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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A Family Funeral and the Prayers of the Saints

This morning I am going to do the funeral for my last remaining aunt. It is an honor to eulogize such a wonderful person. Aunt Alva saw life through the lenses of grace and accountability. She was always warm and welcoming, and expressed her confidence in you through compliments. She dared you to be the best self that you could be. It strikes me that these two bookends of grace and expectation are desperately needed in the church today.

In our Christian tradition we know full well that we are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ, but we also know that God doesn’t save us to leave us the way that God found us. We believe that becoming a Christian is not the telos end-all, but is rather a beginning of a transformed life. It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but God’s grace holds us accountable, better yet, inspires us, and empowers us to do better than we’ve ever done before.

As I eulogize my Aunt today, I almost feel as if I am eulogizing a whole generation of my family. Her dear husband, Uncle J.C., was a member of the “greatest generation” that won World War II. He survived the carnage on Iwo Jima in the Pacific, though it caused him nightmares for the rest of his life. Papa, Granny, Uncle Lee, Mama and Daddy, Uncle Homer, Aunt Florence, Frank, Carlee, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ella Mae, Uncle Buck, Uncle Bruce, Gandaddy, Ganny, Papa Mac, MaMac, Nana, Pop, and more than I can name have “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

But, I feel their presence crowding around this morning. It’s times like this that I treasure that part of the Apostles’ Creed that we so casually recite on most Sundays, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Those of us who believe in Jesus who are left alive are called the Church Militant because we still have inward and outer battles to fight. Those who have joined the great company in the cloud of witnesses above are known as the Church Triumphant.

This communion of saints, this mysterious intermingling confluence of influence is especially felt on days like today. I can picture in my mind’s eye a whole host of those who have gone before us. They are our cheerleaders and models to which we can measure ourselves, or they are like prize fighters who dare us to surpass their own feats of strength or failures of weakness. Either way, we have an opportunity to measure up and/or do better. Both serve a proper function, but it is the emotional tie to these particular saints that makes the call to excel so personal and real. These are people we knew, cared for, even loved, and we want to make them proud. We are their genetic and emotional progeny.

I don’t know for certain if these saints do any more than provide examples and educative fond memories for us. I do, however, know that the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Revelation (8:3-4) says that their prayers for us are still alive and active, “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s saints, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” So, though I don’t believe that those in heaven can see anything bad that we do or that wouldn’t be heaven, I do, however, believe that somehow they can see the good we do. This inspires me to try to do all the good that I can. Whether real or imaginary or a weird mixture of apocalyptic history, poetry, and transcendent imagery, I want to sense that this whole host who have gone before us is praying for us.

Call me crazy but just think of the number of cheerleaders that we have! Each of us has had 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents and if you extrapolate that out for 10 generations, it adds up to 1,024 parents that are rooting for us. If you take it out to 20 generations, the number is 1,048,576 parents, not counting aunts, uncles, and all the rest of the heavenly host! The epistle lectionary text for July 26 is from Ephesians 3:14-21. It is rich with what I’m feeling this morning, and describes the power of family prayer encompassing all generations. This is St. Paul’s prayer and their prayer for YOU:

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

“Throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” Indeed, “Amen.” Be encouraged, therefore, and feel the unfettered wings of those set free from earth’s bonds. Feel the cool breeze of the prayers being sent your way today. They are real, actually more real now than they ever were on earth. I believe in the Communion of Saints!

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