Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
The author of Hebrews introduces chapter 12 by summarizing the list of heroes described in chapter 11. He pictures them as a throng, a huge gallery, a heavenly cloud “whose lives witness to the unseen realities which faith allows us to grasp” (John F. McConnell). Their heroic lives continue not merely in our collective memory but also in our hearts as a source of encouragement. The writer inserts new imagery for the
Christian life by likening it to a race we run along a course set for us by the circumstances of our lives. I have often wondered that if the writer of Hebrews lived in the modern world what new images would come to mind. I think that the idea of being fans would have been included. It would be a huge crowd of fans cheering on their team, the Christian team. “Go, Jesus Go” might be one of their favorite cheers not to mention remember Paul and “Go Stephen”. I can almost picture a huge crowd, a cloud of fans. This would be perfect since we all understand fandom in the technical world. Some people only buy Apple produces while others only buy Samsung. We believe there is only on true way to do tech as the early Christians believed that there was finally a way to truly understand God. The idea of a huge gallery full of fans was the image that the writer of Hebrews saw. He would have been very pleased with the idea of a cloud of fans all over the world cheering on the work that Christ started.
Runners run their best when they run as lightly as possible with no extra body weight, unnecessary clothing, or superfluous equipment. Similarly, when making their ascent, mountain climbers leave behind everything except what is absolutely essential. To travel fast or far, one must travel lightly.
So, too, in the spiritual life—Christians will run best when they “cast off every encumbrance and rid themselves of every sin” that might weigh them down and hold them back. Everyone’s course is marked by difficulties and obstacles, but the gospels map out the way we should run the course. For some, the race extends over a long period of time; for others the span of time is short. Either way there will be crosses to carry, challenges to encounter, and sufferings to endure. In Hebrews, the author presumes that the race is a long-distance one rather than a sprint. Consequently, patience and endurance are stressed instead of speed.
There is a goal and a finish line for the Christian race of faith. It is none other than Christ himself. Our destination is heaven where we will dwell for all eternity, not only with the risen Christ but also with all the saints. Because Christ is our goal, the letter urges us to keep our focus on him, to fix our eyes upon him for inspiration and strength. This will be the principal theme of our illustrations. After all, he is “the author and finisher of faith.” Jesus is the one who gave us the supreme example of “enduring the cross” to the end by fixing his focus on the “joy set before him”—the glory of his rising from the dead and “taking his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Certainly, we should look to the Old Testament heroes of faith in chapter 12 for inspiration and strength, but our main focus must be on Jesus, “the leader in this race of faith, the pioneer, the captain” (cf. 2:10). He is also the finisher, the perfecter; the first to start, the first to finish. However, since he is the Son of God, how can we consider him an example of faith? “It is possible,” McConnell says, “to describe the example of Jesus gave us in facing hostility, suffering and death as an example of faith, although this is not the usual language of Scripture” (John F. McConnell, M.M., The Letter to the Hebrews; New Testament Reading Guide [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1960] pp. 58-59).
William Barclay has some illuminating insights on Hebrews 12. He sees “the great cloud of witnesses” not only inspiring us because of their heroic examples of faith, but also encouraging us like spectators witnessing our struggle. In other words, Barclay views them like fans cheering for an athlete, or an audience energizing an actor. This, too, can sometimes motivate us to make that extra effort or give it one more try when “the going gets tough” in the course of our “fight for faith.”
Another in-depth analysis Barclay makes is on the phrase “steadfast endurance.” It is not a long-suffering patience that passively accepts whatever comes along. On the contrary, it is an active patience that seeks to overcome difficulties and surmount obstacles.” It is that determination “which goes steadily on, and which refuses to be deflected…” (p. 196).
A third aspect worth noting in Barclay’s commentary is the way he emphasizes how Jesus is not only the “goal” of our race, but also our “companion” along the route. Jesus is both the one we go to meet at the finish line of life on earth and the one with whom we travel. Jesus is both the “purpose” of our journey and a “presence” for us. (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Letter to the Hebrews [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957], pp. 194-197).
The Interpreter’s Bible explains in what sense Jesus is the perfecter of our faith, and makes an astute observation about seeking Christ as our goal while we run our race: “Perfection here and elsewhere means achievement of the end in view, and while moral implications are definitely in mind, they are not primary. Our author believes that direct access to God through Christ is the goal of religion, not righteousness as such.” A psychological point that The Interpreter’s Bible makes is how essential it is for true human growth and development to have and strive towards a significant “goal” in our lives. “Without a goal toward which we bend every energy,” we let ourselves become victims of outside forces and chance events instead of giving direction to our lives by using our intelligence and free will. Although we do not have control over all the circumstances and happenings of our lives, we are “persons” who can reflect on our experiences and decide how to respond to them.
