Sunday, November 06, 2005

All Saints - Year A

The condo-development where my mom lives backs on to a local cemetery. In fact, this cemetery has the distinction of being one of the only cemeteries in Canada that has a highway running through it.

Two weeks ago, after feeling a little cooped up in my mom’s house, Rebekah and I took the kids for a walk through the cemetery.

“What are those rocks sticking out of the ground?” Sophie asked.

“Those are headstones,” I replied, “They tell us who is buried there and when they lived.”

Sophie is still trying to figure out the whole death/dying thing. She knows that my dad is in heaven, as is our dog Zooey. But she can’t figure out how people can be buried, yet still be alive in heaven.

But I wonder if any of us have that really figured out.

As we walked through the cemetery, we noticed how some graves were immaculately kept. The grass around the headstone was neatly trimmed, even if weeds on the pathway covered our shoes.

Some graves looked abandoned. Or forgotten. Someone whose memory has been left to whither.

Others were decorated with mementoes. Things that meant something to the deceased. Or told a story about what he or she loved to do. A nine iron. A construction helmet. And in one sad instance, a Teddy Bear. Relics of a life lived well or not so well; or maybe just simply lived.

I’ve been told that it’s morbid to walk through cemeteries. That it’s better to live life than to brood about death.

So maybe I’ve got a bigger morbid streak running through me than most people. From the time I was five and my grandmother passed away, I’ve always had a certain fascination with cemeteries. I read the names and the dates. I wonder who they are. What they loved. What they despised. What contribution that made to the world – if any. If they enjoyed their lives or simply muddled through them.

I wonder if that’s what we’re doing on All Saint’s Day: taking a walk through a cemetery. For some, the names that we hear read out loud during the prayers are like the names we see on headstones; strangers, but with a story to tell that teaches us something about life.

For others, these names are of people whom we know intimately. People who shaped our lives, for good and for ill; whose legacy is still lingering around years after they’ve been gone.

All Saint’s day is like a family reunion, like pulling out our old photographs and remembering where we came from.

We remember those who angered us and those who inspired us. Those who raged against the dying of the light and those who went quietly their rest.  But we know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that we are – somehow- linked together. All Saints Day makes the bold claim that all our stories matter, that are lives are somehow webbed together with God’s Big Story of life and salvation.

St. Benedict said that an important spiritual discipline is to constantly remember that you are not the centre of the universe, but to use Benedict’s words, “Keep death daily before your eyes.”

I think that’s wise counsel. Death tells us a lot about life.

I’m old enough to remember the sirens blasting away from a tower just a block away from our school, and the teacher telling us to hide under our desks.

These types of drills, a practice for the end of time, while out of vogue in most of the rest of Canada, still happened on occasion in my hometown well into the ‘70’s.

“It’s because of Niagara Falls,” the teachers would say. “Niagara Falls is a nuclear target.”

So from the earliest of ages, my classmates and I learned that all life as we know it could be wiped out at faster than a well aimed spitball.

That is what we live with as children of the Nuclear Age. Now when hostilities between India and Pakistan heat up we all hide under our beds. Or when North Korea gets snippy, we all wonder if the world is going to end before the next commercial break. Or when we hear that Islamic terrorists may have gotten their hands on old Soviet-era bombs, we turn on the hockey game and hope for the best.

We wonder - or at least I wonder, – that when it is all said and done - if or when the Big One comes, if our lives and the stories they tell, will amount to a hill of radioactive beans.

Many people remark to me that they wonder the same thing, nuclear threat, terrorism, or not. They wonder if the headstone that marks their burial place will be the only monument left by which people will remember them; they wonder if their story will be lost, their name forgotten.

They wonder if when they close their eyes, they will never open them again.

So they come to the cemetery looking for some kind of guarantee. What clues to eternity are hidden amidst all this death? Are our loved ones really in heaven? Will we join them when we die? How will we know them? What really happens to us when we die?

Maybe that’s when God’s Big Story captures our attention, a story about the one who has been there and back again: Jesus the faithful bearer of God’s story. The story that tells us that our life is in God and God does not die.

When I make my occasional pilgrimages to the cemetery, I don’t just see death. I see promises yet to be fulfilled. I see possibilities hiding underneath each headstone. I see stories, some known to all the world and some known to God alone.

A funeral director once said that when our loved ones die and we remember them, when we tell their stories, we begin to be close to them. We come to know them in a new way – more like the way we will know them in heaven. (Beckmann p. 77)

I did a funeral once for a woman who took her own life. She was about to be charged with a crime and couldn’t live with the shame she felt she brought to her family. The son came to see me and asked that if any reporters came poking around that I should deny any knowledge of the service. He didn’t want any reporters crashing the funeral.

It turns out this woman’s story made it to the paper. And she would be forever known as for the crime she is said to have committed.

Her daughter shared some stories with me of this woman’s life. But stories mostly about how good she was with the grandchildren. How these small babies would stop crying when grandma picked them up and sang them a gentle lullaby. How she spent a month caring for the little ones when their mom was suffering from post-partum depression. How she worked hard to raise her children as a single mom. Her daughter wanted me to know that her mother’s story was more than the story people heard about in the newspapers.

Then others started sharing other stories with each other about this woman’s life. People seemed to remember that she was more than what the newspapers said she was. She impacted those around her in ways she probably didn’t know.

I couldn’t help but think that these are the stories that God remembers. These are the stories that God tells to the angels. These are the stories that tie us to God’s Great Story, where we are linked with that great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God…”

So what is your story? How will you be measured among the saints? How does your story connect with the stories of others, or with God’s Big Story?

But we know that, no matter what stories our lives tell, we will tell them to the shepherd who guides us to the springs of the waters of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. On that day, there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, no more good-byes.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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