Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heroes and Heroines

The Second Sunday of Advent found me at the Lutheran church where I often worship. The deacon announced that on this day we remember Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Later in the service, during the prayers of the people, we offered a prayer of thanks for his life and witness to the faith.

As I recall, no mention was made of Nicholas’s sainthood, or of his legendary life that became the prototype of the modern “Saint Nicholas,” a.k.a. Santa Claus. He was just noted as a faithful servant of Christ from the past.

The most significant thing was that Nicholas also got a mention in the prayers of the people. That should not be a surprise to any Presbyterian. The Book of Common Worship (1993) provides at or near the end of every model for Prayers of the People (pp. 99ff.) some praise of God “for all your servants who, having been faithful to you on earth, now live with you in heaven.”

It’s unfortunate, I think, that we don’t place a stronger emphasis at this point. The brief and vague allusion to those who have gone before us in the prayers of the people slides on by, and I suspect it doesn’t really register on the consciousness of most folks. Our spiritual ancestors are nameless and faceless, whose stories we don’t remember if ever we knew them.

So our understanding of the church’s story too often skips from Jesus and those who followed him that we hear about in the Bible to Luther and Calvin, and from the Reformers on to us. There are huge gaps there, and our worship suffers from this worse than splotchy understanding of church history.

It is not just church history—it is salvation history. The story we tell is one of God’s overwhelming grace embracing people’s lives as they march in a twenty-century-long parade. It’s a procession of changed lives, rescued souls, acting out courageous love. You and I are in that parade. It is in the community gathered for worship that we place ourselves in line to continue that march through our time and beyond.

Just as you and I have names and faces and our own unique stories, we need to find ways of reclaiming the memory of those who have gone before us in faith.

The Book of Common Worship (1993) steers us in this direction by providing two prayers with the title “Thanksgiving for Heroes and Heroines of the Faith.” (See pp. 813-814.)

The first gives thanks for all God’s “servants and witnesses from times past” starting with Abraham and Sarah down through Jesus and his followers to “all the saints and martyrs in every time and every land.” There are names we recognize, faces we can imagine, deeds we can hear about.

The second prayer with the same title has a more personal slant. Not only are we interested in the stories “in the pages of scripture, in the records of history,” but we want to remember the faithful people we hear about “in the recollections of our families, and in our own childhood memories.”

The point is, according to this prayer: “As we remember these people, inspire us to join their ranks and follow our Lord through life, to be bold as they were, and brave as well, witnessing to your righteous truth and generous love.”

Worship places us in that stream of faithful living. We not only learn from those who have gone before, but even more wondrous, we set the example for the saints who follow.

Where and how in your worship do you see the flow of “salvation history?”


  1. thank you, Don...when I was pastoring churches I used to make a big deal of all saints' day, and encouraged people to tell stories about the saints in their lives...mentors, people who set examples of faith, people who have been inspirations, etc. I do think that protestants have "thrown the baby out with the bath water" when it comes to Mary, and the same can be said of our lack of attention to the heroes and martyrs of the past. I also used to spend 30 seconds or so introducing the history of hymns before we sang, as a way to teach the people in the congregation about the rich stories and testimonies of many hymn writers. Lots of people now know the background of the favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. There are many more hymns whose backgrounds are windows to the past.

  2. Don,

    We are bound up with the 'vicarious humanity' of God in Christ at His Table for us, the way that in His time with our times we are given to experience the atoning work of His holy love with us in this world. I believe we need to focus more on that with which we are bound by the Divine-Human Freedom He is for us, in us, and with us in this way before we contemplate our we ought to behave in this world. 'The unassumed is the unhealed!'

    Jack McKenna


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