“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” Revelation 7:9-17
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…” 1 John 3:1-3
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…” Matthew 5:1-12
Ray Steinbis died this week.
Only a handful of you would have known him, but those of you who did will remember a soft spoken, gentle man. At least that is how I will always remember him. And I will remember this: how his story intersected with mine at a particularly tender time.
It was December of 1996. Nancy Lepisto had died. Nancy’s husband, Antti, had been the pastor of my parents’ church and had been my ordination sponsor not so many years earlier.
They had moved to Duluth a few years before and so her funeral and burial would be held there — far out of reach of many of those who had been so touched by their ministry, my family included.
Now Ray was a pilot (dating back to his service in the Air Force during the Korean War) and the word came that he planned to fly himself along with others to Duluth for the funeral.
I will not ever forget a conversation in my folks’ living room that December. My dad (who would die in less than a month himself) was lamenting the fact that he could not go along. His own health was too fragile, his own strength ebbing away by then. I remember looking across the room at him and seeing two things: the utter impossibility of his being able to make that journey and the huge loss he was feeling at not being able to participate in, be alongside for, show his profound love for those precious people in their time of loss. Indeed, it seemed he was already losing part of what made him human, part of what made him whole. Without a doubt, he was grieving that in addition to the loss of a beloved friend.
I believe this is surely part of what makes this particular season so very hard for many of us which has come home to me once more with the news of Ray’s dying.
For Ray has, because of this pandemic, been cut off from children and grandchildren and great grandchildren these last seven months. As a resident in a care facility, their only contact with him has been through a closed window or the flat screen of a video call. In his last months they were not able to hold his hand, whisper their love into his ear, keep vigil with him in his final days. I do not argue with these restrictions, I do not. But they come with a huge cost — one that seems to have us losing part of who we have always understood ourselves to be together.
And yes, that cost seems especially weighty as we approach All Saints Day.
For this has long been a day of gathering together. In this place, this has been a day which begins with the resounding strains of ‘For All the Saints’ and ends with the dancing percussion of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In…’ And in the middle we read the names, sound the bells, light the candles one by one by countless one until the whole place is alight with palpable memory and almost tangible hope.
And it, along with so many precious rituals which help to tie us to all who we have been and all we will one day be, will simply not be ours this year.
At least not here where the COVID-19 numbers are rising.
No, not here, not this time.
And with it and with every other loss which we have had to set aside to hopefully more fully tend later, with all the funerals cut back or postponed, it feels like we are losing a part of ourselves, a part of what makes us human, this before taken for granted ability to voice both our lament and our hope together. And to stand close together as we do so.
Oh, without a doubt, I suspect now that this had to have been what my dad felt 24 Decembers ago.
Whether we name it this or not, simply put, it feels like dying.
So how are we to hear the words of promise which are ours again this November 1st?
What does it mean to you and to me and to all of us that while we cannot physically wipe away the tears of those beloved ones who grieve, God surely can and God surely does stoop down to do so?
How are we to live into the promised identity as ‘children of God’ in a new day in a new way?
And when, oh when, will the promised comfort of those who mourn be ours, all of ours, once more or maybe for the first time?
Where do we ground our hope when our cherished rituals are no more?
- Do we light the candles on our own in our own private, sacred spaces, speaking the names of beloved ones as we do so?
- Do we take a solitary walk through a cemetery as has often been my practice on November 1st, remembering that this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ stretches far beyond what our own small imaginations can possibly hold? (For since I cannot even being to take in the names and the dates and the stories behind every gravestone in the cemetery behind my house, how can I possibly begin to comprehend the innumerable ones just like it the world over?)
- Do we listen even more closely to the words of scripture this year, knowing as we have always known that while the Promise is true, it is still not yet entirely fulfilled?
Do we recognize, as my dad surely had to do so long ago, that in our dying (and yes, we all are) there are some things we may no longer be able to do as we once did — at least for now — and that even though it feels like it, we are not ‘less than’ as we are forced to go ever deeper in our trust, in our hope, knowing, believing that God holds together what we never possibly could anyway. Not before all of this, and ever more obviously, not now.
The rituals matter. I cherish them, I do. And I grieve all that has been lost that I still believe helps make us more fully human in this hard, hard time. Even so, there is comfort in the knowing that even what we have always done only points us beyond now to something more. Something even more true. Something so much more solid. And that is God’s love which names us children of God, and who reaches down to wipe away tears no human being can touch. No matter how much we wish we could.
Perhaps this year pushes me and maybe you, too, to rest deeper in that now more than ever before.
Maybe this year as I come to terms with all that feels like ‘dying’ now — and it is ‘dying’ — Maybe the gift will be that I can rest more surely in the promises of God which are truly grounded in Life itself. Life in the midst of this dying. And Life beyond it, too.
I pray that this is so for you as well.
- How will your All Saints Day look different this year? Or will it?
- Rituals matter, but they only point to a greater mystery. If you are in a situation where things cannot be as they were a year ago, where and how is your hope being grounded?
- How does the promise that God will ‘wipe every tear from our eyes’ speak to you this year? What does it mean that ‘we are children of God’ especially in this time? Where can comfort be found even in this time of mourning? Can we even begin to imagine now how much more fully that ‘comfort’ will be experienced in God’s Time?