Monday, November 6, 2017

For All the Saints

All Saints’ Day is a time when the Christian tradition comes to life; as we remember the famous saints of the Church, and also those individuals we have forgotten, all those who came before us.  The celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1 dates back as early as the 9th Century as a special day in the Church, a tradition of spiritual remembrance that was begun in Ireland.  But it goes back even further in terms of Pagan religion.  Though it is a celebration that has changed over the years, it is an observance that is infused with the mysticism of Celtic Christianity, Irish spirit and wisdom, coming from the dead to the living.  It is a day when the living and the dead lean towards each other in greatest intimacy—when we look for the thin places in our lives, the places where God is near, and the spiritual presence of the dead is palpable. 

Today is about celebrating the people, both living and dead, who have shaped you as the person you are, and those who make you imagine the person you can be at your best.  There are so many people out there who care for each of you, even if you have never thought of them as saints before.  Even beyond your parents, immediate family, and friends, there are many, many people--more than you think--who root for you to succeed.  And there will be people present to pick you up when you fall.  And falling is a normal part of life.  Facing adversity and experiencing failure are often the times when you grow the most.

            Every human life has a cloud of witnesses; people who are on your side, both living and dead.  This cloud of witnesses can be those who inspire you, and even those who scare you a little bit.  Today we remember the cloud of witnesses who watch over each of us, especially the family members who are no longer with us, those who are now with God. 

As I tried to make sense of the dead inspiring the lives of the living, I was reminded of the movie Pleasantville.  It is an excellent autumn movie, just right for this time of year.  The movie is about a perfect television world, a utopia, where there is no pain.  But there is no growth either.  That’s the flip side of only knowing good times.  You don’t grow.  Within the movie, “Pleasantville” is a 1950s style television show portrayed in black and white; the show is a static reality where only the good things in life are experienced.  The show is centered on a perfect family called the Parkers.  They have no problems whatsoever, and everything turns out just right for them, every time.  There are no arguments, no pain, no aging, no divorce, and certainly no death.  Even the temperature never changes: it’s always 72 degrees.  The basketball team never loses. 

Into this utopian world of television are transported a regular pair of high school students from our complicated world named David (played by Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon).  The twin siblings try not to interfere with the black and white world, but things begin to change, imperceptibly at first.  The new reality begins with a red rose in full color, blooming at night.  But soon the black and white colors begin to change in wider ripples, following after the solitary rose.   As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of roses in his essay “Self-Reliance:”

            “Man is timid and apologetic.  He is no longer upright.  He dares not say, ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.  He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.  These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they exist with God to-day.  There is no time to them.  There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence…Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature in all moments alike…When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of a brook and the rustle of the corn.”

            Because of the arrival of David and Jennifer, the perfect world of Pleasantville is eventually blown apart.  It begins with the rose, but moves onto people.  Black and white characters burst as if into flame, into full color like in The Wizard of Oz.  They become “colored” in the language of the film.  A strong surge of emotion seems to trigger the transformation to full color, and the new identities are not timid, or apologetic anymore.  They are standing upright, as Emerson hoped for in “Self-Reliance.”  They are now human beings—they have discovered their full humanity.  They may even be saints.  Some of the transformations are inspired by romance, but this is not true in every case.  Jennifer—the Reese Witherspoon character—finds her deeper humanity by reading a book, and David discovers his true identity by defending himself in a fist fight.  The town fathers—still in black and white—fear the spiritual independence of the colored people, and they eventually put David on trial for the chain of events he has set in motion.  The judge gets so angry during the trial that he bursts into full color himself.  The trial becomes a beautiful chaos, with even the town fathers growing into full bloom like everyone else. 

The movie Pleasantville urges compassion, in every direction.  The events that give others their full humanity may be different from how you discover your true self.  We all feel differently, especially when in pain.  And yet the good things in life are still good.  Creation, in all of its majesty and awe, is still here, but it is no black and white utopia.  We live in a reality aflame with color where there is danger, peril, illness, death, and yet also great beauty all around us.  Our full humanity can be recognized, one person at a time, and we look at each other in full color this morning as a community. 

There is no common or conventional definition of sainthood, the blossoming into color before God.  It is open to all of us.  Sainthood is fundamentally unconventional and personal.  In fact, the real saints, in each of our cloud of witnesses, are often the most unconventional people we have ever met.  The religious writer Frederick Buechner, the former chaplain of Exeter, describes All Saints’ Day wonderfully in these words:

            “On All Saints’ Day it is not just the saints of the Church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and the overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots…and the crackpots of our lives who, in one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”

 Saints are the places of unusual sanctity in our world, the thin places where the love of God shines through our hearts.  Sainthood cannot be studied on the outside—or celebrated yearly at a distance.  You have to come at it from the inside, from your spiritual center.  Attune your life, personally and unconventionally, to what is truly holy in our world.  Make spiritual music with the choices in your life.  Make peace with adversity.  Be still in the moment.  Say the prayers that only you can say.  Be famous before God, unconventionally, and the world will, someday, follow your example.

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