The origins of this day are found in the East, where a memorial for all of the Christian martyrs was celebrated, beginning in the fourth century. Currently the day is celebrated in different ways in various church traditions. When I was on the pastoral team at College Mennonite Church (Goshen, Ind.), we celebrated All Saints the Sunday after November 1. Because CMC has a large group of retired persons and beyond, individual deaths are a regular part of congregational life. Remembering all the people who died throughout the year became an important and solemn ritual with each named called out, followed by a brief period of silence, and lighting a candle in their honor. When I was there, a large box of wooden matches was used to light the candle and in the midst of silence we heard the scratch of the match on sandpaper before it touched the candle wick. The rough strike of the match symbolically reminded me of the pain of our grief as we pondered the person’s death.
Today I want to remember and celebrate five friends who have died this past year: Gene Herr, Lori Waas, Marie Reamer, Betty Snyder, and Dave Haarer.
Gene Herr, Jan. 1: Gene, with his wife Mary, were the founders of The Hermitage, (Three Rivers, Mi.), a contemplative prayer retreat center. Kevin and I volunteered there in the fall of 1999 during a time of transition for us and worked alongside Gene and Mary and continued our friendship after we moved to Lansing.
During that fall, Gene and Mary visited Mennonite churches in Japan. When they returned, Gene told me about traveling by train and seeing the beauty of the Japanese countryside. He said: “As I looked out the window I kept praying, ‘Thank you God for all this beauty that you created. Thank you that I get to see it!’”
Gene died of cancer in Kansas. On his Caring Bridge blog, his daughter described his final days as surrounded by hymns, prayer, and love.
Lori Waas, April 6: I met Lori at church and although I didn’t know her very well, we had many things in common—quilting, music, politics, and theological questions. Now, whenever I listen to the Pink Martinis I think of Lori who was friends with several of the musicians.
Lori also died of cancer. More than fourteen months ago her breast cancer returned and this time it moved elsewhere in her body. When she could no longer eat food she wrote on her Caring Bridge blog how sad she was to no longer enjoy the sense of taste with a delicious meal.
Marie Reamer, April 23: I also met Marie at church where she sat in the same location of the pews. In her early 90s she always wore beautiful costume jewelry and colorful clothes, which I always admired (and, maybe, a few times, coveted).
When we talked after church, she would take my elbow to hold onto for balance but I always received it as a gesture of affection as I leaned toward her to listen to her.
Betty Snyder, July 23: Betty was one of my “faith idols”—someone whose faith I admired and appreciated. Betty was a kind, gentle woman who like a good giggle. She was a giggler. I often thought how I’d like to be like Betty when I grow up.
My favorite memory of Betty is from a sharing time at MSU Mennonite Fellowship. One Sunday she told us about her prayer time earlier in the week: “And I just told God, “I love you! I love you so much.” She cried a little as she shared this and it was a sacred gift to peek inside Betty’s relationship with God. I continue to be grateful for her vulnerability in sharing this.
Dave Haarer, Sept. 25: Dave was an enthusiastic, sincere man who believed the best of others. Once I called him, asked how he was and he responded: “I love my life and I love my wife!” Later that day I recorded this in my gratitude journal as I appreciated his zest for living.
Dave was sick a long time and lived longer than many expected. His beloved wife Ann, unexpectedly died before him and as Dave moved closed to death, she appeared to him in his dreams. Their son Eric, a priest with the monastic community Spiritual Life Institute described his father before Dave died:
“One of the last things mom said before dying was, “I’m ready to go home.” Dad sees her a lot in his dreams. He talks to her in his sleep, and I guiltily yet greedily eavesdrop. Each time is similar: they are in a car on a journey through the countryside near where they first met. Once dad reached out with both arms, “I’m ready, I’m ready. Let’s do!” He wakes up, looks around, is bewildered. He turns to me and the look of disappointment is heartbreaking: “I’m still here.” He tells me mom said it wasn’t time, he must wait a bit longer. He has more to endure, more to accept, more to let go.” (Desert Call, Fall 2012, p. 29).
Today I light a candle on our home altarscape in memory of these five friends. The stones surrounding the candle are each engraved with a word: “Courage. Love. Hope. Peace. Wisdom.” Words I associate with them in their lives and in their deaths.