When I was growing up in the Catholic Church, November 1st was a Holy Day. All Saints Day, they called it. Aside from the obligatory Mass I attended, it was a day to stop, to take time out of our busy lives to remember, to pray for, and to be thankful for all the saints who have gone before us.
Now I don’t celebrate Holy Days. I don’t go to Mass. So this will have to do for my feeble attempt at recapturing something that is still important.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Catholics really understand this “great cloud of witnesses” idea. So do the Orthodox. We Protestants usually miss it, and tend to think that the Church begins and ends with our own noses.
But it does not. It has existed now for 2,000 years, 100 generations of Christians who have gone before us and shown us how to live life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
It’s not my business or my place to determine sainthood. But sometimes it shines forth, as it is apt to do, and I think it’s okay to recognize it when one sees it. Here are some of the saints I’ve known, and who have gone before me:
- Jewel Dunavant, my grandmother, a poor, uneducated woman who knew no theology, but who knew Jesus, who loved her children and her grandchildren, and who prayed for them every day.
- Sarah Scott, four years old, who had Down’s Syndrome, and who taught me more about unconditional love than anyone else I’ve ever known.
- Jeff Trefney, my college friend, who had an enlarged heart, and who always told people that he wasn’t going to live long, but that he was going to live all out for Jesus. He didn’t, and he did.
- My uncle Frank, a reformed alcoholic, who prayed every day and who dearly loved his wife and kids until Alzheimer’s slowly eroded his memory. Jesus knew his name when he couldn’t remember it himself.
- Sue Elliott, my college friend, who married my dormitory buddy Doug, and who sat patiently in a dorm room for night after night, listened to me rage against Christians and Christianity, and who did nothing but pour out upon me love and kindness. She was a great mom, and left behind two teenaged kids and my grieving former dormitory buddy when she died of cancer a few years ago.
- Carroll Krupp, my father-in-law, who couldn’t verbally express love to save his life, but who made up for it by simply loving, day after day, year after year. He mostly made things, best of all a functional family who love one another, and who know how to express that.
- Clarence Tittle, an old man who praised God as he was dying of cancer, and who told me that there was no time for cynicism, no matter how fashionable it might seem, and that life was too important to be lived half-heartedly, that every single moment was important and precious.
- Leonard Helser, a staunch, upright Presbyterian, who in his eighties hobbled with his cane through the ice and snow to our house so that he could meet us and welcome us to a church when no one else did so, and who told us that it was more important to love and follow Jesus than it was to be a Presbyterian.
- Mike Williams, who had a red sports car and a beautiful wife, and who died too young of a brain tumor, and who finally figured out what was really important.
- Elizabeth Verber, my sister, who healed people, but whose cancer of the everything could not be healed. She entered the world physically whole and emotionally and spiritually broken, and she left it physically broken and substantially whole emotionally and spiritually.
On All Saints Day we used to sing this hymn:
For all the saints, who from their labor rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
It is a truth that I would do well to remember.
Periodically someone tells me that they think the Church is dying. “You’re too late,” I tell them. “A hundred generations too late. The Church can never die.”
These were ordinary people, these saints. They didn’t have haloes, and they might be astonished to see their names on a roll call of the holy. But today I remember them, and I’m thankful for them. I can pick out their faces from that cloud of witnesses.
Some of them ran with perseverance, and some of them ran a sprint, and some of them hobbled across the finish line. They’re all resting from their labors now.
Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I’d bet that they’re worshipping, that they are in a place where red sports cars simply don’t matter, where Down’s Syndrome and cancer and heart conditions are swept away like inconsequential crumbs from underneath the banquet table, where their tongues have been loosed and they know how to express love.
I thank God for them.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.