I don't know what I'd do without Mapquest or the "map app" on my phone. All I have to do is type in the address where I'm headed, and voila! The map appears in front of me, and an invisible voice guides me to my destination. Amazing.
If only I had a compass for every decision I had to make. Like where to turn when a relationship blows up. Or how to navigate a stressful medical crisis. Or what to do when my job hits a dead end. It would be nice to have voices around to guide my way then.
But what if we do? What if we do have voices helping us find our way? All Saints Day suggests that they're here for us, if we're listening. And they just might offer a tip or two along the highway of life.
The saints of the past: we may not think of them often, or imagine they offer much for our challenging times. But research begs to differ. Though it's important to appreciate the present--to stop and smell the roses and live in the moment ... and though it's important to look to the future with hope--to work hard, set goals ... awareness of the present and future aren't the most important predictors of a satisfying, meaningful life. Instead, extensive studies show that our most important orientation toward time is a positive appreciation of the past. The more we savor memories of relationships and let go of grudges ... the more we connect to our roots and let go of our forebears' failings ... the more we treasure their legacy and let go of the myth that we are self-made: the stronger our sense of a positive past, the better grounded and centered we will be. In fact, the more crazy and stressful our circumstances, the more the past helps us navigate our way.[i]
That's exactly the direction that the ancient writer of Hebrews points us. Though the timing of his letter isn't known, the circumstances are clear: his present is extremely stressful, and the future isn't looking much better. He's writing to a people whose faith is weakening, whose property has been lost, and who face even persecution for their integrity. How does he encourage people in such stressful times? Instead of encouraging them to look inward or focus on the present, the writer of the Hebrews does something counter-intuitive: he invites us to look outward, and he invites us to look backwards. He reviews the litany of Scripture to see how our ancestors in the community of faith coped before. Their moral compass--of courage and strength--points us through our stressful times; and more than that, they help us see what we are made of.
He points to Abraham, who was called from his settled existence and didn't know where he was going. Time after time he was tested and challenged: he visited the Promised Land but couldn't settle in; he was given a wife, Sarah, but she was barren. And though he was not perfect, Abraham kept looking back to the promise of God, kept engaging with God, even bargaining with God; and he stayed faithful.
And the writer points us to Moses, who was called to stand up to Pharaoh and lead his people to freedom. His life was threatened, his people were afraid, and when they built the golden calf, he thought the whole project was over. And though he wasn't perfect, Moses kept turning to God, kept listening to God, in order for his people to become the faithful community they were meant to be.
And the writer points us to David, who was called to draw the tribes of Israel together as one nation. He faced down the giant Goliath; his enemies constantly conspired to kill him. He was hardly perfect--his affair with Bathsheba nearly brought down the kingdom--but he became a brilliant strategist on God's behalf, establishing the capital of Jerusalem, uniting divided clans in one cause for the common good, all for the sake of God's glory.
And all of this matters. All of this matters because this is the stuff we are made of and this is how we find our way forward: to keep engaging with God, to keep relying on God's promises; to keep listening to God; to keep trying to be a faithful community; to keep uniting our own divided clans for God's greater will for the common good; to keep seeking God's glory.
We look to the past. We look to the past not for the sake of ancient history, but for the courage and guidance we need right now. And it's not just the Biblical saints who inspire us. Just this year I finished writing the 150th anniversary of our congregation, and I was amazed at the saints who surround us here. People like the Rev. James McClure, whose great-great-great grandchildren are still active members of my church to this day. I think of him as my role-model and guide. Called here in the late 1800s, in the upheaval of Industrialization, McClure forged a fractious, successful and head-strong congregation into an amazing force of philanthropy and social progress. He did it not by brow-beating or cajoling them, but by stirring sermons and disciplined religious education, transforming wealthy men and women into generous stewards for God.
