“Thanks so much for helping me out. You’re a saint!” Has anyone ever said that to you? Today, November 1, is All Saints Day. It is a time when Christians in The United Methodist Church as well as in other denominations remember and honor our loved ones who have gone before us. In religious traditions such as the Catholic Church, saints are people who have been formally recognized as being especially holy or virtuous.
Each year on All Saints Day I take time to remember all of the saints, whether living or having died, especially those who have made a significant impact upon my life. Perhaps it is the poignancy of All Saints Sunday, as congregations around the world remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones who died over the past year. It could just be the fall, a time of stripping bare, of letting go, of accepting the changing seasons of life. Or maybe it’s the cumulative effect of officiating at many funerals and graveside services over the years. There is a song that comes back to me periodically, Every Day a Little Death, from Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music. It’s not a particularly religious song, but it reminds me that “Every day a little sting; every day a little dies in the heart and the head.”
It was a rainy, dreary day, eleven years since Jayne died. Her son and daughter-in-law, two grandsons, and the other grandma stood with me under an awning over the site of the burial of Jayne’s cremains. “It seems like just yesterday,” her son said. Jayne died far too soon, just sixteen months after a diagnosis of ALS.
Each one shared a few words about how Jayne had made a difference in their life. Her pot roast; her smile; how the grandsons looked forward to spending every Monday with Jayne; the way she was the life of the party; her determination as a single mother; the times spent up north at the family log cabin. It all came down to love.
Jayne’s son and two grandsons, one in middle school and one in high school, gently lowered the box with the ashes into the grave and shoveled the dirt back in the hole. They placed flowers over the grave, and we sang Jayne’s favorite hymn, “Here I am Lord, Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” Then we departed, taking Jayne’s legacy with us back into the world.
Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.
Camilla was in perfect health. Then, all of a sudden, she developed pancreatitis, which attacked her entire body. Camilla spent five months in intensive care, battling one complication after another, with her sister and family by her side urging her to keep fighting. Finally, her doctors said there was nothing more they could do. As her sister and brother-in-law shared the news with her, Camilla, unable to talk or move, could still feel. As tears rolled down her cheeks, I gently wiped them away. How unfair is this?
“The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10 NRSV) We prayed for peace and thanked God for the grace and love shown by each one of Camilla’s caregivers. Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.
Harry and his wife were on the trip of a lifetime, driving from one National Park to another in their camper, Harry taking hundreds of pictures. Then, in a moment, everything changed as Harry died tragically, a rich and full life cut short. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:7-8 NRSV)
At his memorial service we celebrated the amazing witness of Harry’s life, including his advocacy for diversity and inclusiveness; a love of learning and adventure; and his desire for people of all ethnicities, religions, and countries to live together in peace and unity. Then we renewed our commitment to live out our own call and carry on his legacy. Even in the most barren of places, every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.
In her 2014 book Small Victories; Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott tells about a friend she met twenty years ago who went through round after round of treatment for leukemia. Finally, there was no hope left, so Carol decided to throw a party for several hundred friends who had helped her along the way. She wore a red velvet dress and was the life of the party.
Lamott writes, “Some people seemed stricken, uncomfortable at having been invited to come say good-bye, as if this were very bad manners… But mostly people seemed to stretch enough to be able to open up to the fearful thought that Carol would probably die pretty soon. In all of this shadow, she was glowing, giving off softness.”[i] Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.
How is God calling you to live your one precious life? Never doubt the importance of who you are and what you do, for God calls you to this time and place to be a living example of the amazing grace of Jesus Christ. Today is all we have. Just today.
Is today all you want it to be? Is today filled with love and laughter? Have you found peace with your past so that you can live fully in the present? What do you need to let go of? What deaths do you need to experience in order to fully live? To whom can you reach out in love? For today is all we have.
Prayer for Autumn
Lord of the seasons,
there is a time for dying and a time for new birth;
a time to speak and a time to keep quiet.
Help us discern your will for us now.
Lord of autumn leaves and warm berries,
help us to let go gracefully
and to rejoice in the color and fruitfulness of this moment.
Wrap us in the shawl of eternity
and teach us to await with wonder
the new shoots of your love.[ii]
Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.
[i] Anne Lamott, Small Victories; Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, New York, Riverhead Books, 2014, p. 265-266.
[ii] Mary Hanrahan, Acorns and Archangels, digital version, Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, p. 152.