July 1976 felt like a momentous time for the people of the United States. That month, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution it inspired.
Amidst all the patriotic hoopla – the bicentennial parades and fireworks and tall ships – another revolution was taking place. That revolution didn’t make the newspapers. Most Americans – grinning under tricorn hats and waving little Betsy Ross flags – had no idea it was even happening. But it would change their lives forever.
At a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club of Palo Alto, California, a 25-year-old electronic engineer named Steve Wozniak unveiled a new computer. He and his business partner, Steve Jobs, had just invented it. Its plastic keyboard poked up through an opening in a wooden case – yes, a wooden case (how quaint!) They called it the Apple I. It was the first commercially successful personal computer.
In 2021, a fully functioning Apple I computer sold at auction for $400,000. The original owner had been a college professor who sold it the next year to one of his students, so he could buy an Apple II. The student held onto it all those years. Not a bad return on an investment of a few hundred bucks!
No auction bidder was interested in using that old computer. Its number-crunching capacity is vastly inferior to the cheapest budget laptop today – and besides, its primitive interface requires a familiarity with antiquated computer code. The collector who shelled out all that money wanted an Apple I because it was a piece of history.
It’s now hard to imagine our lives without personal computers, including desktops, laptops, tablets or those powerful smartphones we carry in our pockets or purses.
Some of us have been personal computer users since the 1980s, or even earlier. In the late ‘80s, my mother-in-law opened a savings account at a different bank than she normally used because they were offering an Apple II computer as a gift. I used that to get through seminary. Apple’s next upgrade was the Macintosh. It was high priced, not compatible with the Apple II, and they offered no financial incentive for a trade in. I’ve used a PC ever since.
Since the start, computer changes have come along in rapid succession, particularly in storage capacity. Some of us recall storing documents on magnetic tape cassettes. Then came floppy disks, hard-plastic diskettes and eventually hard disks. For many years, the biggest headache for PC users was finding a way to back up data to dozens of diskettes or shiny CD-ROMs, to forestall the dreaded consequences of a hard-disk crash.
The internet and World Wide Web arrived and connected us in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years before. But then came another marvel, a technological development you couldn’t hold in your hand, or even visualize with your eyes: that mysterious reality known as “the cloud.” For most of us, that’s where our data resides today. Many of our machines no longer even offer a slot to load up a CD-ROM. Everything syncs to the cloud automatically. You scarcely have to worry about losing your family photos or documents. They’re out there, safely squirreled away in the cloud!
But cloud computing, on which so many of us depend, is not the original cloud. That distinction belongs to another cloud – one that’s equally invisible, more mysterious and harder to wrap our minds around.
You can read about it in Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses …” A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us, says this anonymous apostle. And who are these witnesses, this vast cloud of people who surround us on every side? The preceding verses lay it all out for us.
The apostle writes to us of faith, held by Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and the whole company of wandering Israelites. Even the prostitute Rahab – that colorful Mata Hari character who helps Joshua fight the Battle of Jericho – deserves a plaque in the Hebrews Hall of Fame.
There’s a list of other, unnamed faithful ones as well: people who suffered mightily to keep the faith. Some “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy” (11:36-38).
It’s a cloud of witnesses: martyrs of the faith who bore courageous – and occasionally grisly – witness to God’s bottomless justice and love. They bear witness still, as they live on in this mysterious cloud that is eternal life.
Perhaps we can imagine it as a bright, luminous array like the Milky Way – which isn’t a cloud at all, of course, but thousands upon thousands of distant stars, stretched across the heavens. You can see that celestial lightshow if you escape the streetlights of towns and cities, far from any source of light pollution. Choose a night when the moon has shrunk to the tiniest of crescents, hope for a cloudless sky, and the bright band of the Milky Way rewards you with a luminosity all its own.
Most stars that make up the Milky Way are too small to pick out with the naked eye. Were there but one of those distant stars in the sky, you’d barely notice it at all. But together, their collective glow is quite striking.
Maybe that’s the sort of thing the writer of Hebrews is envisioning as he lists those anonymous martyrs who suffered in such colorful and disturbing ways. “I do not have time to tell their names,” the author says (v. 32) – but he tries, though it’s a fair bet he doesn’t even know most of their names. He just knows they are many. They are those “of whom the world was not worthy.”
So, why bother to talk about this great cloud of witnesses? The writer of this letter has a very specific purpose. You must go back many verses, long before the beginning of today’s reading, to find out his reason, the situation that led him to put pen to paper.
In chapter 10, verses 35 and 36, he writes: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Christian believers who are suffering for their faith. This is a church undergoing hard persecution. The writer of this letter – their pastor, in modern terms – is wishing for them the spiritual gift of endurance, so they can get through this season of heartache and one day bask in God’s glory in this life or the next.
