1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV)
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
We hear this scripture a lot… at weddings. It is so common at weddings that some couples say, “I don’t want that scripture - everyone else uses it.” It is the scripture I shared at my Grandma’s funeral. Because this poetry about love speaks in all cycles and phases of life. It names our call to love with profound and simple phrases that ring true and raise a challenge… love is kind; love does not boast or seek its own way; love hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things. This love endures beyond what we see and know for sure. The poetry culminates in this story seeing dimly and knowing only in part. It invites us beyond what is now and into the sense that we don't see everything and we don’t know everything. Which I think is the perfect place to begin any conversation around death.
We are in a season where the hours of evening are creeping into the daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere it is a time when we see cycles of life and death in the world around us. The once vibrantly green fields have turned dry, brittle, and golden. Crops are dying to life, becoming grain to nourish and seeds to sow for the future. It is a season of transformation, where evening creeps into daylight. It is a season where we actually name what scares us. We name it and we literally dress up as the most terrifying things. We dress up as witches and ghosts, goblins and political figures. People turn nice normal yards into grave yards, coated in cob-webs and punctuated zombies and old bones. Everything that scares us we name it. And I believe it is essential work to name our fears, including what might be our biggest fear, our own mortality. Facing our own death is hard and may only be eclipsed by facing the death of one we love. I think that is why we set aside this time each year, to name it and face it.
When I was in seminary, we were assigned to write a credo. It required thought on eight key aspects of Christianity. And while this was not an unusual assignment, I am grateful because there were themes I loved to write about and there were themes I would have never chosen. The one I struggled with the most related to death and the mystery of what lies beyond death. Everything I wrote sounded small in the face of the topic, and I have never been too committed to pearly gates and streets paved in gold or a mansion waiting with our name above the door. As I erased everything to start over, I received a call. My friend needed help. She was having a baby, and I was her photographer. It was a first for me, and I witnessed nothing going according to plan. She had a fever, she was sick, and the plan with the right music and the powerful natural birth was gone. And as I witnessed this powerful moment, I thought Ember, the baby girl we were waiting for, must think she is dying. Everything is changing; her body has participated, growing to term, positioning itself for birth. And yet the womb that was her home is pushing her out. She is pushed out, away from everything that sustained her life, and it must feel like she is dying. And yet she is received. Breathing air she didn’t know she could, seeing light and hearing new sounds without the womb surrounding her. She must feel like everything is strange and new, a death of one way and yet she is received into life.
When I have had the occasion to be in the room with people at the time of their deaths, it has been peaceful and holy. On Wednesday, Joel Walker shared his experience as a hospice chaplain. He named the peace and the powerful presence of a spirit bigger and bolder. He named how every person on staff experienced this bold mystery, regardless of their faith. We can’t know all the logistics, we see in part and know in part. So maybe we should stop trying to know it all or at least claiming we do. While we may not be able to name the logistics and specifics, we can rest into the mystery of God’s love. We can love that we see dimly, love that we know only in part, and that love is what we rest into. In the mystery, we might imagine being received.
We pause to talk about death, to name it beyond easy images or tired clichés to be open to the mystery of life and death so we can face each day with courage. We name our fears of death so they don’t hold us but empower us. Because naming our fears isn’t about cowering but empowering. We name our fear so it doesn’t hold us back. We celebrate All Saints because it means we can live with reverence for each hour and we can be brave as we live in the world that fills us with doubts or despair. When we open ourselves to the big bold mystery of God’s spirit, we can open ourselves to the spirits of the saints that went before us, encouraged us and loved us into being. And when we open ourselves to God’s love, we can move forward to be those saints for others.
1. What does it mean to be a Saint? Who has been a saint that you remember as important in your life?
2. What gives you comfort and courage in the face of big fears, like mortality?
3. What do you need to live each moment with reverence?