Fingerprints of the Soul, Romans 5:1-5, May 30, 2010

Do you know who your patron saint is? Maybe you didn't even know that you were born on the "feast day" of Saint Somebody-or-other. "Feast Day" refers to the death date, not the birth date, of a designated saint.

Death dates, rather than birthdays, were celebrated as "feast days" because it was assumed that the saint's birthday into eternity was on this date. It used to be that devout families incorporated the name of the saint on whose feast day their child was born into the child's name. The hope was that since the child shared the saint's name and feast day, this particular saint would take special care of the child.

Saints are called saints because through their lives, and often through their deaths, they imitated Christ. They lived out and embodied Christ-like virtues. The popularity of speaking of Christian virtues has had its ups and downs.
 
The concept of "virtue" has Old Testament roots -- where it was used to connote ability, efficiency and moral worth. In the New Testament, one Greek word (arête) focused on the excellence of a person, including the wonderful deeds such a person could do.
"Virtue" was also derived from the Greek word meaning "power" or "influence" (dynamis). This is seen especially in the healing influence that proceeded from Christ.
 
Originally, spiritual power, excellence, moral worthiness and sometimes healing virtue were the marks of a "virtuous" man or woman of Christ. But by the 19th century, Victorian culture had exchanged the concept of many Christian virtues for a so-called life of virtue. In this case, “virtue” became diligent rule-following instead of a commitment to moral worthiness or Christ-like-ness.
 
 The virtuous saints of Christian history did things for the sake of Christ -- loved, taught, witnessed, and most notably, died a martyr's death because of their "commitment." By contrast, the "virtuous" Victorians of the 19th-century did not do things -- they didn't smoke, drink, dance, swear, gamble, lie, cheat or steal because these went against the rules. Following rules doesn’t necessarily indicate inward devotion. Some Christians, and denominations, are stuck here: focusing on external appearances rather than inward transformation.

Maybe because society has now fallen so far from Victorian standards of virtue, much less Christian morality, that there is a renewed interest in the whole notion of virtues. In the 1990s, former Secretary of Education and self-proclaimed social critic William J. Bennett published a work entitled The Book of Virtues. Who would have thought that a book about virtues would become a best-seller?
 
In 2002, Father Andrew Greeley, the writing priest, co-edited The Book of Love: A Treasury of the Greatest of Virtues. (He says many books of virtue leave out love, yet Scripture tells of God’s is love and Paul proclaims love as the greatest virtue of all (1 Corinthians 13).

By definition: Virtue (Latin virtus; Greek ρετή) is moral excellence. A virtue is a character trait or quality valued as being always good in and of itself. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting individual and collective well being. The opposite of virtue is vice.
 
The four classic Western Cardinal virtues (based on either Plato or Socrates) are:
temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē)
prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis)
fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia)
justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē)
 
Biblical Virtues, Galatians 5:
NIV  22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control.
KJV  22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23Meekness, temperance.
 
In his epistle to the church at Rome, Paul links character to suffering, endurance and hope. Suffering, that is, suffering for Christ's sake, produces endurance -- or perseverance -- or we might even say, a kind of inspired stubbornness. It is out of this crucible of determined stick-to-it-ness that character is derived; character based on approved faith and tried integrity.
 
Every bump in the road of life that draws us closer to Christ becomes a fingerprint of the soul. Instead of smoothing out the contours of our characters, we need to conscientiously commit ourselves to deepening the grooves.
 
Our souls should be deeply etched by the clefts and valleys of our characters. It takes a lifetime of experiences to create such a rutted and rocky masterpiece. The fingerprint of the soul is something we are not born with, but it is most certainly something we die with.
 
John R. W. Stott, then rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, is well aware of what our worst fears are about God when we consider the suffering that surrounds us in this world.

“The real sting of suffering is not misfortune itself, nor even the pain of it or the injustice of it, but the apparent God-forsakenness of it. Pain is endurable, but the seeming indifference of God is not. Sometimes we picture him lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck chair, while the hungry millions starve to death...

It is this terrible caricature of God which the cross smashes to smithereens. We are not to envisage him on a deck chair, but on a cross.”[i]

Paul’s prayer for the Colossian Christians and us is that we . . .
-bear(ing) fruit in every good work,
-grow(ing) in the knowledge of God,
-be(ing) strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,
and (that we) joyfully
-give (ing) thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Col.1:10-12)
 
Character is what creates the unique fingerprints of our soul. A well-developed character is identified by the ruts, ridges and contours that have been traced onto its surface. There’s a reason that smooth, conscience-free con-artists are called "slick”. Lack of character reflects no guiding virtues etched onto his or her spirit.
 
In Robert Bolt's account (A Man For All Seasons) of Cardinal Wolsey's exchange with Sir Thomas More, who was executed for his refusal to compromise his virtue, there is this comment: "If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint".[ii] But we need that moral squint . . . maybe more now than ever.

 We speak highly of those who have character; we speak dubiously about those who are characters. Without a doubt, Paul had a prickly "character." Yet no one would argue that Paul didn't live a life of Christian virtue -- full of power and worth and healing.
 
