All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. (Hebrews 11.13)
Both Sides Now
It amazes me when a passage of Scripture seeps into several hearts at once. Even if it were merely the by-product of following the same lectionary, the odds of one text seizing several readers still seem long. Fran’s post weekend before last on the inferred cloud at Sarah’s tent—inspiring my post on God’s maternal nature—cited Hebrews 12.1: “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out of for us.” A personal favorite, it hung in mind all week and resurfaced, with no prompt on my part, in separate conversations with two friends. On Saturday night, I opened Sunday’s readings. There it was again. Then our pastor put it at the core of her sermon, “Second Chances and the Race for Perseverance.” Call me crazy, but I’m convinced these “coincidences” reveal the Holy Spirit’s office as Thought Leader. In John 16.13, Jesus says, “When he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” We whose heads have been in the clouds lately wonder where It’s leading. It’s probable the destination is unique for each of us. But it appears the Spirit is steering many of us toward deeper faith that emulates ancestors who trusted God above all else, many surrendering their lives in lieu of forsaking His promises.
Mentioning clouds instantly tunes my inner radio to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Her point is this: clouds are like love and life—beautiful and intriguing at a distance, ominous and obstructive when looming overhead. Possibilities envisioned from afar seem less likely when we observe the real thing. Having looked at clouds, love, and life from both sides, Joni says, “It’s [their] illusions I recall. I really don’t know [them] at all.” Since her career started in the junior choir of this small-town Canadian church, I want to think the Bible’s use of clouds to inspire faith influenced her choosing them to illustrate the contradictory natures of love and life, as her imagery fits nicely with Hebrews’ cloud. Its witnesses confirm living by faith opens our eyes to its elusive beauty from afar rather than its daunting impositions on life as we’re bound (i.e., “constrained”) to perceive it. We needn’t tag faith as an “illusion” to warm to Joni’s message. It’s God’s promises that we recall, even though we really don’t know how they work at all.
The Great March of Faith
Who are these faces in the cloud enveloping us? Just prior to assembling them in one place, Hebrews launches a parade in their honor. Chapter 11 reads like ongoing commentary as a procession of Old Testament champions stream by. To ensure we respect of the enormity of their achievements, the celebration kicks off with this: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” (Hebrews 11.1-2) But get this: the writer puts us in first position, sounding the drumbeat whose cadence everyone follows. “By faith,” verse 3 says, “we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Where did everything we regard as “real” originate? From nothing, nowhere, and no one we can see. We haven’t the slightest shred of knowledge how or why this is true. Yet by faith we understand that’s just the way it is. Assurance in what we believe and certainty in what we can’t see qualify us as grand marshals in The Great March of Faith. After we step off, the witnesses follow, each heralded with a bass drum boom: By faith Abel… by faith Enoch… by faith Noah… by faith Abraham…
Abraham gets special note, however. He’s the linchpin in this succession—the proof of his predecessors’ belief and the faith icon revered by every generation after him. Hebrews stops the parade to sum up what’s transpired to this point. “All these people were still living by faith when they died,” verses 13 and 14 explain. “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.” That’s who we’re looking at—aliens and strangers on earth. That’s what drove them to find and welcome God’s promises from afar. They had no place of their own. Everywhere they looked what they saw wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t even available to become theirs. Well, that puts a damper on things. With nothing in sight what alternative did they have besides living by faith?
Hang on. Before we decide to skip the rest of the march or read about it later, let’s be sure we see what Hebrews is showing us. From Abel to Abraham, raw faith inspired them to realize availability has no bearing on possibility. They were so thoroughly confident their God could do anything faith was its own reward. To their dying days, they believed the promises they saw and welcomed from a distance would materialize. So intense was their conviction, it set the pace for every believer who followed, from Isaac to you and me. With that, the parade resumes. Boom! By faith Isaac… Boom! By faith Jacob… Boom! By faith Joseph… until the writer gives up: “What more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about…” (v32) Actually, there’s no more to say but this: The Great March of Faith gets longer and the Cloud of Witnesses grows denser the instant a believer exits this world. When our position at faith’s front line expires, we move to the back and keep marching. We join ranks with every believer who ever lived.
The Witness Side
We come away from Hebrews keenly aware that living by faith isn’t a lifestyle or religious practice or illusory mindset. It’s a thing unto itself, a singular pursuit that defies every natural law and fact. What we know to be true about the world can’t compare to the truth we see and welcome from afar. Yes, we’re cloud-watchers. So what? Let’s own that. We’ve looked at clouds from both sides now. We’ve seen how oppressive and forbidding they are when viewed realistically. They weigh us down and block our view of God’s light. The Witness Cloud that enfolds us urges us to look at clouds from the far side. That’s where faith displays its majesty and might. Fixing our sights on the distance keeps faith before us until living by faith becomes all we recall. Watching clouds from the witness side ultimately leads to joining the Witness Cloud.
Realists who prefer to look at clouds from their side see them as ominous, obstructive forces. Living by faith trains us to view them from a distance and welcome their promises.
Postscript: “Don’t Be Realistic”
Fred Anderson posted this recently and I can’t thank him enough. Despite its political skew, the message dovetails perfectly with today’s topic. Rabbi Michael Lerner, National Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives—an ecumenical consortium Fred belongs to—nails the definition of living by faith. If you’re troubled by faith’s conflicts with perceived reality, this could change your life.