When the Saints

On Tuesday, I was perusing iTunes (Apple’s online music store) when I came across the free downloadable song of the week–an appropriate and timely release called When The Saints by Sara Groves. Inspired by the beloved hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Groves, a contemporary Christian folk-pop artist, offers her own reflections on those who have gone before us in faith:

Lord I have a heavy burden of all I’ve seen and know
It’s more than I can handle
But your word is burning like a fire shut up in my bones and I can’t let it go

And when I’m weary and overwrought
with so many battles left unfought
I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them

Lord it’s all that I can’t carry and cannot leave behind
It all can overwhelm me
but I think of all who’ve gone before them and lived the faithful life, their courage compels me

And when I’m weary and overwrought
with so many battles left unfought
I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars

I see the shepherd Moses in the Pharaohs court
I hear his call for freedom for the people of the Lord

And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them

I see the long quiet walk along the Underground Railroad
I see the slave awakening to the value of her soul
I see the young missionary at the angry spear
I see his family returning with no trace of fear
I see the long hard shadows of Calcutta nights
I see the sisters standing by the dying mans side
I see the young girl huddled on the brothel floor
I see the man with a passion come and kicking down that door
I see the man of sorrow and his long troubled road
I see the world on his shoulders and my easy load

And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them

This soul-stirring song gives the listener a beautiful glimpse into the life of discipleship, of those in the faith who in service to Christ, have lived for the oppressed, the sick, the stranger, prisoner, the hungry, and the abused. The song gives the listener hope that God’s love, justice and mercy is working in the world and that God is inviting us to be a part of that work.

The song’s varied images of the faithful who have gone before us also point to a religious concept (defined by the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church) as “the universal call to holiness.” Therese J. Borchard, a columnist for Beliefnet.com, explains in her column:

The universal call to holiness in an invitation to be ourselves. It’s also an invitation to remember the sacramentality of everyday life and to realize the great goal that God has set for us: sanctity. It is what the saints came to realize, sometimes in an instant, sometimes over the course of many years, whether they were born in first-century Palestine, thirteenth-century France, or twentieth-century America…Whether they worked alongside the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, with the plague victims in Rome, or with the gentiles of Asia Minor. The call to sanctity is an invitation to friendship with God. It is a call that transformed the lives of the saints into gifts to the One who loved them into being. The invitation to holiness is a lifelong call to draw closer to God, who wants nothing more than to encounter us as the people we are and the saints we are meant to be.”

I am struck by a reference in both the song and Borchard’s quote about those who work with the poor in Calcutta. My mind immediately turns to the discipleship of the late Mother Teresa, who is fondly remembered by friends and the people she helped as the “Saint of Calcutta.”  In August, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the director of the Mother Teresa Center, published a book on Mother Teresa’s private writings Come Be My Light which revealed that this woman of great compassion and inspiration–during much of her ministry–often doubted the presence of Christ in her life and even her own worthiness as a person of faith. She wrote in one letter to a spiritual confidant:

Jesus has a very special love for you. But as for me–the silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see, –listen and do not hear.”  And in another letter she says, “If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

Mother Teresa’s words are jarring and don’t reflect the life of a woman whom many people (Christians and non-Christians alike) knew from news reports, books, speeches and personal interaction as one who served with great strength and intensity and without a notion of doubt about her own faith or calling.  And yet we can take hope in the words of a woman who in the midst of her own faith crisis still persevered to take care of the “least of these” among us. Never once did she stop serving the poor in Calcutta nor did she stop sharing the good news of God’s love with others.

Although Mother Teresa felt alone at times, she never was truly alone.  The nuns and volunteers she worked side by side with in Calcutta as well as her spiritual confidents, her superiors living thousands of miles away were with her, and those in faith who had gone before. And it was through others that the presence of the triune God was known in the brokenness of Calcutta.  It was that holy presence that helped her carry on the work she was meant to do.

It is that holy presence that helps us hear the call to be disciples, to live and serve together as the loving and compassionate children of God that we were created to be.  This call to live out our faith and serve others with the gifts God has given us, is known in the Reformed tradition as a call to be a part of the royal priesthood of believers, to come (regardless of who we are and how many times we get things wrong) “a living stone…chosen and precious in God’s sight…to be built into a spiritual house…to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:4-5)

We are surrounded in this life and in this church at Colesville with many saints, those here on earth and those who have gone before us into eternal living, who remind us what it means to live out Christ’s teachings of love and mercy in the world. May we see the presence of the triune God in them–the youth, the elder, the deacon, the Sunday School teacher, the musician, the pastor, the mother, the father, the friend, the grandparents, the child, the sick, the lonely, and the visitor. May we see through the saints in our lives, God’s presence in our own and God’s call of us to live out our lives as saints for others.

Lord it’s all that I can’t carryand cannot leave behind

it all can overwhelm me but I think of all who’ve gone before them and lived the faithful life, their courage compels me.

And when the Saints go marching in, I want to be one of them. And when the Saints go marching in, I want to be one of them

Thanks be to God that we are all made to be one of them.

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