The difference between one who embodies virtues (inward focus) and one who practices virtue (outward focus) is made clear by examining the "characters" of those who are truly the "saints." Whereas virtuous Victorians were unfailingly "nice" (in a proper sort of way), the virtuous Christian saints were not always so.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham was given a 10,000 pound advance to travel around England and study the state of Anglican churches today. In her final report, which she entitled The Church Hesitant (1993), she makes a significant distinction between "niceness" and "goodness."

“The great saints were often horrible. (This is a source of consolation to selfish and prickly Anglicans.) Jesus himself was not exactly nice: he snapped at his apostles and made them squirm. But he was goodness itself.” The apostle Paul wrote strong words against heresy, wrong beliefs, and loose, careless living. Old Testament prophets were often direct, blunt, and personal.

Ms. Graham concludes, “In my Church of England year, I have come across a great deal of goodness and a great deal of niceness. They need to be distinguished. Sometimes the good- ness is hidden behind off-putting elements such as coldness and (even) bad temper. My heroes . . .  generally have something unattractive about them.” In other words, they’re far from perfect.[iii] Something we can all take comfort in!

Paul's message to the Roman church claims that it is through endurance, character and hope that we experience God's transforming love in us. It is God's love "poured into our hearts" (Romans 5:5) that is both the starting gate and the finishing line of a virtuous life. And it is the desire to make that love available to all the world that keeps deepening the grooves of our faith so that we end up with strong fingerprints of the soul.
 
Baseball legend George Herman "Babe" Ruth was playing one of his last full major league games. The Boston Braves were playing the Reds in Cincinnati. The old veteran wasn't the player he once had been. The ball looked awkward in his aging hands. He wasn't throwing well. In one inning, his misplays made most of the runs scored by Cincinnati possible.

As Babe Ruth walked off the field after making a third out, head bent in embarrassment, a crescendo of "boo's" followed him to the dugout.
 
A little boy in the stands couldn't tolerate it. He loved Babe Ruth, no matter what. With tears streaming down his face, the boy jumped over the railing and threw his arms around the knees of his hero. Babe Ruth picked up the boy, hugged him, set him back on the ground and gently patted his head.

The rude booing ceased. A hush fell over the park. The crowd was touched by the child's demonstration of love and concern for the feelings of another human being. Caring is a gift of God that can melt the hardest of hearts.[iv]
 
12Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Col. 3:12-14
 
17(And) whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
 
Thereby, the fruit of the Spirit will increase in your life and you will be a blessing to many. God’s fingerprints on your soul bring healing and wholeness as God’s word and spirit transforms you. Amen.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
 
 
 


[i] (John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 329)

[ii] (A Man For All Seasons [New York: Random House, 1962], 19)
[iii] (Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Church Hesitant [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993]: 25.)
[iv] Vance B. Mathis, Wesleyan Christian Advocate, 18 September 1992.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  1.  
 
The concept of "virtue" has Old Testament roots -- where it was used to connote ability, efficiency and moral worth. In the New Testament, one Greek word (arête) focused on the excellence of a person, including the wonderful deeds such a person could do.
"Virtue" was also derived from the Greek word meaning "power" or "influence" (dynamis). This is seen especially in the healing influence that proceeded from Christ.
 
Originally, spiritual power, excellence, moral worthiness and sometimes healing virtue were the marks of a "virtuous" man or woman of Christ. But by the 19th century, Victorian culture had exchanged the concept of many Christian virtues for a so-called life of virtue. In this case, “virtue” became diligent rule-following instead of a commitment to moral worthiness or Christ-like-ness.
 
 The virtuous saints of Christian history did things for the sake of Christ -- loved, taught, witnessed, and most notably, died a martyr's death because of their "commitment." By contrast, the "virtuous" Victorians of the 19th-century did not do things -- they didn't smoke, drink, dance, swear, gamble, lie, cheat or steal because these went against the rules. Following rules doesn’t necessarily indicate inward devotion. Some Christians, and denominations, are stuck here: focusing on external appearances rather than inward transformation.

Maybe because society has now fallen so far from Victorian standards of virtue, much less Christian morality, that there is a renewed interest in the whole notion of virtues. In the 1990s, former Secretary of Education and self-proclaimed social critic William J. Bennett published a work entitled The Book of Virtues. Who would have thought that a book about virtues would become a best-seller?
 
In 2002, Father Andrew Greeley, the writing priest, co-edited The Book of Love: A Treasury of the Greatest of Virtues. (He says many books of virtue leave out love, yet Scripture tells of God’s is love and Paul proclaims love as the greatest virtue of all (1 Corinthians 13).


 
 
By definition: Virtue (Latin virtus; Greek ρετή) is moral excellence. A virtue is a character trait or quality valued as being always good in and of itself. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting individual and collective well being. The opposite of virtue is vice.
 
The four classic Western Cardinal virtues (based on either Plato or Socrates) are:
temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē)
prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis)
fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia)
justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē)
 
Biblical Virtues, Galatians 5:
NIV  22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control.
KJV  22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23Meekness, temperance.
 
