A Meditation on Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."
My Grandfather’s Blessings; and it was written ten years ago by Rachel Naomi Remen. She’s a Bay Area-physician, a teacher, mentor, writer. And she’s talking, in the book, about bearing witness, about the many ways we can honor life and honor one another in everyday experience.
So I want to lift one of Dr. Remen’s vignettes right out of the book. She’s writing about an old woman named Muriel, confined to a nursing home, devastated in many ways after a dozen years with Alzheimer’s disease. You probably know folks like Muriel. I know I do. Almost every one of her memories is lost, and with them all of her sense of who she used to be. She’s frightened, adrift, given to pacing back and forth, repetitively, endlessly. Almost as if she’s searching, hopelessly, for…something misplaced. Something crucial.
Well, the nursing home staff has tried everything to ease Muriel’s fear. Nothing’s worked. She rests only when she sleeps, and her endless movement has caused her to become painfully thin, even emaciated. And then one day, quite by accident, Muriel passes a full-length mirror that hangs by a door out to the courtyard; and she catches a glimpse there of her own reflection. In that full-length mirror. And she stops, completely still for the first time in months; and she stands before it, fascinated. She looks as if she’s just met a friend from long ago, someone whose face is somehow familiar, but not yet recognized.
Now because of the Alzheimer’s, Muriel hasn’t spoken in many months. But she’s drawn to this image in the mirror; and she begins to speak to it in a language that’s all her own. Day after day after day, she stands at the mirror and speaks to the woman there for hours and hours. It makes her calm. Even peaceful.
Well, Muriel has a very special doctor, a doctor who pays close attention. The nurses and aides are relieved by her behavior; but they’ve gradually written it off to eccentricity and disease. They let her roam the halls now and chatter endlessly with her own reflection. And they move on to more pressing patient needs.
But Muriel’s doctor sees all this quite differently. And every day, on his rounds, he stops by the mirror and spends some time with his patient. He stays a while, and he too chats with the woman in the mirror. With his customary kindness and respect. Not rushing. This is no charade, no tongue-in-cheek guffaw. He simply stays a while, and chats. And one day, at the end of a particularly long visit with Muriel’s reflection, he notices tears rolling down the old woman’s cheeks. Something like sadness. Something like gratitude.
Now, what does all this have to do with bearing witness? What does all this have to do with “running with perseverance the race set before us”? Think about it. There’s really nothing that doctor can do to cure Muriel’s brutal disease. And there’s nothing he can magically do to retrieve her lifetime of memories. But what he can do – and what he does – is honor and strengthen her last connection to herself. He takes her seriously: her losses, her sadness, her language.
And he does this with his simple presence. He does this with his time and his kindness. He honors her human spirit, her unique and irreplaceable human spirit. And she, in response, weeps. Tears roll down the old woman’s cheeks. And the doctor notices. I guess I’ll suggest that that’s not only bearing witness, but good medicine too.
The book’s called My Grandfather’s Blessings; and the author’s Rachel Naomi Remen. You’ll like it. A lot.
Now the so-called “Letter to the Hebrews” – in our Christian testament – is a little harder to read and puzzling even to scholars. We’re not even sure who wrote this letter – though it seems pretty clear it wasn’t the apostle Paul. But, strange as it is, this collection of little homilies deals with some of the same human conundrums. How do you live with intense vulnerability and weakness? How do you hang in there through disappointment and persecution? What happens when you can’t cure the patient’s disease? Or when you can’t make the wrong, right? How do you live with the messiness of all that?
This is the stuff this “Letter to the Hebrews” is getting at. Whoever’s reading it in the first century is living with the consequences of faith: persecution, vulnerability, maybe disappointment. The world’s dancing on a dangerous edge; and you get cut easily. And the Letter asks: How can you carry on? How can you run the good race? When your friends and family are scattered. When your church is demoralized. When the empire’s got all the answers; and every one spells violence. How can you carry on? How can you run the good race?
I returned from a two-week vacation yesterday to find a flyer on the office door. It was a reminder of the violent death of another young Latino in our county, and a call to action, to compassion, to deeper commitment. After fourteen days of ice cream cones and sandy beaches and easy reading, I almost turned away. I almost couldn’t take it, couldn’t deal with it. How do you carry on in a world addicted to violence? A world where being tender and gentle can get you hurt? How do you run the good race in this kind of a place?
