. Francis surprisingly joined a horde of soldiers and knights, led by Leopold of Austria and John of Brienne, in the Fifth Crusade against Islamic Arabs in the Middle East. Late in the summer of 1219, the crusaders were arrayed in battle-ready formation at Damietta in Egypt. Francis, barefoot and with no shield or sword, walked bravely across no man's land toward the Arab army. The Muslims at first drew their sabers to kill him. But he was so pitiful, so defenseless, that they spared him, leading him to the sultan, Malik al-Kamil, who became intrigued with the faith of this misfit soldier. Were it not for the sultan's fear of his own soldiers, Francis would have pulled off the most unlikely conversion in history. He did manage to secure a little peace in a war-ravaged corner of the globe.

    So holy was Francis's life that friends compared him to Jesus himself. Francis sought to imitate Christ but always with utter humility. Once he fasted forty days but on the last day ate half a loaf of bread—to be careful not to become puffed up with pride, thinking himself somehow equal to Christ. So great was his devotion to the Lord that he climbed Mount Alverno and prayed,

My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die. The first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain that you, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of your most bitter Passion. The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that great love with which you, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.

Wounds in his hands, feet, and side (called the stigmata) appeared and bled intermittently for the balance of his life. Throughout history there have been other "stigmatics," women and men who are so passionate about Jesus, so moved by his crucifixion, that they too have mysteriously exhibited open wounds similar to Christ's.

Clarence Jordan

Stories of saints are not all from long ago and far away. In 1912 Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Jordan of Talbotton, Georgia, celebrated the birth of the fourth of their seven children—a boy named Clarence. Growing up in the Baptist church, he was one of those souls with a natural sensitivity to hypocrisy. After singing "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight," he wondered why black children were dressed so shabbily. He saw deacons who could dreamily sing hymns about their love for Jesus, then turn around and harass and even torture blacks on the rack.

    In college Jordan studied agriculture, pursuing his vision of improving the plight of poor farmers. His ROTC commitment clashed with what he kept reading in his Bible: How could he be a soldier and follow Jesus, who said to love your enemies? His struggle of conscience eventually led him to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he managed yet another degree, this one a doctorate in Greek New Testament!

    Jordan became famous for his homespun translation of the New Testament, the clever and humorous Cotton Patch Version. When he translated the Good Samaritan story, he imagined that a man was robbed somewhere between Atlanta and Albany. A white preacher and a gospel song leader passed by before a black man stopped to help. The Pharisees always were cast as "Sunday school teachers."

Bible Stuff

Jordan's most brilliant translation of the New Testament did not appear in print, but in the red earth of Georgia and in the lives of people he worked, ate, and argued with. In 1942 Jordan started Koinonia Farm outside the county-seat town of Americus. He wanted blacks and whites to live together, to embody the kind of community life described in the book of Acts (2:42-45; 4:32-37), where fellowship (koinonia in Greek) meant communal sharing of all goods. Georgia of the forties and fifties was not exactly ready for this kind of real-life implementation of the gospel. Jordan and the Farm were ridiculed and attacked at every turn. The Ku Klux Klan repeatedly terrorized, bombed, and vandalized Koinonia.

    In 1948 Jordan brought a dark-skinned man (actually an Indian) to the local Baptist church. The deacons demanded Jordan meet with them, and they asked that he desist from this kind of troublemaking. He handed one of them a Bible, requesting that the deacons show him where it says in the Book that a dark-skinned man shouldn't enter the house of the Lord. "Brethren, if I have violated any teaching of this book in my beliefs or conduct, I will withdraw quietly from this church fellowship. Please point to the text or teaching I have failed to try to live up to!" The deacon silently handed the Bible to another, who handed it to yet another, who slammed the Book on the table and shouted, "Don't give me that scripture stuff!" Jordan got the last word: "No, I'm asking you to give it to me." That day Jordan and his friends became "ex-Baptists."

    Jordan's saucy yet hauntingly true remarks are legendary. A Klan delegation visited Koinonia and announced to Jordan, "We don't allow the sun to set on any white man who eats with a nigger." He smiled and replied, "I'm a Baptist preacher, and I've heard of men with power over the sun. But until today I never hoped to meet one."

    After preaching at a gilded, cathedral-like church in Atlanta, Jordan was asked for some advice by the pastor. Their custodian had eight children and worked seven days a week for a mere eighty dollars per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute and then said, "Why not just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn't require any extra money in the budget."

    To another pastor, who proudly pointed to the fancy new ten-thousand dollar cross adorning his sanctuary, Jordan responded that at one time Christians could get those crosses for free. Jordan's preaching featured splendid phrasings: "God is not `in his heaven with all well on the earth.' He is on this earth, and all hell's broke loose." Or "The good news of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers with him."

Do You Have a Church?

After one of many visits from KKK intimidators, Jordan said, "It was not a question of whether or not we were to be scared, ... but whether or not we would be obedient." Koinonia perched itself on the American landscape as a call to obedience—and the church responded poorly.

    Jordan once asked his brother, Robert (who became a state senator and a justice on the state Supreme Court), to be Koinonia's attorney. "I can't do that. You know my political aspirations. I might lose my job, my house, everything I've got."

    Clarence said, "We might lose everything too."

    "It's different for you," Robert responded.

    "Why is it different? ... You and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked, ... `Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?' And I said, `Yes.' What did you say?"

    Robert replied, "I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point."

    "Could that point by any chance be—the cross?"

