This weekend, I watched the new Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago Seven. The story in a nutshell is the 1969-70 trial of a group of Vietnam War protesters charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The movie ends with the closing statement made by defendant Tom Hayden. Instructed to keep it short and respectful, he chose instead to begin reading the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam. My understanding is that this didn’t actually happen. However another defendant did read names at another point in the trial. So the movie did take some liberties. Nonetheless, the reading of the names was a powerful part of the trial, no matter when it happened and by whom. The point of doing it was to keep the focus on those who had died.
This ritual of naming is powerful. Watching that scene on the eve of All Saints Day was a reminder to me of the importance – and the power – of naming our dead. We do this every year on this Sunday, but sometimes we are particularly confronted by the reality of death, often in tragic circumstances.
The other day, Barbara and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood. It was fun to see the Halloween decorations in yards and on houses. I know decorating for Halloween has become much more elaborate since my days of trick or treating (we thought it was a big deal to make a stuffed dummy to set out in a chair on our front porch). But I wondered if this year, there were even more skeletons, ghosts, and ghouls than usual. I wondered if this might be a response to our being confronted with death in a particularly alarming way this year.
I read recently that Covid-19 has already, killed more people in the US than Americans killed in battle during the five most recent wars combined. And according to the New York City medical examiner and the Department of Defense, COVID deaths in the US are equal to having the 9/11 attacks every day for 66 days.
These statistics do not take anything away from the 9/11 deaths or any of the war dead. They do highlight our need to remember. Every year since 9/11/2001, the names of those killed in the fall of the twin towers are read. Unfortunately, even this ritual became controversial this year, with two separate events taking place blocks apart in Manhattan. At the official ceremony at Ground Zero, the names were prerecorded because of the pandemic. While at a new event, the same names were read live and in person. But again, ultimately, it’s no matter when it happened and by whom. The point was to keep the focus on those who had died.
Just as the “Say Their Names” initiative of Black Lives Matter keeps the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others lost to systemic racism and violence alive in our hearts and minds.
In the same way, we see lists of the COVID dead in various news sources. Many of us have the name of a relative or friend on our own personal lists. We are confronted by death in a terrible convergence of biological and societal ills. Halloween, that day when tradition says that the veil between this world and the next becomes particularly thin, is a good outlet for our anxieties and our grief.
Let’s face it, we have a lot to be anxious and to grieve about. Even before COVID, we were mourning the fracturing of our nation. Now, with the election just 2 days away, we wonder how it will go, how it will turn out, how will people react. In so many ways, fear of the unknown and our lack of control over a lot of what concerns us is keeping us up at night. We talk about the new normal, but we don’t know what that new normal even is yet. We can relate to the writer of the I John passage: “it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future.”
The immense upheaval we are experiencing takes its toll. It is helpful to at least recognize that your anxiety, or restlessness, or lethargy, or fatigue, or headaches, or however this upheaval is affecting you is – in this unprecedented time – normal. But then we also have to acknowledge our need for help.
A poem in a recent blog post by Presbyterian pastor Todd Jenkins spoke to me of our spiritual state in these trying times. It’s called “Turn, Turn.” This is part of it:
My cup, it feels
so empty much
of the time.
Maybe it’s cracked,
and that’s how some
of what God fills
it with leaks out;
but I’m beginning
to suspect that,
too much of the time,
I live with it
turned upside down.
I’m pouring it out
for others’ sake,
in helpful ways;
I’m out of tune
with the melody
in my soul.
I need to have my cup
turned upright, so that
the kin-dom of the divine
can fill me and overflow
into the holy
here and now.
Turn my cup, O God;
turn it up, O Lord.
I love the imagery of a cup (I picture a chalice) turned upside down. There’s some small comfort there, that I’m not alone in my feeling of weariness. But there’s also an invitation: to allow my cup to be turned upright. It is the grace of this poem that even allows us to know that even this action might be too much for our weary souls. Yet we can trust that, as the I John text says, one truth remains steadfast and true: we are children of God.
We have been claimed in love by God. We have been named by God. Each one of us has been made a saint: named and claimed. That doesn’t mean that we’re some kind of spiritual superstars. It does mean that this is what fills our cup: hope rooted in knowledge that God the creator is continually working on us, that Christ the redeemer is always in our midst, and that the Holy Spirit is always at work in and around and through us – even in the midst of chaos. With cups refilled and overflowing with gratitude, we can follow the way of God’s love from holy here and now into whatever future awaits us.
