Joshua Wheeler grew up in eastern Oklahoma, just over the border from my home state of Arkansas.[i] That can be a hardscrabble part of the world, and it surely was for Joshua. His father was abusive, then left, and then died. His mother suffered her own plentiful demons and lived mostly on assistance. Joshua had three siblings, and at an early age it fell to him to keep the family together. Merely a boy himself, he got his siblings out of bed when they could not rouse themselves and changed the little ones’ diapers. He fixed their breakfast. He made sure they got to school. Joshua worked as soon as he could work, roofing houses and laboring on a blueberry farm. He hunted, not for sport but to put protein on his family’s meager table.
Many of us know and understand the rural South. Indeed, it is the source of many of us. We know the myriad ways that a boy raised in a broken and troubled home can himself fall off the rails, renewing the cycle of poverty, addiction, and abuse for another generation. But Joshua did not. He grew up, began to raise his own family, and set a course for himself in the world. Joshua’s sister Rachel says of her brother, “He was exactly what was right about this world. He came from nothing, and he really made something out of himself.”
This is All Saints Day, and I thought of Joshua as I read the lessons for this occasion. Our first reading is from Ecclesiasticus. It’s one of my favorites. It begins as an ode, as the reading says, to “famous men,” those saints whose names resonate through history, who continue to inspire and mesmerize us: “There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent…they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes—all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times.”
We immediately recall a hundred names of women and men whose memory looms large in all facets of our world: leaders, scholars, athletes, artists. They are great, and we remember them. But then the reading from Ecclesiasticus changes tone. From grandiosity it descends into wistfulness and says, “But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they never existed; they have become as though they had never been born.”
And that’s Joshua Wheeler. We don’t generally write odes to young men who “merely” beat the odds of their social circumstance and become productive citizens. We may smile and say, “Good for him,” but then we carry on and soon forget the story as though we’d never heard it. We shouldn’t forget, though. Because there is often more to the story.
After high school, Joshua Wheeler had two realistic choices: He could go to work in the oil fields, or he could join the army. He chose the latter option. Joshua enlisted in 1995 and immediately discovered that the military suited him. He joined the Army Rangers two years later, and sometime after that Delta Force, the unit so elite that they Army doesn’t publicly even acknowledge its existence. Over the next decade, Joshua serve fourteen tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—fourteen—where he was awarded eleven Bronze Stars, including four for valor in combat.
Two weeks ago, Joshua Wheeler found himself advising Kurdish persh merga fighters in an ISIS-controlled area of Iraq. There was a hospital, and in it ISIS, presently this world’s clearest and most overt manifestation of evil, held seventy hostages. ISIS had already dug a mass grave. Those seventy people were slated to die. The pesh merga attempted to blow a hole in the outer wall of the hospital to rescue the seventy, but they failed. As had happened innumerable times before in his life, stretching all the way back to dusty Oklahoma, Joshua Wheeler was willing to accomplish what others could not. And so, he—thirty-nine years old, father of four—rushed to the wall and with his own two hands set an explosive charge. And then he rushed through the breach to save those slated for death, where he was himself shot, and he died. He died, becoming the first U.S. combat fatality in Iraq in over four years, but the seventy hostages ultimately were freed.
There is often more to the story. Last week, as I was sitting in the choir stalls in prayer just before the 11 a.m. service, usher Richard Dickson approached me to say that a parishioner desperately wanted me to add a name to our prayers for the deceased. In the moment, the name Joshua Wheeler meant nothing to me. But we added his name, and last week at 11 a.m. two hundred of us commended Joshua to God as a saint of the Church. After church, I sat with that parishioner and learned that Joshua was a friend of her family. It was important to her that we remember him. And then I went home and read Joshua’s entire story, and learned of his early broken life and the examples of his ordinary family heroism and the way in which those small occasions of grace did as much as his military training to prepare him for his sacrifice. And it became desperately important to me, too, that we remember him.
There is often more to the story with each person you pass on the street, with each man or woman with whom you share the pew. There is more to the story. In early Christianity, all the faithful were known as “the saints.” We would be the saints of Christ Church, of Houston. These little ones who are about to be baptized will become the newest saints in Christendom. And among us, there are small occasions of grace, acts of ordinary—and sometimes extraordinary—heroism to one another. In other words, on this All Saints Day, we not only remember the saints, we are surrounded by them: Joshua Wheeler, you, me.
On All Saints Day we also read the Beatitudes from Matthew. They begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Bill Tully offers another translation: “Blessed are those who know the valleys they’ve lived in…[and] know their need of God.” These are the ones who will get us out of bed when we cannot rouse ourselves, who will tend us, who will feed us spiritually maybe even physically when we are hungry, and who will run into the breach to save us when we are held captive.
Like Joshua Wheeler, we are called to be saints to one another in mundane times so that we know how to be saints to one another in times of great intensity and crisis. We set the table so that we know how, when the time comes, to run into the breach. For these who are about to be baptized into this Body, what better witness can we offer?
There is a coda to this morning’s passage from Ecclesiasticus. After the author laments those who will die and be forgotten, he reverses himself, as if awakening from a stupor. He says, “Wait! But these also were godly men…and their glory [also] will never be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.”
They are not forgotten, because we still live. They are not forgotten, because they are the saints, and so are we.