A final comment from The Interpreter’s Bible reinforces what McConnell alluded to above about the humanity of Jesus and under what aspect he had faith. Certainly the author of Hebrews had a very high understanding of the divine nature of Jesus. Nonetheless, he insists that Jesus also had a human nature. (cf. 2:17-18; 4:15-16) Recalling the Old Testament heroes of faith in chapter 11, if Jesus really is “the finisher of our faith,” then he too could “greet the promises from afar” (11:13) and persevere “as if he were looking on the invisible God” (11:27).
“To obscure the full humanity of Jesus is to rob the Cross of its shame, and the sacrifice of the Cross of its power.” (p. 739). As an aside, this is a very compelling commentary to consider in reading reviews about the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of The Christ. Gibson himself has said that he tried to show very graphically on screen the severe and real sufferings Jesus endured during his Passion because of his humanity. We might disagree about the way or the extent to which Gibson went to make this point, but it would be difficult to deny his theological aim in depicting how Christ suffered on the Cross (J. Harry Cotton, The Interpreter’s Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews [Philadelphia: Parthenon Press, 1955], pp. 739).
The whole idea of a crowd of cheering fans would fit in with the writer of Hebrews notion of a huge number of witnesses supporting the faith. As the beginning of the football season begins, we can have a bit of fun with some of the fans of the game. The idea of a huge number of fans cheering the Christian community on each day is a very appealing one. So, as each of us faces hostility, fear and death we can imagine a huge number of fans, witnesses cheering us one during each frightening and lonely moment. The great cloud of witness can be so easily imagined as super fans of Jesus who shows us how to survive our day to day lives no matter how frightening and hard.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
There are all kinds of fan cheers from all over the world. There are all kinds of chants and cheers. A football (soccer) chant or terrace chant is a song or chant sung at association football matches. They can be historic, dating back to the formation of the club, adaptations of popular songs, plagiarized, a mock of the originals, spontaneous reactions to events on the pitch. They are one of the last remaining sources of an oral folk song tradition in the United Kingdom. Traditions vary from country to country and team to team, but they are generally used either to encourage the home team or slight the opposition. Not only do fans sing songs to directly slight the opposition they are playing that day; many teams sing songs about their club rivals, even if they are not playing them.
Some chants are spoken, typically in call-and-response format and often accompanied by percussion. For example, Chilean national football team fans will do a routine whereby one group of fans will chant "Chi-Chi-Chi", and another group will respond "Le-Le-Le". For the Indonesia national football team one group of fans will chant "In-Do-Ne-Sia" with an air horn and hand clap in response. "Garuda Di Dadaku" is sung by fans when Indonesia plays at home.
Popularized at the Sydney Olympics and used by Australian football supporters everywhere is the "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi" chant between two groups of supporters. It is a derivation of Welsh rugby chant "Oggy Oggy Oggy", which was also adapted by Chelsea supporters in tribute to Peter Osgood.
Several football chants are based on hymns, with "Cwm Rhondda" (also known as "Guide me, O thou great redeemer") being one of the most popular tunes to copy. Amongst others, it has spawned the song "You're not singing anymore!". "We can see you sneaking out!", "We support our local team!" and "I will never be a Blue!".
Various teams have used the "Glory Glory" chant (used by "Tottenham Hotspur", "Leeds United", "Manchester United", etc.), to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic". Hibernian were the first team to popularize the song with the release of a record by Hector Nicol in the 1950s ("Glory Glory to the Hibees").
There have been various adaptations of "When The Saints Go Marching In" and the tune of Handel's Hallelujah chorus. Many football crowd chants/songs are to the tune of "La donna è mobile" from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Rigoletto. Italian tifosi employ various operatic aria, especially those by Giuseppe Verdi, for chants. For Parma's home matches at the Stadio Ennio Tardini, during the entry of the teams in the field, Aida's triumphal march resounds as Verdi is a symbol of the city. French PSG fans sing a rendition of "Flower of Scotland". Some chants are based on spirituals. "We shall not be moved" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" are both used by fans. An example of the latter's use was "He's got a pineapple on his head" aimed at Jason Lee due to his distinctive hairstyle. The song was later popularized by the television show Fantasy Football League.
Rhythmical cheering has been developed to its greatest extent in America in the college yells, which may be regarded as a development of the primitive war-cry; this custom has no real analogue at English schools and universities, but the New Zealand rugby team in 1907 familiarized English crowds at their matches with the haka, a similar sort of war-cry adopted from the Māoris. In American schools and colleges there is usually one cheer for the institution as a whole and others for the different classes.
