Those Who Help Us Live Lives that Matter

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Revelation 21:1-6a

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John 11:32-44.

I recently spoke with a parishioner from the congregation I served in Minneapolis whose name is Cindy. I’m working on a long-term writing project on the subject of courage, and specifically decisive moments in our lives when we learn to be brave. I called to ask Cindy about such a moment in her life–when she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

This was a really big deal. Cindy had never gone to college, and hadn’t done well in high school. As a teenager, her main objective in life was to get out of her abusive family and live on her own. She started out waiting tables and eventually landed an office job where she stayed for 18 years, working up to the position of office manager. She and her husband married and had three children. It was after she left her job as office manager to care for their children full time that she told me of her dream and decision to start walking toward it.
Cindy began by enrolling for a night course at the nearby community college. She arrived late, and the classroom door was locked. When she knocked, the instructor opened it and said, “In this class, we begin on time.” She was never late again.

For six years Cindy took one class per semester until she was accepted into the nursing program. Then she went full-time for two more years, each day getting up hours before her kids in order to study and resuming after they went to bed. Cindy graduated during the economic recession of 2008, when no hospitals were hiring. For several more years she worked nights for a home health care service, until at last she found a position in a trauma unit at a city hospital. A few years later she applied and was hired for her dream job working nights as an obstetrics nurse.

I contacted Cindy to ask her if she remembered what prompted her to take that first step toward her dream. She did and was happy to talk with me about it (and she gave me permission to share her story). In our conversation, she described three influencing factors, all of which have something to do with what we are celebrating in church today, which is why I’m telling you her story.

The first was the example of her grandfather. He was an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, and as a child he was one of the first to receive experimental doses of insulin to treat his diabetes. The treatment saved his life, and he resolved to help save others’ lives. “I was fascinated with medicine because of him and inspired by the amazing things he could do to help people,” she told me. “As a teenager, it never occurred to me that I could pursue such a path. But when I decided to go for it, his memory and example was a big factor.”

The second influence for Cindy was a class she took at our church that one of our more gifted lay leaders offered on discerning life purpose. “I’ll never forget what it felt like,” she said, “when he went to the white board, drew a vertical line, and invited us to see it as representing our entire life span. He told us to put the date of our birth at the bottom; imagine the date of our death and how old we thought we might be when we die.” “Then make note of where you are now on the line,” he said. “What do you want to do with the time you have left?”

The third inspiration was the obstetrics nurse who was with her when she delivered her third child. “She was so caring and encouraging, and good at her job. I knew that I wanted to be like her someday, to help other people the way she was helping me.”

I tell you Cindy’s story because it so beautifully underscores some of the ways in which God works in and through us, and how we help one another become the people God created us to be. We just heard the story of Lazarus being resuscitated from death–and what Jesus says at the end of the story is one of the most powerful imperatives in all of Scripture: unbind him and let him go.
I think of Cindy–and of all of us really–bound up, held back, restricted in our self awareness or understanding of our life’s potential, and how God wants to set us free. The dream of caring for others as a nurse came to Cindy early in life, but she dismissed it, because nothing in her immediate circumstances allowed her to believe she could realize it. She was bound in a way of seeing herself and her options that were way too small for her.

But through the inspiration of her grandfather, long passed on from this life, the encouragement of a friend from church to think with courage about possibilities once again, and the example of a nurse whose care for her awakened her long-dormant dream, all coming together, Cindy came to believe that she could, in fact, pursue her dream. She was set free.
We are so connected to one another across time and space, and God works in and through those connections in ways beyond our comprehension. Here we are, on this day when our church invites us to remember those whose lives mattered to us, and the mysteries of spirit and truth that are handed down generation to generation. Cindy’s grandfather, my grandparents and yours, and their parents before them. Others who were and are our inspiration–in both our family lineage and in history. We are their heirs.

This day also reminds us what we often lose sight of in the cares and occupations of our lives–that we are mortal. And of all God’s creatures, we are blessed with consciousness of our mortality. We’re all somewhere on that line that represents our life between birth and death, and we know it. Most of the time, we don’t think about death, for good reason. Death is beyond our comprehension. We’re not meant to understand death.

Without an awareness of death, however, as philosophers and poets remind us, life itself loses its meaning. “Meaning lies beyond the bounds of this closed world,” writes Nicolai Berdyaev. “And the discovery of purpose presupposes an ending in this world.” (Nicolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man,(London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1931) pp.268-69. Quoted in Almanac for the Soul, Nancy and Marv Hiles, 2008, p.219.) Now there is also an ancient human intuition, that we just heard the author of Revelation give voice to–that death is as much a beginning as an end. Yet if we are to live fully in this life, we must embrace our finitude, and recognize that life is short, as the blessing goes, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us on the way.

Lastly, today reminds us that we are here to encourage one another and do all that we can to help one another grow into the fullness of who God created us to be. Think of Cindy’s experience with an obstetrics nurse with her as she delivered her child, who showered Cindy with such compassion and was so good at her job that she awakened in Cindy a desire to do the same.

Think of the countless people who are living saints for you, those who see the best in you, even the unrealized potential in you and urge you to live the best possible version of yourself. Think of those whose faith sustains you when your faith has wanted, or has seen you through the toughest times.

We will soon make precisely that promise for the children being baptized today, that we will be there for them, and we will do all in our power to help them grow into the full stature of their potential, and their knowledge and love of God. That promise can only be realized when we recognize that such a posture of support and encouragement is how God longs for us to be with everyone–seeing the best in one another, cheering each other on, showing up in times of pain and struggle, celebrating moments of joy. “I sing a song of the saints of God,” begins a beloved All Saints hymn that we’ll sing at the end of the service, “and I mean to be one, too.”

I leave you with these questions to ponder throughout the day and perhaps the coming week:

Who in your past, or in history, is the blessed saint whose courage and faith is God calling to mind for you now, as encouragement and inspiration? Right now I am immersed in the life of Pauli Murray, the first African American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. She was one of the first African American women to graduate from law school, and she was consistently fifteen-to-twenty years ahead of her time regarding matters of race and gender equality. Pauli Murray is teaching me about perseverance, and how nothing worth doing in regards to social change, or anything else, really, can be fully accomplished in one lifetime. She helped pave the way for the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Eleanor Holmes Norton, and all the black women leaders in our church today.

Who is that person for you?

Second, if you were to draw a vertical line that represented your life, where do you think you are on that line now? Of course we never know what might happen tomorrow, but what is your sense of where you are? And how might remembering that you don’t have all the time in the world bring certain issues to greater clarity for you?

Lastly, who is a living saint for you now, the one who inspires and encourages you to be the best version of yourself? And for whom might you be a living saint, a steady presence of encouragement and love, of faith and never-failing support? Consider these wondrous children, all being brought to God and to us for baptism. What might your role in their lives be, or in the lives of any of the children coming up behind you? Is there anyone nearing death for whom your friendship is a means of grace and courage? Is there someone at work, at school, here in church, or in your community for whom you are an inspiration?

We are so connected to one another across time and space, in family and community, and in ways we can never fully grasp. We don’t have to be perfect to live a full and meaningful life–none of the people we remember today were. But we can resolve to be on the side of goodness and light, in service of all that is of love and joy, and to help unbind others and set them free.

Jesus longs for us all to be unbound and free to live our lives with meaning and joy. Sometimes we’re on the receiving end of all that makes such a life possible; sometimes we help inspire others to take their courageous steps toward their dreams. This day is called the feast of all saints for a reason. All means all, including those who have been saints for us; and the ways we can be, and are, sources of inspiration and encouragement to one another.