I have not yet had a traumatic loss in my life. I have, however, gotten old enough and done enough funerals to know that it is only a matter of time before I will lose someone who I can’t do without. I’m not sure any of that is particularly interesting; it’s just a function of my age and a healthy family. But I’ve been reflecting on it as I prepared to lead an All Saints Day service this evening.
Being good Presbyterians my congregation manages to thoroughly confuse All Saints Day and All Souls Day and celebrate them both several days late. Better late than never, right? So here we are on November 7th preparing to remember all of our members, friends, and family members who have died in the last year. Our congregation is large and aging, and so the list this year comes to 98. The house was packed for our morning services, and I’m reminded again what a need this service fills–the need to feel a connection with our loved ones, to feel like someone remembers, like someone acknowledges their life and our grief, and to trust that when our name joins that litany we too will be remembered.
I found it difficult to write my reflection for this evening’s service. In part because it needed to be brief, and it’s always more difficult to be brief than to be wordy. But it was also difficult because I don’t yet have many names in my personal pantheon of saints. I don’t yet know, from the inside, what my people are longing for in this service, what good word they need to hear as they mark another year and add another loved one to their personal list of saints.
This is a regular struggle I find in pastoral care. I can imagine, I can empathize, I can guess what it might feel like to face many things, but at the end of the day I don’t really know. In some ways I wonder if this clear position of not knowing is a gift. We never truly know the inside of someone’s pain, but if we have experienced something similar we are much more likely to imagine we do and substitute our own experience for careful listening to the other’s experience. On the other hand, I know the suffering and joy I have experienced have broadened me and expanded my capacity for understanding people around me. I know that as I continue to experience the joy and pain that comes with being a creature of God that capacity will only grow. Until then, I can hope that the people who let me care for them will be forgiving when I am unable to understand, or unintentionally utter careless words, or fail to pick up on silent pain.
If you’re interested in what I ended up saying for All Saints Day, it’s after the jump…
The text was 1 John 3:1-3
When we call someone a saint it usually means that they are not the person we we call on a Friday night, after a long week. A saint is most definitely not the person with whom we crack open a beer, stop watching our language, and let it all hang out. She is such a saint, we say, by which we mean, she seems awfully holy, I’m not sure she’s a real person.
But real saints, even the official church sanctioned real saints, aren’t like that at all. “Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘I am foremost among sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15)” and even Jesus, “when the rich young man addressed him as ‘good Teacher,’ answered, ‘No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18).” (Buechner)
According to tradition, Saint Mary Magdalen had seven devils; Saint Augustine prayed ‘Give me chastity, but not now,’ Saint Francis started out as something akin to wealthy playboy, and twentieth century saint Edith Stein was born a Jew and lived as an atheist for much of her life.
Holiness and perfection don’t seem to have much to do with being a saint. Instead, I think saints are people who point us toward God’s love. People who, even with all of their demons and failings, still manage to lead us toward the light, saying I think it’s right over here, just around the bend. See, see how much God loves us?
Because that’s what it’s all about, as the author of 1 John reminds us, how much God loves us, that we should be called children of God. All of us. Right now. Our saints are the ones who saw that in us, or taught us to see that in others. Maybe just for a few fleeting moments, maybe in the midst of lives that were otherwise difficult or pretty unholy.
And here’s the rest of the good news that 1 John brings us tonight. Not only are we already loved so much that we are called children of God, but the fullness of what we will be has not yet been revealed. It is only revealed when we come face to face with the glory and majesty of God’s love. And the scuffs are buffed away, the dust is wiped off, the seven devils Mary Magdalen had can be laid aside, and whatever it is that we carry is forgiven, and the seed of God’s love that has taken root inside of us comes to flower.
The saints we remember tonight weren’t perfect, just as we’re not perfect. We don’t remember them because they were perfectly holy, but because they pointed us toward God’s love. And we don’t just remember tonight. We celebrate as well. Because we know that in the end, their shortcomings or demons didn’t get the last word. No. The love of God that they showed to us, that they helped us see in our lives, that they still guide us in seeking even now, even with them gone, that love has been made complete. They have been revealed, says the author of 1 John, to be like God, for they see God as God is. The promise in which they rest stands for us as well. Even now, they guide us on, don’t they? Leading us onward, calling us forward, showing us that just around the bend, or maybe right here where we are, if we just open our eyes, we’ll see we are surrounded by the light of God’s love, and we too will take our place in the company of the saints.