Yesterday was All Saints Sunday in United Methodist churches. In churches everywhere bells were rung and candles were lighted as the names of folks were read. These were the people of faith who died during the past year. We call them saints. Not because they were perfect, but because they had accepted the grace and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. They carried the light of Christ into the world through the way they lived their lives.
The Church has always honored those early witnesses to the Christian faith who have died in the Lord. During the first three hundred years of Christendom Christians were severely persecuted, often suffering torture and bloody death because they were faithful. They refused to deny Christ, even when this denial might have saved their own lives, or the lives of their children and families.
The early history of the Church is filled with stories of the heroic faith of these witnesses to Christ's truth. The stories of these saints whose fidelity and courage led to their sanctity or holiness have provided models for every other Christian throughout history. The Church later formally recognized (canonized) many of them.
But there were thousands and thousands of early Christian martyrs, the majority of whose names are known only to God. Throughout the history of the Church there have been countless others who really are saints, who are with God in heaven, even if their names are not on the list of canonized saints. In order to honor the memory, and our own debt, to these unnamed saints, and to recall their example, the Church dedicated a special feast day - a sort of "memorial day."
As I thought about it, I was overwhelmed with the number of names and the specific ways that their lives witnessed to the life of Christ. The list of saints that have directly influenced my life is exhaustive. The limited list below represents only a few examples of people to whom I am indebted and for whom I give thanks. These are representative of the "cloud of witnesses" that surrounds me as I strive to follow Christ.
- YMCA directors A.P. May and Gerald Fling who taught me to play ping pong (and that it was OK to use a" special" paddle when you were about to get beat).
- Rev. Milton Ennis, my pastor during my childhood and teenage years who encouraged me to follow God's call.
- Sunday School teachers Sister Alonzo and Sister Denmark.
- My mother who was faithful to her church and was a consistent tither.
- Seminary professors Dr. John Lawson, Gordon Thompson, and Grant Shockley who modeled humility and the gift of encouragement.
- Salt of the earth folks like L.D. Hamil, "Miss" Willie Porterfield, Clyde Pope, Carl and Chris Walker, Edna McDonald, and Joel Simmons.
- Mr. Larkin Staples and Mr. Roy Barton who discharged their duties as church treasurers in such a responsible manner without any formal financial training or fancy systems.
- Conference leaders who demonstrated integrity and commitment like Randall Williamson, Eugene Drinkard, and Dumas Shelnutt.
- Bishops L. Scott Allen (who ordained me), W.R. Cannon (who gave me my first appointment), Joel McDavid (a model of a statesman of the Church), and Ernest Fitzgerald (who had confidence in me and told me so).
For all the saints who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!