In his epistle to the church at Rome, Paul links character to suffering, endurance and hope. Suffering, that is, suffering for Christ's sake, produces endurance -- or perseverance -- or we might even say, a kind of inspired stubbornness. It is out of this crucible of determined stick-to-it-ness that character is derived; character based on approved faith and tried integrity.
 
Every bump in the road of life that draws us closer to Christ becomes a fingerprint of the soul. Instead of smoothing out the contours of our characters, we need to conscientiously commit ourselves to deepening the grooves.
 
Our souls should be deeply etched by the clefts and valleys of our characters. It takes a lifetime of experiences to create such a rutted and rocky masterpiece. The fingerprint of the soul is something we are not born with, but it is most certainly something we die with.
 
John R. W. Stott, then rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, is well aware of what our worst fears are about God when we consider the suffering that surrounds us in this world.

“The real sting of suffering is not misfortune itself, nor even the pain of it or the injustice of it, but the apparent God-forsakenness of it. Pain is endurable, but the seeming indifference of God is not. Sometimes we picture him lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck chair, while the hungry millions starve to death...

It is this terrible caricature of God which the cross smashes to smithereens. We are not to envisage him on a deck chair, but on a cross.”
[i]

Paul’s prayer for the Colossian Christians and us is that we . . .
-bear(ing) fruit in every good work,
-grow(ing) in the knowledge of God,
-be(ing) strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,
and (that we) joyfully
-give (ing) thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Col.1:10-12)
 
Character is what creates the unique fingerprints of our soul. A well-developed character is identified by the ruts, ridges and contours that have been traced onto its surface. There’s a reason that smooth, conscience-free con-artists are called "slick”. Lack of character reflects no guiding virtues etched onto his or her spirit.
 
In Robert Bolt's account (A Man For All Seasons) of Cardinal Wolsey's exchange with Sir Thomas More, who was executed for his refusal to compromise his virtue, there is this comment: "If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint".[ii] But we need that moral squint . . . maybe more now than ever.

 We speak highly of those who have character; we speak dubiously about those who are characters. Without a doubt, Paul had a prickly "character." Yet no one would argue that Paul didn't live a life of Christian virtue -- full of power and worth and healing.
The difference between one who embodies virtues (inward focus) and one who practices virtue (outward focus) is made clear by examining the "characters" of those who are truly the "saints." Whereas virtuous Victorians were unfailingly "nice" (in a proper sort of way), the virtuous Christian saints were not always so.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham was given a 10,000 pound advance to travel around England
and study the state of Anglican churches today. In her final report, which she entitled The Church Hesitant (1993), she makes a significant distinction between "niceness" and "goodness."

“The great saints were often horrible. (This is a source of consolation to selfish and prickly Anglicans.) Jesus himself was not exactly nice: he snapped at his apostles and made them squirm. But he was goodness itself.” The apostle Paul wrote strong words against heresy, wrong beliefs, and loose, careless living. Old Testament prophets were often direct, blunt, and personal.

Ms. Graham concludes, “In my Church of England year, I have come across a great deal of goodness and a great deal of niceness. They need to be distinguished. Sometimes the good- ness is hidden behind off-putting elements such as coldness and (even) bad temper. My heroes . . .  generally have something unattractive about them.” In other words, they’re far from perfect.
[iii] Something we can all take comfort in!

Paul's message to the Roman church claims that it is through endurance, character and hope that we experience God's transforming love in us. It is God's love "poured into our hearts" (Romans 5:5) that is both the starting gate and the finishing line of a virtuous life. And it is the desire to make that love available to all the world that keeps deepening the grooves of our faith so that we end up with strong fingerprints of the soul.
Baseball legend George Herman "Babe" Ruth was playing one of his last full major league games. The Boston Braves were playing the Reds in Cincinnati. The old veteran wasn't the player he once had been. The ball looked awkward in his aging hands. He wasn't throwing well. In one inning, his misplays made most of the runs scored by Cincinnati possible.

As Babe Ruth walked off the field after making a third out, head bent in embarrassment, a crescendo of "boo's" followed him to the dugout.
A little boy in the stands couldn't tolerate it. He loved Babe Ruth, no matter what. With tears streaming down his face, the boy jumped over the railing and threw his arms around the knees of his hero. Babe Ruth picked up the boy, hugged him, set him back on the ground and gently patted his head.

The rude booing ceased. A hush fell over the park. The crowd was touched by the child's demonstration of love and concern for the feelings of another human being. Caring is a gift of God that can melt the hardest of hearts.
[iv]
12Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Col. 3:12-14
17(And) whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Thereby, the fruit of the Spirit will increase in your life and you will be a blessing to many. God’s fingerprints on your soul bring healing and wholeness as God’s word and spirit transforms you. Amen.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
 
 
 


[i] (John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 329)

 
[ii] (A Man For All Seasons [New York: Random House, 1962], 19)
[iii] (Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Church Hesitant [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993]: 25.)
[iv] Vance B. Mathis, Wesleyan Christian Advocate, 18 September 1992.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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