Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Is Mother Teresa a Saint for Protestants Too?

Dear Friends,

She was born in 1910 in the Balkan country of Albania and her baptized name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. You and I know her as Mother Teresa. Her mother used to care for and wash an old alcoholic woman living near by who was sick and covered with sores. Inspired by the compassion of her religious mother, Agnes left home and joined a convent in Ireland and chose the name Sister Mary Teresa. But three months later, this eighteen year old nun set sail for India where she would live out her entire life.

On Sunday, September 4th, the Pope canonized Mother Teresa as a saint in the Catholic Church. Some of us Protestants, perhaps rightfully so, get our theological hackles raised when we hear about the saints but as I write about Mother Teresa today I’m using the Biblical definition of “saint.” The words “saint” or “saints” in the New Testament are used sixty times to describe all those who believe in Jesus and are purified and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Only once do we see the word “Christians” used in the Bible Acts 11:26 and “saints” is the word that both Paul and John use to describe the followers of Jesus. You and I are the saints of the church today. But some of us are admittedly more saintly than others and, in our lifetime, perhaps Mother Teresa was one who most exemplified sainthood. 

A teenage Agnes was inspired by the words of Jesus (read Matt 25: 34-40) and dedicated her life to caring for the poorest of the poor. As Mother Teresa, she treated them like Jesus and believed that when she was touching and washing the wounds of those sick and dying she was touching the body of Jesus. She created a religious order of over 5,000 priests, nuns and lay people called the Missionaries of Charity and when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 she said, “Let us keep that joy of loving Jesus in our hearts and share that joy with all we come in touch with. That radiating joy is real, for we have no reason not to be happy because we have Christ with us. Christ in our hearts. Christ in the poor we meet. Christ in the smile we give. Christ in the smile we receive.”

We learn from Mother Teresa how the poor, sick and marginalized in our society should be cared for, but what maybe the most important lesson she has for us is how to maintain our faith in the times of our darkest doubts. Our image of Mother Teresa is of a godly woman who never wavered in her faith. But she wrote, “In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” She wrote letters to her friends and spiritual mentors expressing her faith struggles and these letters surfaced when the church was evaluating her for sainthood. For over fifty years, she struggled intensely with her own spiritual life and yet never once left the path that God had chosen for her to take. That’s what makes her a “saint” to me. 

What are the three lessons we can learn from Mother Teresa? 

1) God is with us even when we do not feel or see Him working in our life. God is right by our side even when things are not going well. Even when we suffer.. Even in the most tragic circumstances.. Even when we doubt.. When God said “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” Hebrews 13:5-6 He really meant that. 

2) No matter how we feel at the time, we will always help others. When others are discouraged and down, we will build them up and edify them with our words. We will always lift up others to Jesus. 

3) We ourselves are encouraged when we know that even the most saintly of us saints can struggle with their spiritual lives but still radiate the joy of Jesus to others. We are given great hope and a blessed assurance about our future when we see that this saintly woman suffered and had doubts about her faith just like we do at times about ours. She shows by her example that no matter how we “feel” in this moment or in this season, we must never waver on our own journey to do God’s will.

Mother Teresa finally understood that her suffering had brought her closer to the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross and to the suffering of the poor and dying people that she ministered to. She realized that her own feelings of abandonment heightened her sensitivity to the desperation and abandonment felt by others. And paradoxically, in her despair of feeling that she had been completely abandoned by God, it was during that time that the light and love of Jesus Himself was radiating from her and blessing others. It was through the darkest moments of her life that she was a beacon of immense light to those God had given to her. Mother Teresa had made a vow to God that she would always serve Him. When we make that same commitment to our Father, He will always use us for His purposes even when we too are filled with doubts. Mother Teresa is not just a Catholic Saint, she is also our Protestant spiritual hero for showing us that we too need to keep smiling and radiating the joy of Jesus in all that we do!  AMEN?