All Saints Day (Psalm 149)

All Saints Day I, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

Praise the Lord!

Sing a new song to the Lord;
    sing his praise in the meeting of his people.

Let the Israelites be happy because of God, their Maker.
    Let the people of Jerusalem rejoice because of their King.
They should praise him with dancing.
    They should sing praises to him with tambourines and harps.
The Lord is pleased with his people;
    he saves the humble.
Let those who worship him rejoice in his glory.
    Let them sing for joy even in bed!

Let them shout his praise
    with their two-edged swords in their hands.
They will punish the nations
    and defeat the people.
They will put those kings in chains
    and those important men in iron bands.
They will punish them as God has written.
    God is honored by all who worship him.

Praise the Lord! (New Century Version)

Most of us are aware and in touch with how imperfect we are. Sometimes we view our imperfections as failure, weakness, or sin. But how does God see us? In what way does the eternally perfect, infinitely strong, and sovereign Lord feel about us?

The Lord is happy with his people, he is pleased with us. And because God is delighted with people, the Lord saves the humble in heart, beautifies the unlovely, and turns the sinner into a saint.

Throughout the ages, the faithful have experienced the love of God. Even now, they are rejoicing, singing for joy, and celebrating the ways God changed them to make the world a better place.

On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us, to acknowledge that God has always taken pleasure in using imperfect broken people to impact the world.  

Today is meant to be a day of remembrance – a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as the long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant difference in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is more than simply acknowledging extraordinary persons; today also highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith.

We remember today that:

  • Christians everywhere and throughout time are united and connected to one another.
  • God’s good pleasure saves and redeems all sorts of people.
  • Underprivileged and underserved people are noticed by God and God’s saints.
  • Influential people in our lives, now in the presence of the Lord, can be honored through emulating their faith and perseverance.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

All Saints Day II, by Kandinsky, 1911

Who went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions? 

Who wrestled in prayer for you so that you and others might know God? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

We truly stand on the shoulders of faithful and wise people those who have gone before us. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith by remembering them; and also by allowing people now, presently with us, to join us in our journey along the road of faith.

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

God uses symbols as a means of revelation and remembrance. We need both special days and ordinary events;  shared meals and silent fasting, tangible signs and necessary endings, active rituals and passive observances, iconic images and iconoclastic nonconformity.

We need both words and sacraments – to have days set apart for gathering together and expressing our verbal gratitude and love for each other, as well as giving our nonverbal gifts of food, fun, and friendship.

Our shared spiritual history connects us to God, to one another, and to all of God’s people who have gone before us. We remember that history by energizing our time together with words and symbols of care and redemption.

Christ told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words: 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you.” (Luke 22:7-20)

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are past historical events which are now presently forgotten. Yet, there are also past actions that ripple and linger with continuing results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continually exert powerful force into the here and now.

The saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them, we proclaim:

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again.

And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Remember and celebrate, eat and drink, taste and see, that the Lord is good.

May we remember the Lord’s people and never forget their example of godly living.

Our spiritual ancestors in faith continue to praise the Lord, to proclaim that God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help. Let us follow in their footsteps.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace to emulate your saints by living virtuous and godly lives so that we may share the joy you have prepared for those who truly love you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns as one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So, do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Confidence is necessary for the Christian life. It’s not optional. One can only persevere through trouble with some confident hope.

It’s one thing to bear up under a hard circumstance for a few days or weeks. It’s altogether another thing for that same hardship to continue for months, even years.

Living with such adversity everyday makes one tired… really tired. Feelings of hopelessness slowly creep within. And, after a while, the person or group of people just want the madness to end. So, they simply give up, being lost in their troubles, feeling alone and bereft of options.

Without the confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and that the present is bad.

Instead, we can recall and remember the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity.

In earlier times, they were insulted and persecuted. Yet, they showed solidarity with others in similar situations. The believers were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was so much more than this present life and it’s possessions.

But the persecution and the insults continued… day after day… with no apparent end….

The Christians began to lose their grip on faith. They needed to reconnect with their purpose, with why they were Christians to begin with.

