“To be is to have been, and to have been is to have bumped up against others who rub off on us”*
I grew up in a non-liturgical church that never observed All Saints’ Day. A church that taught that most of church history after the first century was sin, folly, and error. Nevertheless, whether we admitted it or not, the lives of generations past rubbed off on us.
We prayed in the language of the King James Bible. The names of 19th-century leaders like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were invoked in sermons and the Sunday-School classes for older children. We strongly protested that we were not a denomination but a movement, yet we were clearly shaped by traditions that drew boundaries between “us” and “them.”
Individually, the older I get, the more I recognize the ways my parents shaped my life. A couple of years ago, Jan took a snapshot of me sitting outside on our deck. When she showed it to me, I was shocked to see my late father sitting there in my clothes! – the same posture of the shoulders, the same tilt of the head – mannerisms I had adopted from him without even knowing it.
To honor the dead is to acknowledge the contingency of our lives, to acknowledge how much that we often claim as our own – our language, our customs, our habits – are actually gifts that we have received. We are who we are because others have bumped up against us and rubbed off on us.
Of course, not all that we have received from others is healthy, good, or honorable. That’s why we rightfully honor the saints, those who have shown us other possibilities. In truth, they were flawed human beings as well. But their examples call us to rise above our flaws, to not be fully defined by our weaknesses or our histories. As James. K. A. Smith puts it, “It’s never too late for us to become who we’re called to be.”**
**Smith., p. 46.