Monday, February 8, 2016

First cup: Thinking about saints or Saints I have Known

Saturday I attended the memorial for Sharon Skaggs and listened to friends and family share their warmest memories about their friend and mother. She was a remarkable woman. I worked with and around her for 15 years through the last days of the old national regime, through the challenges and disappointments of the transition to the new, into the strange new world of Church of God Ministries. She was a remarkable woman. We all struggled with these changes, some more than others. I think we all worried about what was going on and whether or not we would find a home in this brave new world that was rich with disenchantment, hope, and irony; I know most of us worried whether or not there would be a welcome mat—would there be a place for me and will I want it.

The journey was difficult for everyone, but I think no agency had greater challenges than what was once called the Board of Foreign Missions, now Global Strategies. A pioneering agency of the church, it carried the distinctive teachings of the Church of God reformation movement into the uttermost parts of the earth. A remarkable history. A remarkable story. Not without error and not without floundering along the way—still, an amazing story of vision and true grit.

I think I’ve known a lot of saints in my day. I’m going to name a few even though I know that most of them would get angry at this designation—even though once upon a time we in the Church of God used to call ourselves “The Saints.” Yet, here they are, some living still and some part of the cloud of witnesses: my pastor Al Shackleton; my dean and friend, Tom Smith; my boss and friend, Sherrill Hayes, and his boss and our friend, Don Courtney. My professor Irene Caldwell; my mentor, dean, and, at times, pastor, Milo Chapman; my friend and pastor, Jay Barber; and many another friend and colleague at WPC, AU, Park Place Church, and Church of God Ministries. Oh, I could name many more. I’ve been blessed (and cursed) with saints in my life.

Cursed? Well, we tend to idealize saints, don’t we? We tend to enshrine them in stained glass, build monuments, and name buildings. But my experience also says that saints have rough edges, sharp elbows, and deep, deep commitments that are often visionary and in the service of those commitments and vision can be fierce and dogged and uncompromising. Saints can be very, very difficult to work and live with.

Which brings me back to Sharon. I heard her described Saturday as a saint—which is what got this rumination going—and I would tend to agree with that. But only if we scrape away the stained glass and the haloes and remember that all saints were humans—really seriously human, being transformed by the call of God on their lives, and focused on living into and through that call. Someone, I think, said that a saints are persons who live on fire, gloriously open to God, which, I think, makes them difficult and wonderful. That’s Sharon. I worked with her for 15 of those difficult years I wrote about earlier, leaving the soon to be forsaken halls before she did. At first, three halls separated us—she was in the Outreach hall and I in Resource hall. As time went on and we all kept trying to figure out how to make this new thing work, our halls came closer together and increasingly there were opportunities to see her at work and to work with her. She was all of the characteristics we heard about in the eulogies—funny, kind, compassionate; she did have a great laugh, although I have to say that we didn’t hear it often in that building. She was also the best friend a missionary ever had; if it’s possible for one person to do this, she had their backs, individually and collectively. That’s where the real saintliness came in: She was determined and uncompromising and tough when it came to the life and needs and times of the field missionary. I had the opportunity to sit at some tables with her and I saw that compassion in full color—and I saw the uncompromising tough and determined woman. And I’m grateful that she was there. As her son-in-law, Patrick remind us Saturday, it seemed at times that the whole enterprise of global missions was at risk. I’m pretty confident when I say that Sharon would have done her work for nothing if she understood that was necessary for missionaries in the field to do their work.

The church would be well-served by more such difficult saints.

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