This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day, remembering those who have gone before us—our loved ones and friends, as well as those we may not have known but who stand out as an example of living the Beloved Community in their lives.
For most of us, the notion of “sainthood” sounds somewhat remote—whether we grew up with saints or not, we tend to think of them as somehow on another plane, perhaps holier or closer to God. “I’m no saint,” we might remark in a casual conversation. And while no one can claim to have lived a perfect or blameless life, I think we make a double mistake if we think of sainthood like this. Saints are just ordinary people, subjected to the same flaws and brokenness as the rest of us. But we, you and I—we too are named as “saints”—those who are following the Way of Love that Jesus taught, Paul in his letters calls “the saints.” That’s us too. Even in our brokenness and imperfection, God’s light and love always has the capacity to shine through.
When I think of saints I have known, people that have shown me the way of love more clearly in their lives, I think of lots of people. My grandparents, family friends, even neighbors, who taught me what a life founded on compassion and grace looks like. I also think of a man I knew in my first congregation.
Charles was a member of my first church, and he was married to a wonderfully warm and generous woman named Helen who never failed to give me a broad smile and encouraging word every week. She quickly became one of my favorite people, and I was eager to visit her home for the first time a few months into my ministry there. I had never met Charles, though, until that first visit to their home. I had learned early on that Charles suffered from severe and debilitating back pain that kept him lying flat on his back most of the time—sitting up in a church pew for an hour or more was just too difficult for him. He had been a faithful churchgoer his whole life, but almost immediately after he retired he began to have that terrible back pain, and it kept him from traveling or doing many of the things he had hoped to do in retirement.
Nevertheless, that first afternoon he met me at the door of their home, smiling broadly and welcoming me in. We enjoyed a pleasant conversation, and that evening after coming home Charles called me just to thank me for visiting with him, and telling me how much it had meant to him. I regularly visited with them in the three years that followed, and always enjoyed my time there. Even though he was suffering in terrible ways, Charles was always upbeat, positive, and warm—someone you wanted to spend time with. Toward the end of my time there, however, Helen began missing church for several weeks in a row, which was very unusual for her. Concerned, I inquired about how she and Charles were, and learned that Charles wasn’t doing very well. I arranged to visit them the first chance I got, and I found a very different man than the positive and warm person I had come to know. Charles wasn’t smiling that day, and he was clearly in a great deal of pain. The doctors believed that he had developed cancer, and his pain and suffering had multiplied greatly. After Helen left us alone sitting in the living room, Charles asked me, calmly but very straightforwardly, why God hadn’t taken him yet—why was he allowing this kind of suffering? I sat there with him, mostly in silence—I desperately sought for something I could say, something I could do, that would help. But nothing came to me. I had no idea really how to comfort someone in that situation. I felt like a failure, but I did the best I could—holding his hand, praying for him, and giving him communion before I left. It was not long afterward that he passed away, and while his family was sad, they were relieved that at least he wasn’t suffering anymore. But it was what his wife told me that I believe will stay with me until I too pass into God’s presence—he had been in pain, she said, but after his time with me, he seemed to be more at peace and was able to face those last weeks surrounded by family and friends and moving into eternity confident of God’s care for him. I felt like I had failed him—but counter to what I thought, it was precisely in the silence that he found space to release his burdens and fear, to lament and acknowledge the reality of his life and coming death. Sometimes, I learned, the very best thing you can do for someone is to simply sit with them in silence and allow them to express their pain, not seeking to “fix” it, but simply being.
Charles taught me what it meant to live and to die with grace, with honesty, and with compassion. I learned more from him than I ever could have given. In my mind, I will always remember him on the day that we call the roll of those who have died, and stand now in the presence of God.
Who are your saints? Who has taught you what the Way of Love looks like—whatever their faith or background or tradition might have been? They are the ones that can open for us a glimpse into that kin-dom where love and justice join hands around the table of God’s care. For all the saints, thanks be to God.