    "I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I'm not getting myself crucified."

    "Then I don't believe you are a disciple. You're an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you're an admirer not a disciple."

    "Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn't have a church, would we?" To which Clarence applied the coup de grace: "The question is, Do you have a church?" Later Robert saw the light, became a disciple himself, and boasted that his brother was the greatest Christian he had ever known.

Fifteen Minutes

Clarence's daughter Jan was hassled and ostracized at school. One especially vicious boy, Bob Speck, called her names and threw her books down repeatedly. After a few weeks, Clarence decided he had heard enough of this harassment and told his daughter, "I'm going to come to school this afternoon.... I've tried to be a follower of Jesus, and he taught me to love my enemies and all like that, but at that time I'm going to ask Jesus to excuse me for about fifteen minutes while I beat the hell out of Bob Speck."

    Jan said, "Daddy, you can't be excused from being a Christian for fifteen minutes." So Clarence suggested: "I want you to let your fingernails grow about three inches. And when Bob Speck calls you those names, I want you to throw the whole bunch of books in his face and jump on him and scratch his eyes out, because I think for a kid to be scratched up by a girl would be a good lesson for him." Again she said, "You're not serious."

    Two weeks passed, and Clarence had not heard a word about Bob Speck. When he asked Jan about it, she reported, "He doesn't bother me any more."

    Dad was stunned: "Has he moved?"

    "No, he's still there."

    "Oh, has he been converted?"

    "No," she answered.

    "Does he call you any names?"

    "No, never."

    "Well what happened?"

    Jan told her story: "Well, I got to figuring that I'm a little taller than Bob and I could see him coming before he could see me. When I'd see him, I'd begin smiling and waving and gushing at him like I was just head over heels in love with him ... like I was going to eat him up. The other kids got to teasing him about me having a crush on him, and now, the only time I see him is when he peeps around the corner to see if I'm coming. If I am, he goes all the way round the outside."

    Clarence Jordan died suddenly and prematurely of heart failure on October 29, 1969, a mere fifty-seven years old. He was buried wearing old blue jeans out in the field at Koinonia, not far from the shack he called his office. Some time later, his wife Florence was asked the whereabouts of his grave. "We planted him out there somewhere."

On Being a Misfit

Jordan was a saint, one of that great cloud of witnesses we call misfits. Misfits can point a bright light on the ways we are out of sync with God: Do you have a church? If you follow Jesus, is there some point where you shrink back? Where is the hypocrisy in your life? For how many minutes do you forsake your Christianity? Have you ever thought about swapping salaries with anyone?

    These are not random questions. They grow right out of the scriptures. Saints read the Bible with a startling naïveté—and they think they are supposed to go and do it. Francis, Dominic, and Clarence Jordan all took the Bible "literally," not in the sense of defending the accuracy of this or that detail but in the more provocative sense of taking it personally, assuming it means what it says. God gave us the Bible, not just to wave it about and certainly not for it to collect dust on a coffee table, but so it could guide our lives. The Bible is an invitation to us to come home, to be the people we were made to be, to do what we were made to do.

    Therefore, misfits aren't misfits at all. Holiness only appears to be abnormal. The truth is, holiness is normal; to be anything else is to be abnormal. Being a saint is simply being the person God made me to be. Saints at the end of the day are not really strange or odd or misfits. They are simply real, or normal. They actually are what we all are made to be, what we can be.

Where The Battle Rages

To qualify as a saintly misfit, we cannot be just plain strange. Being different in itself may be nothing but quirkiness, not saintliness. Rather, saints differ from the culture in the same way that Jesus differed from his culture. Jordan told about a church in Georgia that installed a fabulous fountain on its lawn while neighbors had no running water: "As long as God is God and not man, we know how to handle him—we can build him a fountain on the lawn. But as soon as we see God as man, then we have to give him a cup of water."

    We need to contemplate saints, especially as they expose points of conflict between the culture and the gospel. In a letter, Martin Luther once wrote, "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point at which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved."

    In our world, those little points are many. But perhaps the battle rages most furiously nowadays on the green fields of wealth. Our society has a bloated attachment to money and all it signifies. The witness of Francis, who was rich, yet intentionally became poor and a saint, begs for a verdict. Murray Bodo referred to Francis's poverty as

a divine antidote to the disease which would infect society and, more importantly, the individual, from then on. One's personal value and self-esteem would by and large be measured in proportion to an ability to make money.... Money and what it represents becomes the fullness of life.... [Francis] was the quintessential Christian who saw what money would do to the spirit. Christ alone is the fullness of life, and the compulsive pursuit of money, more than anything else, distracts the individual from what really brings life.

The Salt of the Earth

But misfits never just pass judgment. Rather, through their oddness they lovingly engage and wrap their arms around all that is out of sync with God. "You are the salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13)—and salt flavors and preserves. G. K. Chesterton offered a lovely thought on our role as salt: "Salt seasons and preserves beef, not because it is like beef; but because it is very unlike it. Christ did not tell his apostles that they were only the excellent people, or the only excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people; and the text about the salt of the earth is really as sharp and shrewd and tart as the taste of salt." Francis and Clarence Jordan were exceptional and incongruous—and always full of love. What they did, you and I can do.

    On the night of October 3, 1226, Francis died. His last words were, "I have done what is mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours to do." This invitation was reiterated not long ago by Henri Nouwen, who pressed a crucial question for me and for you: "Who will be the St. Francis of our age?"

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