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Revelation/Revolution–All Saints’ Day 2010

November 10, 2010

photo by Michal Zacharzewski, Poland

Some say this world of trouble
Is the only one we need
But I’m waiting for that morning
When the new world is revealed

“When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” Louis Armstrong

It’s always interesting to me to learn what rituals congregations use to memorialize the saints of the church. It’s a fairly high-church concept for a lot of folks in New England; either that, or they tend to think it’s really the province of our brethren in the Catholic churches. There’s usually some discussion over whether to do All Saints in church on either the Sunday before or the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, since it typically falls during the week. I’m a fan of the “always after, not before” approach, but I like to be fashionably late to parties too, so there may be an inappropriate correlation there.

At Franklin Federated, our ritual of the saints involves reading the names of the Saints who died over the past year, and lighting a candle for each of them. Then we recite the names of saints that are still “weighing in” our hearts, those that well may have died quite some time ago, but are still part of our day-to-day reflection and experience. Last year, I made the mistake of really trying to get folks on board with the sense of keeping it to the saints of the year just passed. People care too much about those they’ve lost here, and in effect what it might have felt like was the pastor telling them to “get over it.” Never my intention, but certainly one way to look at it. Regardless, this year we had folks come up and light a candle for anyone they wanted to remember, regardless of how long it had been, whether they were a church member, or whatever. Loss is loss. It’s not for us to put a timetable on grief or do be insensitive to what (or whom) folks are carrying. At the end of reading all the names, I tolled the bell once for each name. It was almost thirty names by the time the last person had come up, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that big low C# hand bell wasn’t feeling pretty heavy by the end.

But the weight was good. It felt right to be a little sore after tolling the saints. It hurts to lose them, and it hurts to think about how we go on. A little rubbery arm for a day or so is a small price.

That was the high point of All Saints. They low happened earlier in the week. At the Franklin Interfaith Council meeting I offered to bring a prayer for the group. I love the interfaith work with the Council, and it’s an easy body to want to worship with. Our next service together is Sunday, November 21st at 7 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where we’ll do a service called “Responding in Unity.” I love hearing the different voices and using liturgy from different traditions.

But to the point: I have prayed in interfaith settings many times, and I believe I’m capable enough of keeping a prayer God-focused without obliterating my own tradition or stepping on the toes of others. I have heard many different versions of the Penultimate line, i.e. the “In the name of” that we often put before the “Amen.” I’ve heard folks pray “in the name of ancestors,” “in the many names of God,” and in many other permutations. One that a Jewish colleague had shared had really stuck with me, as he had prayed, “In the name of all the Saints.” I liked the ring of it then, and assumed that since I’d heard one rabbi pray it, it must be fine.

But of course, as Sportin’ Life would say, “It ain’t necessarily so.” As we completed the prayer the room felt funny, and I asked a colleague on the council about it afterwards. He reminded me that there are no saints, per se, in the Jewish tradition, and so I had finished a prayer that made it impossible for some folks in the room to say, “amen.” I was floored. I felt dumb. I felt inconsiderate. My generous colleague was very kind and said it was no big deal, but I was really disturbed at being blindsided by my own assumption. Before we left I made sure that I was scheduled to bring the blessing again next time, to be able to atone and get the prayer right.

And of course, burning with curiosity, I called my colleague to ask him what he had meant when he prayed “in the name of all the saints,” as a rabbi. What he said he was thinking of for that prayer were the tzaddikim, or the Righteous Ones, variously understood in Judaism to lack any inclination towards evil. Hasidic communities sometimes consider their rabbi to be one of the tzaddikim. While it is fine for someone to draw a parallel from the Righteous Ones to the idea of sainthood, it is nowhere expressed or implied. I thanked my friend for the explanation, but I warned him off the prayer for interfaith work; it doesn’t really express what he’s thinking about the tzaddikim, and the tzaddikim of course are not codified the way “saints” in the various streams of Christianity are. Sometimes in our rush to draw parallels we wind up blurring the lines of common understanding as we try to say things in a new way.

Having said all that, I take full responsibility for the prayer. He didn’t urge me to borrow it. It reminds me that Interfaith work is really a constant revelation, and even worrying about what we say at the end of our prayers can still feel like a revolutionary concept to some. I suppose in the future I might try sticking with Penultimate lines like “Thank you, God,” or “Lord, hear our prayers.”

This isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about recognizing that some of the wonderful people we work and serve with deserve the respect of a prayer they can join in. Worshiping together is still a fairly countercultural thing, as is worship in general.

Wishing you blessings and peace this week, including if you’re reflecting on your saints or your righteous exemplars.

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