The Cloud of Witnesses

My very earliest memory is full of lightning, thunder, and freezing rain.  And my mother crying.  

I was not quite 4 years old.  It was nap time at the preschool, and we were all supposed to be stretched out on our rugs relaxing and thinking sleepy thoughts, but most of us were curled up in a fetal position because the lightning kept flashing and the thunder kept thundering and the little beads of freezing rain pelting the windows sounded like something skittering and malicious trying to break in.  And suddenly, there was my mom, appearing out of nowhere, bending over the teacher’s desk and whispering something to her while my teacher made an “Oh no!” face.  The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of the car.  Mom sat in the driver’s seat.  But she didn’t start the car.  We just sat there.  Then my mom put her face in her hands and wept.  

Clearly something was very wrong.  Something awful had happened.  And since I was not quite four years old, I assumed that whatever it was, it was my fault.  So I started apologizing, just saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.  And, of course, I started crying, too, because I was confused and scared and not quite four years old, and my mother was crying, and the thunder kept thundering and the lightning kept flashing, and the wind was howling as it threw freezing rain against the windshield.  But mostly I cried because I was absolutely positive that I had done something very, very bad that made my mother cry, though I couldn’t have told you for the life of me what that might be.

Finally, Mom composed herself and reassured me that I had not done anything wrong.  She told me that my grandpa had died.  Her father, the person who, at that point in my life, I loved more than anyone else in the world, except maybe her,  had died.  I had sat in his lap in the farmhouse kitchen just one week before, sneaking sips of cream and sugar coffee from his saucer.  And now he was dead.  

Everything about the following days after that moment is blur in my memory.  Except for this: I have a very clear memory of looking at my grandpa laid out in his casket at his funeral.  I must have looked at him for some time, because when I close my eyes, I can still see him.  As I looked at him, I realized that he was both there and not there—that the body lying in the casket was my beloved grandfather, but that the something that made him the person I knew and loved was not in that casket.  And yet, I felt him so close to me.  As a matter of fact, I have felt him close to me many, many times since then.  

I learned some very important things about death at the tender age of not quite four.  

The first thing I learned is that death hurts.  It may or may not hurt the person who dies.  That depends a lot on how they die.  In fact, if pain is involved, death is a blessed release from that pain.  Still, death hurts.  It hurts those who are left behind, those of us who love the one who has died.  Death rips a piece out of the fabric of our lives, and there’s no patching it.  It hurts to know that the loved one who has died won’t be here with us any more—at least not in the tangible, put-your-arms-around-them-and-hug-them way they were here before.  It hurts to know you won’t be able to sing with them or cook with them or walk with them or joke with them or have lunch with them or any of the million little things we do with each other.  At least not in the way you did those things before.

Death hurts.  So we weep.  My mother wept.  Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He felt the pain survivors feel in the face of death.  In fact, the original language of the story hints there was anger in his weeping—anger at the pain and bewilderment that death always brings with it.  Death hurts.

I also learned when I was not quite four that death comes to everyone.  No exception.  As my mom talked to me about my grandfather’s death, she made that pretty clear.  She grew up on a farm, so she didn’t pull any punches.  I am going to die, she said.  Someday.  Your dad is going to die.  Someday.  You are going to die.  Someday.  It happens to everyone.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.  It’s a part of life.

Death is a part of life.  Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And if you don’t find a way to make peace with that idea—make peace with the idea of your own death—you will find all kinds of ways to make yourself crazy trying to deny death.  Our whole Western culture is built around exactly that kind of craziness.  Ernest Becker described our collective insanity from denying death and its destructive consequences so well that he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Denial of Death.   Money, seeking fame, gluttony, narcissism, surrounding ourselves with stuff, addiction—all these things and more can be ways to hide from the deep truth of our mortality.  

