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For All the Saints

By November 15, 2007 No Comments
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. –Heb 11:39-40

Five years ago this month, I was in Paris. And my friend was dying in Michigan.

I had left for Paris very much aware that I might never see him again. The cancer had hit fast and hard, and the doctors measured the time he had left in weeks, not months. Over those weeks he had moved from sitting on the couch in the family room, talking and eating, to reclining in his easy chair with a blanket over him, to lying flat out in a hospital bed in the living room. His broad smile was replaced by sunken cheeks. His mischievous eyes dulled. We were losing him.

I didn’t want to go to Paris. It was a long-planned vacation to visit friends. He told me to go. “Go,” he said, “have fun. It’s a once-in-lifetime thing. What can you do here?” “Be with you,” I wanted to say. “You’re a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

But he was right, and I left. One night in Paris I dreamt of him and in the morning I knew. He was gone. The email I received confirmed what I already knew. He was gone. The funeral would take place the day I was to fly back. I emailed in my eulogy and someone else read it.

Seminarians learn in pastoral-care classes about the closure that comes with attending a funeral. We learn too that we miss out on that when we miss the funeral. I missed out on that. And I still miss him. If you come to my office you’ll see a picture of him. He’s laying his hand on my head at my ordination. And he’s in that picture because my ordination was his fault. My being here is his fault. He would laugh, maybe he is laughing, that I put it that way: his fault.

But he is the reason I’m here: he was my pastor during elementary school and the embodiment of my external call to ministry. My cheering section. My wise counselor. My spiritual father. My friend.

In Hebrews, the writer talks about believers who suffered, believers who weren’t complete without us, believers who went before so that we could come behind. When I think of Hebrews 11, I think of him.

He hated his cancer. Hated the diagnosis. Pleaded with God for healing. Pleaded for it to be taken away. He pleaded for a miracle. We all did. He suffered, those last weeks. Suffered like other believers have suffered. Faced physical pain and spiritual crisis. Wrestled like Jacob, prayed like Hannah, wept like Jesus at the presence of death.

And, like his Jesus, surrendered himself to the will of God.

He died in October, five years ago.

We remember him and all the others like him on All Saints’ Day, a day set aside by the Church to honor those who have gone before. Not those who are better or holier, for that’s not what a saint is, but those who were used by God to touch our lives. Who called us into ministry. Who convicted us, prayed for us, challenged us. Who saw God in our lives and pointed him out. Who put their hands on our shoulders and turned us in God’s direction. Who took our hands and led us on.

I know one of my saints. Who are yours? A pious grandmother? A Sunday school teacher? A professor? A friend? An anonymous preacher at some Christian camp?

God uses people to bring us to him.

God uses humans to show us the divine.

God uses saints to see us through this life.

I know one of my saints, one of the people God used in my life. That person would shake his head at me today, at the thought of being a saint. He came from another tradition, where saints were people with halos and harps. He wouldn’t think of himself as a saint.

But it doesn’t matter. He was to me. He was to me.

Thanks be to God.

Mary S. Hulst is assistant professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This column is adapted from a homily she gave in a chapel service there, 31 October 200