Today is All Saints Day. I don't ever remember celebrating All Saints Sunday when I was growing up. (I apologize to my former pastor for forgetting if we did!) But in seminary, we always had an All Saints-themed worship in chapel, and the church I served as youth pastor also had a day to remember those in the congregation who died during the previous year. When I started serving St. Paul's, I introduced an All Saints Sunday celebration. My first and second years were filled, it seemed, with deaths of long-time faithful members, and I think as a congregation we were grieving for the collective loss, and I hoped an All Saints celebration would be a way to give voice to our community grief.
This year, we have just a handful of folks who've passed away that are directly related to the congregation, though one loss is very recent and very difficult - a young mother, who died after a battle with ALS, which is just a horrific disease. But regardless of the numbers, I find it a meaningful time to reflect on who we've lost, why we loved them, and how we might wish to live in a way that we too could be so loved.
I think we, perhaps as an American society, perhaps just as human beings, do interesting things to history when people die. What one has been and how one lived and what one did during their days on earth don't always have a lot to do with how we remember them. This is essential, merciful, grace-full, forgiving, and sometimes troubling all at once. Human beings have a wonderful way of forgetting history, and sometimes this is extremely detrimental. On the other hand, things that seemed so important to remember, to hold grudges over, to tally up when someone was living can seem pretty trivial in light of our mortality. Perhaps, hoping that others won't hold all of our bad deeds, no doubt readily accessible to our own minds, against us when we're gone, we're anxious to forgive and forget when others pass.
My youngest brother and I got in a conversation about these sort of things the other day. By conversation, I mean argument. But it was ok - Todd and I have similar personalities in a lot of ways, and we're both stubborn, and we take some sort of strange pleasure out of arguing topics to the point of ridiculousness. Anyway, we were talking about Todd's plans for the future. As an actor, they are ever-changing. He was dreaming about opening an 'institute' for the performing arts, and thinking about naming buildings and things after all the people who influenced him. I, knowing some of these influencers, mentioned my surprise at some of his choices. So many flaws among some of those he named. Do you honor such a person? Where do you draw the line? I had in mind a particular person from the area who died in a way we consider 'heroic', but who I knew to be a not nice person in some significant ways - abusive to women, for example. Yet, he's memorialized around these parts - is that smart? What does that say?
Or, for another example: Martin Luther King, Jr. A man with flaws, serious flaws. A man who moved millions, continues to move people. But, he's held up so high as a cultural icon that we easily ignore the harder, challenging things he said, worked for. One of my favorite poems about MLK, by Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., says: "Now that he is safely dead / Let us praise him / build monuments to his glory / sing hosannas to his name. / Dead men make / such convenient heroes: They cannot rise / to challenge the images / we would fashion from their lives. / And besides, / it is easier to build monuments / than to make a better world."
There is something about making people into saints that takes away their power to really touch us, because as soon as we 'saint' them, we make them something we don't think we can become. We make MLK's dream unrealistic, because we know we're no MLK.
And yet, I'm not sure we can help but make heroes of those we admire. When I was in junior-high, I regularly kept a 'hero-list'. I will confess to you that I a bit(?!) arrogantly consider myself hard to impress, so the list was pretty hard to get onto. But I can remember today almost everyone whose name graced the list, and I remember how and why they got there. A couple teachers, a classmate or two, some family members, people in the arts, even an inspirational speaker that came to speak to us. I like to think they gave me something to work for, a model to be like, to try to be like at least.
Ah, the end of the post, and no clear conclusions. Somewhere between cynicism and hope...