So, what do you say to someone who’s suffering? Lots of us struggle to find the words. Let’s say you have a friend or family member in the hospital. You know things aren’t going so well, medically. The doctors can make the patient comfortable, but they can’t make it all better.
You’re thinking about making a visit to the hospital, but you hesitate. You don’t know what to say. You want to find some pearl of spiritual wisdom to share, but you’re coming up blank.
There are those familiar platitudes:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“God never gives us more than we can handle.”
“Just hang in there, things will get better.”
“Keep thinking positive thoughts.”
“I know exactly how you feel.” (No, you don’t. No one knows exactly how another person feels, ever.)
None of these sayings are likely to bring much comfort. They’re the kind of thing we say to another person to make ourselves feel better.
The best thing to do is just be there. Have you heard the adage, “95% of life is showing up”? That’s especially true of sitting with someone who’s suffering. You don’t need to say much of anything. You don’t need to stay long, either – and probably shouldn’t. But your mere presence says more than words ever could. That chair at the foot of the bed is the witness seat.
When you spend quality time with a suffering person – when you practice the ministry of presence – you take your place among the crowd of witnesses. You’re just one among many, but your presence reminds your friend there are many others.
This is what the author of Hebrews is doing as he weaves that great tapestry of saints and martyrs, displaying it to his beleaguered congregation. Sure, some details are grim – stoned to death, sawn in two, slain by the sword – but that doesn’t matter. Most of all, the people reading this letter want to know they’re not alone, that there are others who speak their language, who share their pain, who revel in the joy of small victories and sympathize with the weariness of repeated setbacks.
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and theologian, has a wonderful book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. In it, he has a little something to say that recalls the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews:
“Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are. Just compare the real commitment to one another, to the world, and to truth in ‘happy clappy religion’ with the deep solidarity of families at the time of a tragic death or among hospice workers and their clients. There is a strange and even wonderful communion in real human pain, actually much more than in joy, which is too often manufactured and passing. In one sense, pain’s effects are not passing, and pain is less commonly manufactured. Thus it is a more honest doorway into lasting communion than even happiness.”
We Christians, of all people, surely ought to know that. We’re the people who, when we gather for the Lord’s supper, share the words, “This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you.” That puts it right out there with brutal honesty, doesn’t it? If the founder of our faith could not escape the cross, then how in this life can any of us expect to escape this thing called suffering? Our savior hands out no free passes when it comes to that. Remember, he’s the one who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
The message of Hebrews is all about perseverance. And how does it make any sense to talk about perseverance unless there’s something to persevere through? It’s only natural to fear suffering, and to hope for a long, healthy, prosperous and pain-free life. But let’s face it: the chances that such a dream will come true for any of us are just about nil. It’s better to acknowledge that misconception for the fantasy it is and keep an eye out for signs of that cloud of witnesses, both living and dead. They have a way of finding us when we need them most. They have a way of directing us to the God of peace.
This ecstatic vision of the cloud of witnesses puts the lie to one of the most notorious sacred cows of our American culture: our worship of individualism. We are a nation of immigrants, which means that our ancestors – not so many generations back in our family history – severed ties with their communities and journeyed to this country. Or they were brought here involuntarily. In this new land, a great many of them were suddenly thrust into situations where they had to rise or fall as individuals (or, at least, small nuclear-family units).
A great many of us see our nation as the home of rugged individualists: the lone cowboy, strong and self-sufficient. Our homes are our castles. Our ideal is to make our own way in the world, to rely on others for nothing. Far too many of us distrust the yearning for community as a sign of weakness.
The sociologist Robert D. Putnam has spent a good part of his life studying this hyper-individualistic national trait of ours. In a recent book, The Upswing, he mentions the research of social psychologist James Pennebaker on how our preferred pronouns reveal our deepest values as we talk with others.
Pennebaker has analyzed how often people use “I” as opposed to “we.” He has found that people in the strongest marriages use “we” more often than those whose relationships are strained. He has also found that the most deeply self-confident people are generous in their use of “we”; it’s the insecure who favor “I.” Moreover, frequent use of “I” is correlated with the risk of depression or suicide. It’s a more reliable marker for depression than the use of words like “sad.”
Internet search engines like Google have opened all sorts of doors to sociological research. Word searches can now be conducted over many thousands of books and articles. Putnam cites very revealing recent research:
“In fact, over the period from 1900 to 1965 the word ‘I’ appeared less and less often in American publications, but after 1965 … that trend reversed itself, and in a paroxysm of self-centeredness the word ‘I’ became ever more frequent. The frequency of the word ‘I’ in all American books actually doubled between 1965 and 2008.”
Sadly, our culture seems to be growing more individualistic and less communitarian. It may be harder for many of our listeners to relate to images like the cloud of witnesses than it was for previous generations. We do our people a service, as preachers, when we lead them towards a deeper, more encompassing sense of community. In fact – as the present discord in our national political life reminds us – it may be essential to our survival as a people.