I think of McClure. And I think of Sarah Rhea, who worked with McClure for many years. She was a graduate of Mt. Holyoke, whose slogan was "Live for God, and do something." Mrs. Rhea married a missionary, went to Persia, bore four children, buried one of them there, lost her husband, and returned to America to become an agent of the Presbyterian board of home missions. She was assigned to the Northwest Territory ... that is, to Chicago--and in 1873, she began to set my church's passion for mission on fire. She founded a children's missionary society and inspired enormous donations by other women to start hospitals in Persia and China. Presbyterian mission in the Middle East is strong today thanks to one member of our church who connected the movers and shakers of Chicago to the needs of that world. And then she connected them to the East as well. Dr. McClure and Mrs. Rhea--they were not perfect. But we remember that this is the stuff we are made of and this is how we find our way forward: in the midst of staggering change, inspiring worship and disciplined faith formation, and a mission that seeks to live for God and do something, something that in the end matters.
The saints of the past--from Scripture, from your own church--they're inspiring. And all of us, every one of us, also have personal saints to whom we turn, who go before us in courage and strength. In many churches today, we celebrate not only the saints in general but that particular cloud of witnesses--the communion of saints who have died and are raised and who celebrate the joyful feast in the Kingdom of God. Maybe in your church, like mine, you name the members and loved ones who have died this last year. A few years ago, one of those named was my own mother. My mother, who not only gave me life, but who also taught me through her struggles and her courage how to be fiercely honest, what it means to have a generous heart, and how amazing life is when you quiet down enough to notice the little things, the songs of the birds and the flutter of the trees, the too-easily-missed exquisite handiwork of God. And I will look back and remember, as I dearly need to do, that this is the stuff that I'm made of and this is how I can find my way forward in whatever challenges I may face ahead.
In the end, I suppose we can find our way forward on our own. I suppose we can be spiritual but not religious; we can be self-made and self-taught; we can wander in the wilderness of our impulses or get lost in the labyrinth of our endless, myriad options. But why would we want to? Why on earth would we want to? The church--imperfect as it may be--is Christ's gift to us, Christ's gift of community. Not just the community right in front of us, but the communion of saints who have gone before. In community, we are nurtured and corrected and sent out into the world to serve and then welcomed home again. In the community of church we learn what it means to follow Jesus with humility and love.
I remember I felt this way just a few years ago. It was a beautiful, crisp weekend in the fall when my husband and I visited our daughter at college for the first time for Parents' Weekend. That Sunday morning we worshiped together at University of Chicago's stunningly beautiful Rockefeller Chapel. Well, that Sunday morning on Parents' Weekend, it was nowhere near full: there were maybe 150 people worshiping, and that might be generous. The ushers herded us all toward the front so at least there were a few in each pew. The liturgist started us with her strong voice, and we shared in the Call to Worship. Fortunately, the acoustics are amazing and we didn't seem quite so small. But when it came time for the opening hymn--even though it was happily familiar--well, our voices seemed to fly into the ether. We gamely tried, but the beautiful and very, very large pipe organ overwhelmed us and we felt, well, embarrassingly puny in our efforts.
And then ... and then, we heard the voices behind us. The choir--small in number but mighty in strength--the choir proceeded up the long, center aisle. Their voices were steady and strong and confident. And as they grew closer, an amazing thing happened. Our singing--the congregation's singing--grew stronger. We stood a little straighter. Our voices grew a little louder. And I thought: this is what it's like to have voices behind you--a choir of singers behind you--leaders, strong leaders, who have walked the aisle of faith before, whose conviction is just what you need.
I believe this to be true: I believe that we are surrounded by a choir of voices, standing right behind us. And we are guided by their wisdom, even when we do not see them. So listen. Listen for their voices: the cloud of witnesses surrounds us; the communion of saints is coming up from behind us, urging us to sing our life with boldness and with courage even now.
[i] Philip Zimbardo, The Time Paradox (NY: Free Press, 2008), pp. 296-7 and elsewhere.