All Saints’ as God’s Trick AND Treat!

I have great memories of Halloween! My Mother was the Queen of the best candy routes and had a waiting list of people who wanted to accompany us trick-or-treating. She’s very much on my mind as we approach Halloween. All Saints’ Day is a reminder that she is yet alive and that her influence lives on and inspires me. When Mother died in January of 1983 I was in my middle 30’s and since that time one of the most important lines of the Apostles’ Creed has been, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Yes, I do!

On some days, my mind goes back to recollections of Mother and it poignantly cheers me, affirms me, and gives me hope. I can see her hoeing the garden, and her love of flowers. I can recall her huge heart that looked out for the unfortunate. I remember her hearty laugh and her travails through the “sloughs of despond,” a la John Bunyan. She embraced life, loved Jesus, and put her faith into action. I miss her, but I know where she is. All Saints’ Day reminds me.

I remember that it was this time of year not long after her death when I went to the hardware store/gift shop, a wonderful place of implements and plants along with china and gift-type items. I saw this pansy-decorated planter and thought it would be a great gift for Cindy. When she got home from work and I presented the gift, I was reminded that we had three teenagers, money was tight, and she didn’t even like pansies, and that I should have known that in no uncertain terms!

Being the good guidance counselor, she helped me process why I got so angry at the rebuffing of my gift. You’ve probably already guessed it. I didn’t buy the pansy-painted planter for her. I bought it for my dead Mother. My anger was grief. She understood, and so did I. I returned the gift and bought 4 flats of pansies and planted them. Every year, right about now, I do the same thing because my Mother loved pansies. Of course, she preferred ones with “faces” and Cindy likes them without. I compromise and get both! This year I’m even trying violas for the first time.

All Saints’ Day reminds us that unresolved grief needs to be admitted, worked through, dealt with, and grace given to oneself, others, and especially the deceased. Just as they cannot see the bad things that we do, or it wouldn’t be heaven, we need to focus on good memories and ponder those. I’m not saying that we need to gloss over childhood abuse or neglect and forget the bad things, but we do need to forgive and believe in redemption.

All Saints’ Day redemption includes all of us, seen and unseen. We’re not perfect and neither were our loved ones, however much we cherish and sometimes overstate our experiences of them. Every Christian, dead or alive, is going on to perfection in Wesleyan terms. John Wesley believed so much in Sanctification/Christian Perfection that he bordered on an endorsement of purgatory; i.e., we continue to be made more and more like Christ even in heaven. So on All Saints’ we do our best to recall our loved ones and fellow church members and let go of that which we need to let go, and hold onto the best. We remember where they sat in the sanctuary, their work with missions through the UMW or UMM, their beloved pound cakes, harvest festival crafts, and so much more.

We remember! Another word for what happens in Holy Communion is “anamnesis,” also known as “to remember,” and the opposite of amnesia’s “forgetfulness.” Anamnesis is inspired by Jesus’ words that are carved on the front of most altar tables: “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we gather at Table this coming Sunday we will be surrounded by Jesus, the heavenly host from every nation, tribe and language, and our deceased believing loved ones will be as close as our breath. Think of it as God’s Trick AND Treat for you and me. He beat death and the treat is eternal life.

One of the best summations of all this comes from the PBS series on the Civil War by Ken Burns. It’s about Major Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his dear wife Sarah on the eve of his death in battle. Read carefully his words and remember your loved ones as I remember mine:

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battle field.

The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you, come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladest days and the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air cools your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

All Saints' Day Pic

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All Saints and Halloween: Places in the Heart

Who has a place in your heart? I’ve been rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God which does my soul good every time I read it. Her last chapter is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle she had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. After much haranguing Roberta intercession on her aunt’s behalf worked. Her Auntie Ree was ready to leave the Church Militant and join the Church Triumphant. As the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room, Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing, not so much because of no more needles, but because Aunite Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.

All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween is in a few days and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be full with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.

Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I think that I got my wish because she responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could move only one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few weeks to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”

As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremedum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.

The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.

They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loved ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.

Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.

Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who somewhat accidently shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “The peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!

 This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. This is not a human point of view. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come home. This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day I will remember and hope that you do, too.

Places in the Heart

Mature or Manure

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I don’t know about you but I’ll be happy when Election Day is over. The ads have been so negative and the mudslinging misses the point of leadership. It’s not about what the other person has or hasn’t done. The better questions to ask a candidate are, “What are you going to do?” “What is your vision/plan?” I have heard smatterings of that in the midst of trashing/bashing, but not near enough.
Let me ask you, would you rather work for a negative person or a positive person? Joyce Landorf in her book, Balcony People, says that people are either Balcony or Basement People. Balcony People affirm, lift up, and encourage. Basement People pull down, criticize, and judge. On this All Saints’ Day, I’m thinking about the Balcony People who are in the greatest balcony of all – heaven. As a matter of fact, I’m making a list so that when the Basement People and their negativity are on the prowl, I can remember who and Whose I am. The question then comes, “I wonder whose list of Balcony People I am on?”
Last week there was an awful stench around Columbia, our state’s capitol city. No joke! By the end of the week it had been discovered that it was from a huge amount of chicken manure spread over a farm near the city. How appropriate! I’m ready for the smell of partisanship and its negative stench to dissipate, too. We have to work together. Yesterday I was at a Charge Conference where the devotion was given and the speaker unintentionally mixed up words. Instead of saying we should “mature in our faith,” it came out “We should manure in our faith.” I’m glad it was at a wonderful church and the levity was good for the meeting. Truth be told, one could say that we need to do both, grow in our faith and be good fertilizer for others.
With politics I’m looking for maturity. Unfortunately, with the mid-term elections and all the local races, things have been smelling more like manure than maturity. Good leadership is more mature than manure. Hope you have a good All Saints’ Day and that you avoid all manure-spreaders!