A Great Cloud of Witnesses

It has been said that the past is never past.  Our history, for good or ill continues to live in and through us.  When I was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, I discovered that my U.S. history teacher was greatly misinformed.  I discovered that we, the North, didn’t win the Civil War, called by many locals the “War of Northern Aggression.”  In fact, the Civil War wasn’t even over.  It was still being fought, only with different weapons and strategies.  And so it continues down through Jim Crow and Nixon’s Southern Strategy, down to this very day.  Our racial differences have become weaponized and are tearing the country apart.  William Faulkner has said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  This truism runs like the trajectory of a bullet straight through his novels and through our politics.

In the same way, our ancestors and others continue to live through us, even to this day.  I can surely see parts of my parents in myself.  I can see a few of my former teachers in myself.  A scoutmaster as well.

The early Christians understood that we were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  My friend George Regas speaks of two sorts of witnesses – Balcony People and Basement People. 

You know the basement people in your life.  They are the folks ever dissatisfied with life.  Nothing is good enough.  Everyone is against them.  They are hidebound rule followers who delight in beating our hopes to death with the rule book.  They are the glass-half-empty folks.  They always have a “BUT” ready to dash any good idea or dream.  But it will never work.  But nobody will want to do it.  But.  But.  But.   A beat-it-into-the-ground-and-stomp-on-it BUT.  They’re like Joe Btfsplk in the Li’l Abner cartoon who walks about with a thundercloud over his head.  Anyone coming in contact with him is permanently jinxed.  He’s the ultimate bad news.  You know these people.    Basement people can infest your life like plague of cockroaches.  If you let them.

Those in the balcony we might visualize as beaming faces benevolently looking down on us, cheering us on as we run the race of life.  The biblical writer was thinking of Balcony People, those of gladsome tidings.

Balcony people cheer us on as we go forth to live out the joyful message of God’s radical love.  They are the ones who push us to pull out our best stuff, to go the extra mile, to get to our “A” game.   They are the ones who don’t give up on us, even when we’ve made a total mess of things and have given up on ourselves.  They are the ones who shout in my ear, “John, wake up.   Wake up.  Get out of bed.  The day’s a-wasting.” 

My balcony people are those whom the hymn, “For all the Saints” conjures up: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.”  These are the brave hearts in our lives, whose strong arms we depend upon. These people persist.  They endure. 

I cannot run the race without such folks cheering me on.  This Cloud of Witnesses lives in our hearts and minds.  They are the absolute sign of God’s presence with us.  As I and my co-workers working on House of Hope have found, this stuff that Jesus has put into our hearts to do is not easy.  Sometimes it gets downright discouraging, especially when those you thought ought to be with you turn out to be lazy, self-indulgent, hostile and territorial. 

Even when one tries to do the right thing, division will arise.  The malevolent forces of NIMBYism and greed will raise their ugly heads.  Thank God for those balcony people who cheer us on in spite of fearful and wrongheaded opposition.  In our minds and hearts, our balcony people bring a smile.  They are our fortitude.

Like this past week in West Virginia working to round up allies and friends.  Our development officer called up one newly established opioid treatment centers to learn what they might  have to teach us from starting up their facility.  My colleague hadn’t gotten very far into the conversation when the woman on the other end of the line stopped him.

“Where are you located?

“In Wellsburg.”

“Wellsburg, that’s district 1… You’re going to steal my patients; you’re going to take my beds.  Why would I help you?”

“I thought we were all working together to help people.”

“Well, yes, BUT…  Well, of course, we are, but, but…you’re going to steal my clients.”

Oy veh…  Sigh.

Later that day when we met with one of those marvelous bureaucrats (and there really are wonderful, dedicated civil servants in state government offices) our host stated that he was well aware of us and our project.

“I already know about you.  I’ve had calls about you.”

Our development officer Jim responded, “I know who called you.”

“You spoke to (name deleted to protect the insecure).”

The fellow had a good laugh.  “Because of you folks, I missed my lunch.  This woman went on and on and on for some forty-five minutes.  You guys are going to steal her clients.”  We all chuckled some more.

