The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) Tempera on wood, 31,9 x 63,5 cm cm National Gallery, London by Fra Angelica
Over the last week or two at church, I’ve been talking with the children about All Saints Day. I drew the connection to Halloween as All Hallow’s Eve, and saints as people who are holy, or hallowed. We worship in the United Church of Christ, a free-wheeling, open-minded, covenant community of Protestants descended from German reformers and New England Congregationalists, so we have a low threshold for inclusion in the pantheon of saints. There are no rules for canonization, no ritual of beatification, no required miracles. I simply told the children that a saint is someone whose life points to God. If you look at a saint, if you watch them and learn from them, you can learn something about God and about how to live a life for God.
With that description, I asked them to name some saints that they knew. My son immediately raised his hand. “You!” he said, full of pride. “I think you’re a saint—you teach us about God, and you help people.” I had not anticipated this answer, and my first inclination was to hide my reddening face behind the pulpit. The last thing I wanted was to be held up as a saint for my ordinary life as a clergyperson. Especially by my own child. In front of the whole church. I was mortified that someone would think I considered myself holier than thou, perfect in every way. I made an awkward joke and moved on as quickly as possible.
As I thought more about it in recent days, I wonder if I should not have been so quick to deny my role as a saint. If I believe my own definition—that a saint is someone whose life points to God, and who teaches those around them about God—then I should aspire to be just that kind of person, especially for my own child. The whole premise of this Practicing Families conversation is that we have a responsibility, as parents, to take the lead in our children’s faith formation. That means teaching them about God, through intentional efforts at prayer and by the example of our lives. Shouldn’t I want my son to think that he can look to me to see what a Christian life looks like? Shouldn’t I aspire to be worthy of his look?
I was embarrassed at my son’s declaration because we often confuse sainthood with perfection, and I didn’t want anyone thinking I was claiming to be perfect in any way. But if you look at the saints of the Bible, they are far from a perfect lot. Peter, the denier. Mary Magdalene, with a scandalous past. Paul, who had anger issues. The woman at the well, with her five husbands. Matthew, the tax collector. To be a saint is not to be practically perfect in every way, like Mary Poppins. It is to let God use you, in all your imperfections, for holy purposes. Saints are not sin-free, just set free. They are people who let God’s light shine through them.
Maybe I need to think about claiming my own sainthood, and think about how I can let God’s light shine through me. It’s sure to illuminate my flaws far more than my beauty, but I hope it will also show my child how to walk in the light. What about you? Are you willing to claim your sainthood, to live a life that points toward God so that your child might find the holy through you?
As a pastor, I was tempted to nix the children’s sermon as soon as my children learned to talk! It has been my hope that when my children think of me they will think of the Gospel and on my better days that really guides how I interact with them and the rest of the world.
Identifying as a saint is a bit like identifying as a missionary. It feels a little presumptuous and humbling and scary. While I taught elementary school, my students sometimes made comments like that about me,too. What a powerful reminder of how important our relationships with them are as guides and co-pilgrims on the journey of faith, whether we are their parents, teachers, or older friends.