Recently on my Mississippi River paddle I had lots of time on my hands. I found myself talking regularly with my dad. But it didn't stop there. Passing under magnificent cloud formations I thought of the bible passage in the letter to the Hebrews which uses the image of being surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses" to describe those people who, though dead, are present with us. Being an athlete I imagined this cloud as bleachers filled with supporters cheering me on in my life-journey. As I endured bone-numbing, wind-driven rain or withering 100 degree heat and humidity, I was encouraged to know that I wasn't alone....my dad and others were cheering me on. But one day I began to see other faces in the clouds of witnesses. There were family members, former teachers and mentors, even historical figures. This was really getting interesting.
Then I remembered the phrase in the Apostle's Creed, the basic summary of what Christians believe.
"I believe in the communion of saints..." Might that "communion of saints" be the "cloud of witnesses" cheering me from the packed bleachers? As I came to this conclusion I wondered why I had never heard this described or discussed in church. We do talk about "saints" at least once a year on All Saints Day. Maybe speaking with or praying to the saints is too "catholic" for Lutherans.
Classmate, friend, and colleague, Dr. Timothy Lull, was a world-renowned Luther scholar. Tim once told me that he was so immersed in the life of Martin Luther that he often felt Luther's presence in his study as he prepared to teach his classes. Ultimately this led Dr. Lull to write a delightful little book called My Conversations with Martin Luther. If such a highly respected professor at Timothy Lull spoke regularly with Martin Luther, maybe I wasn't crazy after all.
Back to the river...as I thought more and more about those witnesses who had shaped my life and faith the list grew...the bleachers became a cheering stadium. As I paddled under the river clouds I set aside time to imagine the "cloud of witnesses". Some times I spoke with an individual and engaged him or her in lively conversation. Often I offered a prayer of thanks for helping me on my journey. Regularly I panned the entire cloud-crowd and visualized them bathed in light.
Are you still with me? What do you think? Am I crazy? Or have we lost sight of a wonderful resource for our lives in the "cloud of witnesses" and "communion of saints"?
A favorite movie of mine is the Dead Poet's Society. In it, Mr Keating, an English teacher, played by Robin Williams, encouraged his students to live boldly. One day he took his class to look at the school trophy case to see the pictures of the school's past heroes. "Lean in and listen to what they are saying......" he tells them.....as he whispers loudly "Carpe Diem" "Carpe Diem" "Carpe Diem" which means "seize the day". A small group of students took his advice and revived the Dead Poet's Society which met regularly in a cave to read poetry aloud and listen to wisdom of "dead poets".
As followers of Jesus we have our own "dead poet's society" populated by generations of "heroes of the faith".These saints played an important role in helping me paddle 2350 miles down the Mississippi River. Who are those heroes and saints in your life? Take some time by yourself. Be quiet and listen carefully. What are they saying? I suspect that they are cheering you on!