Tuesday was the two year anniversary of my friend Kyle’s death. He was thirty-three when he unexpectedly died. For those of you who think that’s “old,” consider this – that’s only three years older than me, you college minister and seven years younger than Kevin, your youth minister. And he died; he was electrocuted when he went to baptize a friend. He died in front of 800 people. He died in front of his wife, his parents, and his friends. I tell you this, not to elicit sympathy or to manipulate your emotional perceptions, I tell you this simply so that you know that I understand. On some small level, I understand death.
Well, I understand it insofar as I have experienced it – second hand. I have been affected by death. I have felt the surprise, the grief, the confusion, the denial, the acceptance and the remembering.
On Tuesday I read 36 blogs trying to find someone who would give me one little snip-it of a memory of Kyle or a good story or anything that would make him seem alive – or at least keep his memory fresh. Because I live in a city where no one knew Kyle, it helps me feel connected to hear from other people about my friend. And of course, it helps Kyle stay alive.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories of people dealing with grief, who, in an effort to keep the person around, never change anything in the bedroom of the deceased person, the closet, the desk – everything remains the same. It’s their way of dealing with loss – and perhaps it helps them feel less lost themselves.
There’s something to our inherent desire to keep around those who have passed on. Often we keep a trinket, a photo, a letter, a tee-shirt to remind ourselves of them.
Other times, we fear the thought of it. To quote the Witch on Into the Woods, “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” she says callously, trying to cope with the death of her daughter, Rapunzel. That’s how I felt when my father’s parents, my grandparents died one week to the day of each other. For months, I dreamt they were still around: still sitting at the table at Thanksgiving. Still hovering over the hor d’oerves, still lingering in the kitchen, near the front door, in our house. “Can’t you see them?” I’d incredulously yell at my mother in my dream. But it was like she couldn’t hear me. Finally to my grandparents, to the ghosts/yet-not-ghosts still showing up in my dreams I tentatively asked, and then begged them to leave, to die already, for good – to not come back.
It seems cruel, but it was what I needed. I needed relief from the pressure of losing my grandparents, from the pressure their death put on me emotionally, I needed them gone.
But Kyle, Kyle I need back. He was the first person to let me preach in a church – and not just once, over and over I filled in for Kyle when he was gone, and sometimes when he was there. He helped me develop my preaching voice simply by giving me the opportunity to preach when others would not. And although our relationship was not perfect, I miss Kyle.
Perhaps that’s why Paul or the author of Hebrews says, “take heart my beloved children, you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses…” Be it Kyle or my grandparents, the witnesses of God’s glory are with us, “with us on our journey” as Burt Burleson asserts in the quote on the wall. They are here. Their stories are our stories! They are part of the great meta-narrative of God’s story in the world. It begins with Adam, or with Heidelberg man or Lucy or with whatever being first evolved and recognized God as her creator. From there we get Abraham and Hagar and Sarah and Joseph and Tamar and Moses and Rahab and David and Jesus and Paul and Augustine and Francis and Julian and Luther and Schleiermacher and John Paul II and Kyle and you and me…
Our stories are all connected and they are all wrapped into the story of God, the story of God ushering in the Kingdom through his Saints, through us. Truly we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They have passed their strength on to us. Their stories are re-told with our own. Their faith and un-faith have helped created the world we live in today. They are with us! They are the fog that we attempt to see through, to plot out our own story, unable to see past our noses, to set ourselves into the world with the seal of God upon our hearts.
Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice. Blessed are you who mourn because you know what it is to have tasted something good – and you are better equipped to create something more delightful yourself. Blessed are you who love God and love others for you have caught a glimpse of what it means to be children of God. I will weep when you weep for I know what it means to grieve and I will rejoice with you at the chance you had to glimpse a bit of God imaged in another person.
We touch each other – we touch each other’s lives. What we do and what we say and who we are makes a difference. Despite what the world tells us – we matter, we matter to each other. Even when we’re gone, our legacy, who we are in God is not insignificant, rather it may be the most important thing we do – love one other so that we may share the love of God.
And when you feel inadequate, when you feel like no one likes you or your job sucks or your life feels meaningless, put that behind you and look to the great cloud of witnesses who have helped you, loved you along the well – some of which are gone, but most of which are still here with you; vow to be that for someone else. You are a witness to someone else. You help their light shine in the darkness by sharing just a bit of yours.
And so this All Saints Day, we remember the saints, and ultimately the sinners who have gone before us; who have helped light the path only to merge eventually with the Great Light themselves. For them, we give thanks, for the exotically great and for the painfully normal; we give thanks for their souls. We light candles and declare that we remember. We light candles and shun the darkness’s desire to stifle our joy. We give thanks for our great cloud of witnesses.