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Ginny Earnest was the first feminist theologian I ever met. She hadn’t even finished college, much less gone to seminary, but she refused to believe that God made women to be any less than men. She was an artist, a dancer, a worship leader, a wife, mother, and friend; she had one blue eye and one hazel, and a deep joy. After she died at age 41, a few months after we placed her washed body in a homemade pine coffin and lowered it into a hastily dug grave overlooking the Potomac River, I moved into her family’s little house.
Kevin Oldham was a dear college friend, a brilliant pianist and composer who was wicked funny. We would talk for hours, late into the night, about God and sexuality. It was agonizing, but he finally managed to live into the fullness of who he was. His funeral in his hometown of Kansas City was the first to be picketed by the homophobic and hatred-spewing Fred Phelps and his family church.
Without meaning to, my brother, Keith, taught me all kinds of things I hadn’t asked to learn: how years of resentment and bitterness will never make up for a lifetime of longing to be accepted, how our desperate need for love can lead us to settle for so much less than we deserve, how music can bring our souls alive even as our bodies are wasting away.
There was Sally, a former roommate; Todd the Dog Whisperer, whose death by suicide shook me to the core; my dear friend and fellow dreamer, Millie, whose unhealthy heart was filled with pure Mennonite gold; my PaPa Moore, who called his grandkids “whippersnappers”; my Grandpa Kemper, who inspired me to learn to play guitar; Grandma Kemper, who took up painting at 60 and bass guitar-playing at 75, teaching me that you’re never to old to learn something new; my Gran, who seemed to think she could drag me off the road to hell if only I’d move back to Texas; Larry Stookey, a seminary professor who nurtured my love for worship; 16-year-old Charlie Read, who had a smile that could light up the night; and too many First Church members to count.
Then there are the official saints: Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles; Francis of Assisi, lover of the poor and diseased, preacher to the wild animals, and repairer of the church; Teresa of Avila, reformer of the church who summoned believers to mystical union with Christ through prayer; Dorothy Day, community builder and prophet of mercy and nonviolence; Oscar Romero, courageous pastor and martyr of El Salvador’s church of the poor.
These are some of the saints of my life.
Take a moment to run down your own roll call of saints: the people who loved you into being, showed you how to live, and mentored or inspired you along the way. Take a moment to consider how the lives of these dear ones pointed you to God’s love, how they were instruments of God’s healing and peace in your life. Take a moment to give thanks for all the ways they walk with you still, whispering in your ear when you’re afraid, cheering you on when you feel like giving up, reminding you what life is about when it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other.
Consider what makes them saints for you. I would hazard a guess that your saints, like mine, were not perfect, were not what most of us would consider pious or prophetic or saintly. Nor were the heroes of our faith. Consider Abraham the wife-dealer, Moses the murderer, Jacob the betrayer, Rahab the so-called harlot, Ruth the dis-obeyer, Esther the complacent, David the adulterer and murderer, Peter the denier, Paul the persecutor.
Entertain the notion that saints are made, not born; that the only prerequisites are an open heart and a willing—meaning humble, contrite, teachable, perhaps even broken—spirit. Hold on to the likelihood that, for most of us, the sainthood quotient increases with age, as love smooths out our rough edges, failure humbles us, loss equalizes, time wisens, and, by grace, both heart and mind ever open. Remember that sainthood, like salvation, is a gift not earned but bestowed, that it is a product of God’s goodness, not ours.
Consider that the road to sainthood is also the path to life abundant and the way of Jesus. Indeed, one of the interpretations of the word “blessed” in the beatitudes means “on the right road.” The poor in spirit are on the right road—to the fullness of God’s realm. Those who mourn life’s losses are on the right road—the only road—to comfort and healing and peace. The meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer for justice and for Jesus—all of them are on the right road: the road to wholeness, the road to oneness with God, the road to God’s world.
Several years ago, I was visiting sweet Earl Morgan for what I knew would be the last time. He was on his deathbed at Cooley Dickinson, and it was clear to all that he probably wouldn’t live through the night. But he was still alert, still sitting up, still longing for human companionship as he prepared to pass through the veil that separates this world from the next. And so we talked and prayed together. And because we hadn’t had time to plan his memorial service, I asked him a question:
Earl, I said, how do you want to be remembered?
So profound and beautiful and true was Earl’s response that I have incorporated that question into my routine pastoral care. How do you want to be remembered? Sometimes, if I think the question might unsettle or shock, I preface it with a qualifier: Now, I know you’re not going to be dying anytime soon, but … Not to worry, I ask everyone this sooner or later, and it’s never to soon to think about it: When your life is over, how will you want to be remembered? Sometimes that question can even inform how a person lives. How do you want to be remembered?
Because you will be remembered. Because you, just like the loved ones you think about and long for every day, will be missed. You, too, will rest from your labors. You, too, will join that great cloud of witnesses.
And what about that cloud? What about the loved ones who have passed on, the dear ones whose absence still makes your heart ache, whether they have been gone four months, two years, or more than a decade? I cannot know for sure, of course. And yet, having been with people near death many times now, having heard them greet loved ones long gone, I firmly believe their spirits remain and live on, that we not only will be reunited with them but that they are with us even now.
The Irish writer John O’Donohue, who is himself now part of that great cloud, put it this way: “The dead are not distant or absent. They are alongside us. When we lose someone to death, we lose their physical image and presence, they slip out of visible form into invisible presence. This alteration of form is the reason we cannot see the dead. But because we cannot see them does not mean that they are not there. Transfigured into eternal form, the dead cannot reverse the journey and even for one second re-enter their old form to linger with us a while. Though they cannot reappear, they continue to be near us and part of the healing of grief is the refinement of our hearts whereby we come to sense their loving nearness. When we ourselves enter the eternal world and come to see our lives on earth in full view, we may be surprised at the immense assistance and support with which our departed loved ones have accompanied every moment of our lives. In their new, transfigured presence their compassion, understanding and love take on a divine depth, enabling them to become secret angels guiding and sheltering the unfolding of our destiny.”
All Saints invites us to pause in our living long enough to remember and honor our dead. It offers us celebration, comfort, and challenge. In remembering whom we have lost, we realize more deeply how much they are a part of us. In mourning their loss anew, we open ourselves to still more comfort and healing. In reflecting on how they lived, we are inspired to get ourselves on the right road.
Therefore, beloveds, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight that burdens us, every sin that clings so closely. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.