Originally, the reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. They understood that people have eternal value, not stuff, so the believers willingly focused their efforts in helping others.

However, over time, the band of believers lost their focus. All they could see was the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

What to do? Give up? Renege on faith? Adopt a “whatever will be, will be,” sort of philosophy?

No. Instead,

Remember what God has done for you.

Affirm what is right, just, and true.

Embrace faith and patience.

That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. Things were askew and not right. So, he complained to God about it. 

God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. 

The prophet was having a hard time, and it seemed God was only making things worse, not better.

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

Perhaps the most significant faith experience we can have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth we all must eventually come around to is that joy and security is independent of what’s going on around us. 

Even though we face difficulty, and even evil, confidence can still exist and thrive within us. We can still rejoice because we don’t need everything to go our way in order to be happy.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. For them to remain rooted within us, we must affirm our commitment to Christ daily. And that requires remembering.

What’s more, there is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals.

So, be mindful of the things which are most important to you; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety. Don’t throw away your spiritual confidence, just because things are continually hard.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen. – The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 – I and Thou

I pray to you, Lord God,
    and I beg you to listen.
In days filled with trouble,
    I search for you.
And at night I tirelessly
lift my hands in prayer,
    refusing comfort…

Our Lord, I will remember
the things you have done,
    your miracles of long ago.
I will think about each one
    of your mighty deeds.
Everything you do is right,
and no other god
    compares with you.
You alone work miracles,
and you have let nations
    see your mighty power.
With your own arm you rescued
your people, the descendants
    of Jacob and Joseph.

The ocean looked at you, God,
and it trembled deep down
    with fear.
Water flowed from the clouds.
    Thunder was heard above
as your arrows of lightning
    flashed about.
Your thunder roared
    like chariot wheels.
The world was made bright
by lightning,
    and all the earth trembled.

You walked through the water
    of the mighty sea,
but your footprints
    were never seen.
You guided your people
    like a flock of sheep,
and you chose Moses and Aaron
    to be their leaders. (Contemporary English Version)

“A person becomes whole not in virtue of a relation to oneself only, but rather in virtue of an authentic relation to another.”

Martin Buber

We all have experienced what it means to be in distress. Whether it is physical pain, financial stress, mental agony, spiritual duress, or emotional overwhelm, the feeling of being distressed is inevitably a part of the human condition.

Questions abound whenever we are in throes of distress: What do I do? How do I cope? From where does my help come? Is there hope? Will this ever go away? Why is this happening?

We don’t know what the psalmist’s distress was, but he was in trouble up to his eyeballs and as anxious as can be. His feeling of being trapped and caught between a rock and hard place was palpable. So, he looked for deliverance.

In 1937, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber wrote an insightful book entitled “I and Thou.” Buber postulated how people exist in the world and how they actualize that existence. We engage the world through both monologue and dialogue. For Buber, “all real living is meeting.” In other words, to exist, to live, is to encounter another and relate to a “Thou.” We only have meaning in relationships. We only have our being in God.

The psalmist acknowledges there is a “Thou” besides his distressed “I” – that this Thou will hear, make a difference, and open a way of deliverance. There are four actions the psalmist decides to do in his distress, actions which put him in a vital dialogue with the divine “Thou.”

I pray

Prayer, at its heart, is a dialogue with God. From the place of our spiritual poverty and bankruptcy, we beg; and God gives us the kingdom. To be a spiritual beggar, pleading for our needs to be met, knowing we have no way to repay, is a posture which God delights in.

Great blessings belong to those who know they are spiritually in need. God’s kingdom belongs to them. (Matthew 5:3, ERV)

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, MSG)

I Search

In the I and Thou relationship, the search works both ways.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways….

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:1-2, 23-24, NIV)

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8, NRSV)

I Remember

The psalmist intentionally sought to recall the mighty works of God, especially in delivering the people from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. In our forgetfulness, we get lost in our troubles and our perspective becomes skewed. We cannot see beyond the end of our nose. Remembering, however, grants us a fuller picture of what is happening in light of the past. It brings us out of the lonely “I” and into the relationship of “I and Thou.”

