Encouragement from the Saints

An item in the liturgy called "Encouragement from the Saints" may seem out of place in a Protestant worship service. Saints, after all, have never fared well in the Reformed tradition. We don't pray to them; we don't celebrate their feast days; we don't recognize them.

We are quick to point out that the Bible's reference to "saints" includes all Christians. Paul writes "to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi," or "to the saints in Ephesus." And by extension, Paul writes to all the saints in all the churches today.

But the truth is, the saints in our churches are not always as aware as perhaps they should be of the saints in other churches and the saints of past centuries. Despite our confession of "a catholic church" and "the communion of saints," we tend toward a saintly provincialism, limiting our awareness of the church to people in our own congregation, denomination, and tradition.

To enrich this confession of "the communion of saints," the Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, introduced "Encouragement from the Saints" into its Sunday evening liturgy. The idea originated with the pastor, Dr. John Timmer, in an attempt to help members become more aware of the history of the Christian church.

"Encouragement from the Saints" consists of a three- to five- minute story about a person from church history, followed by the singing of an appropriate hymn, such as "For all the Saints," "By the Sea of Crystal," or "For All Your Saints, O Lord." (See examples: Elizabeth Guerney Fry and St- Philip.) Woodlawn has been including "Encouragement" in its liturgy once or twice a month for the past several years. At first Pastor Timmer wrote the stories himself and asked various members of the congregation to present them. During the last couple of years I have taken over the writing and presenting of this part of the evening service.

In the course of preparing these stories, we have turned to figures traditionally called "saints," early church fathers such as St. Augustine or St. Ambrose from our tradition and St.Philip and St. Tikhon from the Russian Orthodox tradition. But we have also turned to other Christians—some ancient, some more recent—whose stories shed light not only on their time and place in church history but also on their personal struggles and victories in living the Christian life. We have noted such people as Philip Melanchthon, Reformation figure; Katherine von Bora Luther, Martin's wife; Guido de Bres, author of the Belgic Confession; George Herbert, seventeenth-century English poet; Elizabeth Guerney Fry, eighteenth-century Quaker; Phillips Brooks, American preacher; Pandita Ramabai, Indian Christian; Carlyle Marney, Southern Baptist preacher; Flannery O'Connor, Catholic author.

"Encouragement from the Saints" has been well received by both children and adults. Through stories about the struggles and triumphs of other Christians the people of Woodlawn are beginning to sense, in a very real way, that we today are part of a great band of pilgrims making . our way together toward the New Jerusalem. Members have expressed appreciation for being informed about Christians from other traditions and for being reminded of Christian people they once read about or heard of as children.

The practice has enriched our awareness that our congregation, our denomination, and our tradition are not the only ones in which God has his people. It has provided depth to our confession that "the Son of God, through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race… gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life" (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 54.) We are members of this community. But so are "all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed. Thy name, OJesus, be forever blest: Alleluia."

Preparing "Encouragement"

Congregations interested in trying "Encouragement from the Saints" in their services should begin by looking for someone who is willing to take responsibility for doing the necessary research and writing the two-page, double-spaced vignettes. Libraries offer books on the lives of "the saints" from the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. Also available are books and periodicals that offer biographies of various other Christian figures: American evangelical leaders, missionaries, and so on. A recent book, Elliott Wright's Holy Company, Christian Heroes and Heroines (Macmillan, 1980), for example, provides a collection of stories of Christians from various traditions.

The person who does the research and writing need not also read the "Encouragement from the Saints" in the service. Here, opportunity for involvement could be offered to a number of people who have clear voices and a good reading style.

Elizabeth Guerney Fry

Jesus once said, "I was in prison and you visited me." Since then, down to the present day, Christians have been interested in and concerned about prisons and their inhabitants. One chapter in the story of Christians and prisons was written by Elizabeth Guerney Fry.

Elizabeth Guerney was born of a fine and fashionable English family during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Although the family were Quakers, Elizabeth and her brothers and sisters considered the Quakers, or the Society of Friends, a dull and old-fashioned religious group.

Elizabeth might have continued to scorn the Quakers had it not been for a Quaker woman and a visiting American preacher who brought the meaning of the Quaker life home to the seventeen-year-old girl. "One night," Elizabeth wrote, concerning her seventeenth year, "my heart felt really light, and as I walked home by starlight, I looked through nature up to nature's God. I do not know," she said, "what the mountain is I will have to climb; but I know I am a Quaker."

In 1800 Elizabeth Guerney married, moved to London, and began her life as wife and mother. It was in London that she first saw the notorious Newgate Prison— home of London's female prisoners. Being socially well-placed, she went to the prison governor: "Sir, if thee kindly allows me to pray with the women, I will go inside." And inside Newgate prison she went.

Behind Newgate's walls Elizabeth found three hundred female prisoners and their children trying to exist in four rooms with no beds, no activities, and only one adult attendant. The inmates seemed to her more like wild beasts than people. She prayed with them.

Concerned about the pitiful existence of these mothers and children, Elizabeth formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate and, in doing so, initiated a sweeping prison reform movement that would touch England, America, and Australia.

