The sermon last Sunday at our church was about the first Christian Martyr, Stephen. (Acts 6-7). I have always been intrigued by this story because I share a name, but not the courage, with Stephen. True, I am “Steven” with a “v,” but that was not always the case. My birth certificate says I was originally named “Stephen” with a “ph.” I have often wondered why and when my name was changed to Steven, but I was never curious enough to inquire, and now that my parents and any other relatives who might know are dead it’s too late to find out.
I do know that there were several “Steven Allen’s” in my grade when I was in elementary school; so one hypothesis is that we were all named after Steve Allen, who was a popular entertainer and comedian back in 1940’s when I was born. There are no other Stephens or Stevens anywhere in our family tree that I know of; so that theory is as good as any.
I don’t remember when I first learned about Stephen, the Christian martyr. I do remember as a young boy thinking it would be really cool to die for Jesus. One of my early favorite hymns was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I have long since abandoned a belief in a militaristic Christianity and have for many years known that it is much harder to live for Christ than to die for him. That is not to cast any aspersions on those who have the courage and faith to accept death rather than renounce their faith. In fact in today’s sermon I heard something in the Stephen story I don’t remember ever hearing before.
Acts 7:59-60 says, “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” Having that kind of compassion and grace literally under fire and in the final throes of death really blows m mind. In fact, one of my biggest regrets about my ministerial career is not having the courage to speak truth more clearly and emphatically than I did. It may just be an excuse, but one of the challenges professional clergypersons face is the conflict of interest between honest sharing of his or her interpretation of Scripture and theology while keeping those who pay her salary and often provide his housing satisfied enough to keep those salary payments coming. I have often felt like I sold my soul for a pension and a parsonage.
The job description for clergy itself contains the conundrum of how to be both prophetic and pastoral to a congregation at the same time. I have often likened it to patting someone on the back and kicking him in the butt at the same time. That requires a more mature faith and a skill set I am still trying to develop in retirement. I feel even worse when I see examples of colleagues who seem to do both of those ministerial functions far better than I ever have.
Part of my personal issue is being uncomfortable with conflict in any form. A case in point is that when I was in grad school in my mid 40’s studying rhetoric/persuasive discourse I wrote a paper entitled “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?“ As a child of the 1960’s I was all too familiar with assassinations in real time, in addition to such historical examples like Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Gandhi. That paper was an intellectual attempt that helped me articulate my theory of preaching, but it didn’t address my emotional fear of incurring the wrath of those who disagreed with me. Only twice in my 50 plus years of ministry did I have parishioners complain to my superiors about my social justice views. I’m embarrassed it wasn’t much more often.
The other thing about biblical names is that characters often get new names when they experience a life-changing encounter with God. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, and Saul, witness to Stephen’s death, later becomes Paul. Maybe my parents did the opposite. Maybe they knew the story of Stephen the Martyr and wanted to save me from that fate by changing my name to make it a little less like his. Maybe if I had remained Stephen I would have had more faith and courage like the Stephen of Acts, We will never know, but what I do know is that the stories of brave witnesses to their faith and values and trust in the power we name Yahweh, Elohim, Abba or God is a call to all of us to emulate as much as we can that kind of courage and grace. And this too I know, when we come up short of that mark God, like Jesus and Stephen, offers us unconditional grace and forgiveness that empowers us to be a little braver and faithful the next time. Thanks be to God.