The oldest and simplest are those of the New England colleges. The original yells of Harvard and Yale are identical in form, being composed of rah (abbreviation of hurrah) nine times repeated, shouted in unison with the name of the university at the end. The Yale cheer is given faster than that of Harvard. Many institutions have several different yells, a favorite variation being the name of the college shouted nine times in a slow and prolonged manner. The best known of these variants is the Yale cheer, partly taken from The Frogs of Aristophanes, which runs thus:
Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax, Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax, O-op, O-op, parabalou, Yale, Yale, Yale, Rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, Yale! Yale! Yale!
The first-known cheer from the sidelines was Princeton University's "rocket call," which was heard during the first-ever intercollegiate football game, between Princeton and Rutgers University in 1869.
By the 1890s, Princeton's original "rocket" had been modified into its distinctive "locomotive" cheer:
Rah, rah, rah!
Tiger, tiger, tiger!
Siss, siss, siss!
Boom, boom, boom! Ah!
Princeton! Princeton! Princeton!
It is called the "Locomotive" cheer because it sounds like a train engine that starts slowly then picks up speed. Princeton University also established the first pep club. All-male "yell leaders" supported the Princeton football team with cheers from the sidelines.
Organized chants in North American sports are rarer then in their European counterparts, but some teams have their special routines. Common chants include "Let's go - [team name] -, let's go (clap-clap clap-clap-clap); or in case of a single syllable nickname, "Go - [team name] - Go". Spectators also use derivatives of these to chant the names of particular athletes. A notable example of this is the Derek Jeter chant, where fans chant the name of the then New York Yankees shortstop and employ a similar clapping rhythm. In some contexts, spectator chanting may also be used derisively to chide athletes or contestants.
Most teams have a scoring song played on the PA system, and some professional American football teams sing a fight song after scores. The use of fight songs after a score is universal in college football. Since scoring in basketball is more frequent, and does not generally cause breaks in the game action, scoring songs are not employed in that sport. However, in college basketball, fight songs are universally played during prolonged breaks in game action (timeouts, halftime, and overtime breaks if any). Baseball fans traditionally sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the middle of the 7th inning.
We are surrounded by a huge tradition of crowd cheers. There are all kind of fan traditions that make up the modern world of fan. This cloud of fans would have been a wonderful image for the writers of Hebrews.
It’s April, yet all of us are glued to the NFL like its midseason. That’s what separates us from the average fan. We eat, sleep and live football 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
There are some, though, who go above and beyond even that.
These fan(atic)s wear their colors proudly—and brightly—for everyone to see. We label them as superfans because they stand out from the norm with their creative costumes or personalities.
Like the players we idolize, they too get a special place in our minds—and through recognition in the form of Hall of Fame inductions.
We’ll take a look at a group of the boldest and most passionate NFL fans in the following slideshow.
The decision to step away couldn’t have been easy for the Hogettes. For 30 seasons this dedicated group of superfans donned pig snouts and dresses while supporting their favorite team.
With the emergence of Robert Griffin III as a top QB in the league, the 'Skins are on the upswing, making the timing of this decision that much more peculiar. Almost as peculiar as the Hogettes themselves.
Despite their impending and alleged departure from the spotlight, we still think of them as one of the best in the game—for now.
The Black Hole
I don't feel comfortable picking one member of the Oakland Raiders' vaunted Black Hole to single out here. Sure, Spike might be a central figure, but the collective group deserves recognition here.
John Big Dawg Thompson
John Big Dawg Thompson is one of the most recognizable superfans in not just Cleveland, Ohio, but in the NFL in its entirety.
Notice I didn’t use quotation marks around his moniker, Big Dawg. That’s because this iconic fan legally changed his name to include his passion for the Cleveland Browns.
He was a member of the original Dawg Pound of the mid-'80s and also served as a lobbyist for the return of Browns football to Cleveland after the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1995.
"Saint Vince" John O'Neil
Green Bay Packers superfan John “St. Vince” O’Neil has a bit of a religious following on Sundays. Don’t confuse him with the pope, though.
His ascension to stardom began in 1997 during the Green Bay Packers meteoric rise to the Super Bowl. Attending every game since the 1960s, O’Neil dedicated his costume to Vince Lombardi during the Pack’s win in New Orleans that year and it stuck.
Like other superfans, Minnesota's Syd Davy has stood the test of time. He's been an avid fanatic of the Minnesota Vikings since the 1960s.
He dresses in battle dress and is also known as "100 percent Cheese Free."
That persona made him famous after the 1993 season. Davy got dressed up for Halloween that year and never stopped after a big reception from his fellow Vikings fans.
There aren't many Carolina Panthers superfans that stand out. But the one who does is Catman. This die-hard Panthers fan is also in the Hall of Fame. FOX Sports played a joke on him back in 2006, awarding him a car that he had won that turned out to be a toy car. The public outcry in Catman's support led to the broadcasting company shelling out the cash to purchase him a brand new Ford F-150 pickup truck.