This wonderful public servant is truly a balcony person, a gift of God, to cheer on House of Hope and our efforts to “do something” about opioid addiction in the state of West Virginia.  That he controls some of the state funding for programs like ours is only an additional plus.

In my mind, I could see all those who, down through my life have given me the strength and resilience to withstand the nay-sayers.  Even when I was the nay-sayer.  Those nay-sayers who might like the idea of an opioid recovery center somewhere – just not near them.  Not in their back yard.  No!   We need balcony people – that great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on.  People like my dad who was persistence personified.  People like an English teacher in high school who believed in my abilities far more than I did.  A college professor who taught optical mineralogy.  A campus minister.  Various parishioners.  A United Methodist superintendent.  A bishop or two.  We need that great cloud of witnesses.  All members of the glorious company of saints calling me to bring out my best effort.  To persevere and run the good race. 

Jesus has warned us that his message of compassion, his message of justice and deliverance would bring opposition.  Families will be divided as will communities.  They had NIMBYism even back then.

I came into adulthood at the beginning of the Vietnam war – a time when our country was most divided.  I was counter culture personified.  My family was divided.  I don’t think my dad and I spoke for over two years as a result of my opposition to that war.  Unfortunately, many of us displaced our anger to that war.  We blamed returning soldiers rather than the misguided government that had sent them into a corrupted, no-win situation.  That is why the slogan of Vietnam Vets Against the War is “Honor the warrior, not the war.”

Before I left on this last trip to West Virginia, I received my copy of The Veteran. the biannual publication of VVAW.  Featured was an article about the library being built in a Vietnam city by our members.  That, after all the animosity and pain coming out of that war, we should now be building and furnishing a library warmed my heart.  That the Vietnamese would be receptive to such a gesture – well, it brought a tear to my eyes and a check from my checkbook.  The people involved in this project from both nations are indeed balcony people.  They are the sign primordial that grace trumps evil.  Even the evil of a most divisive war that destroyed both our nations.  Hate may last for a day, but not forever.  Balcony people eventually will have the last word.  And the world is better for them.  Indeed, they are tokens of the grace of God.  It brought joy to my heart that I could be a small part of that project in Vietnam.  A great cloud of witnesses indeed!

Our recovery facility in West Virginia will not only be treating opioid addiction, but PTSD as well, for both our current vets and our first responders.  All involved in this effort are a part of today’s great cloud of witnesses to hope.  It’s about paying it forward.  It’s what the twelve-step folks call “an attitude of gratitude.”  It’s the Jesus movement in action.

Our nation could presently use a few balcony people.  We are presently two or three, or more Americas.  Our politics are at the breaking point.  We are a nation of haves and (mostly) have-nots.  Income and wealth inequality, since the first days of slavery, poison our national discourse.  With the demise of unions and many good jobs, the politics of resentment now feeds on itself. 

However, there are hopeful voices of sanity.  Often the political fabric of America can be much better discerned and unraveled through the art of the novelist.  We’ve had facts heaped upon facts.  We’ve had expose and commissions until we’re numb.  Mueller has testified.  Trials have been held.  Some guilty have been sent packing off to jail.  Yet none of it has seemed to have grabbed the national conscience.  Maybe, as Shakespeare is oft quoted, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  But in a pinch, a good story or a novel will do.

Lately I have come across Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, a story of both the worst and the best of our national politics.  Written in 1959, it captured the silent generation that came to power during the Eisenhower years and the McCarthy period.  In Drury’s frank and compelling narrative, we find those qualities of character that rise above the moral quagmire of Washington’s political scene.  Drury explores the enduring themes that have always been the material of great literature:  tragedy, sacrifice, sex and power – the great themes of Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Melville, Hawthorne and scripture.  Drury has become one of my balcony people, as he has told a great tale that captures both the triumph and the pathos of that fateful time, our fateful time.  His use of the English language is mesmerizing.  I can see why it is that he received a Pulitzer Prize and I didn’t.  Speaking of the ethos of the Eisenhower years – and might we say the pathos of our years — he writes:

