When I reflect on God’s love, I think of my parents’ warm hugs or my husband’s unwavering support. When I imagine God’s goodness, I see members of my congregation showing up (before we could even think to ask) with groceries and helping hands when my newborn son was hospitalized. When I think of God’s welcome, I recall my nana putting enough delicious food on the table to feed an army so that everyone would have their fill. When I think of God’s grace, I recall how many times people had given generously and unexpectedly to us when we needed it most.
Influencing perceptions of God
I cannot know God outside of God’s people. It’s an ancient truth, but one so easily forgotten. We like to privatize our relationship with God and pretend it is “me and Jesus.” But it can never be. For better or worse, what we know about God is immeasurably influenced by those in our lives. If a person has never—not once—known a relationship where she was valued and loved unconditionally, why would she believe that God feels that way about her?
That is why what we say and how we treat others is so important; we influence their perception of God. Especially those of us in the church. As followers of Christ, our lives speak volumes about the kind of God we follow. We do too much damage in Christ’s name too often.
But when we follow Christ the right way—oh my—when we get it right, miracles happen. When God guides our way, our lives are marked by love. Lives are changed. We are changed.
I have learned forgiveness by being forgiven. There was a time when prayer was a confusing, disorienting mess for me. Through the example and wisdom of many others, prayer is now a holy and mysterious gift in my life. I have learned how to suffer with hope by watching others do it. The creative ways in which my congregation cares for others have helped me be more caring and compassionate.
It is not only people I know who have helped form me. I am shaped by the writings, songs, prayers, laments and stories of people I will never meet. Glennon Doyle Melton reminds me to keep loving others. Martin Luther continues to inspire the church to reform. Sojourner Truth reminded us that following Christ means we need to insist on justice for all. The saints continue to inspire and energize us to live out our faith with grace and boldness.
All of this is why All Saints Day is one of my favorite festivals. I love it. In the Lutheran tradition, saint simply means “baptized child of God.” Each and every one of us gets to claim that name, by the grace of God.
It seems especially appropriate that All Saints Day begins the month we focus on giving thanks. Reading the names of the recently deceased and newly baptized leaves me with a profound sense of the “great cloud witnesses” that encourages us on our journey (Hebrews 12:1).
All Saints Day is when we remember the dead, yes, but over time it has developed into a day to honor all saints, both past and present. What better way to honor them than to give thanks to God for their lives?
So, on All Saints Day, and hopefully many days besides, I give thanks to God. I give thanks for all those who have gone before me, and paved the way for my life, the church and my congregation to be what it is today. I give thanks for all those who have modeled for me the diverse ways we can live out God’s grace in our lives. I give thanks that in spite of the mistakes we still make, the saints-and-sinners that we are, God shines through and calls us back to love.
Every week, I am privileged to preside over communion. During communion, when I recall the saints in all times and places, the gift of Christ’s body becomes most evident to me. Hands that are withered reach out. Hands that are young reach out. Those who are married, divorced, single, poor, rich, educated, uneducated, differently-abled, able-bodied—all different people, all different stories—and every one of them is reaching out, ready to receive God’s grace. It is a glimpse of heaven, a foretaste of the feast to come.
If I take a moment to notice that, I can almost feel the presence of the many others, all over the world, who are reaching out in the very same way. I can almost see those we have lost there with us, surrounding us with their witness and love. Uniting us all is Christ, filling our lives with love and reminding us what a wonderful gift it is to be the church.
Michelle Terry is on the adventure that is life with God with the members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Middletown, Ohio, where she is the pastor. She and her husband are the proud parents of four children.