Everyday Lives of Ordinary People
All Saints Day 2005

For Sunday November 6, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Joshua 24:1–3a, 14–25 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–16 or Amos 5:18–24
           Psalm 78:1–7 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:17–20 or Psalm 70
           1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
           Matthew 25:1–13

All Saints Day in Poland.
All Saints Day in Poland.

           I don't know if you will celebrate All Hallow's (= 'holy') Eve on October 31, Halloween, but I hope you will commemorate All Saints Day on November 1. Christian literature of the fourth century indicates that believers honored saints in their liturgies, but for western believers All Saints Day as we now observe it took final form in the year 835 when Pope Gregory IV (d. 844) ordered the Feast of All Saints to be universally observed on November 1. Eastern Orthodox churches observe All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

           Christians differ in their estimations about who and what constitutes a "saint," and so they celebrate this feast day differently. Catholics and Orthodox believers venerate saints as extraordinary Christians whose lives were characterized by heroic virtue and genuine miracles. Saints Francis or Patrick come to mind. They venerate but do not worship these deceased saints, and pray to them for help. I am grateful for the inspiring examples of these remarkable Christians, but as a Protestant I follow the lead of Lutherans and affirm that every ordinary believer is a "saint," not just the elite heroes. Paul, for example, addressed his letters to "all the saints" in Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi (Cf. Philippians 1:1). Being a Christian is one of the few things in life you cannot or should not try to do alone; we need help from all the saints—dead and alive, crazy and normal, known and unknown, and especially the everyday, ordinary believers.

           Two weeks ago I received an email from one such ordinary believer in Australia. She would be the first to admit that she is no Mother Teresa, but I imagine her as the sort of anonymous saint that Paul addressed in his letters. Here is her unedited letter:

I live outside a small town off 200 people and belong to the Uniting Churc in Eidsvold Queensland Aus. We belong to the Central Burnett Parish which has 3 congregatons in 3 different towns, a round trip takes about an hour and half. I am the Parish secretary, monthly newsletter editor and a part of or congregatios planning team for Sunday services. Our congregation in Eidsvold consists of 10 people. We have a minister for 2 services per month but will lose her next year. My query to you is, am I aloud to use what you post in our services, and can I print information of the website in our newsletter. The newsletter is free of charge and is one of the outreach programs we have runnig (many farmers are isoloated and with the extended drought we try to get our newsletter to those that can't always make it to service. Our congregations are not rich, the money goes to special needs so I donate the ink, paper etc it costs to do my jobs. I tell you this not because I want praise but to tell you that we have no money to pay for material, we rely on what we are allowed to have free. Could you please either give me perrmission to use you material, with recognition to you or whoever has written the material, or tell me that I am not to use it.

Hebrews 11:35–38 comes to mind when I hear of people like this, a saint "of whom the world is not worthy."

Painting by Albrect Durer (1471-1528).
Painting by Albrect Dürer (1471-1528).

           This Aussie Christian is not alone in her churchly experience. You read a lot today about large, wealthy "mega-churches" with famous pastors. These monster churches offer some advantages (I attend one), but of the roughly 400,000 congregations in America, a full half have fewer than 75 regular attenders. In isolated, rural areas the average size of a church is about 50, and in urban settings about 100. Very common, extremely ordinary, unremarkable, and about as small as you can get and still keep the doors open.1

           The small Presbyterian church in North Carolina where I grew up fits this profile. We had no youth pastor, nor even a youth group. My mother was the part-time organist and choir director. At a good Wednesday night practice or Sunday morning worship service she was lucky to have 6-8 singers. Many members were tobacco farmers. Roy was a mail carrier, Morris an accountant, Trent sold new cars, Ralph sold used cars, and Carter was a high school teacher and driver education instructor. Some women worked for pay outside the home, but I only remember two—Janet was a single divorcee who smoked too much, and the mother of a football teammate. Today she is dying of emphysema in an assisted care facility where my mother lives. Ruby also worked because her husband had multiple sclerosis, but I don't remember what she did. Eccentric Addie and her son Eddie, a lovable Down syndrome adult who was also designated honorary assistant football coach at our high school, never missed church. Her other son Reggie was an elusive sort who worked for the FBI and never attended church. Some members left the church in 1973 to protest the ordination of women. Our pastor, so it was said, had drinking and marital problems. I believe that I am a Christian today because of the everyday lives of these ordinary saints. They prayed for me, taught my Sunday school classes, and cheered at our Friday night football games.

