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The Cloud of Witnesses

The Cloud of Witnesses

Editor's note: 

Galaxies revolve and dinosaurs breed and rain falls and people fall in love and uncles smoke cheap cigars and people lose their jobs and we all die — all (that’s what it says, “all”) for our good, the finished product, God’s work of art, the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s nothing outside Heaven except hell. Earth is not outside Heaven; it is heaven’s workshop, Heaven’s womb. Peter Kreeft, Heaven

Lynda loved the music of J. S. Bach, and she played recordings of his organ music and choral works often. It was not simply the music but also Bach’s reason for writing it that moved her. Once he finished a composition, he signed it with the initials S.D.G., representing the Latin sola Deo gloria (“to God alone be glory”). Bach drew his inspiration from his Christian faith and from the Bible. Many of his choral works were based on biblical texts and were written for the church. He witnessed to his faith through the music he wrote. His music has borne witness to me over these past three years of the truth of the faith for which Bach lived and for which I seek now to live.

The Bible tells the stories of the “great cloud of witnesses,”1 some of whom endured losses similar to the ones we face today and who have gone to the grave before us. They trusted God in their afflictions, loved Him with their whole being, and obeyed Him, even when obedience required sacrifice and led to death. This cast of characters — among them Job and Joseph — have helped me to believe. Their examples have kept me going; their songs have touched emotions in me that needed recognition and attention; their poetry has given me a language to express my complaints, pain, and hope; and their convictions have helped me decide what matters most in life. Their stories have provided me with perspective.

I am not sure what I would have done or how I would have fared without the stories of these people who struggled and triumphed, just as I now struggle and hope to triumph. Because of them I see that

  • I am only one of millions of people who in suffering believe nevertheless that God is still God.

This great cloud of witnesses includes more than the characters of the Bible, though these biblical characters obviously play the key role in showing us who God is and how God can be trusted, even in suffering. I have drawn inspiration over these past years from a variety of people and stories, and so have my children.

Music has soothed my soul. I have attended performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and his Mass in B Minor since the accident. These performances reminded me of the power that music has to touch the deepest places of the human heart. I discovered Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem several months after the accident. A requiem is a mass for the dead, and the text pleads for God to grant departed souls “eternal rest” and deliverance from “everlasting death.” Fauré’s Requiem includes a final section describing a paradise that, by virtue of the sublimity of the music, I long to enter. In the months after the accident I listened almost every night to music like Fauré’s and Bach’s, often into the early morning hours.

  • Such music touched the anguish of my soul and gave me peace.

Poets have provided me with metaphors and images by which to understand and express my sorrow. A student gave me a copy of a poem written by a Puritan after one of his children died. The words this poet used to describe his sadness helped me voice my own. A colleague sent me a copy of William Blake’s “On Another’s Woe,” which explores the human experience of suffering in light of God’s suffering.

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He, who smiles on all,
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit, both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?

Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give His joy to all:
He becomes an Infant small,
He becomes a Man of Woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
and thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy!
Till our grief is fled and gone,
He doth sit by us and moan.

I read books and diaries that examined the relationship between faith and suffering. Writing in his journal after his wife’s death, Thomas Shepard captured the ambivalence I was feeling at the time, though he wrote these reflections more than three hundred years ago. In one paragraph, Shepard stated what his faith required him to believe — that life on earth is transitory and full of sorrow and that true life awaits the faithful in heaven. He recognized that sometimes saints suffer because they need God’s discipline and grace. In the end, however, he concluded,

  • “I am the Lord’s, and He may do with me what He will; He did teach me to prize a little grace, gained by a cross, as a sufficient recompense for all outward losses.”

But then he went on to describe with deep affection and longing the excellent qualities his wife possessed and the beautiful life they shared together. Her death was devastating to him because she was such a superior woman.

But this loss was very great; she was a woman of incomparable meekness of spirit, toward myself especially, and very loving; of great prudence to take care for and order my family affairs, being neither too lavish nor sordid in any thing, so that I knew not what was under her hands... She had a spirit of prayer beyond ordinary of her time and experience. She was fit to die long before she did die.3

Shepard affirmed the sovereignty of God and the promise of Heaven, but he also mourned the loss of the good life he had on earth. His journal reflects what another Puritan wrote after the death of a loved one: “Now life will be a little less sweet, death a little less bitter.”

This cloud of witnesses includes people from other cultures who have continued to believe in spite of, or perhaps because of, their suffering. I have read stories about courageous Roman Catholics in Latin America who resisted oppression and paid for it with their lives. I met a woman from China who was sentenced to work on a collective farm for many years because she was a Christian. Just today, I attended a committee meeting to which one of the members, Jenny, brought along a two-year-old boy from Columbia who will be living with her family for eight months under the sponsorship of the Heal the Children program. He was brought to the United States to receive medical care to correct his multiple birth defects. So Jenny and her family are sharing in his suffering. These and many other saints belong to that same cloud of witnesses. They have faced circumstances far more torturous than mine and yet have endured and prevailed. They remind me every day that

  • I am not alone but am a member of a vast community of suffering people that transcends my own space and time. I am grateful I can keep their company and learn from them.

These people challenge me to believe and inspire me to serve a world that languishes under such misery. It is not surprising that loss often inspires people to sacrifice themselves for some greater purpose. They know how painful loss is. When they see other people suffer, they act out of compassion to alleviate their pain and work for change. The founder of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) lost a child in an accident caused by a drunken driver. The founder of Prison Fellowship, an organization that serves prison inmates and their families, spent time in prison. The people who led the movement to build the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, were themselves veterans or relatives of soldiers who died in combat. Some of the best therapists I know came from dysfunctional homes. Often the most helpful people have endured suffering themselves and turned their pain into a motivation to serve others.

My children have found a similar cloud of witnesses to help them grieve and to give them hope. A student on campus met with Catherine after the accident to tell about the loss of her own mother when she was Catherine’s age.

Other people — some complete strangers — wrote letters to tell us their own stories of loss and growth. The children read books and watched movies that somehow touched on the theme of loss. John asked me to read Bambi dozens of times after the accident. He made me pause every time we came to the section that told the story of the death of Bambi’s mother. Sometimes he said nothing, and the two of us sat in a sad silence. Sometimes he cried. He talked about the similarity between Bambi’s story and his own. “Bambi lost his mommy too,” he said on several occasions. Then he added, “And Bambi became the prince of the forest.” David showed interest in the biblical story of Joseph. Catherine found comfort in Disney’s movie version of Beauty and the Beast because the main character, Belle, grew up without a mother and, as Catherine observed, became an independent, intelligent, beautiful person.

This cloud of witnesses includes men and women out of the pages of Scripture, heroes from history, poets, storytellers, composers, and people from around the world, all of whom show us that we have not suffered alone or in vain. They remind us that life is bigger than loss because God is bigger than loss. They bear witness to the truth that

  • pain and death do not have the final word; God does.

1. Hebrews 12:1.
2. William Blake, “On Another’s Woe,” in Songs of Innocence (London: Lane, 1902), 59-61. Public domain.
3. Thomas Shepard, “A Domestic Obituary, October, 1637,” in The Transplanting of Culture 1607–1650: Colonial Prose and Poetry, ed. William P. Trent and Benjamin W. Wells (New York: Crowell, 1901), 236-37.

Excerpted with permission from A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, copyright Gerald L. Sittser.

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Your Turn

Life is bigger than loss. The great cloud of witnesses waiting for us in Heaven make the certainty of our hope in Christ that much sweeter. Grief, in the meantime, can be shared in the community of faith and made easier and lighter a burden. Lean into it! Come share your thoughts. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily