When I was in seminary so many eons ago, my intern year was spent in New Orleans, where I worked at a totally white local church in the Uptown area, and also taught college English to the kids who came out of the projects, and were (most of them) the first in their entire family history to actually go to college. The paradox between those two settings was pretty powerful.
The pastor I worked under at the church was well known and respected in their annual conference, and it happened that one of the very old retired African-American pastors died, and he was asked to serve as a pall bearer for the funeral. Unfortunately, he had recently thrown his back out, and couldn’t perform the task, and so in a strange twist of circumstances, he asked me to fill in for him.
And so it happened that a young white kid from North Dakota ended up a pallbearer for a black pastor’s funeral in New Orleans. Let that sink in for a moment. By the way, being a pallbearer in New Orleans is a bit different from the position up here in the northland. Every one of us had a red rose pinned to our lapel, and were given white gloves to wear. We carried the casket up the aisle at the service, and then carried it back out again. Also, when we got to the cemetery, the hearse couldn’t drive through to the burial location, so once again, we toted the casket a good block to get to the sepulcher. Oh, I forgot to mention that because the city of New Orleans sits below sea level, no one is buried in the ground, like you would see up here, out of the prairie. Instead, the cemeteries look like small cities, with all sorts of above ground whitewashed tombs where the casket is placed – at about shoulder level – and remains there until a few months later when the casket is then removed, and the remains are pushed to the back of the sepulcher, in preparation for the next family member.
So there I was, following the lead, and trying not to make some embarrassing mistake. As we walked, in front of us was what they call a “second line,” which consisted of a group of folks dressed up to the nines, playing brass instruments in a dirge as we made our way to the tomb.
We put the casket into the tomb – I was fully part of the team, now, as their token white guy – and the funeral director closed up the opening. Everything was silent for about a minute, and then I about jumped out of my skin as the second line hit the first blaring note, and began the traditional, incredibly loud and almost boisterous rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The procession back to the entrance of the cemetery included dancing and smiles and a real celebration, as the air was filled with everything you could find that was joyful. It was truly an event, as the life of a faithful pastor of that community was celebrated, and without direction, the community blew the lid off any solemn or sad atmosphere. Even today, I consider that it was a privilege to have a front row seat for something that is so quintessentially New Orleans.
I’ve led dozens of funerals since that time during my years as a pastor, and many indeed were celebrations of a faithful life. It’s also true that the folks who look more like me have had a greater tendency to be solemn, and quiet and tearful, even as a body is committed to the earth, and the soul committed to God. In a sense, it’s almost as if we are more greatly filled with the sadness of someone no longer with us, than the understanding that the person is now in the loving arms of God, where we all hope to be someday. In that sense, the folks in New Orleans “get it” – I think it probably goes back to the times of slavery, when life on this earth was a hard, and often horrible endurance, and so when it happened that someone would actually find freedom – even in death – from that life, then it was something to celebrate, and to look forward to ourselves.
So today, the day after All Hallows’ Eve, it is known in the Western Church as All Saints Day. It’s not Memorial Day. It’s not a day to go to the cemetery, but instead to go to church. It is meant to be a day of true, unbridled celebration of the love of God in Christ Jesus, which brings us eternal life in the presence of the Creator of the Universe. That’s a big deal. It is a day, to be sure, when we recall those “saints” who have gone before us this past year into eternal joy.
By the way, in the Protestant tradition, a saint is a bit different than the Catholics, who venerate and canonize persons of great faith whose life provides the means of miracles, especially of healing after their death. For us as Protestants, we appear to be a bit more democratic, and consider a saint to be anyone who can claim the name of Christian, and see themselves as one of God’s chosen people to bless the world. So – look in the mirror, and see a saint today. Even more so, we celebrate those lives, and the experience of their eternal life, now lived in heaven. What a great and positive and joyful thing, don’t you think?
And so, today I imagine in my mind Mom and Dad, and my brother Ray, gathered around the throne of God, offering praise and glory for God and God’s wonderful gift. As well, Cheri’s folks, and especially her mom who died in August, find their place there, in the presence of God for all eternity. That’s why the hymn written by the Bishop of Wakefield, William How, back in the 1800s, is such a powerful image for us: For all the saints, who from their labors rest – who Thee, by faith, before the world confessed Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia!
Sure, a little more raucous is: O when the saints go marching in, O when the saints go marching in! O Lord, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in!
However your background and preference, today is a day for the saints who have gone before us, and wait for our arrival. May this be a holy day for you, as you recall and give thanks to God for the saints who have been in your life, and who are in your life today!
Word for the day: cantabile. Pronounced ken-TAH-bill-ay. Our word is most recently Italian in nature, since it fits the Italian nature. It means “singable” but also smooth and flowing, like a beautiful song. Going back earlier in time, we do find it as a Latin root, cantare, which is “to sing.” However, the more exact root is cantabilis, which invites us to think, not just about a song or singing, but what is truly worthy of being sung. That doesn’t include all songs, to be sure. I hope you hear a wonderful cantabile today…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.