those who went before are with us still

Films offer us compelling narrative and visual images that can stand in for other more complicated ideas in our lives. The scenes figured in Revelation 7 and Hebrews 12 remind me of two stories in particular, one of which I’ve seen again this week and the other I’d forgotten till someone mentioned it recently. The second film is Places in the Heart. The last scene of which depicts the dead and departed gathered together with the living while the congregation shares the Lord’s Supper. Reconciliation is embodied as the sinners and sinned against break bread and share a common cup.

More familiar to me is the Harry Potter series. In several of the books and films Harry is met by those who have died and yet continue to love and encourage him – first his parents, then a gathering of family and friends and again, and finally his mentor. In each instance Harry receives first hope, then strength, courage and finally wisdom – the very things we would want from a “great cloud of witnesses”.

These are not allegories for the texts or other biblical truths – that would risk abuse of both the scriptures and the cultural narratives. They do illustrate this longing we have to believe that we are indeed surrounded by those who have gone before, and that their presence is a help to us.

This is the hope that Hebrews 12 affirms. In our struggles, of faith and otherwise, we are not alone. We are not the first, and we won’t be the last. Others have endured trials perhaps more arduous or lengthy and triumphed. Whether our adversary is physical or mental illness, political or social injustice, theological confusion, or temptation to sin, Christ is our shepherd and all these saints prepare the way of The Lord before us that we might walk in it. To “prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 3:4) means to make a clear path for God in the world and in people’s lives (first our own). It also means that, like a group of people walking or cross country skiing through deep snow, the first person clears a path so those who follow will have an easier time of it.

footsteps in snow
Shore of Lake Michigan. Chicago, IL © Ken G. Crawford, 2014

In chapter 7 of his Revelation John sees these witnesses who have remained faithful to Christ in the face of great struggle standing around the throne of God in worship. They lead us in worship of God just as in discipleship to Jesus. They go before us to prepare the way, to show us how to worship. When we enter into intentional, focused worship of God we recognize that they are already there. We are “returning to the show already in progress.”

c.1020 CE, artist unknown [i]

I appreciate Bob Cornwall’s reflections – in particular that they remind us of the global nature of this cloud of witnesses – they come from “every nation and tribe and people and language” in other words every demographic group imaginable. This is reminiscent of Matthew 28:16-20 “go into all the world and make disciples from every nation” and Luke 10 where Jesus appoints 70 additional disciple missionaries to go (70 thought to represent the nations of the ancient world because of the 70 family names descended from Noah in Genesis 10).

As I look at these texts, several things come to mind.

  1. We are not the first ones to walk this faith journey. Often it feels as though the challenges before us are insurmountable and no one has ever faced them before. Clearly that is not the case. Despite technical and political developments, life is really not so different. We live, we love, we get hurt, we forgive, we create.
  2. We will also die. One day the arguments we are having will be in the past of another dimension and we will be with God, worshipping in fullness that which we only know in part today.
  3. Others will be where we now are. As we remember those who have gone before us, one day someone will light a candle, speak our names, and remember us, shedding a tear at the same time that they smile for having known and loved us.
  4. Those who have gone before us may have some lessons to teach us, not the least of which could be to relax just a bit. The things we think, say and do matter, to be certain. They impact the lives of others and the world. But they are not permanent. They too will pass away. Others will need to live with the consequences of our choices, but those consequences are not permanent. Perhaps, as a result, we might learn to hold on to our opinions and needs more loosely, and hold on to God and one another more faithfully.

As I light candles in memory of those I’ve loved and lost, I will be considering how my life might be more filled by God’s grace and mercy. How might I find courage and hope in the witnesses who surround me and cheer me on, even as they surround God’s throne in worship and praise? What might I try, risk, strive, during this next year because I know I’m not alone, because they’ve gone before, because others are coming behind? I’m stirred yet again by Mary Oliver’s words:

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

Written as a reflection on for All Saints Sunday, 11/2/14, at St. Paul UCC in Dallas. Based on Revelation 7 and Hebrews 12.


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