You may remember these stories, from the documents that introduced me to the Central Pacific Conference in 2008. For all the Saints (with pipe organ) has been playing in my head the last few days, and I decided to share my words with you again.
The first church I served was St. Paul’s UCC, in the rolling farmland south of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The congregation was founded in 1868 by German immigrants who made their way north from St. Louis, along the Missouri River valley. St. Paul’s was a postcard – a white frame building, with a steeple and a bell that was hand-rung every Sunday. The cemetery wrapped around the building. Whenever I got frustrated with ministry, I went for a walk among the gravestones. I read the engraved names: Heuwinkel, Young, Franke, Hobus, Boehm – and thought about the generations of people that had lived and died, carrying on faithful ministry in that place. These people were the saints of God! They were a great comfort to me. They reminded me I was not the beginning and end of all good things. Ministry had gone on long before I arrived on the scene, and it would continue long after I was gone. Each time I walked, the burden of perfection was lifted from my shoulders and I was inspired for ministry.
I found another reminder of the saints of God at St. Paul’s – patchwork quilts! I think it’s impossible to look at a quilt, with hundreds of pieces of material and thousands of small, even stitches without wondering about the people who created such a piece of warmth and beauty. As church members proudly showed me their family quilts, I came to understand the heirlooms as an alternative version of Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ. We spend lots of time trying to be like each other, but the beauty and strength of the church comes from the paradox of unity and diversity. Have you ever looked closely at a pieced quilt made from leftover scraps of cloth? Taken by themselves, many of the pieces are plain, or downright ugly. But put them together, and they are beautiful beyond description.
We established an annual quilt show in the sanctuary. The second year, the event fell on All Hallows Eve. We left the quilts hanging on the wall for our Sunday service of remembrance. We read the names of loved ones who had died that year, and sang “For all the saints, who from their labors rest…” As I introduced communion, I was moved to draw attention to the quilts saying, “We are literally surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I’m touched by the images of the cemetery and the quilts because I believe it’s impossible to be the church by yourself. We come together, to find wholeness. Together, we are the saints of God, and we make a beautiful quilt through the love of Christ! Together, we are the Body of Christ, as we follow Jesus On the Way.
Yours in Christ, walter john
Check the video: God is Still Speaking on All Hallows: http://vimeo.com/30908774