Ok, so most of you will probably know that the origin of Halloween has two stories. The old Gaelic tradition of marking the end of the light half of the year and the start of the dark half of the year (only relevant in the Northern Hemisphere for October of course). The other story of Halloween is embedded in Christianity and the tradition of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day as it used to be called. All Hallows, since the time of Pope Gregory III is kept each year on the 1st November, the day before All Hallows is All Hallows Eve. Say it quickly and you can work out that's how we get to Halloween. Sadly Halloween has been commercialised beyond all recognition, but that's for another time.
Just like Halloween we live our lives by two stories. There is the story we present most of the time. The strong story. The story that is told to move, to convince and to entertain those we share it with. It’s the kind of story we present at an interview, when we want to impress people, the facebook story. Then there is the other story. The story that we tell only those closest to us, a partner or trusted friend. The story we tell those trained to hear such stories, a counsellor, or confessor for example.
The world has two such stories, it has story of progress, invention, community, battles won, peace achieved and disaster relieved. But it also has the other story of pain, war, injustice and shame.
The church has two stories too. There’s the story of faith, courage, sacrifice and perfect love. That’s the story of All Saints. And then there’s the story of fragility, forgiveness, fear and foolishness. The story of All Souls.
Now here’s the interesting thing. We all make the same mistake, in thinking that God wants just the posh story. The strong story. of success, achievement, faithfulness, and battles won. The story of the cancer victory, or the healing miracle, the prayers answered, the champion of our ailments. And of course God does want that story, he delights in that story. He sent his son to tell that story. But it wasn’t the only story that Jesus told. It’s not the whole story for us.
You see God wants us to tell the real story. The All Souls story.
In this story we acknowledge and honour the intensity of loss, the pain of sorrow. On All Souls Day we trace the tracks of Jesus’ own tears at the grave of Lazarus, and remember that its ok to mourn, to grieve and to weep. We remember that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. We remember that before new life there is death, before we rise we fall, and before true peace there is always tumult and pain. The real story is the story where we acknowledge both.
Eleven years ago my father died. He was 63 years old. Out of the blue he was taken in to hospital shortly after Christmas and finally returned in the May to die at home. I cannot tell you the number of times I prayed that he might be well. I don’t think I had accepted at any point during his illness that my father would actually die. Although my prayers were for my father’s recovery, God answered them in a different way. My father was always going to die. There was nothing I could do about that. But God’s care was not just for him but for me too.
You may be expecting me to say that in our grief God is closer to us than at any other time, that when we call to him, he responds, but I don’t see it like that. I think that sometimes there is a distance between us and God that is so tangible it cannot be ignored. There are times when we feel so far from God it hurts deep inside. When you feel your prayers are falling on deaf ears.
But there is a gift.
It’s strange. I see now that in the darkest moments when you feel most disconnected from God there is a gift. It might sound odd, it might even sound hardhearted on God’s part but God creates for us a space so we can grow closer to those we love. It was when I felt furthest from God that I actually felt closest to my father. In the void and the abyss of doubt and grief, and even anger at why it was happening I was closer to my father than I had ever been.
Let me give you another example. Mother Theresa had a crisis of faith. For many years, whilst working in that hospital and community in Calcutta Mother Theresa felt separated from God, she could not hear him or feel him. However, it did not stop her praying, reading, or loving. In fact during that time her ministry in Calcutta was exemplary, and has been considered a model of devotion and Christian living. In the detachment from God she found a renewed compassion for the world.
Here is another example. Jesus’ death on the cross. At the moment when the world’s pain and sin were on the shoulders of the Christ, when he had been rejected by his own people, cast out of the city, bearing the sins of the world, his most darkest hour, Jesus cried out the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet in that moment, when he felt the dark abyss opening and the profound sense of disconnection from his father he redeemed the world. He was glorified, and opened his arms wide to reconcile the world to God.
