All Saints Day is the day in the Christian liturgical calendar set aside to celebrate the saints that have come before us. And the ones among us. Not just some saints – the 5-star big-name ones – but all of them. And by saint we don’t mean the “perfect Christians” or the “ones who got it all right.” No, the saints we celebrate are those who, through their very ordinary, very human, absolutely flawed lives, still managed to bring a little more love and hope, mercy and grace into the world. In big ways that put them in the headlines and on the most quotable lists. And in small ways. Almost imperceptible ways, sometimes.
At LaSalle Street Church we often celebrate this day by hearing words from saints who are gone and by some who are still alive and still changing our world. So on Sunday there was a liturgy where folks in our service stood and read quotes from people like Julian of Norwich, Oscar Romero, as well as from young Malala Yousafzai who in 2012 defied the Taliban by demanding girls be given an education and received a bullet in the head for speaking out.
In the prayer time, toward the end of the service, we celebrated by reading aloud the names of the saints who have died this year, ones we’ve known personally and those who we’ve only known through their reputations...so grandparents and neighbors and friends and co-workers, alongside theologians and baseball players and famous musicians. As names were read, people from the congregation walked to the front, lit a candle and placed it in a communal sand pit.
Those lights shining all together became a physical reminder of a spiritual reality… and reinforcement of what we’d heard from the Scripture reading and reflection of the morning: Moses, didn’t get to go into the promised land, but passed on the baton, so to speak, to the people around him…and really to all of us. Showing us, once again, that as significant as one person’s actions may seem to be, it really isn’t about just one of us…the transformation of the world is about all of us. About daily acts of love and kindness, peacemaking and sacrifice. About just showing up, awake and willing to participate in God’s work in the world in whatever ways we can.
About singing alleluia in thousands of different ways and places.
That image - a thousand alleluias - is one I discovered when looking for music for Sunday. I ran across those words in a song lyric by acclaimed hymn writer, Brian Wren, a song titled, “A Cloud of Witnesses Around Us.”
I’ve been a long time fan of Wren’s work because he always manages to give language to new, more inclusive views of God, and themes of justice and openness, with a real poet’s ear. A few years ago I wrote a tune to his lyrics on welcoming refugees, called “Break the Bread of Belonging,” a song I led in worship at a recent gathering of progressive evangelical leaders in Minneapolis.
"A Cloud of Witnesses Around Us” was written in a kind of odd meter, however, and there wasn’t a tune in our hymnal that really worked with it that well. So I decided to write my own tune to it last week that we could sing as a congregation on Sunday.
A crowd, that clamors pain and anger,
prevents us from nostalgic pride;
the cries of poverty and hunger
recall us to our Savior's side.
There we entrust, to God most just,
a thousand alleluias.
-Third Verse from "A Cloud of Witnesses Among Us" by Brian Wren
Its refrain, “…a thousand alleluias” made me think of the haunting and iconic Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah,” so as I wrote the tune I tried to make a space for that “Alleluia” lyric to breathe…and take hold. It also felt like, since we were talking about ordinary people who have gone before us, lamenting their loss but celebrating their legacy, that it would make sense to pull in some music with echoes of the past as well. So I brought in a little flavor of Sacred Harp and bluegrass/Americana to this song, a style of music crafted by ordinary working people, a style born without pretense and out of genuine feeling.
Many people seemed to appreciate it on Sunday…so Tuesday when I was in the studio working on some additional vocals with Cindy Stacey for our Advent/Christmas song project, while we were taking a break for lunch, I took out a guitar and Cindy and I started singing it together. We sang it through once and then Dorian Gehring, who is our sound engineer and also a multi-talented musician, picked up a fiddle and joined us. We ended up just turning on my iPad camera and making a quick video of the song, which you can watch below. The video isn’t perfect of course, but it did end up capturing the tune and a little of the feeling we were going for.
And hopefully it can help you celebrate all the imperfect saints we know…and we are… and hear a little better those “thousand alleluias.”