“Celebrating the Goodness of God with All the Saints” was the theme for our 25th Annual Celtic Prayer Retreat this past weekend. We spent quite a lot of time thinking about the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us, not just those who have gone before but also those who walk with us today: friends, pastors, authors, activists, and the like. These people have shaped our lives and nurtured us through both crises and celebrations.
Our closing worship on Sunday morning was focused again on this great cloud of witnesses, but with a twist. We began by looking at the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy:
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:3-7 (NRSV)
For our first time of reflection we looked at how Paul acknowledges his faithful ancestors and then challenges Timothy to connect with his own, saying “The faith of your grandmother and mother now lives in you”. We then asked the question, “Who can you name in the circle of witnesses in your life?” taking time for each of us to quietly name and thank God for each one’s foundation of faith and ongoing witness in our lives.
With this foundation we then jumped back to Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes:
One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way. Matthew 5:1-12 (NLT)
For this time of reflection I challenged us to go back through the Beatitudes, one by one, with those in our personal “cloud of witnesses” in mind, specifically asking “Who has been an example for me in each of these beatitudes?” We then thanked God for their faithful example, and asked God how we might be an example to others in this area.
This turned out to be a much more profound exercise than I had anticipated. For some of the Beatitudes there was a quick and obvious person or persons who came to mind. For other Beatitudes it was more of a struggle. Why is that? I wondered. How have the cloud of witnesses in my life shaped who I am and the Beatitudes I live into more fully… or ignore?
Our final reflection combined the two passages, asking:
- What would it look like in my life to “fan into flame” or “rekindle the gift of God” in the areas specifically mentioned by Jesus in the Beatitudes?
- What are 2-3 action steps I can begin this week to move closer to Jesus’ call in the Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount?
- How might this enhance my ability to more fully love God and Neighbor?
- Paul mentions to Timothy that “God doesn’t give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” How do my practices today shape my life so that I can be among that cloud of witnesses for those who come after me?
I had never thought of approaching these two passages quite like this before but as I prepared the Sunday worship service God prompted me to take another look, from the side, and see just how influential our cloud of witnesses truly is… and our place in that story for others.
What are your thoughts?
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