Befriending the Dead: Reflections on All Saints’ Weekend



Halloween is upon us! And while I struggle with my own deep denial about the Beggar’s Night forecast (brrr!), I am also turning my attention to the weekend that will follow.


The practice of celebrating All Saints Day is an ancient one.   According to my trusty (and rarely consulted) Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, there are references to All Saints celebrations dating back to the 4th century. In keeping with our Protestant priesthood-of-all-believers ethos, we tend to emphasize the “All” in “All Saints.”  Our focus is usually on the idea that “saint” is not some title reserved for the spiritual elite; all of us are saints.


But this year, as we continue our sermon series on friendship, I find my mind drifting to a different topic. I believe that Christian faith is the practice of befriending the dead.


On Halloween, the dead supposedly return to haunt the living. They come uninvited and create creepy disturbances.  My teacher, Richard Fenn, once suggested that ghost stories can be seen as an instance of a dynamic Freud described: the return of the repressed.


But we believe our dead are at peace. I don’t like to wade too deeply into the specifics when it comes to the afterlife, but my own hope for my deceased loved ones is captured in the Prayer of Commendation from the funeral liturgy:


Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant [NAME] Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, and a [son/daughter] of your redeeming.  Receive [her/him] into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the company of the saints in light.


Our dead are safe with God. They have no restlessness, no unfinished business, no need to haunt us. They are at peace.


So instead of being haunted by our dead, we can befriend them. The author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:


Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also 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).


This is a sports analogy. We, the living, have a race to run. They, the dead, are watching closely, seated in the stands, rooting for us.


Can I make a confession? I sometimes find myself taking to the dead. Sometimes it is people I knew in life; sometimes it is people I never had the opportunity to meet but who seem real to me nevertheless. (My predecessor, Stoddard Lane, is one of these). Mostly I draw strength from the sense that they have my back, that they are supporting me; that they are, in some sense that I do not understand but deeply feel, rooting for me and for all of us.


This is one of the great gifts of the Christian faith: we are no alone.


Surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, we press on!

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Help Us Make Plymouth Church The Answer to Jesus’ Prayer



Can Plymouth Church be the answer to Jesus’ prayer?


We are about to find out.


When my friend Allen Hilton was here in September, he reminded us of Jesus’ prayer for all who would become disciples: that they may all be one (John 17:21). As Jesus sees it in John’s Gospel, our unity with one another is a sign to the world that we belong to God.


I believe Plymouth can be the answer to Jesus’ prayer. I believe we can find a deep and powerful unity with one another. But it will not happen apart from our efforts. It will require some courageous conversation.


That is why Allen is coming back in October. He will preach, once again, at all of our weekend worship services (October 12 and 13). And, on Saturday October 12, from 9 a.m. to about 1 pm., he will facilitate something we are calling Friendship in a Purple Church. Allen will help us develop the skills to really listen to one another across our differences. And he will facilitate a Courageous Conversation about friendships in a politically diverse church.


Because here is what we know: partisan political polarization is driving a wedge between friendships. We all know somebody who has lost a friendship because of the deep divide in our nation. And, at least in the short term, it looks like it will get worse before it gets better.


But Plymouth offers a unique opportunity to address the challenge of polarization.  Because while we, in many respects, a pretty homogenous congregation, there is one way in which we are undeniably diverse: we are a purple church.


What is a purple church? Well, we talk about red states (Alabama, Utah) and blue states (California, Massachusetts). And a lot of churches are like that. Many times, you can predict how somebody votes based on their church membership. But Plymouth is not like that. When it comes to partisan politics, we have a lot of diversity: Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives all belong to this church, share its covenant and support its work.


So we are positioned to do something almost unheard of in this divisive season: we can build deep and meaningful friendships, across partisan differences, right here at Plymouth. And when we manage to do that, we will become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.


But we have to show up and we have to do the work. So I am asking you to join us on October 12. ESPECIALLY if you have ever felt estranged from another member of this church because of partisan politics. We will gather in Waveland. There will be food and there will be childcare. Nobody is trying to convert anybody to a different point of view. The idea is to learn to relate across our differences and be enriched by the experience.


But the absolutely essential element…is you. I need you to make this a priority. I need your voice in this conversation. Join us on the morning of October 12. Help Plymouth become the answer to Jesus’ prayer.


See you in Waveland Hall?