I know that this won’t be the case for everyone, but at the time I felt furthest from God, I felt closer to my father than at any other time. It was God’s gift to me and was the answer to my prayers. My God reduced so that the love between my father and me would be enlarged. And I thank God for that. I thank Him each time I remember my father.
As I have thanked God over the years I have begun to realise the lesson learnt, that in actual fact God was never absent. God was in the gift. He was closer than I could ever have imagined. I was blinded by the grief, but have now woken up to his presence in every moment of my life, even in the darkest moments. He was at the bedside of father, he was in our hands held together, he was in the cloth that wiped his brow. He was in the hands of those who cared for him. God was always in the gift, the gift of love that my father and I shared in his last days.
One of the great problems of faith is how we reconcile our belief in a loving God with the reality of a suffering world. I learnt that God was in my father’s suffering, he was there bearing the pain, taking each breath with him, in every blood cell lost, in every tear shed. This is the God of the cross, of the wilderness. He is the one who comforts and is close to the brokenhearted. He will comfort you, and strengthen you and care for you. And even when he feels far from us, his gift of love is not.
This reflection is based on Luke 12:49-53
“I have not come to bring peace but cause division”
All throughout Jesus' ministry we find tough passages which seem to sit in contrast with what we would like to hear and what we think of as Jesus message.
All too often we skate over them but we shouldn’t.
Jesus came to earth with a two-part mission; to bring God’s message of love for his creation and that he desires for us to love and to love one another; and to give ultimate act of love in his sacrifice of himself on the cross.
However, this message of love does not come without disclaimers which can feel very contrary to this. Here Jesus’ disclaimer is warning us to expect division.
This is not ‘Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild’, this is the Jesus who turned the tables in the temple.
Today we see division all around us.
Our country is deeply divided, the wounds of Brexit alone are far from healed and I fear they will continue to carve deep for generations to come.
We are not alone, America is similarly divided by President Trump, gun laws, abortion laws, immigration policies. India’s Hindu leadership seems intent on discriminating against their Muslim citizens, and in South Sudan, two sides claiming to be Christians continue to battle against each other.
Why are we surrounded by such division? Because we are being asked to make a choice. As the old hymn goes; “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side.”
When tough choices have to be made there will be division.
This isn’t a case of do you like tomato ketchup or brown sauce, this is more vital than Remain or Leave. This is whether we have faith in God or not.
When we make the decision to follow Jesus we set ourselves apart and that will inevitably cause division. It is how to deal with that division which is important. We are called to love one another, love our neighbour, our enemy, even though division.
There are ways in which we can express our many differences, in love. With patience, listening, trying to understand, why people think the way they do, even if you don’t agree. Some of the best discussions can come from two people who are certain of why they think the way they do, and actually talk to each other about it, not shout at each other or put each other down. Not by picking holes or calling them names but in respectful conversation.
You only need to spend 10 minutes online reading the comments on any hot topic to see how quickly and easily it falls into a dark nasty place of name calling, condescension, and even people calling each other evil. So, I come to wonder if because Jesus tells us these divisions will be there, is it in these divisions we need to place ourselves and show love and react with love.
There is a famous saying my Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor from the last century;
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Division is often where injustice is found and we know we are called to act against injustice. So yes, I think where division lies is where we need to take ourselves and to ask ourselves what side would Jesus be on? Where would he sit on immigration, gun control, a fair wage for all, fair access to health care, discrimination, those demonized and those attacked just for being who they are?
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz gives an alternative to Niemöller’s poem.
First they came for the African Americans and I spoke up--
Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.
And then they came for the women and I spoke up--
Because women hold up half the sky.
And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up--
Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.
And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up--
Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.
And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up--
Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.
They keep coming.
We keep rising up.
Because we Jews know the cost of silence.
We remember where we came from.
And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbours, you come for us— and THAT just won’t stand.
I think is how it should go.
This is where our mission should be, discerning well what side of the division we should be, easing the pain, showing the love, reacting with patience and grace wanting to find understanding.
We shouldn’t be scared of division, it is to be expected, and we are to love through it, not avoid it.
Mrs Lydia Remick LLM
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.