Captain Dee-Fense, the biggest superfan of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens, is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Chicago Bears superfan Glenn Timmerman just might take the cake for the most obsessed of the obsessed. Timmerman, a.k.a. the "Tattoed Bears Fan," currently has 140 Bears player autographs tattooed onto his body (according to his website).
He is currently planning on stopping at 150, but why stop there? (https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1593785-the-biggest-super-fans-in-the-nfl#slide10)
Before you think this is only men. A 1998 TV report on former Atlanta running back Gerald Riggs’ recovery from an injury inspired Carolyn “BirdLady” Freeman, a former deputy sheriff who’d been confined to her bed for 12 years after being seriously injured on the job, to leave her bed and start following the Falcons. After watching Freeman do a version of Atlanta running back Jamal Anderson’s Dirty Bird dance, Anderson and Atlanta linebacker Jessie Tuggle dubbed her “BirdLady.”
Freeman goes to just about every Falcons game—home, road, playoff or Pro Bowl. She was at Super Bowl LI in Houston. And each year, she runs a toy drive for Atlanta-area kids. “I live life as BirdLady 365 days a year,” Freeman says. “I wear only black, white, red and gray [Falcons colors], and that’s what color my house is—except for the pink guest room, to support breast cancer.”
The Human Icicle is a super fan for the Green Bay is known for its Packers—and for its icy temperatures. In 2004, after years of making elaborately decorated foam hats for fellow fans, Jeff Kahlow created Frozen Tundra Man. About three games a year—plus the playoffs—Kahlow covers the shoulders of his jersey with turf and creates large “icicles” that hang from his cheese hat and beard to pay homage to Green Bay’s frigid climate. “I’m doing this as fun for myself, the fans and as part of the Green Bay Packers,” Kahlow said. (https://parade.com/734919/parade/meet-7-of-the-most-passionate-nfl-superfans-in-the-u-s/)
Steve Jobs' reality distortion field gave birth to a completely new subspecies in the human race — the Apple Fanboy.
This is a curious animal that tends to disregard technical wisdom and listen exclusively to what Apple and its marketing components have to say.
They adore the devices Apple releases, but who wouldn't? Apple has some of the best phones, tablets and PCs on the market. But they are not universally the best.
Your typical Apple fanboy won't believe that. Apple devices have the best hardware Apple devices might look the best, but they are far from packing the best hardware. But Apple has a one-year development cycle, and there's a lot of room for a competitor to build a phone with better hardware in that year.
One example is the iPhone camera. When other smartphones were sporting 8-megapixel cameras and superior image sensors, the iPhone 4 still had a 5-megapixel camera. Apple has since improved the camera in the iPhone 4S, but it won't be long before it's leapfrogged again.
A lot of other Android phones have a faster processor and more memory than the iPhone. Apple's phones might look the best, but they typically do not have the best hardware on the market.
Samsung is the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world after shipping 28 million smartphones in the third quarter this year. Its market share is still growing while Apple's market share has dipped slightly, according to Strategy Analytics.
Your typical Apple Fan believes that Apple ships more smartphones than Samsung
You can attribute some of that to Apple holding off on releasing its next phone, the iPhone 4S, until October. But Samsung still has about a 10-million-unit lead on Apple and shows no signs of slowing down. That's because Samsung can manufacture phones with a variety of operating systems, like Android and Windows Phone 7, and appeal to a much larger audience.
Your typical Apple Fan believes that Apple devices don't crash.
Unlike the jarring blue screen of death that appears on typical Windows computers, Apple's crash screen is little more elegant. On the MacBook, it's called a Kernel Panic (they refer to them at the Apple Store as KPs). Apple store employees will tell you that as soon as you see a KP, it starts to go downhill. (At least, that's what they told me when I started experiencing non-stop Kernel Panics thanks to a driver malfunction.)
As elegant as it seems, it still means your computer just crashed. Fixes for Kernel Panics usually involve a fresh install for your operating system or replacing the logic board.
Your typical Apple Fan believes that Apple computers are immune to viruses and malware. Windows users automatically assume they'll need some kind of anti-virus and firewall software to protect their computer. Apple users think their devices are too secure to stoop to such measures.
Apple fanboys will believe just about anything they read. Jobs instilled a fanatic sense of discipline and loyalty within his fan base. So much so that his reality distortion field will long survive his death. Apple fanboys today eat up anything Apple-related from media outlets and immediately trash anything that's remotely negative. You can see it on just about every website — including Business Insider. (https://www.businessinsider.com/here-are-the-crazy-things-apple-fanboys-believe-that-arent-actually-true-2011-11#apple-fanboys-will-believe-just-about-anything-they-read-10) There are even super fans among the geeks.
