Here is a photo of my family at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum (Richmond, VA). The statue to their left (our right) is of St. Denis, patron saint of France. The image shows the legend that after he was martyred (beheaded) he picked up his severed head and walked about 10 km preaching the whole way, finally dying (completely) at the point where the Saint Denis Basilica is now located.
There are different ways to look at that story, if one was looking for a parabolic story.
1. (Humorously) It can be used for the punchline caution about the dangers of “losing your head” in ministry. However, I think other stories might work better… so let’s move on.
2. It can be used as a lesson for finishing the ministry strong. We have lots of stories of people starting strong and finishing weak. Stories of fallen ministers and missionaries are nearly cliches. Biblically, we have Kings David, Hezekiah, and Josiah as examples of losing their testimony late in life. Gideon is another of many examples. The story of a man who (according to legend) was a martyr (“witness”) to the end is inspirational. But also serving as a witness beyond natural life is quite a parabolic story.
3. St. Denis can also be seen as one who “cleaned up his own mess.” By picking up his severed head and walking to a presumably better place to be buried, he took care of himself as long as he could. Many in ministry don’t prepare for their own absence from ministry. Perhaps it is hubris. Perhaps they feel eternal, even if they intellectually know otherwise. Perhaps they think they are so necessary that they are indispensable, so preparing for their absence is pointless. Exit strategy is vital for personal and ministerial legacy.
4. On the other hand, St. Denis story is not very realistic and it perhaps should provide a reminder that we should say what we need to say NOW. Most of us will not have the opportunity to speak (to say nothing of be listened to) after we lose our heads.
Okay, sure. I believe that the story of St. Denis post-beheading stroll is fictional. Can’t prove that of course. But a good story doesn’t need to be true to provide a good lesson.