We just don’t want to think about it.  We use euphemisms so we don’t have to say the words.  He passed. Passed away.  Passed on.  She’s gone ahead.  He kicked the bucket.  Bought the farm.  Gave up the ghost.   Went to be with the Lord.  Went to heaven.  Met his maker.  Was called home.  Has gone on to a better place.  Even the military will say that there were X number of casualties instead of saying that X number of people died or were killed.  They died.  They are dead.

Death.  It’s a spooky word.  There is a finality about it.  I think sometimes we’re afraid to say it because we think might summon it.  But guess what?  We’re not that powerful.  We might have mojo, but we don’t have that kind of mojo.  And besides, death coming eventually anyway.  For each and every one of us.

I’ve thought a lot about death since I was not quite four years old, especially during the last twenty-five years.  As a pastor, I’ve been in the room with Death a lot more often than the average person.  But that’s not why I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.  I’ve thought a lot about death because I’m in the Life business, specifically the Life in Christ business.  And one of the things that’s essential for Christians to remember is that we were baptized into death.  Saint Paul said so in Romans:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Newness of life.  That’s the thing you get if you make peace with death.  You don’t need to be afraid of death anymore.  You understand that life and death are part of the same thing, the same continuum.  So you can be free from all the crazy-making things that shackle you if you’re trying to deny your mortality.  You can be free to live life in all its fullness. 

There are some fairy-folk in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels called the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re six inches tall, blue, mischievous, wear kilts, and speak with a Scottish accent.  They are absolutely fearless and embrace life with joyful ferocity.  The thing that makes them fearless and so fiercely, joyfully alive is their one central belief:  they believe they have already died and that the world they now live in is heaven.  There’s no need to be afraid of death.  It’s already happened.  And if they do happen to die, they believe that they are just going to another part of heaven they haven’t been to yet.  I can’t help but think that as Christians, we’re supposed to believe something like that.  We’ve already died.  In baptism we have died with Christ so we can walk fearlessly, freely, and even with a fierce joy into newness of life.

Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And it is a continuum that continues.  Life. Death. Resurrection.  As Saint Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  It is Christ’s life in us that carries us through death.  It is Christ’s life in us and our life in Christ that guarantees our resurrection. Someday.  In God’s own good time.  

In the meantime, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.    In so many, many ways our loved ones who have died still walk with us and stand beside us.  Their lives have shaped our lives.  We feel their presence.  They gather with us at the table in the Communion of Saints and share the sacrament that connects us through all the generations in an unbroken line all the way to the apostles and to Jesus himself.  

At his last supper, Jesus told us to remember him.  He didn’t mean that we should simply think about him with fondness and nostalgia.  He meant it in the Jewish way of remembering.  He meant for us to bring him forward out of the past and into the present to be fully with us so we can be fully with him.

This is a day when we remember the saints—those people of faith who have died in Christ and will rise again in God’s own good time.  But they arise with us now in a different way when we remember them.  

We remember them.  Re-member.  To receive again as a member.  To reassemble the whole from parts that were separated.  We speak their names. We remember them.  We call them out of our memories and acknowledge their place in the assembled body of Christ.  We remind ourselves that they have died, but they still stand with us in the body of Christ.

We believe that on this day and every day the saints live on in the love of God and life of Christ.  This is not a denial of death.  We do not deny death.  We defy it.  We defy it as we fiercely and joyfully embrace life eternal.

4 thoughts on “The Cloud of Witnesses

  1. Thank you for this beautiful message Steve! That was a lot for a not quite 4 year old to handle. I am glad that you have been living it out and sharing your heart ever since. God Bless you my friend  💗 Nancy 

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

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    1. What a wonderful message, Steve , I do so love your writing. Be it these “Thoughts” or your great music.. Death is so close to us & yet most of us try not to
      even think about it. When I was in hospital last May; I died with a fever of 105.We’ll talk about it when next we meet. Love you my brother!

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      1. Thank you, Lance. I’m sorry I’ve been so negligent about reaching out to you more often. I know that things have been touch-and-go for you health wise. I do want to hear more about your experience last May. You know that you and Jean are never far from our hearts and always in our prayers. Much love to you and Jeannie.

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