Zig Zagler, Jim Rohn, Charlie Jones, and several other successful trainers in personal and professional growth have produced a variety of internet programs. They focus on ten strategies that have the potential to “positively change your life!” The ten potential outcomes we can learn are: (1) effectively adding one or two work-hours every day by applying some time-management methods; (2) increasing production by improving our selling, networking and negotiating skills; (3) attaining financial security by following a sound financial and investment plan; (4) becoming a better spouse, parent, and friend by developing further our relational abilities; (5) enhancing our overall quality of life by adopting a consistent health/fitness philosophy and program; (6) increasing our performance level by mastering the art of communication; (7) achieving a sense of purpose by establishing a set of 10-year goals; (8) multiplying our positive influence on people by learning effective leadership and management skills; (9) expanding one’s influence by learning how to give effective presentations to audiences; gaining motivation and encouragement by frequently contacting role models and mentors.
By focusing and working on these ten specific aspects, Zig Zagler, Jim Rohn, Charlie Jones, and their team of trainers claim that we can reach life-altering results. If such positive changes can occur in our personal and professional lives, then they can occur all more successfully in our spiritual lives if we keep our focus on and follow Christ. He is not only the “leader and perfecter or our faith,” but also the “way, the truth, and the life.” (Daily Inbox, P.O. Box 913, Wimberley, TX 78676; http://dailyinbox.com)
In his book The History of The Conquest of Mexico, author William Prescott (1796-1859) tells of the escape of Cortez and his men from Mexico City. It was the year 1520 and the city was surrounded by a marshy lake. To escape over the causeway it was necessary to abandon the vast store of gold they had taken from the Aztecs. “Take what you want,” Cortez told his men. “But do not overload yourselves. He travels safest who travels lightest.” But some of the Spanish soldiers greedily loaded themselves up with all the gold they could carry, and when they had to swim a short distance because of a breach in the causeway, they were too weighed down by the gold and drowned.
An obsession with something lesser can blur our vision to something of superior value; by focusing our attention in the wrong place we may forfeit things of far greater importance. The Spanish soldiers’ greed for gold is but one example of how a vice can destroy personal lives, families, and careers. By contrast, fixing our attention on Christ and following his teachings leads ultimately to our deepest fulfillment, happiness, and peace. As Dante wrote in his classic Paradiso, “In his will is our peace.”
Because of his immense success in the NFL, Coach Bill Belichick has sometimes been called a “defensive genius.” As a defensive coordinator, his schemes stymied the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI and the hurry-up offense of the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. When he became head coach of the New England Patriots, Belichick designed innovative game plans to defeat the St. Louis Ravens in Super Bowl XXXVI and the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
One of the keys to Belichick’s success is his capacity to focus on the other team’s weaknesses and devise strategies to exploit them. All NFL coaches spend long hours studying films of their opponents, but Belichick seems to have a unique talent for this. He started developing this skill when he was 10 years old by helping his father, who was a scout and coach at the U. S. Naval Academy for 30 years. However, it is not only in the film room preparing for a game that Belichick examines other teams with a keen eye. He is also able to focus during a game from the sidelines on what the opposition is doing, and thus make critical adjustments and changes in his game plan.
This understanding of using defense was also seen in the Broncos defeat of the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. The coaches of the Broncos saw the weaknesses and managed to easily defeat with their league leading defense the Panthers who had dominated every other football team that season.
Who are Super-Bowl successes in the spiritual life? The saints—people who lived a profound contemplative life by keeping a keen focus on the Lord. Some saints came from institutional cloistered monasteries and were canonized, but the vast majority of saints came from our own families, churches, and workplaces even though they were never officially recognized as saints. The latter were ordinary people who carried out their ordinary activities with a vibrant faith and extraordinary love. They may not have said many formal prayers, but they did keep their focus on the Lord all during the day. They did this by seeing Christ’s presence in every person they met, experiencing his mysterious presence in every circumstance of their lives, and inviting him to share in everything they said or did. Whether we live in the silence and solitude of a monastery or in the noise and encounters of the world, we are all called to be saints and contemplatives who experience the ineffable reality of God.
Suze Orman is a popular TV financial adviser. Her ratings are high because she is pleasant, professional, practical and positive. In a cover story for Guideposts (March, 2004), Orman also shows that she has a spiritual perspective about money management. She outlines 7 practical steps to financial wellness for people suffering from financial problems: (1) get honest; (2) go back to the past; (3) value yourself more than your paycheck; (4) track your spending habits; (5) dig yourself out of debt; (6) teach your children well; (7) give and you shall receive.
Orman begins and ends her prescriptions to relieve fiscal ailments with a focus on God. In the introduction, she writes: “But haven’t you seen spiritual solutions work for the most down-to-earth problems? Call it what you like—a financial grace, a new belief in yourself, a trust in God¹s hand to provide for you.” Suze Orman concludes her article by recommending that we give and share even when we have little. She points out that while the amount we give often comes back tenfold, the best returns are not necessarily financial. Her final words are: “When you open your hands to give to others, you’re opening yourself up to receive the gifts has to give you.” (Suze Orman, “A Matter of Perspective,” Guideposts [New York: Guideposts, March, 2004] pp. 42-47).
