And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, and won strength out of weakness … Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus — the pioneer and perfecter of our faith — who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.Hebrews 11:32-34, 12:1-2 (NRSV)
Tuesday was a busy day. For anyone following the classic Christian calendar, November 2 was celebrated as All Souls Day — a day of remembrance and prayer for all of the saints who have gone before us. For those of Mexican ancestry, Tuesday was the final day of celebration for Día de los Muertos. Contemporary symbolism associated with the Day of the Dead draws on mixed traditions, but the key focus is to celebrate the lives of family and friends who have finished their mortal journey, offering prayers of thanksgiving and blessings on their behalf. And of course, for those of us in the United States, six-times-out-of-seven, the first Tuesday in November means Election Day.
Kristen and I have always been intrigued by the colorful decorations and beautiful art that comes along with Día de los Muertos, but beyond that, I’ve never really given much thought to either religious celebration. Voting, on the other hand, is something I’ve taken very seriously ever since 2004 — the first election I was eligible to vote in. This year, however, being aware of all three events, I was struck by the serious juxtaposition of these very different activities.
Honoring deceased loved ones, celebrating life with friends and family and praising God for the gift of grace that leads to eternal life is a very corporate experience. Whether it’s done in Spanish or English, with dancing skeletons and paper flowers or with fragrant incense and solemn liturgy, prayer and worship are acts that compel us to join together, offering the best of our community up to God.
Voting is done in private. It is uncouth to talk about who or what you voted for. Whenever political ideas are shared with a gathered group of people, division, frustration and contentious arguments are not far behind. Voting is also a symbol of personal power — and rightly so! Each person has the right to cast a vote for the candidate or issue that she believes is best. Each person’s vote is weighted equally: the voting booth knows no economic class and has no bias towards race, gender or intellectual ability. Voting reminds us that each individual has the power to enact real change in the world. Of course, for our votes to hold on to that power, they must be joined with the votes of thousands of other individuals — but standing alone in a voting booth, its easy to feel like my vote is the one that really matters. It’s easy to be consumed by the lure of individual power.
I’m afraid that this fever of individualism isn’t confined to the voting booth. It permeates every aspect of our culture — even our religion. We use words like “personal Lord and Savior” to remind others, and maybe ourselves, that we have been chosen to be among God’s elect. It is a wonderful truth, revealed in the first two chapters of Genesis and affirmed throughout scripture, that the almighty Creator of the universe is also a deeply personal God that calls each of us by name. But we must never forget that it is God who first called us, and not the other way around. When we move into relationship with him, we are doing it on his terms, not so that we can have him at our disposal like a personal assistant, but so that we can fit into the specific place made for us in his creation. I’m afraid that sometimes we may shout out “I am a child of the King!” so boldly, we forget that every man, and every woman, and every child has been crafted in the very image of God.
Individualism has no place in Christian community. We may have unique gifts that enable us to work towards the specific tasks God has set before us, but we are really not living for God if we’re living in isolation from his people. We may do great things tomorrow, but let’s not kid ourselves; we are, indeed, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we wouldn’t be able to do much of anything without their support.
As you seek to serve God today, take the time to remember those who have gone before, and be sure to spend every opportunity you get celebrating life with those who walk beside you.