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 

Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Hebrews 10:32-36, NIV)

I Meditate

Pondering and thinking upon God’s deeds enables praise to arise from us. It fosters the I and Thou relationship, bolstering and buoying our faith through life-events which produce our distress.

I lie awake thinking of you,
    meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper,
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 63:6-7, NLT)

Thou Art Worthy

The psalm ends with no resolution to the personal distress of the psalmist.

Whether there is a happy ending, or not, isn’t the point. It’s the process, the journey of moving through our troubles and discovering lessons from both the presence and the absence of God, which makes all the difference. We learn to pray, search, remember, and meditate because of and despite our troubles. We learn to relate to God and proclaim that Thou art worthy.

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (Revelation 4:11, KJV)

Amen.

Joshua 4:14-24 – The Importance of Visual Reminders

That day the Lord brought honor to Joshua before all Israel. They respected him all his life, just as they had respected Moses.

The Lord told Joshua, “Instruct the priests carrying the ark of the covenantal laws to come up from the Jordan.” So, Joshua instructed the priests, “Come up from the Jordan!” The priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord came up from the middle of the Jordan, and as soon as they set foot on dry land, the water of the Jordan flowed again and returned to flood stage.

The people went up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month and camped in Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. Now Joshua set up in Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken from the Jordan. He told the Israelites, “When your children someday ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones represent?’explain to your children, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you while you crossed over. It was just like when the Lord your God dried up the Red Sea before us while we crossed it.He has done this so all the nations of the earth might recognize the Lord’s power and so you might always obey the Lord your God.” (New English Translation)

On my hospital office desk, where I can see it every day, is a scapular. “Scapular” is the Latin word for “shoulders.” A scapular typically consists of two small pieces of cloth, a few inches in size, which has a religious image on one, and a message on the other. There are two bands of cloth connecting the message or image.

The wearer places one square on the chest, rests the bands on each shoulder and lets the second square drop down the back. Worn by some Catholic faithful, the scapular serves to remind the believer of their commitment to live a Christian life.

The particular scapular I have in my possession was given to me by a patient when I was first starting out as a hospital chaplain. I was called to the room of a dying patient. He was afraid of death. So, we conversed together for an hour about his life, his fears, and his devotion to faith. At the end of the conversation, the patient took off the scapular he was wearing, which states, “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”

Regardless of what you think about scapulars and the particular message on this one, most important to me is what the patient said next with tears in his eyes: “I’ve worn this scapular every day for the past forty years. Here, I want you to have it. I don’t need it anymore. I am no longer afraid of death.”

The patient died. But he died at peace with God and without fear. I keep his scapular on my desk as a constant reminder of why I am a hospital chaplain, and how important the work I do is. Anytime I get discouraged or have a hard day, when I return to my office, the scapular reminds and reorients me that the spiritual care of patients is a privileged and sacred responsibility.

The ancient Israelites were finally ready to enter the Promised Land. The twelve tribes miraculously crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. God had stopped the water from flowing. After everyone crossed over, the river went back to flowing again.

Joshua, their leader, instructed people from each tribe to take a large stone from the river and place them in a heap for two didactic reasons:

1) To educate future generations inside Israel that God kept the promise to bring them into a land of abundance; and

2) To educate those outside Israel that God is mighty.

It’s important that we all have a continual awareness of why we are here on this earth and what our purpose is. Our history is significant and needs to be remembered.

Yet, there are many families and faith communities in which the children know little about how God worked in their parents’ lives, not to mention the many previous generations. Having tangible reminders of God’s past actions helps everyone remember. 

Just as people ask me about why I have a scapular on my desk, so having reminders of God’s grace in prominent visible places serves to aid all ages of folks to ask why those mementos are there.

It is good to have visual reminders of faith and the faithful people who influenced us around our homes, places of work, and communities so that others may discover and know the redemptive acts of God, that the Lord keeps promises.

Almighty God, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in faith and patience. May we remember them and their service well. We humbly pray that, at the day of resurrection, we and all who are members of the mystical body of your Son may be set on his right hand, and hear his most joyful voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen