I used to work for a publishing house. I wasn’t an editor or anything, but I spent a lot of time combing through book manuscripts — from the title page through to the index — looking for formatting errors. In my time spent doing that, I noticed that I could almost always tell the difference between a mediocre book and a decent one before I had read a single word of the actual book.
The secret was the acknowledgments page.
There’s a strong correlation between the quality of an author’s book and the amount of time an author spends thanking their friends, family, mentors, and editors. And when their acknowledgments run for only a sentence or two, you can be pretty certain that the book won’t be very good. It doesn’t hold for everyone, everywhere (and not as much for fiction — we mostly published nonfiction), but it seems reasonable enough to be true. After all, writing a book requires a lot of knowledge, a lot of support, and a lot of editing. So once you finish, you want to thank the village-worth of people who’ve helped you along the way. Authors who don’t either haven’t sought help or are too arrogant to credit the people who did help them. Either way, they’ll probably end up with a book that is really boring or doesn’t make sense. Which is kind of like being a Christian.
When I talk to the Christians whom I want to emulate, I find that they talk about other people — a mentor or a pastor or a spouse or a parent or a writer or a friend or someone else who changed them. If their life had an acknowledgments page, it’d be pretty long. And if you could go talk to those people, they’d probably talk about someone else. And so would those people, and those people, and those people. And eventually, I guess you’d get all the way back to John or Martha or Mary or Peter. And they’d tell you all about this guy named Yeshua, whom they followed around for a few years in Capernaum and Jericho and Jerusalem. Which makes sense, I guess. Christianity isn’t about me following Jesus, following Yeshua. It’s about all of us following Jesus, following Yeshua, together. It’s about 21st century Americans and Asians, along with 12th century Europeans, and 3rd century Africans and 1st century Jews and everyone in between following Jesus, together. And with people in the future. However long that goes on.
So kind of like writing a book, if you try to be a Christian but refuse anyone else’s help, your life will either be really boring or not make sense. Probably both.
I may have needed a cute analogy to help me realize this, but the church has known it for as long as she has been around. And the church is always updating her acknowledgments page. It’s called the Calendar of Saints, and it exists to remind us that we don’t have to do this discipleship thing alone. And that there’s not much new stuff to discover — just lots of old stuff to recover. There’ve been Christians before us who have left empire behind to listen to God in the wilderness and have given away their fortunes to feed the poor and have washed the dishes with joy like Jesus when he washed his disciples’ feet. They’ve dropped their weapons at the feet of their commanding officers and told them, “I’m a Christian; I must not kill.” They’ve spent so long praying and meditating on God that when they write or paint or sing, they seem to peel back an entire layer of grime to show us the bright, divine reality underneath all things.
Just because they did it, though, doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. We still have to confront (or maybe run away from) the empires of our days. We still have fortunes to give away and dishes to wash — lots of dishes to wash. But as we do it, we can do it in confidence that we are indeed “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” witnesses to the truth and power of the Gospel. Sometimes, when I find it hard to believe in God, or hard to believe sacrifice or obedience or love are worth it, I turn to the stories of the saints. In these stories, I find people who were more courageous, more faithful, more intelligent, more loving — and I realize that if they could sing with joy as the flames engulfed them or treat each beggar like Jesus himself, then I could at least try washing my housemates’ dishes, even if that’s not on my weekly chore assignment.
With this new series, Sojourners will be offering short reflections on the lives of different saints whom we find particularly inspiring or especially relevant to the justice issues that we cover — it’s kind of like our own acknowledgments page. We hope you’re inspired.