The great age of the Shoddy came upon America after the war, and Everybody Wants His became the guiding principle for far too many.  With it came the Age of the Shrug, the time when it was too hard and too difficult and too bothersome to worry about tomorrow, or even very much about today, when the problems of world leadership were too large and too insistent and too frightening to be grasped and so everybody would rather sigh and shrug and concentrate instead on bigger and bigger cars and shinier and shinier appliances and longer and longer vacations in a sort of helpless blind seeking after Nirvana that soothed them but unfortunately only encouraged their enemies.

A dry rot had affected America in these recent years and every sensitive American knew it.[1]

Marvelous writing.  Drury speaks to our ethos, and his story telling is riveting.  No, I don’t have any stock in Doubleday, but I heartily recommend Advise and Consent for the hopeful vision of his writing. In the midst of “the Shoddy,” Drury congers up fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional characters worthy of the story he would tell.  This is the sort of writing that elucidates and gives perspective on our dissolute days.  Drury indeed knows us and our politics.  Read any of his rewarding books.  They’re at your local library, or available on line.  Allen Drury is definitely one of my balcony people.  You most likely have similar authors you’d recommend, authors who know our hearts and our times.  Definitely balcony people.  Authors such as Allen Drury are God’s gift to us.

Another of my balcony people was the dearest, sweetest pastor’s wife I have ever known.  In Long Beach our pastor was very near retirement.  He was a rather stern, austere man.  Difficult to know and not very approachable, especially for a young junior high boy.  But his wife, Nellie was another matter. 

Now, remember we were junior highers, full of energy and full of mischief.  We were awful – the stunts we would pull were beyond the pale.  Instead of having us sit through adult church, we gathered in the gymnasium for a brief worship period before we went to our classes.  The hymns and prayers and brief meditation were led by Nellie Hughes.  She seemed to know each of us by name and it was obvious that each one of us, yes, even us disruptive boys, had a place in her heart.  I would rather die than disappoint Mrs. Nellie Hughes.  And to have to be disciplined by her?  Unthinkable!  It was during those years that what little I learned of kindness and gratitude, I most likely learned from her.  I can still picture in my mind that diminutive, frail, old woman waiting at the mic in that cavernous room for us to settle down.  And settle we did.  Her smile could light the deepest darkness.  She was kindness personified. As a young boy, I knew that whatever Jesus might have looked like, my bet is that he looked an awful lot like Mrs. Nellie Hughes.  Nellie Hughes, you are indeed one of my balcony people.

It has been through the lives of these sorts of people that we catch the Christian faith.  Though there be controversies and disputations, the church endures through people like Nellie Hughes. I can’t recall anything she might have told us, yet she endures because of who she was, and who she is in my heart today.  Each of us is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  People who, like Nellie Hughes, testify that love endures, and so can we. 

Though Jesus may be the source of division, though members of a household will be set upon one another over what it means to follow him, do not despair. Sometimes the church eats it’s young and destroys its prophets. The NIMBY crowd may endure for a season, but will not always have the final say.  While it may look in the heat of the moment as though fire has been cast down upon our best efforts, it will be the quiet folks like Nellie who endure and persevere.  Allen Drury assures us that in the morass of the D.C. swamp, it will be stateswomen and statesmen who will reach the needed compromises to carry the day forward for the common good. 

Yes, we give thanks for the balcony people in our lives, those of strong arm and stout heart.  They are the tokens of God’s grace incarnate.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aide every weight, and sin which 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…”[2] 

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.  Alleluia.  Alleluia.”[3]  Amen.

1 Allen Drury, Advise and Consent (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1959) 483.

[2] Hebrews 12               

[3] William Walsham How, “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest,” The Hymnal 1982 (The Church Pension Fund, New York) 287.  This is the hymnal of the Episcopal Church, however, many other denominational hymnals include this well-known hymn.

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2;
 Luke 12:49-56

Year C, Proper 15, August 18, 2019
Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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