We celebrated the Feast of All Saints today. It was a special celebration for two main reasons. One is that after eight weeks of worshiping in our parish hall while the new roof was installed on our worship space, we were finally back in the historic worship space. Yes, we had a few unexpected challenges–including some issue that resulted in the organ not working, and acolytes who were a little rusty after being in different space for eight weeks–but it was also a glorious Feast. It was Feast of All Saints.
The Altar Guild had adorned the altar area with candelabras, which we only use on festive occasions (we have two altar candles), the choir director and choir led us in a Litany of the Saints as prelude, Ginny Wilder, one of our two seminarians, preached an “out of the ball park” All Saints sermon. Then just before the Great Thanksgiving, three of us read the names of the faithful departed whose names had been submitted by parishioners–beginning with those who have died in the past year.
Today was a special All Saints Day for me. That is because of something that happened just over a month ago. It has to do with my connection with some saints who rest in the Love’s Creek Baptist Church Cemetery in Siler City, NC.
I had gone south for my fortieth high school reunion and the weekend was full of amazing moments. You have heard it said that with some friends, you can walk into a room and pick right up where you left off years ago? Trust me. It is true. I bear witness to that, and the love shared by some dear friends has criss-crossed the ordinary boundaries of time and place. But that is not the connection to All Saints–although I suppose on some level, it could be.
On Friday afternoon that weekend, I drove about twenty miles east from Asheboro to Siler City, a little town where we had lived for eighteen months when I was about thirteen years old, where my father had served as pastor of a small Baptist church. Now, both of my parents’ mortal remains rest in that quiet cemetery. As I approached, I realized that small town America really is disappearing. Where there had been a two-lane highway, now there is a four-lane highway. Where there were fields and farms, there are now businesses and parking lots. The two old homes that were across the highway from our house? Gone. Replaced with businesses, and I imagine the homeowners now rest in that cemetery too. I found later, that the parsonage is also gone. Trees are still there (larger, of course). But the only thing that helped me find where the little house had been was a slab of concrete, where the carport had been. The only positive feeling about that was that a big children’s playground is now evident on the back of that property, where the back yard had been.
I found the graves of my parents. I must admit that I found myself very unsettled by the fact that at the edge of the cemetery, where trees had overlooked the sites and where my father used to sit after Mama died, was now a chain link fence that separated the cemetery from a shopping center. I mused, “Hmmm, Joni Mitchell was right. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Yet I parked, went over and sat at the foot of the graves, took my Birkenstocks off and sat down to reflect on my parents’ lives.
I must digress here for a moment. Mama was a singer. She was not a trained singer; however her vocal ability was a natural gift, and I have always been grateful that this is a gift I inherited. Mama could also play the piano and organ. She had had piano lessons at some time, but she taught herself on the organ, as far as I know. However, Mama could also play by ear. She could play a version of “St. Louis Blues” that would make you sit up and take notice, and for years, I have wished that I had a recording of her playing that. In fact, during my senior year in high school, Mama played that and I sang it for a talent show. I think I won first place. No matter. It was one of those special times when our usual mother-daughter rivalry came together and made real music.
As I sat there in a cemetery that was–despite its proximity to shopping and golden arches–peaceful and quiet, I began to talk to my parents. I told them many things, among which was my grief that my mother had never known my son, because he was born the year after she died of breast cancer. I told her how proud she would have been of the man he has become, and that that very weekend, he was going to walk for Breast Cancer–he’d raised over $400 for that cause.
I thanked my parents for what they had given me–especially my faith and my strength–and as I did, I found myself weeping. Barefoot, blue-jeaned, eldest living daughter, I grieved for the things done and left undone, especially between me and Mama, and for the things unsaid that one always wishes one had said (after the fact of course). I wept for Daddy who had died mentally long before he died physically, from the ravages of Altzheimer’s. I wept for the baby sister that had preceded me in birth by a year, who had only lived seventeen days and who is buried in a cemetery in Buchanan, Va. I wept for my son who never knew this preacher when he was strong and vital, or this big, strong, red-headed, freckle-faced woman with an infectious laugh, who loved ice cream in any form–especially when it was orange sherbet in ginger-ale punch.
I hadn’t intended to get emotional, but it was cleansing, and afterwards, I felt a deep peace settle into my bones. I said, “Mama, I have only felt your presence twice since you died. Sometime, it would be nice if you would let me know you’re around.” And I asked both of them to guide my son.
After a time, I got up, got in the car and headed back to Asheboro, scanning the dial for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I found the station out of Chapel Hill, but wasn’t paying much attention to a bit on the news about letters–a Friday regular. As I approached a traffic light on the way out of Siler City, the reporter read a letter from a woman in St. Louis. She was not happy about the fact that NPR had done a feature on the four baseball teams that had made the semi-finals for the World Series, but had really only focused on three of them–completely ignoring the St. Louis Cardinals.
I was idly watching the changes in this small town. I noticed that finally, the sun was peeking out from clouds for the first time that day. The announcer finished reading the letter. And as they segued out of that part of NPR, a saxaphonist began to play. The sounds of “The St. Louis Blues” filled the car. Suddenly, I was barely able to see the road for my tears. I whispered, “Thank you, Mama.” The past, present and future had suddenly rushed together in one of those inexplicable “you can’t make this stuff up” kind of moments.
That happened again this morning during the Feast of All Saints. As two other saints picked up where I had left off with the prayers for the faithful departed, I left my place at the altar to go to the foot of the chancel steps. I picked up two thin tapers and lit them for the mothers of a parishioner and her husband who had asked me to do that. And then, although I hadn’t planned to do this, I thought of that afternoon a month ago, then I chose two other tall, thin tapers.
“These are for you, Mama and Daddy. I love you.” Slowly, through my tears, I reached out, touched the tips of the tapers to the candle in the center, then anchored them firmly in the sand.
For all the saints. May they rest from their labors in peace this day and forever.
“But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on his way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pear streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia, alleluia! “(from Sine Nomine, Hymn 287)
(c) The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Icon of Russian saints and picture of candle tapers accessed through Google images
Other pictures taken by author