I remember distinctly the day I fell in love with tradition and liturgy. It was All Saints day, 2007 at Trinity UMC in Gainesville, FL. For as long as I can remember my church has had the tradition where the last Sunday in October we remember all those who died the following year by showing their picture and ringing a bell. If you knew the person, as the bell is rung, you silently stand in honor of them and their connection to your life. In 2007 I had only stood up a couple of times, and almost stood up a few others, but in general had not thought very much of it.
In 2007, our church lost a young man named Chris Neiberger. He was about my age, we had been in the same Boy Scout troop for a few years, and I had seen his family a bit around church. We had never hung out, and would not have put his name on a list of friends. Chris was an Infantryman in Iraq and died after an IED explosion in Baghdad. His death struck me in a very strange way. It is the first time I personally knew someone who had died in war, and brought the US war efforts home to me. I had not been able to make his service because of school, however, on that All Saints Sunday as his name was called, I stood. In that little action, standing next to my parents, we honored his memory, a life well lived, and a deep and generous faith. I realized in that moment the power of liturgy and tradition which allow us to make sense of the world around us. What was for many people just a yearly tradition became for me the language I needed to articulate something deep within myself that I could not have otherwise.
As I thought about All Saints Sunday today, I remembered my grandmother who died last December. Yesterday at my church, her picture was shown and a bell was rung, but I could not stand. As much as I wish I could have been there to participate with my family and my church family, the liturgy and tradition which gave me comfort in honoring Chris’ death also gives me the comfort for Granny’s as well. That is the other power in traditions, they are consistent. It does not need me to be there for it to happen because those things are not for me in the first place. The bells are rung whether anyone stands or not because as Christians we stop belonging just to our families and friends; we join a family of believers most of whom we will never meet. Most of my church never met my grandmother. But yesterday they saw her picture, heard her bell, and remembered her for me. That gives me comfort.
Today I attended the funeral of a woman named Mildred. She died right before I began working with North Road and so I never got the chance to meet her though I had met her daughter, a church member, several times. She told me that her mom, who was the child of a methodist minister, would have wanted me there–that is just who she was. It is an odd thing to attend a funeral for a stranger. But, at the same time, there is something very affirming and Christian about it. Since the beginnings of the Church, we have been a people who remembered our dead and the eternal hope which Christ offers to us, so that even though we die, will be given a new life in Him. Christian funerals (and Christian lives) proclaim this hope and celebrate it. It was an honor to be there for Mildred’s service and I was encouraged by the testimony given about her life.
As we enter into the end of the Church’s calendar and prepare to celebrate All Saints’ Day, let us remember those people we have lost who are closest to us, and those we lost and yet never knew:
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.