October 31, 2007

For All the Saints

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

—William Walsham How, 1864

I miss my grandfather. I miss him a lot.

I miss his gentle demeanor, his conciliatory style. He had to be this way, I imagine, to put up with the likes of my fiery, dispensationalist grandmother. People often looked to him in moments of conflict. His even-tempered, Big Easy style was a balm to many in tense times.

I miss his quiet, consistent Christian example. He was a Presbyterian's Presbyterian. The more decent and orderly the worship service, the more Christian it seemed to him. He liked being Clerk of his Session, giving glory to God with every little dotted "i" and crossed "t." And he was a pragmatist: Show me what this looks like in real life, preacher. His gospel was that of the ordinary man, the everyman, which more than anything else accounts for why he had the respect of those who daily worked below him. Probably because he believed, he never got too big for his britches. Still, he dressed to the nines on Sunday morning—an hourly warehouse manager at home among the double-breasted suits of 1950s midtown New Orleans. How is it that a man can fill out a sport coat with both humility and pride?

I miss him a great deal, and that pathos is made more poignant by the fact that I never had the chance to meet him. His heart gave out nearly two decades before my birth. Add to this loss the fact that I bear his name.

Call me crazy, but when over the years the going has gotten rough for me, I've found myself opening up my laptop and tapping away more than a few letters to him. What should I do? What's the right and wrong here? Did you ever get discouraged? confused? Of course I've never sent these notes anywhere, nor do I imagine he is necessarily on the "other end" of my pretend communications. Mostly I just find it helps a little to dabble in his memory. I'd like to think that somehow I am an inheritor of his Christian faith as much as I am his faded royal blue recliner that sits under wraps in my basement, badly in need of new upholstery.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us … (Hebrews 12:1)

I've never quite been certain what Hebrews means, metaphysically speaking, by a "cloud of witnesses." The precise architecture of the rest known to those who die in Christ is not known to me, though I am acquainted with the provocative Biblical clues. Yet the promise in 12:1 that we are not alone in this pilgrimage, that those faith-travelers who have walked before us somehow cheer us on even now, this is more than a bit encouraging to me. I know this much: I feel a strong and personal connection to a man I never met, and this bond is tied up more in our shared Christ-faith than in the simple fact of our shared biology. His example encourages me in desperate hours; his consistency gives me something for which to strive. His legacy surrounds me like a brooding cloud.

To be sure, the feet of those saints who have gone on before us were made of just as much clay as our own. It is not our place to idealize them, much less worship them. To whitewash their brokenness only obscures the very gospel many of them sought to teach us. What we give thanks for in our remembering, I think, are those rays of God's suffusing grace that shine through their lingering clouds of witness. We see through them, as it were, to catch here and there a glimpse of the living Christ and his good way.

Ralph Acey Hawkins was his name. He was yet another sinner-turned-saint by the inscrutable grace of God—made by the Father, claimed by the Son, sustained by the Spirit between them. We never met, he and I. Yet, strangely and wonderfully, we share a lasting bond, mostly because we share a living Lord. I very much look forward to meeting him in the promised resurrection to come.

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thursday is All Saints Day. Take more than a moment to thank the living God for the indelible gift of those family and friends who have gone on before you, especially those who have left faith, hope, and love in their wake. If you can name even one, you have much to treasure on the morrow.