Half-Baked Ideas for All Saints Day

On Sunday, I went to church.

I sat in the pews to worship. But, before worship even began, there was a wave of sadness that fell over that gathering of God’s people.

There were words of thanks offered, gratitude for the hospitality that had been offered earlier in the week in the midst of two funerals. The names of the deceased were mentioned but they were not names that I knew. As a first time visitor in worship, I could only feel the sadness that was left after these two saints have died.

It’s not just something that is felt in this one church I found myself on Sunday morning but something all too familiar. We are not sure what the future of the church might look like. We are trying to imagine it and prepare for it but our saints are dying. The people that gave their hearts and souls to the work of the gospel, the very people we all hope we’ll one day be like and the people that made the church what it is today are dying. We’re going to their funerals. We’re saying prayers over their bodies and what remains is this overwhelming sadness because it’s not just that one life, but the many. So many of our saints are dying. It seems to be happening all at once. Maybe it is always this way. Maybe it feels like this for every generation and it is just the way of things that we wonder how we might match their goodness. It may be normal to look around the sanctuary and wonder who will be the next Lee or the next Janet or who will always be there with a joke like Gordon always was. Maybe it never feels like there are enough new people wandering in through those doors and we never quite feel like we could be the ones to follow in the footsteps of those saints. We are instead always looking for someone else.

I don’t know but it sure feels to me like we are burying some amazing people. It feels like there is so much death of so many great people. So much so that I had to unsubscribe from my former church’s weekly email because the prayer list was just too much to bear. It’s that familiar feeling that I felt as worship began on Sunday. It hovered over us through the entire time we attempted to lift our praise. If this is something we are all feeling, in churches all over the place, how do we honor that sense of loss? How do we make a space for it? What might be different about this All Saints Day?

It is no secret that this is one of my favorite observances in the church year. There are lots of wonderful moments of worship that use candles and ribbons and bells to remind us of these beloved people. There was a time when those bells were ringing to remind the living of the dead. It is not lack of memory that plagues us but how we might make sense of so much death in our time. Count those in your own congregation who have died. List the names of those that died in combat in a war most of our country doesn’t believe we are fighting or list every name that has died just this year because we refuse to believe that black lives matter. There are so many names that we could say. This year, let’s actually say the names.

I don’t have a full liturgy to offer you this week but two ideas to inspire your worship planning.

  • Say their names. It is a hashtag that is trending on Twitter. As violence and brutality increase, there is a cry that is being heard on social media to #saytheirnames. There is power in naming. We know this as we name and pray for people each time we worship. They stay on our prayer lists for a week or two until they disappear from our memories. We are too distracted or perhaps we’re just too upset to stick with the pain for too long. For All Saints Day, meet with the deacons or the worship committee and together make a list of names to be read during worship. You might go back over the prayer list and remember every saint who has died or other names that really need to be said. There has been a lot of death in the past year. Do not shy away from a long list. Decide how the names will be read and who will read which names. You might choose to ring a bell after the reading of each name, as is the ancient practice, or you might choose a piece of music to play softly under the reading of the names.
  • Write letters to the saints. I know that there are assigned readings for this particular feast day that don’t actually coincide with Proper 26 or Proper 27, but I really like the opening words to the church in Thessalonika from Proper 26. It reminds me of the letters I often write to my mom so that I wonder what would happen if we gave space for our church people to write to the saints of the church. Imagine that salutations and thanksgivings they would write to those they had admired and then what would be said next? What would they want to say about their church or their own discipleship to this saint now? It could be good sermon fodder but I’d want to find a way to have everyone write letters perhaps in place of the Prayers of the People. Maybe we’d find some way to send them. Fire? Big post box on cotton balls? I’m not sure… What do you think?

These are just ingredients that need a little more time in the kitchen. Good liturgy is the work of the people and every idea needs to have a little time to cook within a community. I would love to hear what might happen with these half-baked ideas within your church family. Please let me know and maybe I’ll even see you for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday!

 

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Letters to Heaven

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Every year, as January comes to a close and the calendar turns to February, I start to wonder about what I’ll say to her this year. I wonder about what I would want her to know about this year and who I am right now. Way up there in heaven, I wonder what I’ll tell my mother about my life.

Every year, I’ve written to her in the pages of my journal as if she is sitting beside me. Of course, she isn’t. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died twenty-nine years ago today. Twenty nine years ago, on this very day, I carefully prepared a package of stale marshmallows and the almond cookies we made in school that day to bring to her in the hospital. But, before I could leap off the bus, I could see my dad and I knew something was wrong. So much has happened since then. So much that she hasn’t been around to share with me. And this year, I will get married. I’ll marry a man that she never got to meet and begin to think about becoming a mom myself.

Maybe it’s because of those things that she feels so very far away today. Today it feels like I’ve spent the past twenty-nine years grieving something that never existed. I have photographs and other people’s stories that contradict this fact. They tell me what she was like and how wonderful she was, but I don’t have many of my own memories. When most people grieve, those normal people, they can tell you something about the person that they miss so very much. They can tell you about his laugh or her generosity. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. I love these stories so that I make it my business to seek them out. A glimmer will come into her eyes when I ask about their dearly departed before she tells me the most ridiculous story. A smile will creep across her face and she’ll sigh because that’s what she misses. She misses those little moments.

I don’t have too many of those stories. The only clear memory I have from when she was healthy was from one cold winter morning when we went ice skating on a nearby pond. My brother took off skating with lightning speed. The running joke in my family was that he was born with skates on his little feet. This day, that seemed to be true. I had never been skating on a pond so I wobbled down the wooden plank, fighting against the layers of warmth that encased me, until I hit the ice. I pushed off and made a clear, graceful arc straight into a snowbank. That’s when my mother started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing even as she tried to pull me back to my feet. I really, really hope that this doesn’t reveal my mother’s character. It doesn’t fit with what I’ve been told but it’s the only memory I have stashed away. If my mom was alive, I’m sure we’d laugh about this. Or I really want to believe that we’d laugh about this ridiculous moment from my childhood. But, I don’t know what would make my mom laugh uncontrollably. I don’t know what would bring tears to her eyes out of sheer delight anymore than I know what would really break her heart. And that’s what makes anniversaries so hard.

My dear friend Teri, who lost her mother ten years ago, is much more frank about it. As she said by text message today, “anniversaries are shitty.” I can’t argue. Anniversaries are the cruel reminder that so many years have passed. Every year, I hope I will feel differently but it always feels the same. It is one of those days where everything feels thin. Just as the ancient Celts imagined it, it feels like the walls between heaven and earth collapse and it feels as if something should happen. Every year, I’m confronted with this terrible indecisiveness about how to spend the day. Sometimes that means spending the days with others whether that’s taking a ferry to a quiet island in the middle of Casco Bay to quietly walk with a friend or building a fairy house in the woods on another island with another friend. I’ve thrown ice cream parties where we heaped mounds of chocolate ice cream into bowls as I told the story of the last time I saw my mom but most years, I don’t know what to do. I feel that I should do something but I struggle with what do with the strange cosmic energy that comes each and every year.

And then, with frustrated tears running down my cheeks, I feel guilty. It happens every single year. I am overwhelmed and overcome by this terrible guilt. This is something I will never understand. I don’t know why I feel guilty but it’s something that Teri tells me happens. She calls it survivor guilt. It’s a real thing, she argues because she knows that I am going to disagree. I don’t want to see myself as survivor. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or the collapse of the twin towers. My mom died from a disease that I have yet to contract. Though I live in that fear, it remains only a possibility. That doesn’t change the fact that I always feel guilty on the anniversary of her death.

I feel as if I should feel something or do something but I can never figure out what that is. I have tried time and time again for twenty-nine years. Still, the guilt hangs out mixed up with this sense of wonder that everything feels thin. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There is a feeling like something might happen. Something could happen. Or maybe I just really want something to happen so that the only constant from year to year is that I sit down  with my journal to write letters to heaven. On the anniversary of the day she died, I take a pen in my hand to try to collapse the walls between heaven and earth.

This year, it doesn’t feel thin. That feeling is still there. I still feel like anything could happen. I really want something to happen but it’s not a thin feeling. It’s a thick feeling that hangs in the air today. Today, I’m aware of the distance between heaven and earth.

I feel the distance in the years that I have lived without her. I feel the distance in the huge events that are about to take place this year that she won’t get to share. I feel the distance that comes from not knowing what would make her laugh or cry. And yet, no matter how far the distance might be, I still want to collapse those walls that separate us. I want to believe she’s right here beside me.

That’s how small I want the distance to be. I want to believe that she is standing beside me. I try to convince myself that she always has been. She’s right here on earth and hasn’t really left my side, except that on this anniversary, on the day that she died, the calendar turns and I can only feel her absence.

It doesn’t feel like she is here. She is anything but here so she must be out there somewhere because she hasn’t been here for so very long. She died twenty-nine years ago and I still can’t quite believe it. She has to be up there in some other realm that I cannot reach, no matter how hard I try. It’s only on this dreadful day that I let myself believe that I have any power to cross the divide and reach toward that place where she dwells. On other days, I don’t believe such things. I remain unconvinced that heaven is somewhere else. I refuse to believe it most of the time. Except that on her anniversary, especially on this anniversary, my faith isn’t quite so resolute because the distance seems so vast and I want nothing more than to bring her close and tell her everything about my life that she needs to know. (She’s still my mom. No matter how much I want this sweet communion, there are still things she doesn’t need to know.)

Part of me believes that she knows it all already. I don’t need to tell her because she’s already seen it. She’s been busy watching me all year long from her cloud just over my head. There’s no need for me to reach through the veil between heaven and earth with my pen and paper because she already knows. She knows it all. She hasn’t missed on anything. She’s done all that she could to be there even if I never knew that she was standing beside me but I can’t quite convince myself of that today. So today, just as I have so many anniversaries before, I’m writing my mom a letter. I’m sending it out to the far reaches of the heavens.

Mom,

There are so many things that I want to ask you. There are so many things that I don’t know about you and so very many things that I want to know. Years ago, I used to ask those that knew you and loved you.

Maybe they were trying to convince themselves that you lived as much as I am trying to do now, because they wanted me to know how human you were. They told me that you were so damn stubborn and that you had a mean streak of anger. They wanted me to know that you were not perfect even when I wanted so much to believe that you were. I never got to be a teenager with you. I never got to rebel and slam doors in your face or whatever it is that teenagers do. Instead, my rebellion took me to church. I plopped down in a pew and wanted the answers to everything that didn’t make sense. Because I didn’t understand — I still don’t understand — why you had to die.

I feel like a child writing that to you, but I”m your child. So I can still be a kid, right? I can tell you that this still doesn’t make sense to me no matter how much I want to make sense of it.

I’ll never understand it just as I’ll never get to know you. It’ll always be someone else’s story or someone else’s anecdote. I won’t get to have those stories with you because you died before we ever got the chance. Just as I won’t have the chance to see you beam with pride and delight on my wedding day in just a few months. You weren’t there to watch me try on my wedding dress and I won’t get to have some frustratingly special moment on that special day where you try to give me advice and I shirk it off, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want those things. I want you to be a part of that special day just as much as I want you to know my beloved and my future children. Oh, it hurts to even imagine that. How can I be a wife and a mom without you? How will I learn my own rhythms without your support?

But I will. I’ll somehow manage this just as I’ve managed every other event without you by my side. You can’t be there. I know, I know. We will never have that but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it. I will always want you to be a part of my life. I will always want to know what you think. I will always want to hear your advice. I will always wonder what you would say to any of the bizarre and wonderful things that this life has already offered me.

Mom, there are so few things that I remember about you. I can’t remember your laugh or the sound of your voice. I don’t have many stories about you. In most of my memories, you were sick. You were as pale as the sheets on your bed. You didn’t say much but you were there and I guess I want you to be here now. I guess I’ll never give up on that hope that I’ll get to know you better… I love you.

Yours, Elsa