November 5, 2017
So Great a Cloud of Witnesses
2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:1
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
It feels as though I have been surrounded by death lately. It comes in waves, it seems. I am so grateful for All Saints’ Day this year – for the chance to lean into the grief, to name it, to hold it together as a community, to hold each other in the promises of God – so we do not lose heart.
These last few weeks I found myself remembering a poem I found long ago, when I first started in ministry. It was something given to me by a Hospice chaplain, and it helped me see death differently.
Life Is a Journey by Alvin Fine
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey.
A going, a growing from stage to stage:
From childhood to maturity and youth to old age.
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom.
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again.
From health to sickness and back we pray, to health again.
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pan to compassion.
From grief to understanding, from fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead:
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage,
Made stage by stage… To life everlasting. [i]
When we look at the journeys of our loved ones who have gone before us, we see their sacred pilgrimage. And it gives us heart for our own journey. When we think about the ways they faced adversity, or moved from fear to faith… when we remember how they moved from offense to forgiveness, it gives us heart to move ourselves. The saints who have gone before us are our teachers. They tell us, even from the grave, what is important. Perhaps even more in their death, we hear them clearly. Perhaps we are simply more ready to listen. Perhaps they can help us live as those who are prepared to die.
Mary Oliver’s poem When Death Comes describes this kind of life, and death:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it is over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. [ii]
Who in your life has taught you to live like this, wholeheartedly, and without reserve?
The ‘saints’ in my own life who have taught me the most are not the ones who have had the easiest or most successful lives by the world’s standards, but the ones who have faced hardship with courage, and come through fiery trials with grace and conviction. I think of something Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said,
Discovering… joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.[iii]
I remember reading the story of a young man who found inspiration in his grandmother. She and her family lived through the Stalin’s purges in Russia. When asked about the impact of the purges on his family, this is what he said:
Yes, there was an influence, not in the material sense but in the spiritual sense. It had an impact on my understanding of values in my life, close people, and the meaning of life. I have the feeling that I should tell people about my grandmother and give her (memoirs) to people to read. I have a feeling that I should be worthy of her memory. When I come to a moral turning point or choice, then the very choice of my grandmother and her life help me to come to a moral decision. That has become very simple and natural for me. If I were to lose material possessions because of my decision, these losses would be incomparable with the material losses people in the camps underwent. They lost a lot, but they saved their spiritual sense of self-worth. they are a moral model for me. I have the impression that the choice, the spiritual or pragmatic way of raising children, is getting more and more challenging. We have to have very strong family roots in order that one should not think too much while bringing up children in the atmosphere of the Russian intelligentsia. Many people do not know what spiritual joy means. A person who knows it already has understood that everything else is worthless in comparison. [iv]
It’s so much like the words of Archbishiop Tutu: As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
Whose memory would you want your own life to be worthy of? Who has taught you thins kind of joy?
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that lead us on this journey of life. As the Book of Hebrews urges us:
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2)
And let this ancient prayer of the saints be our prayer, at the close of the day and every day until the close of our lives…
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and this busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
[ii] Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, ed. Roger Housden (New York: Harmony Books, 2003), 3.
[iii] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (New York: Avery, 2016), 12.
[iv] Katherine G. Baker and Julia B. Gippenrieter, “The Effects of Stalin’s Purge on Three Generations of Russian Families,” Family Systems: a Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences, Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. 3, No. 1, 27-28.