We have not moved very far into the new Millennium, and yet we have had some spectacular advances in science and technology. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, announced last January that its robot rover Spirit had landed safely on the planet Mars. Three weeks later its sister rover, Opportunity, landed successfully on another site of Mars. Both crafts traveled more than 310 million miles in space over 7 months before making soft parachute landings within 300 feet of their targets. Over a 3 month period the robot rovers transmitted pictures to us of the surface of Mars, wandered some 6-9 miles to analyze soils, and drilled into rocks to search for water-bearing minerals or minerals deposited as a result of some hydrothermal activity.
The head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is 56-year-old Charles Elachi, who was born in Lebanon and came to the U.S. as a graduate student. “Today, Elachi is the world’s foremost expert in radar imagery of planetary surface—in addition to his specializations in...microwave remote sensing...lasers and integrated optics. It was his task force that created the ‘corrective lens’ for the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993.” (Pat McDonnell Twair, “Lebanon, Pasadena—Mars,” Saudi Aramco World [Houston: Aramco Services Company, Jan./Feb. 2004] pp. 38-39)
Eleven previous attempts at landing on Mars—seven by the Russians, three by the Americans, and one by the British—had all failed. These failures compelled Elachi and his team of 1000 scientists and engineers to keep completely focused on every minute detail of their work. For example, as the robot rovers approached Mars they were moving at 12,000 m.p.h. and had 6 minutes to decelerate to zero velocity. “If our calculations had been just seconds off,” Elachi said, “the rovers would have crashed.” If believers focused as intently on Christ in their work of building the kingdom of God, how much fewer would our failures be and how much more visible would our successes be.
Before she was crowned Miss America 2001 at age 23, Angela Perez Baraquio was a physical education elementary schoolteacher and coach in Hawaii. She was the eight of 10 children her parents raised. All the children took music lessons, went through Catholic schools, and sang in the church choir. Angela also took ballet instructions and competed in basketball, volleyball, and cross-country. She started competing in the Miss Hawaii pageant when she was 18, hoping to obtain a college scholarship. Angela’s dream was realized when she earned more than $100,000 in scholarships upon becoming Miss America 2001.
The day after she won the title, the pageant organizers had scheduled numerous activities for her. However, it was a Sunday, and Angela insisted that she be given time to attend Mass every Sunday. During the first reading she heard the verse: “I prayed, and ...the spirit of Wisdom came to me; I preferred her to scepter and throne.” (Wisdom 7:7-8) The platform statement she chose was character education. Visiting schools in her role as Miss America gave her numerous opportunities to share her appreciation of Christian values, such as respect, honesty, and integrity. When Angela addressed 24,000 youths at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indiana, she talked openly about the importance of her Catholic faith.
Since stepping down as Miss America 2001, Angela Perez Baraquio has married, taken a job with First Hawaiian Bank as their spokesperson, continues to travel and give motivational talks about character education, and has established an Education Foundation in her name to promote “Character in the Classroom: Teaching Values, Valuing Teachers.” In her first newsletter she wrote: “Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘To educate a man in mind, and not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. summed up my mission best when he said, ‘Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education.’” Angela certainly kept her focus on Christ during her glory days as Miss America 2001, and she has continued to keep her eyes fixed on the Lord through her ongoing commitment to character education.
At the end of the 20th Century, Time magazine published a special issue featuring what it considered the “Most Important 100 People of the Century.” We selected Ernesto Guevara from Time’s Heroes and Icons category because Che’s complex career characterizes him, on the one hand, as a “Christ figure,” and on the other hand, as an “incendiary guerrilla.” His legend began when he abandoned his medical profession as a doctor in Argentina in 1956 and crossed the Caribbean with Fidel Castro and a small group of revolutionaries. Their “mad mission” was to invade Cuba and overthrow dictator Batista’s regime. During the next two years, the insurgents survived hostile swamps, bloody battles, and overwhelming odds to accomplish the first and only victorious socialist revolution in the Americas.
In 1967, Che was involved in a revolutionary foray in the Bolivian jungles when he was murdered at age 39 by Bolivian soldiers who were trained, equipped, and guided by U.S. Green Beret and CIA operatives. Legends surround the circumstances of his death—some report that his last words were, “Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man”; others say that the
soldiers hacked-off his hands as if they were afraid he would come back alive. More than 30 years have passed since Che¹s death, and his memory and popularity persist. On the one hand, he is considered a martyr for the cause of freedom from oppression and tyranny, a secular saint who tended wounded enemy soldiers, an ascetic who had a disdain for material comfort, and an idealist who defended the downtrodden against the powerful wealthy. On the other hand, there is a dark side to Che’s legend. It is said that he signed orders to execute prisoners in Cuban jails without a fair trial, that his economic and military theories were seriously flawed, and that he was uncompromising with his adversaries.
