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Story has a way of capturing the imagination. Biography brings theological principles, life lessons, and spiritual wisdom to life as I bear witness to the grittiness, lived-out in a transformed journey. Poor choices and besetting sins become cautionary sign posts that might just keep me from going over the same cliff. Karen Wright Marsh shares 25 open windows into the lives of saintly sinners who have loved God and served Him imperfectly throughout history. Her chief means of conveying Truth happens on the campus of the University of Virginia at the Bonhoeffer House where she presides over a weekly gathering called “Vintage.” There, she shares the lessons she has discovered in the flesh and blood that once belonged to historical brothers and sisters in the faith.
Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith is a collection of these conversations with the historical details reinforced by bracing accounts from Karen’s own winding pilgrim life. She makes it clear that a saintly title does not disqualify a believer from struggles, nor does it make one immune to the slippage that plagues us all.
What these 25 historical figures (spanning some 16 centuries of church history) have in common is the faithfulness of their search for Jeremiah’s “good way” and their dogged determination to walk its restful path. What characterizes the life of a sinner who has “stood at the crossroads” and chosen the path of a saint? I’ve been challenged by four characteristics that recurred throughout Karen’s biographical sketches:
Settling into Belovedness
Author and professor Henri Nouwen found himself caught in a cycle of work, depression, insomnia, and doubt that left him wondering if anyone would listen to his wisdom if they knew how much he struggled. His pursuit of significance ended with his embrace of the truth that, as God’s child, God’s favor already rested on him. He learned a willingness to hear God’s calling him “beloved” as the loudest voice in his head and heart.
John Wesley’s following life was one of “fighting continually, but not conquering,” (114) until he felt his heart “strangely warmed” by the spirit and entered into a life with God that was characterized by relationship rather than rules.
Twelfth-century monk, Aelred of Rievaulx delighted in relationships as a youthful extrovert, but found his heart’s desire to be fulfilled only by the knowledge of God’s love for him which infused meaning into all other human relationships.
Sinners who long to be saints will let go of their bent toward doing and turn their hearts toward a glorious being that rests in the knowledge of their own belovedness to the God of the universe.
Embracing the Strangeness
Flannery O’Connor, well-known for the portrayal of “large and startling figures” in her writing, lamented the fact that “people who believe vigorously in Christ are wholly odd to most readers.” (45) Her awareness of the total “otherness” of God led her to pray:
“Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”
Only one of many followers who chose a non-traditional life style, Francis of Assisi walked hundreds of miles, dressed in rags, and lived hard-and-inconvenient because he heard the voice of God calling him to a non-traditional path.
Modern day saints are called to life of radical forgiveness as the norm, and “strangeness” may abound in varying degrees in the following life. Karen Wright Marsh examines her own commitment to WWJD with new eyes because of vintage saints and sinners’ example in embracing “the joy, the risk, the wholeness of taking Jesus at his word.”
The Brilliance of Practicality
When I picture medieval saints who committed themselves to a monastic life, the phrase “cutting edge” does not leap to my lips, but then, Julian of Norwich ratcheted her own vows up a notch and became an anchoress, enclosed in a small chamber within the church for the remainder of her lifetime. (Anyone else feeling claustrophobic right now?) Narrow of room but wide of life, one of Julian’s three windows in her little nook faced onto the streets of Norwich where she was able to provide counsel and spiritual insight to those who walked the streets of 14th century England.
Ignatius of Loyola approached the faith-life with a strategic confidence that would rival the Pentagon, and approached all decisions with the brilliant question: “What will bring the greatest glory to God?” (164) This lifts the heavy burden of looking for X-marks-the-spot answers to our requests for God’s guidance, and emboldens the believer to take risks, leaning into a trust in God’s ability to work through Scripture and the wise counsel of friends, family, and mentors.
Risking the Forbidden
If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had settled into a comfortable pastorate in England as an escape from Nazi Germany, or if he had simply played it safe and taken a post in a German university while waiting out the war, we would probably never have heard his name. Instead, discerning the Nazi danger, he founded an illegal seminary, joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and was, therefore, executed by the Nazis. Of course, the two years between Bonhoeffer’s arrest and execution were overflowing with gorgeous writing that has shaped the church with its theological insights.
The Christian life of Amanda Berry Smith began with a bold prayer:
“I will pray once more, and if there is any such thing as salvation, I am determined to have it this afternoon or die.”
Her passion to know God and to share His love with the world propelled her into a life of risk. A former slave with no formal education, she traveled the world and preached to large crowds. When she encountered protesters, she knelt in their presence and prayed. She contracted malaria as she traveled by canoe in Africa, and succeeded in founding an orphanage for African American girls despite the challenges of living as a woman of color in pre-Civil Rights America.
Sinners who long to be Saints for God’s glory will trust for grace in the midst of fear, asking God for “the strong love that casts out fear.”
Following the ancient tracks of these 25 pilgrims has been both encouraging and disturbing. Each stands alone as a memorial to a significant and exemplary life, but taken together over time, they reveal the mysterious complexity of the following life and God’s creativity in receiving whatever raw material is offered to Him — and spinning it into gold. As I stand at my own crossroads and look; as I pursue “the good way” and put my feet on the path in front of me, I’ll rest in the Truth that God has long been in the business of transforming sinners into saints and He knows the unique contours of the road this sinner needs to travel.
This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
For more information about The Bonhoeffer House or Karen Wright Marsh’s ministry through Theological Horizons, click on over to their website.