           Kierkegaard admitted that he was an intellectual "aristocrat." His father was one of the wealthiest men in Denmark, so his inheritance meant that he never worked but instead could pour his short life entirely into writing. But every day he grabbed his favorite walking stick or umbrella and took a walk in Copenhagen for what he called his "people bath." Paradoxically, although he was totally inaccessible to people when he was at home writing, on these walks Kierkegaard earned a well-deserved reputation as a virtuoso of the casual encounter with common people. In a journal entry from 1849 he described how "indescribably satisfying [it is] to me to be friendly and kind and attentive and sympathetic to precisely that social class which is all too neglected in the so-called Christian state." To meet and greet these people gave him unfeigned joy. One person who recalled his frequent stays at the Mail Coach Inn in Hørsholm in northern Zealand commented how Kierkegaard loved to linger with the laborers in the barns or with the "stone breakers" at the road side, so much so that the "stone breakers" would inquire about his next visit. Thus did Kierkegaard understand himself as a street philosopher who disdained the snobby and aloof affectations of Important People. Instead, he wanted "quite literally, to make ordinary daily life into one's stage, to go out and teach in the streets."2

Eastern Orthodox icon of the saints.
Eastern Orthodox icon of the saints.

           The celebrity culture of personality cults that pervades our society is alive and well in our churches. Protestant evangelicals might view saints differently than Catholic or Orthodox believers, but we faun over those whom we elevate as extraordinary, defer to their authoritarian declamations, and keep silent about their demagogic pronouncements. These are not bad people with questionable motives, but it is still an unfortunate commentary on our apparent deep need for everything that is bigger, better, faster, and stronger.

           In his book Losing Moses on the Freeway Chris Hedges comments on this pathological tendency for human beings to try to transcend their finitude, to overcome their entirely ordinary lives that are characterized by banalities of all sorts—submission to convention, pain, failure, boredom, and fallibility. Fearing the unremarkable, we make the normal abnormal. We cannot accept that our lives are as insignificant as they seem, and so "we redouble our efforts to be extraordinary." Jealously, envy, longing and chronic striving are never far from such a mind set. I think of this as the Lake Wobegone Effect, a longing to live in that utopia (literally "no place") "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." We find it unbearable to believe that we might be weak, or below average in looks, intelligence or wealth.

Catholic depiction of saints.
Catholic depiction of saints.

           The Psalmist for this week encourages us to admit that we just might be "poor and needy" (Psalm 70:5), even if we find ourselves rich and self-sufficient. We can thus comfortably take our places among the everyday lives of ordinary saints who have gone before us and led the way. You will not see the names of these saints on the cover of a magazine, but they will drive you to the dentist, collect your mail when you vacation, walk the family dog, xerox the weekly bulletin, visit you in the hospital or bring your family a tuna casserole if they cannot, and make sure you get to church. Thank God for ordinary saints in isolated Australia or remote Danish Zealand. They get my vote this All Saints Day.

For further reflection:

* How would you define a genuine Christian saint?
* Who have been the saints to influence your life, and what distinguished them?
* What are some of the ways that we try to transcend our ordinariness (Hedges)?
* Consider—Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress, once observed that today we honor celebrities rather than heroes.

[1] Nancy Ammerman, "Doing Good in American Communities: Congregations and Service Organizations Working Together," by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. See http://hirr.hartsem.edu/about/about_orw_cong-report.html#section%20II.
[2] Garth, pp. 315–18.