My lifelong friend died of ovarian cancer in June. She battled for years, and all I could do was watch from out of state and check-in by phone. And then one morning I got “the call.” Her death has caused me to think of heaven more deeply and consider the “cloud of witnesses” that Scripture tells us about. I used to think it was a group of people who stood side-by-side with God, looking down from the balcony of heaven and watching my every move. White eyebrows furrowed, they were judging my worth. Pursed lips indicated displeasure at my motives. Growing up, I found the concept more than a bit creepy.
Then a few years ago I attended an anniversary celebration of a local Greek Orthodox church. Having grown up in the evangelical church, the building itself was quite different from my norm. It didn’t look like a repurposed warehouse. It was built to be a formal church. Though the outside looked like a white country church, the elaborate paneling and wood pews inside drew my attention to the cloth-covered altar and the cross above it. Gold glittered from ornate plates and candlesticks. The faint smell of incense lingered in the air. A black-robed priest stood inside to answer questions as curious people milled around. Someone asked about all the painted icons depicting the saints, and his answer astounded me.
“These are the ones who led the way,” he essentially said. “It is through their testimony, their witness, that they passed down the faith we have today. We do not pray to these saints, but we acknowledge what they have done for us. Without them, we would not know the Way.”
He gave such a simple explanation, but it changed the way I thought. Maybe all who follow Jesus truly are counted as “saints,” as stated so many times in the New Testament, even though that hasn’t been part of my church vocabulary. What if those heavenly witnesses are encouraging and supportive, and they’re not creepy? Maybe I can learn from them and their lives and beliefs, and not just rely on my own knowledge and experiences. I can see that so many of them were part of a cause, a lifestyle of serving the people around them while serving Jesus.
Now that my friend has joined the Witnesses, they definitely seem much friendlier to me. Her faith helped strengthen mine through the years, and together we wrestled with questions that don’t always have answers. We talked about how our faith intersects with our culture, and how we both have been challenged and changed over the years. We did not agree on the reasons behind the LGBTQ lifestyle, but we agreed that the church’s response of shunning is wrong. Anything that turns people away from Jesus is sin. And we committed to love everyone at all times.
As the Black Lives Matter movement spread nationwide, we had to acknowledge our privilege of growing up in the white, affluent suburbs and how that influenced the course of our lives. We lamented that someone we knew complained, “Well, I had to work hard to get where I am!” and he never recognized that he came from a family with the means and expectation that he go to college. So we committed to listening and learning and seeking justice.
My friend spent most of her life in Christian ministry, much of it dedicated to the poor and marginalized. She even co-founded ServeNow, a non-profit that (among other ministries) trains at-risk women in tailoring or running a bakery to empower them with jobs to help keep them off the streets. www.weservenow.org
Her witness is not what brought me to Christ initially, but it keeps me going in the right direction when I find myself wading through the gnarled forest of the “Why, God?” trees. But the light I see through the trunks comes from the lantern of her steadfast faith that she is swinging from that heavenly balcony.