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.
Not so long ago a certain computer retail company paid an external consultant to train their branch managers on ‘how to remember’. The process was simple; anything you needed to remember was visually placed on an imaginary ‘peg’ in your mind. The idea being that all you needed to do was recall the peg, and the important things would be there too; in essence, you could program your brain to not forget. Ridiculous! I can’t imagine how much the training cost but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap. Unfortunately, the outcome saw us managers able to recall random and fairly useless information at will, something that we didn’t really have too much difficulty with in the first place. Although entertaining at the time, one of the many mistakes the training made was to consider the act of remembering as something we do on our own.
November is a time when the act of remembrance can be a painful and tender process for many. All Saints Day can remind us that all too often following Christ can be costly; All Souls Day can remind us of the once filled spaces in our lives; and Remembrance Sunday can remind us of the high cost of freedom. November can also be a time of thanksgiving for the lives of those we have loved. Whatever emotions this month might bring it is good to remind ourselves that the act of remembering is not something we do on our own; in fact it is not something we can afford to do on our own. I would go as far to say that we cannot fully enter into the act of remembering unless it is done within a remembering community.
To be a part of a remembering community means that our memories become part of a bigger story. Our act of remembrance becomes a time where we rely upon each other, to support each other, to pray with each other. It is a time to help each other remember when we struggle to do so on our own.
Last month I celebrated with the Alzheimer’s Society their 4th anniversary of the Singing for the Brain group. The group that meets at All Saints on a Tuesday afternoon relies on the important truth that we can remember better together. Singing and music is particularly important as a way in to remembering together. Jesus demonstrated this well when he shared in the Passover with his friends, and worshipped in the synagogues.
Jesus taught us that remembering was an act that only fully made sense within a community, with others. He shared bread and wine with friends and asked them to remember him (Luke 22:14-20). And together the disciples realised Jesus had risen from the tomb when they remembered his words (Luke 24:1-8 & 30-31). These passages remind us that a remembering community can transform the act of remembrance into healing and resurrection.
My prayer for us this November is that as we remember we might also know Jesus’ healing, and be encouraged in the truth of his resurrection. May Jesus teach us ‘how to remember’ and with it may we receive his healing and life-giving power.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.