There’s an organization called StoryCorps that gives people from all backgrounds an opportunity to record a brief story from their lives. The short, edited audio files are sometimes broadcast on public radio; they’re also archived for future generations. Thanks to StoryCorps, we’ve heard stories from a New York sanitation worker who retired after a 31-year career, from a Chinese-American grandmother reluctantly telling her son and granddaughter about her childhood mischief, from an American soldier who befriended two children in Iraq, from an African-American teenager telling his adoptive white mother about the first time he was pulled over.
One of the StoryCorps stories you can find online, complete with animated visuals, is called “The Saint of Dry Creek.” Dry Creek is a town in rural Washington, where a man named Patrick Haggerty grew up on a dairy farm. Patrick tells a story about a conversation he had as a teenager with his father in 1959. When Patrick’s father showed up at his son’s high school wearing overalls and work boots tinged with a bit of manure from the dairy farm, Patrick hid from his father out of embarrassment. Later that day, on the car ride home, Patrick’s father, gently but firmly, confronted his son about hiding due to shame or embarrassment. It turns out that Patrick’s father sensed that his son is different from some other boys his age, and he told Patrick that wherever he went in life: “Don’t sneak.” Don’t hide yourself for embarrassment or shame. And Patrick tells us, “Of all the things that a father in 1959 could have told his gay son, my father tells me to be proud of myself and not sneak.”
In the animated version of this story, the closing image is of the dad in his dirty overalls, but with a halo, holding a milk bucket and making a gesture of blessing, flanked by two cows with angel wings. Patrick says, “I had the patron saint of dads for sissies.” Patrick’s dad died two years later, in 1961.
The story of Patrick’s father—the so-called “Saint of Dry Creek”—and many stories collected by StoryCorps, meet the deep hunger that our world has for saints. For people who take the time to be kind, who outgrow or transcend the mistakes or limitations of their past, who suffer at the hands of a cruel world and yet are unbroken, who love their enemies, who form lasting bonds, who make this world more compassionate and holy.
Our first Scripture reading for this morning has a beautiful image of these saints: The reading says, “they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.” “Stubble” here would be the stalks or the stems left standing in a field after grain has been harvested. This stubble can be burned to strengthen the soil below and make room for a new crop. As we can imagine, sparks would probably rush through the fields that seem to be empty, containing only the fruitless leftovers from a season gone by.
But among the stubble are sparks: shining a light, starting a fire, getting things going again.
For a long time, I think I thought of saints more like stars: the shining victors over this world, constant in their virtue, setting unattainable standards. But maybe saints aren’t just people to look up to, but people to look around for.
And maybe saintly lives don’t shine in a perfectly steady beam. Maybe saintly lives manifest in moments—moments of stunning graciousness, of unprecedented courage or kindness, even if it lasts for only an instant. Blink, and you might miss these sparks, these saints—or these moments of saintliness.
There are, of course, many ways of thinking about saints as those who light up our world with their example. But the words that really speak to me about how the saints light up our lives comes from Thomas Merton, whose words appear as an epigraph to my favorite collection of saints, called All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. A twentieth-century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton had a famous spiritual experience in none other than Louisville, Kentucky, that overwhelmed him with the love of other human beings and with the wonder that God Himself became incarnate as one of us. Wishing he could communicate his experience to others, Merton wrote with sadness, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
True, there is no easy way of telling people that they walk around shining like the sun. But it is the collective role of all the saints in our firmament to show us how we all can shine. Instead of eclipsing us by their glowing virtues, they kindle in us that awareness and that desire to shine—particularly in the crucial moments that need our light the most, moments that might open up anywhere, maybe in a dairy-farming family in 1950s Washington State.
On this feast day of All Saints, we don’t narrow our focus to a few special Christians. We widen our gaze to take in all the saints. Perhaps they do shine for us like distant, steady stars—but we also see them in sparks, in flashes that light up the universe in astonishing ways. Whether through stubble or muddy overalls, these saints run like sparks and remind us that we too can and do shine.