In his article for Time’s special issue about the 20th Century, Ariel Dorfman explains why he thinks that Che can still be a hero to whom today’s youth can look for inspiration and strength: “The fantasy of an adventurer who changed countries and crossed borders and broke down limits without once betraying his basic loyalties provides the restless youth of our era with an optimal combination, grounding them in a fierce center of moral gravity while simultaneously appealing to their contemporary nomadic impulse.” Dorfman also points out that in a modern world where there is still widespread injustice and chronic poverty, the memory of Che challenges us to set aside our “self-interest and frantic consumption” and support instead movements for social justice and economic equity.
A long time ago, I read somewhere an interesting anecdote about Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim across the English Channel from France. She accomplished her epic feat on August 6, 1926, through cold and choppy waters that forced her to swim 35 miles instead of the minimum 21. Although Ederle’s time of 14 hours and 31 minutes beat the previous record for the crossing (held by a man) by about 2 hours, she suffered severely during the arduous swim. She not only had to cope with extreme physical exhaustion, but also overcome psychological obstacles, such as mental fatigue and discouragement.
When Ederle had only one more mile to swim to reach the English coast, every aching fiber in her being made her want her to quit. The only thing that kept her going was a light from a cottage on the shore that she could see through the dark. As long as she could keep her focus on that light, she knew that she had only a short distance to go and that somehow she could get there. That tiny light lifted her spirits, rekindled her hopes, and motivated her to keep making a few more strokes.
The inspiration and strength that Ederle found in that tiny light through a cottage window gives us an inkling of what we can experience if we keep our focus on Christ, the light of the world. No matter how discouraged we may become, how futile our feeble efforts may seem, or how depleted all our resources may appear, as long as we set our sights on Jesus, he will be an inexhaustible source of inspiration and strength for us.
I have come to understand the power of the cloud of witnesses to help us focus on Jesus in comparison to teammates on a baseball team. We who are disciples are like the pitcher. The cloud of witnesses living and dead are like those on the bases who chatter to us to help us keep our focus and build up our energy to fire the ball to the desired mark.
In one of the most difficult times in my life I attended the wedding of a dear friend. I was alone. My own marriage was in shambles. I had not yet spoken the awful truth of my situation to my own parish. “Where will I find the strength to preach tomorrow?” I asked quietly as my friend’s marriage proceeded. Then the answer came: the liturgist led all of us in the Litany of the Saints. As she sang those names, and we responded, “Pray for us,” I felt truly surrounded by – and prayed for – by that invisible gathered multitude. There were plenty of difficult Sundays after that, but I never again felt alone. Not in the pulpit. Not in my home. Not anywhere.
Somewhere in The Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape reminds Wormwood that his patient ‘doesn’t see the church as we see her – like an army gathered for battle with all its standards flying. He sees only the very people he has spent much of his life avoiding.’ This text reminds us not just that we are Christ’s but that our support comes from that ‘gathered army’ who cheers us on and prays with us in our hour of trial .
Last winter during an especially rainy dismal week, I had the occasion to fly to New York. As the plane began its climb through the dark clouds of the cold rainy front, I settle back and began to read. In a few minutes the sun began shining brightly through my porthole window. I realized, as many had before me, that if you go high enough the weather is always sunny. It is a matter of focus that determines what one sees.
Marshall McLuhan contends that most people live their lives with “rearview mirror” thinking. With that metaphor, McLuhan suggests that we zip along the highway of our lives with our awareness primarily drawn to what has happened in the past. Very few, he contends, are capable of looking through the windshield to be able to tell where we are going. In a sense, the recitation of all the heroes of the faith in chapter 11 is an example of rearview mirror thinking. As we grow in our awareness of God’s faithfulness in the past, we can them become aware of the faithfulness that will likewise be shown to us by God in the future.
The letter to the Hebrews doesn’t shy away from affirming that Jesus’ death on the cross is key to understanding his mission. Many people today, though, prefer to focus on Jesus but ignore the cross. According to The New York Times (8/25/03), a theft took place at the Church of the Holy Cross in Midtown Manhattan. Thieves entered the church and took a 200-pound plaster figure of Jesus. But before doing that, they went to the effort of detaching the Jesus from the cross that he was attached to, whereupon they made off with the Jesus and left the cross behind. Police wondered why the thieves would have run the risk of taking the time to remove the four bolts that held the figure to the cross.
