The cemetery was just as I remembered it, surrounded by cherry orchards, Grand Traverse Bay off in the distance. Quiet, peace-filled, wind dancing and swirling among the tombstones. The presence of the saints was palpable. But these were no ordinary saints. These were saints who welcomed me into their congregation as a first-time pastor, just turned 26. Tears welled up in my eyes as I read the familiar names on the stones and marveled at the wonder, goodness, and painful lessons of those first years in ministry.
- Gwen Watson: a dear soul whose kindness left me speechless and whose unique handwriting I can still picture
- Ann and Harold Fouch: deeply committed, fun-loving cherry farmers, the heart of the church and community
- George Gunnett: an avid stone polisher who died hours after Gary and I and our year-old daughter left for a week in the Upper Peninsula, occasioning the first of more than one changed vacation over the years
- Addison and Alice Wilbur: an unassuming, faithful couple whose generous gift enabled this small congregation to complete a beautiful and much-needed renovation of the building
- John Jamison: a teenager whose tragic death in a car accident during my first year grew me up in the ministry and taught me about the importance of community. John’s parents served as surrogate grandparents for our daughter Sarah and have remained special friends. I can still see the purse Verla would bring every Sunday, filled with interesting treasures for Sarah to play with during worship.
Thirty years later God drew me back to the cemetery at the Old Mission Peninsula United Methodist Church because I still look to the saints for faith, courage, vision, and inspiration.
For all the saints who from their labors rest.
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
How do you remember the saints in your life? The Christian church has a long and rich heritage of honoring the saints. There are over 10,000 named saints in the Roman Catholic tradition, with a rigorous process for determining whether a person who has died should be named “holy.” That process includes evaluation of the candidate by a panel of theologians as well as evidence of miracles.
One of the most recent saints in the Roman Catholic Church is Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German nun and mystic who was the first woman to be officially recognized as a “prophetess” by the Roman Catholic Church. On May 10, 2012 Pope Benedict ordered Hildegard to be officially inscribed “in the catalogue of saints.”
In addition, just 2 weeks ago Pope Benedict conferred on Hildegard one of the highest honors of the Catholic Church, naming her a “doctor” of the church along with St. John of Avila. Hildegard and John of Avila entered the company of only 33 other church doctors who have been set apart because of their contribution to Catholic doctrine and faith.
Admittedly, our United Methodist view of sainthood and holiness is far broader than that of the Catholic Church. We don’t pray to the saints. We do not consider saints to be mediators to God, nor do we believe them to be perfect. I like to think of a saint as anyone through whom God’s light shines.
I had an interesting discussion recently with someone who claimed that only Christian saints should be allowed to be remembered and named in church on All Saints Sunday. Which, of course, brings up 2 questions, “Does a saint have to be a Christian?” and “Who determines who is a Christian?”
One of the first and most important lessons I learned while serving at Old Mission Peninsula United Methodist Church is that I was not capable of deciding who was and wasn’t a Christian. As in most of my ministry settings, I would officiate from time to time at funerals for people who did not have a church home. Some of them were strangers to me.
When I’d sit down with the family and invite them to remember their loved one’s life, occasionally everyone would clam up. No one would say a word. I soon realized their embarrassment because there was nothing much good to say about their relative, and not knowing me, they did not trust me enough to be truthful.
One of my greatest joys in those moments was drawing out honest and thoughtful conversation and encouraging families to see that every person is precious to God and has some redeeming attributes. We would remember their loved one’s good qualities and vow to emulate them. Likewise, if appropriate, we would name the ways in which others were hurt by their loved one, acknowledge the pain, ask God for healing, and then offer their imperfect saint to God.
In the funeral I would proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and remind all who gathered that God’s love has no limits. Our call is to remember and entrust our loved ones into God’s care at the same time as we ask ourselves, “How, then, shall we live?” Dare we say “yes” to the call of Jesus Christ on our lives? How can we allow God’s light to shine through us so that others are blessed by the love of Christ?
I can’t wait for All Saints Sunday. I love remembering and lighting candles for those in our congregation who have died as well as for other family members and friends who are part of the company of saints. Those saints will include deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ, non-professing Christians who, by their life and actions, modeled Christ’s love, and even rascals who tested God’s love and patience at every turn.
I don’t remember much of what the saints in my life did, but I will always remember their character and influence on my journey. I will remember Joan, a highly talented organist from my church whose tragic death during her senior year in college changed the course of my life, inspiring me to learn how to play the organ. I’ll remember Eric, a quadriplegic whose courage and tenacity reminded me to be grateful for each day. I’ll remember Bob and Ellen, whose deep Christian commitment, passion for education, and philanthropy will continue to change lives for years after their deaths. I’ll remember Jay, who became a treasured friend while she cared for a clergy colleague with cancer. And I will remember my mother Gwen, who died last November 29, the one who gave me the gift of life, told me the stories of Jesus, and taught me how to love.
Several years ago I had a poignant conversation with a friend who said, anticipating his own death, “The one thing I fear the most about death is that no one will remember me. I will be completely forgotten, and my life will have been in vain.” The agony on his face was forever etched on my heart.
Billions of lives in the annals of history on this earth. Each person unique, one-of-a-kind, God-breathed. Each one a light through whom God shines. Each one salt, seasoning the world with faithfulness. Each one an integral part of the fabric of history.
We are forever connected with those we love, who continue to form and shape us long after they are gone. By remembering we honor their memory, acknowledge their place in God’s kingdom, and carry with us the essence of their spirit.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”