On Modern-Day Saints & Epistles
By Emily Ruppel
In the Episcopal churches of my youth, we sang a song that begins: “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true / Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. / And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green...” The lyrics go to a sing-songy tune and of course, they almost invite the wearing of costumes, which made this particular hymn a regular feature at our annual “Children’s Service.”
Many years later, I still love to sing this song. In contrast to the canonical saints of the Catholic church, it insists that the saints of God are everyday people. Some may become famous for their lives of faith and service in the church, but most will not. Some have extraordinary job titles and life narratives—others spend their days doing what might be considered boring or monotonous things. Some saints are men, and others, not! The important thing I learned from this hymn about the saints of God is that they lived and they died in the love of Christ (and let me quickly mention, they do die—in the second stanza we learn that, “one was a soldier and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast / And there's not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn't be one too.” Scary stuff!
I have known Walt Hearn, and by proxy, Ginny Hearn, for almost five years. At the time of this writing, I have yet to meet Walt in person, but we’ve exchanged emails on a semi-regular basis. Walt can tell you just how “semi” and would probably question my use of “regular” entirely. In any case, Walt has been my chief correspondent and critic regarding the content of God & Nature magazine since the day we launched the first full issue in spring 2012.
In addition to his wondrous essays, Walt has been known to send me a recap of the most recent magazine from his editorial point of view, noting strengths, weaknesses, and linguistic infelicities. Walt and Ginny are true professionals and don’t miss much (I think they might even know most of the rules for English grammar and punctuation!) but in all these years, I never got a bill for the work they contributed. Only unwavering grace, generosity, and love—sprinkled with encouragement, the occasional platitude, and indefatigable affirmations of my worth and importance in the eyes of God. I have never known what I did to deserve such poignant praise and thanksgivings from such kind and intelligent people, such intense and real affection from folks who, on account of the miles between us, might just as easily have considered me “stranger.”
Sending a letter is a beautiful thing. In the ancient world, the apostles wrote letters to emerging communities of faith, offering advice and guidance, and these same words have been handed down to us across the ages to inform our faith. Walt and Ginny Hearn have been generous and workfully disseminating their friendship and wisdom to young scholars, missionaries, and pastors across the globe in the form of published essays and private letters for more years than I have been alive. Like the saints of old, they are passionate in their encouragement to others and careful in the counsel they offer. I can think of precious few Christian undertakings more powerful and important than the penning of epistles—and in my life, I know no one more prolific in this act than Walt and Ginny Hearn.
For my own part, Walt and Ginny’s letters have been a lifeline. I am a person prone to depression, to thoughts of irrelevance and unworthiness concerning my value as a writer, editor, academic or even, sadly, as a saint of God. I have been on the brink of drafting my letter of resignation, only to receive a completely spontaneous note from Walt telling me about life at the Troll House in Berkeley, the death of a beloved cat, struggles with cancer, words of comfort in the handling of life’s minor tragedies, and of course, his anticipation about the upcoming edition of God & Nature magazine (ie, it’s late!).
I rarely know how to respond to such kindness, to the transparency of heart and compassion with which Walt’s electronic missives vibrate in the unreal reality of the worldwide web. It’s a gift he seems to give so naturally that it would almost pass noticing, except that my archived mail box is now brimming with his words of Christian encouragement (I rarely delete them). Maybe someday after the copyright expires, I will post some excerpts from “The E-pistles of Walt Hearn to Emily R.,” for future saints to pore over in a time of needed love and levity.
Emily Ruppel is a PhD student in communication at the University of Pittsburgh, with focus areas in rhetoric of science, bioethics, STS, feminist theory, and oral history.
Prior to her doctoral work, Emily studied poetry at Bellarmine University in Louisville (B.A. '08) and science writing at MIT (M.S. '11). She has spent several years working as a professional writer and editor for academic and popular outlets; among them, God & Nature magazine is a favorite project.