My ordained ministry began on a boat in a storm in deep grief. Days after my ordination to the transitional diaconate, and before graduating seminary, I returned home to Alaska to commit my father’s ashes to the sea – it was my first act of ordained ministry. My father had taken his own life in January of my senior year, and a few months later we were home, very pregnant with our first child, in order to do the final formality of interment. Even in spring in Southeast Alaska the weather can be volatile, and we embarked from the harbor on a blustery gray morning. We were heading only a short distance of maybe 30 minutes or so, across the bay to one of my father’s favorite fishing spots, ironically called Tranquil Point, and when we arrived, the seas were already churning. It was not tranquil. I had prepared a script for a short committal service, using the Book of Common Prayer and favorite poems of my father’s, and there may have been a song. But, as the boat pitched and bucked in the waves, my family hanging on for support, and my lovely pregnant wife who was already prone to seasickness turning green in the face, I realized we needed to say a prayer, spread his ashes, and leave. And we did. It may have been the quickest committal service ever done.
As we turned toward home, waves of sadness that I had somehow kept at bay for weeks, began to roll over me. They would not soon leave. I began my ordained ministry on a boat, in a storm, in deep grief.
And, that grief has been, it seems at times, like a constant companion in ministry. When I have stood at the bedside of the dying, or listened to the heartbreak of expectant parents after a miscarriage, when counseling someone who has relapsed in addiction, or been present with someone who feels like they’ve lost their faith, that grief has been just there, in the background, a reminder that so much of life is marked by losses both ambiguous and exact. So too, in those instances, like on that boat, I’ve had to throw out the script. Those moments are often places where the answers we’ve been given don’t seem adequate to the enormity of the loss, where the truths we are equipped with, seem puny in comparison to the grief and pain in front of us, and I confess I have often wondered how to lead and minister in the face of these things. Many are the times that I have found myself praying that brilliant searching prayer of discernment by Thomas Merton:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.…
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
That prayer came back afresh and anew this week as I prayed and prepared to preach. This year grief seems intertwined with every moment, each experience shot through with a certain sense of loss. For some the losses have been ambiguous – the disconnection, the loneliness, the missed events and adaptations we’ve all made to living in a pandemic. For others, the losses are quite specific – the death of loved ones for whom we have not been able to fully mourn, the loss of jobs and income, the loss of community and connection.
Today, the church celebrates All Saints, a feast that along with its sister feast tomorrow, All Souls, is touched by and shot through with a sense of loss and grief. The lesson from the Revelation of John shows a great multitude, of every tribe and tongue and nation, gathered before the throne and before the Lamb, and we are told, “These are they who have come out of great tribulation.” These saints of God are the ones who have faced all manner of strife and struggle, endured hardships and persecution, who have encountered great loss. What an image that we can relate to. With hundreds of thousands dead in our own nation alone this year from the pandemic, this picture of a global community, gathered by the unifying experience of loss, is at once poignant and painful. Yet, the angel tells John, if God is in the midst of them, then God will minister to them like a shepherd, comforting, feeding, guiding, and consoling. “And he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Today when we celebrate All the Saints who from their journeys rest, we are given a reminder that while the church will often lift up and remember individuals whose lives point us to God, that Scripture only ever uses the word “saints” in the plural. And to observe this feast of those whose lives lift up and define blessedness, our gospel tells us “Blessed are those who mourn.” What this might mean to us is that Jesus is assuring us that especially when we mourn, especially when we are in deep grief, precisely there, we are at once and most of all in the hands of a loving, blessing, healing God. Pastor and author the Rev’d Nadia Bolz-Weber writes:
[W]hat if the Beatitudes aren’t…a list of conditions we should try to meet to be blessed? What if they are not virtues we should aspire to?…Maybe the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus’ lavish blessing of the people around him on that hillside, blessing all the accidental saints in this world, especially those who that world — like ours — didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain…
So we might read the gospel this morning in the light of the realities of 2020 of our collective experience of disease and death. We might read the gospel in the light of hundreds of thousands of migrants forced to leave their homes because of violence and poverty. We might read it in the light of the hundreds of children detained or being deported at our borders, separated indefinitely from parents and loved ones and thousands of miles from home. Inspired by Pastor Nadia we might write a whole new set of Beatitudes.
Blessed are those who have been touched by grief in this pandemic.
Blessed are the parents working and homeschooling and making it all happen all at once all under the same roof.
Blessed are the single parents and those with no parents.
Blessed is the teenager coming out to his family.
Blessed are the out of work and the homeless.
Blessed are those being reconciled to their families and those who are still estranged.
Blessed are those that reject the idea that they are what they do, who hunger for a life and a vocation with meaning and depth.
Blessed are those who fear for the outcome of this election.
Blessed are those who resist.
Blessed are the parents of black and brown children who fear every time they leave the house.
Blessed are those who live alone.
Blessed are those for whom the special interest groups and big money will never speak.
Blessed are those who mourn – for the loved ones they cannot yet bury, for the loss of dignity in our national political discourse, for the death of innocence and the innocent, for the end of civility and respect.
Blessed are you, wherever you are this morning, and with whatever you are facing.
God is with you, say our scriptures, and he will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
Together, in the midst of the storms of life, in the midst of individual struggle and political strife, in and among suffering both communal and personal, in deep grief and loss, we are called to the ministry of holding one another, lifting each other up, praying with and for one another, feeding, tending, loving as best we can, trusting that God is with us and will always be. And, even more than this, more than doing these things, this feast today is a reminder that saints are rarely chosen for their virtues or because their lives somehow fulfill the resume requirements of saintliness. Rather, saints are those blessed by the abundance of God’s love, who in the midst of stumbling, hurting, frustrating imperfection, in the midst of loss and deep grief, were chosen by God to somehow make known his love in the world. You, my friends, are called to be saints.