I’ll bet Totenfest is a new term for many of you, actually it’s a corrupted spelling of Todtenfest, what it translates as is “Feast (or festival) of the Dead. It has a bit of that German propensity for calling things what they are, like Krankenhaus (house of the sick) for hospital. It comes from the Evangelical church, that strange Prussian hybrid of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches committed by King Frederick Wilhelm III. Totenfest was instituted to remember the soldiers killed in the Prussian war (unless I’m missing something we’re talking about what the rest of us call the Napoleonic Wars). It soon expanded to remember members of the congregation who had passed in the last year.
When I was young my home church (which was Evangelical and Reformed) read the passed members names with a single bell toll after each. It was a moving service which served in lieu of All Saints Day, which is now commonly celebrated on the first Sunday in November, as The last Sunday in October is Reformation Sunday, which I talked about last week. When I was a kid, and it was still the E&R before the merger which formed the UCC, every Sunday the first hymn was this, which is nearly always appropriate.
Same purpose really, since we in the Protestant tradition tend to refer to those who have gone before us as saints. It is important to remember our forefathers in the faith for the same reason that we all admire the saints in the Catholic tradition. I think our way perhaps makes it even more personal. Jessica spoke of this last year, her post is here.
All Souls’ day is a time when I pray for the souls of my parents and other relatives now dead. I know many Protestants who ask me why I do so, as they are now with God, and He alone will judge; do I, they ask, think that somehow my prayers will influence Him. I try to explain that this is not what I believe at all. Yes, I believe God makes the decision, and I don’t believe He will be in the slightest bit influenced by me. But it is an act of piety to my dead parents. They are no longer here in the flesh, but that does not mean I forget them, and praying for them seems to me to be a way of saying that I still love them and still care about them.
I completely agree with her, which is not unusual. This is the time of year when I think a lot about and pray for my parents as well, knowing that God will be just, which is enough for me. But I want the folks to know that I still think of them and care about them, and even that I have remembered the lessons they taught me, about many things. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today, even as Jess talked about her daddy in that post you should read.
I was born when my folks were in their forties, so it wasn’t like dad had time or energy to play with me but, he spent a lot of time with me, or maybe the other way around, when I was a kid. Many people think I’m a bit of a hardcase, they may well be right. The lessons I learned as a child were all about doing things right always and taking responsibility. Sure I learned about electricity and line work and wiring buildings and a bunch of other skills but, the real lessons were about honesty and justice. With dad you never got unearned praise, in truth not saying anything about what you did was usually all the praise you were going to get, screw up and you heard about it though, guess where I learned the catchphrase, always make new mistakes. Doing it wrong because you just didn’t get it was allowable, doing it wrong again was simply unacceptable, and you learned that quickly. One of the other lessons taught was that bad news is not like wine, it doesn’t get better with age. Learning those two lessons will take you quite a way in this life; there are others.
But, in truth, it’s certainly not about me, and it’s not even about dad, it’s about those who have gone before us in the faith. I find it easier to understand if I personalize, and it’s fun for me to talk about dad. Of all the men I have known in a fairly long life, he more than any of them deserved the title of “Lightbringer” for that is what he did for countless rural families in Minnesota, in the Amana Colonies in Iowa, and in Indiana. From 1935 until he retired in 1969 he was a man of rural electrification.
That was his mission, nearly from the time he held his father in his arms as he died and so became the head of the family as a junior in high school, until he retired, with honor. Because we in the family understood, even his pallbearers were linemen, and executives from rural electrification, including the President of the Statewide coop. There was no glory in the mission, it was always a struggle, and to his dying day he regretted being essential in World War II. But his work in the 30s, enabled hundreds, maybe thousands, of farm boys to join the service, without reducing food output. But he never thought he did his part. In truth, he was the most righteous man I have ever known. No, I don’t mean self-righteous, he was never in it for himself, he was there to serve. The old REA Co-op motto fit him perfectly: “Owned by those we serve”. He didn’t write it, he lived it, it was the mission
But you know, it wasn’t only him, ever. here’s one of the very few pictures I have from those days, one of the interesting things about it that in the ’60s , many of those pictured here were still on the board of the co-op. I knew most of them, and I wish they were still with us. They too understood the mission. When they couldn’t get the power companies to serve them, they did the thing that d’ Tocqueville had commented on all those years before- they formed an association to do it for them. And they built a very successful business on what the power companies had said could never be done. Dad was part of that story, but you have to multiply that by thousands of these associations all over the country to understand the accomplishment. For what they did was nothing less than bring the American farmer into the 20th century. These were men that you could make a thousand dollar deal with on a handshake, and never worry. There word really was their bond. As I commented on Jess’s post, there truly were giants in the earth.
But we are talking about saints, well that’s not for us to say is it. Of all the men in that picture, I know nothing of what church, if any, they attended. Given the make up of the area, I would guess most were Lutheran, Catholic, or Evangelical & Reformed, and a few Methodists. But I would also bet that many, like dad, were afraid the church would fall down if they entered, and besides they had work to do. I suspect I could count on my hands the number of times that dad attended church, in my lifetime. The other half of that we children and Mom were strongly encouraged to be active members. In fact of the 3 siblings, we have all been officers of our churches. But James 2 tells us:
12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
I believe, as does my church, that we are saved by Grace alone, but we also believe that Grace is manifested in works, of the church, certainly but, also in our daily lives and occupations
To me, by that standard they are saints indeed. I was going to end with a different hymn but can’t find an appropriate version, so I will repeat Jess’s choice of one of the great old All Saints Day hymns.
It strikes me that maybe some of you may read this as me bragging about my dad, and perhaps I am. But remember this, we are indeed the people that our parents raised us to be. I have told you here of my one enduring hero, and my life and faith, and that of my siblings, is his real legacy. For us all, it is a heavy burden, that we should bear with pride. I have attempted to live what has been a reasonably long and productive life, without compromising the morality I was taught at home and by my church, without compromise. I would have had it no other way. I commend the practice to you.