And in that first verse of chapter 12, in some of the Christian testament’s most stirring language, the Letter to the Hebrews insists on a particular way forward, a particular orientation for Christian disciples. It’s not easy. And it’s not painless. But we are not alone. “And since we are surrounded,” it says, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…”
Is this a call to get yourself saved now and prepare for a better life in a better world to come? Hardly. The Letter to the Hebrews is saying we are surrounded by ordinary saints and plucky heroes and loved ones who’ve made a way in this world. A great cloud of witnesses. Like Muriel’s doctor in the nursing home. Like all those folks who showed up in Live Oak yesterday to support Jorge Savala and his family – and insist on a better future for young people in our county. Like all the gay and lesbian couples, berated through generations, who’ve kept candles burning just the same and believed the day would come for full marriage equality. A great cloud of witnesses. Brokenhearted? Sometimes. Persecuted? Sometimes. But making a way in this world for kindness, blessing and light. A great cloud of witnesses.
Now there are a lot of ways to run the good race. You can run that race with Mohammed and Rumi and the Sufi sheikhs. You can run that race with Jonah and Jeremiah and Moses and Miriam. I imagine you can run it with Greek philosophers and Hopi mystics. And. And you can look to Jesus. You can find yourself a community like this one, right here: a resilient, joyful, brokenhearted, hopeful community of Christian disciples. And you can look to Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, who for the sake of joy and justice and human compassion endured the cross and revealed the power of love. There are a lot of ways to run the race. And one of them is right here, in this broken bread, in this sweet full cup, in the example of Jesus.
I think it’s the writer Anne Lamott who writes about going to a Special Olympics festival every spring up in Marin County. And she writes about all the times, over the years, when runners have stopped halfway down the track. Maybe they twist an ankle. Or maybe they get confused or exhausted. And they just sit down there, in the dirt, on the track. And sometimes, she says, they just sit there, completely frozen, staring at the sky; and sometimes they start taking their shoes off or their clothes off just because they don’t know what else to do.
But the thing is, every Special Olympian has been assigned a volunteer, a particular friend for the day. And that volunteer steps out from the sidelines, at just this point, and goes to the runner. And she gets right down on the ground with him and helps him put the shoes and clothes back on. And then she takes the tired runner by the hand and they head off again, toward the finish line. In all the years she’s been going, Anne Lamott writes, she’s never once seen someone not get over the finish line.
And I think that’s exactly the kind of race we’re called to run, urged to run, looking to Jesus as the pioneer of our faith. You spend a week, a month, a lifetime with Jesus, and you see him kneeling in the dust, again and again, helping runners get those shoes back on. You read these stories about Jesus, and you find him insisting that there’s more than enough: enough wine for all the wedding guests, enough bread for the hungry crowds, enough love for the lost and lonely. So, yeah, there are a lot of ways to run the race. And this way, Jesus’ way, is brimming with abundance, shining with grace, pausing in the dust with the fallen runner.
And no, it’s not easy. And no, it’s not without complication. And yes, we get tired. And yes, we get weary. But the good news is that you and I have allies. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses – ordinary saints, plucky heroes, dear loved ones – witnesses whose kindness and determination are like bread for our journey. I’m thinking again about Muriel’s doctor and Rachel Naomi Remen’s sweet story. I’m thinking of all those activists who’ve always known the day for marriage equality would come. And I’m thinking of those sweet volunteers at the Special Olympics festival in Marin. We are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. And blessed by them.
And we look to Jesus too, and just maybe we find one who embodies that kind of patience and gentle perseverance. Because Jesus knows how to kneel in the dust and tie shoelaces. Because Jesus knows how to stand still and visit with an old woman’s reflection. He knows how to pay attention. He knows how to touch another human being in a way that conveys honor and respect and blessing. It’s not always about big court decisions or international peace treaties. Sometimes it is. But it’s also about patience and paying attention. It’s also about learning to stand still. It’s about touching another human being in a way that brings blessing.
That’s the race before us. Let us run it with perseverance. And when we need to sit down, let us trust there will be friends to keep us company. And let us look now and always to Jesus, our pioneer and friend. Let us be counted among the cloud of witnesses who cherish his gospel of peace.