I do think that God works with those of us who grieve, showing us how we can be our best selves. Something about grief gives us the clarity to evaluate our lives and when we’re good at it, decide to make some changes that will make the very most of the precious time we have with each other.
That’s how we approach this All Saints Sunday. We hear the pinging of scores of bells representing those dear to us who have crossed over to the other side of the veil. We remember them. We shed a tear or two or more. We reconsider our lives and promise to do better, to be better, to live better, carrying on in a way they cannot. And maybe also carrying on a bit better, because we remember that they are hovering around us, in and out of our consciousness, urging us on to live into or roles as the children of God we are called to be.
The Revised Common Lectionary gives us a unique scripture to reflect upon today. It comes not from the Old or New Testaments, but from that in-between place. Some people call it apocrypha. Others call it inter-Testamental literature. But whatever it is, it provides a clearer description of what happens when we die than anything in the Old or New Testaments.
The Wisdom of Solomon is an ethical book, and like most Wisdom Literature, it calls for us to encounter Godly Wisdom, even while it paints a picture of the futility of life. The point is that God’s Wisdom far surpasses earthly wisdom. The Apostle Paul would call earthly wisdom, foolishness—from God’s perspective. He even called us to become fools, for Christ’s sake. For the wisdom writer, appearances consistently deceive the foolish in to making faulty theological assumptions—that’s the whole point of the long-suffering Job and his theologically dim combatants.
The second chapter of The Wisdom of Solomon tells of snarky rulers boasting of the ways they have deceived and duped people for material gain—something we have become too accustomed to during this election season. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;…the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others and his way is strange…let us test him with insult and torture, so that we can find out how gentle he is…let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
That’s when the author puts life, and death, into a larger perspective.
“The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God” says the anonymous writer of the Wisdom of Solomon. Years later John of Patmos would borrow this image to describe the souls of the righteous sitting around the throne of God in Revelation 4 and 5, singing “Hallelujah”.
“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.” Those left behind when another dies share in a great grief. And we are better when we hold each other close and support one another. That points the way to peace. It’s not a political peace. It’s a practical peace with the warring factions of our own psyches. Being at peace is the only way we can truly, effectively build peace. It comes from being grounded in who God is and how we are to live in the world.
In the Greek world where body and soul are separate but equal, this passage puts the soul in the hand of God.
Kathleen O’Connor in her commentary in Feasting on the Word wrote: “People who are not wise, people who lack faith, and who accept what only their senses tell them, think death is a disaster, an experience of destruction, and a cause for despair; but the contrary is true. The righteous have triumphed in death, and rather than being in torment, they are at peace. People think death is punishment, but the hope of the righteous is “full of immortality.” For the anonymous author of the book, death is not the end; death is not a tragedy, but a change of being, and entry into full life with God.” (p.218)
While that might be true of the one who has died, it does precious little to sooth the raw grief of those left behind. For it is those left behind that grieve, that weep and wail. We gnash our teeth and we long for what those pinging bells represent, the fullness of the life of our dearly departed ones.
And yet, when looked at from a larger perspective, where God watches over our grief and our joy, where generations come and go over the long arc of history, we grieve and we hope with all those who have gone before and who will go after. And if there is a heaven, may it be filled with all those who have gone before, holding up the proverbial sky and grounding us in our faith and purpose. They are at peace, and long for us to be at peace as well.
This passage, between Testaments, serves as the seed that Christians will plant into a theology of afterlife. The poet proclaims that the dead are alive in God, behind the veil. They are our models for holiness. They watch over us, rejoice with us and weep with us.
Gary Charles in his essay in Feasting on the Word put it this way: “Pain and suffering are not whips from God or signs of God’s indifference or impotence, argues the Wisdom author, but can become occasions through which believers grow in hope, “for in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.” (v.4)” p. 220
Those who have died are at peace proclaims the writer. They are at peace and they are watching over us. And we are at peace when we grieve (not for them and the un-lived lives) but as we grieve for ourselves who have to live with the emptiness of another’s loss.
And yet, God is up to something. God is up to surrounding us with people who know the long arc of history. People who will hold us close as we grieve. People who will point to a better tomorrow, but not rush to it before you’re ready to get there. But they may still point you there, so your life does not spiral down into an abyss.
My cousin Sue, Crystal’s aunt told me this week that she is channeling her energy in the wake of Crystal’s death to get people in crisis the mental health care that they need.
That’s what God is doing. And if these bells can help us, if this community can help us, if these prayers we offer can help us, then we are all part of the foolishness of God, meant to save and direct this broken world of ours. Thank God.
So as we remember the saints that have gone on before, remember that the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God. Those that have died, and those who are living still. But we are also in the minds and hearts of those who have gone before. In the time of their visitation, they will shine forth. And will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over people, and God will reign over them forever.
And we will have peace in as much as we seek peace. Remember that the ones who have gone before have received their peace. It is a peace of rest.
But I believe they also exist in God’s hands to grant us peace as we seek to live our lives. So today, call to mind those who have gone before, who are at peace. Know that they want you to live in peace. Know that they want you to have the kind of knowledge that they have. It’s not your time yet, but they can still grant you inspiration, direction, purpose and peace.
Call them to mind. Give thanks for them. Remember the best part of them. That’s what lives on and what ought to inspire us.
Let me close with a reflection from Wendell Berry.
"Some Sunday afternoon, it may be, you are sitting under your porch roof, looking down though the trees to the river, watching the rain. The circles made by the raindrops' striking expand, intersect, dissolve, and suddenly (for you are getting on now, and much of your life is memory) the hands of the dead, who have been here with you, rest upon you tenderly as the rain rests shining upon the leaves. And you think then (for thought will come) of the strangeness of the thought of Heaven, for now you have imagined yourself there, remembering with longing this happiness, this rain. Sometimes here we are there, and there is no death."—Wendell Berry