As saints, with cups filled and overflowing with gratitude, we come to this day of remembering the dead – not as one more sorrow to absorb in these sorrowful times, but as our way of celebrating them and the gift of themselves that they brought to our lives. On All Saints Sunday we remember deceased loved ones and we honor the One who loved them into life and received them in death. We celebrate their entrance into what is called in church-y language “the church triumphant” – as opposed to “the church militant,” an unfortunate term for those of us still doing battle in this life. Together we make up the communion of saints. Although physically separated by death, we are still united with one another in, as the old hymn says “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”
Although we don’t know what that will be like either. Still we wonder. Call it what you will – heaven, the church triumphant, the afterlife – what is it like? The answer is simple: we don’t know. Although people throughout the ages have put forth their ideas about it. A professor I once had – a member of the seminary choir – expressed his vision of heaven as singing in an eternal choir. Although I like to sing, I confess I’m not too thrilled about doing it for all eternity. I mean, eternity is a long time! What kind of music will it be? Who gets to pick? Will we get to sing Beatles songs or show tunes? Will we all have good voices in heaven? Will there be auditions? I think his vision has some flaws. But then it’s just one vision.
The reading from the book of Revelation is another and it’s pretty strange as well. Though the promise of never again experiencing any deprivation or suffering is certainly appealing, the image of the throne, the Lamb, palm branches and robes is rather off-putting (at least to me).
What happens when we die? I remember the homily given by the pastor when my grandmother died, in which he said, “She is now everything that God intended her to be.” Those words struck a chord with me, although I don’t know exactly what it means. When I try to think about it too much, it makes about as much sense as my professor’s vision and the revelation of John of Patmos.
I do know that my grandmother, at the age of 26, had become a widow with 4 children under the age of 6 on the eve of the Great Depression. She went to work as a janitor at the junior high school and did that until she retired in 1968 – almost 40 years. She never remarried. Of course she had her family, her wonderful grandchildren – especially the oldest one (me) – but I’ve often wondered what her life might have been in another era, under different circumstances. What did God intend for her? And is she living in that reality now?
I was reminded of that funeral homily when I read this paragraph this week:
What some call the beatific (or heavenly) vision is, I believe, an evolutionary process. Beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God. This applies to saints as well as mere mortals. A life of saintliness is a life of adventure and growth, dissatisfied by any static heavenly vision. We continue the journey, freely and creatively responding to the grace that leads us toward wholeness.
While this doesn’t give us any details either about how this process happens, the concept is more appealing to me than an unchanging, eternal heavenly choir – or any vision, no matter how wonderful. The idea that God’s care for us doesn’t end at death, but continues in a new way, another dimension, a different reality – ever luring us onward from brokenness to healing, from sorrow to consolation, from sin to grace is not inconsistent with the biblical witness.
Again, as the author of the first letter of John wrote: “we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed,” gives us insight into the idea that we are in the process of becoming what God intends us to be, and that our ultimate way of being is something that we just can’t imagine. But the letter proclaims with certainty that “we will be like” the One who calls us to become who we are and who we will continue to be as we evolve in God. So if the One who seeks our wholeness in this lifetime continues the process beyond the grave, then indeed my grandmother – along with all the blessed dead – has become (or is in the process of becoming) all she was ever meant to be.
This way of considering the evolutionary process of afterlife also provides us with the opportunity, not only to give thanks for the blessed dead, but also to forgive them. All of the people who have shaped our lives are the saints – even with all their imperfections. This is good news especially for those who have had difficult relationships with the influential people in their lives – parents or grandparents, siblings or friends.
Our forgiveness can go even deeper when we accept our place among the communion of saints, where we see that the universal experience of suffering is what binds us all together. In John’s revelation, the great throng of diverse people is united in a common experience of coming through a great ordeal. Our common humanity and our universal experience of suffering call us to become partners with God in embodying compassion. We join as one body and praise the One who lures us into living our lives in such a way that we are aware of the suffering of others, even those who have caused us suffering.
Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-00042A-OL, copyright © Radiant Light 2006, www.radiantlight.org.uk
used with permission
That’s the work of the church militant – or shall we say of ordinary saints like you and me – to actively embrace our relationship with the Divine, with ourselves, our families, neighbors, strangers and all of creation, and work to nurture those relationships in order to continue to grow and become what God is calling each of us to become – in this world and the next.
And so we will name our saints today, our beloved dead. In memory and in gratitude. There is power in this naming. Their witness fills our cup, so we can pour ourselves out for others, for Jesus’ sake. Blessed are you.
After that, I saw before me an immense crowd without number, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They stood in front of the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches. And they cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is of our God, who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb!”
All the angels who were encircling the throne, as well as the elders and the four living creatures, prostrated themselves before the throne. They worshiped God with these words: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”
Then one of the elders asked me, “These people in white robes—who are they, and where do they come from?”
I answered, “You are the one who knows.”
Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who survived the great period of testing; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That is why they stand before God’s throne and the One they serve day and night in the Temple; the One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever.
Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun and its scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb, who is at the center of the throne, will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.”
I John 3:1-3
See what love God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside, and after he sat down and the disciples had gathered around, Jesus began to teach them:
Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.
Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.
Blessed are those who are gentle: they will inherit the land.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill.
Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God.
Blessed are those who work for peace: they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice:
the kindom of heaven is theirs.
You are fortunate when others insult you and persecute you, and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great; they persecuted the prophets before you in the very same way.