Elizabeth began with modest goals: to supply the women with clothing, prison employment, and instruction. She herself gave instruction in Scripture, introducing the prisoners to a sense of their own dignity as human beings created in God's image and to an awareness of God's love for every person, regardless of station or crime.

Whether the women prisoners responded to Elizabeth Fry's evangelism or were simply anxious to learn to read is impossible to determine. But one biographer suggests that perhaps these women began to understand for the first time that courage, holiness, justice, and strength are from God.

Within a few years Elizabeth Gurney Fry persuaded British authorities to hire a female warden for Newgate, to provide prison jobs and craft programs, and to view imprisonment as rehabilitation as much as punishment.

She went on to insist that the British government build homes in Australia to receive women shipped out to that penal colony. She roamed over England, Scotland, and Ireland, and other countries in Europe, visiting numerous prisons and asylums and searching for persons in whom to invest her love, her time, and her means. Everywhere she looked she found them—the sick and dying, women oppressed by centuries of male-imposed social rules, and the prisoners hidden in holes behind the fagade of proper eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British society.

One writer said of the Quaker Elizabeth Fry, "She found in the silence that mysterious power which loves the unlovely into lovableness." On her deathbed in 1845 Elizabeth Guerney Fry reflected on her life: "I can say one thing-—since my heart was touched at seventeen years old, I believe I never awakened from sleep, in sickness or in health, by day or night, without my first waking thought being how best I might serve my Lord."

Hymn Suggestions:

For All the Saints (SINE NOMINE)

The Hymnbook 425; Psalter Hymnal 505; Rejoice in the Lord 397; Trinity Hymnal 281 Jesus Shall Reign (DUKE STREET)

The Hymnbook 496; Psalter Hymnal 412; Rejoice in the Lord 233; Trinity Hymnal 374 Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service (PLEADING SAVIOR)

Psalter Hymnal 603 Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life (GERMANY)

The Hymnbook 507; Psalter Hymnal 602; Rejoice in the Lord 482

St. Philip

This evening I am taking you into the strange world of the Russian Orthodox Church—strange, because we in the West know so very little about the life and practices of the Christian church as it was formed in the Eastern countries, including Russia.

In the sixteenth century Russia was ruled by a Tsar (the Russian word for Caesar) named Ivan, who came to be known as Ivan the Terrible. Under his heavy hand Russia became a land of violence and bloodshed.

During these same days there lived a wealthy young nobleman named Theodore Kolytchov. He received a good education and became a soldier in the numerous wars then being fought. But when he was thirty years old, while attending the Divine Liturgy of the Church, Theodore heard the gospel reading about the impossibility of serving two masters. Without hesitation he made up his mind to put off the wealth and rank of his birth, and to become a monk in a remote monastery.

At the monastery Theodore took the name of Philip and learned the rule of the liturgy and the doctrine of the church. Eventually he became the bishop at Moscow.

It was in Moscow that Philip came into direct opposition to Ivan, Tsar of all Russia. Before this time the church throughout Russia had had little to do with the political activities of Russian leaders. The church and her leaders were content to pray for the Tsar and for his government and to abstain from any involvement in the lives and policies of Russian politics.

But Philip confronted Ivan, Tsar of Russia, who had become a vengeful tyrant over his people. Philip, as bishop of Moscow, broke the silence of the church and publicly spoke for the cause of God and the cause of justice (the Russian word for justice, which is deeply ingrained in the religious history of Russian, is the word Pravda).

"Mighty Tsar," Philip exclaimed, "you are invested with the highest dignity, almost a divine dignity. But the earthly scepter is but a reflection of the heavenly one. It obliges you to teach people to live according to the truth. Remain faithful to God's law; govern in peace according to the laws."

"What do you mean, wretched monk, by meddling in my affairs," replied Ivan. "You have only to hold your tongue, approve my actions, and give me your blessing."

But Philip answered, "I am the shepherd of Christ's church, and like you, it is my duty to watch over the peace of the Orthodox fold. I cannot keep silent; my silence would mean that I approved of your sins. If I do not bear witness to the truth, I render myself unworthy of my office as a bishop. If I bow to men's will, what shall I find to answer Christ on the day of judgment? I beseech you, send away those men who are ruining you—yes, you and your realm."

Ivan, as you can guess, had become so violent that he gave no heed to the voice of this Christian witness. Sometime later, Philip was taken from his church and his position and exiled to a monastery far away from Moscow. There he lived for a short time before Ivan sent one of his men to visit the outspoken monk and smother him to death.

During his life Philip had given clear testimony of his devotion to Christ. In his opposition to the highest Russian authority he had given Christian hope to many of his fellow citizens. To this day the Russian church continues to celebrate the memory of St. Philip, "pillar of orthodoxy, fighter for the truth, the shepherd who laid down his life for his flock."

Hymn Suggestions:

God the Ominipotent (RUSSIAN HYMN)

The Hymnbook 487; Rejoice in the Lord 493 God the All-Terrible (RUSSIAN HYMN)

Trinity Hymnal 617 I Am the Lord Your God (RUSSIA)

Psalter Hymnal 199 Praise to God in the Highest (SLAVA BOGU)

Psalter Hymnal 595

Robert A. Meyering is assistant director of marketing and admissions in the accelerated program for adult degree completion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 7 © March 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.