Although our ultimate reward is still very much in the distance in front of us, when we finally arrive at that reward, we will discover how worthwhile the journey was. For instance, far out in the cosmos is the largest diamond that is known to exist. According to the Associated Press (2/13/04), there is a burned-out star known as BPM 37093, which is essentially a diamond that weighs ten billion trillion trillion carats. That number would be represented by a one followed by 34 zeros. Astronomers estimate that former star to be approximately 2,500 miles across. But don’t expect that diamond to show up in a jewelry store any time soon. That massive chunk of crystallized carbon is situated about 300 trillion miles from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus.
The author of Hebrews stresses that our salvation has come about as a result of Jesus’ blood on the cross. An ancient symbol for that is the pelican. An example of that iconography is found on the title page of the original edition of the King James Version of the Bible. Toward the bottom of the page, in an oval panel, is a pelican pecking at her breast. According to Alister McGrath’s In The Beginning: The Story of he King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, it was once thought that the pelican fed her young with blood pecked from her own breast. That was interpreted as an image of how Christ’s blood sustains the faithful.
By focusing on Christ, all the turbulence of this life is able to be put into perspective. In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson explains that Franklin was perhaps the first person to notice that oil has a calming effect on troubled waters. While on a journey home from England, he noticed that the lanterns aboard his ship had a thick layer of oil that floated on top of a layer of water. The surface was always calm and flat, when the lantern was observed from above. But when the lantern was viewed from the side, so that both layers could be seen, it became evident that the water underneath the oil was constantly in great commotion. As we live out our lives, we might often feel as though we are like that water, always in turmoil. But by focusing on Christ, we are able to gain a perspective from above, which shows us that from God’s vantage point, all is calm—despite the temporary hardships we might face, we are continuously in God’s care.
As we concentrate on Christ, as the great heroes of the faith before us did, we are able to achieve a sense of peaceful calm, trusting that we are firmly in God’s hands. That ability to find such a sense of calm is immensely beneficial. According to U.S. News & World Report (11/10/03), a study in Psychosomatic Medicine tracked the recovery of fifty hernia patients after surgery. Those who indicated that they were most worried had low levels of an immune system messenger called IL-1 and an enzyme called MMP9, which enables a wound site to heal. Following surgery, the worried patients reported more pain and thought it would take longer before they felt normal again.
Sometimes amid all our busyness, we allow our focus to drift from what we know is most important. Such was the case with some firefighters in Florida. According to the BBC (3/5/04), a fire started in the kitchen of a fire station in Melbourne when a greasy pot was accidentally left to burn on the stove while the firefighters responded to an emergency. The firefighters later admitted that they are always telling other people to focus on fire safety in their homes. Therefore, they felt somewhat embarrassed that they failed to heed their own advice.
The early desert Father Serapion taught his followers about the importance of keeping one’s self focused upon Christ. He observed that when imperial guards are on duty in the emperor’s presence, they are required to keep their eyes looking forward at all times and to not turn their heads to the left or the right. Serapion then drew this comparison, saying that a Christian “in God’s presence must keep his attention all the time on the fear of God so none of the enemy’s attacks can terrify him.”
The letter to the Hebrews repeatedly emphasizes the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. But in our day the cross is largely thought of as a piece of artwork, rather than as a scandalous sign of death. An ancient piece of cartoon art, or graffiti, has been found in Rome that depicts a crucified figure with the head of a donkey. The inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships his god.” The mocking picture drives home the point that in the early days of the church, the cross was not a triumphant sign—no ruler had a cross on his throne or crown. Rather the cross carried its quite literal meaning to those who saw it—a symbol of rejection and death.
As the heroes of the faith are enumerated in this passage, in each instance we see that they ultimately focused on the good news rather than the bad news. They concentrated on the hope they had in God, as opposed to the difficult circumstances they often faced. In Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter J. Gomes observes that we tend to find it easier to believe bad news rather than good news. He suggests that we equate bad news with reality. In contrast, we often think of good news as an exception to the rule. For instance, when a telegram arrives, or when the phone rings in the middle of the night, we usually assume that it is bad news. The writer of Hebrews, though, wants to make sure that we don’t forget that God’s good news is always more powerful than the bad news of the world.
Are we prepared to put our lives at risk, like the heroes of the faith before us did? According to the New York Post (1/18/04), two people died when a fire swept through their apartment in Brooklyn. One of the dead was a sickly man with a cane who had gone from door to door to alert the sleeping neighbors on his floor about what was happening. The sixty-year-old man, Lester Walton, banged on people’s doors with his cane and yelled, “Fire! Get out!” Firefighters eventually found his body slumped on the floor a few feet from his apartment. He had died from a massive heart attack. Neighbors cried when they found out what had happened to Walton. Many of them credited him with saving their lives. One family who was able to escape unharmed because of what Walton did said, “I can’t believe he went out in the hallway to save others.” The fire was so massive that it took 300 firefighters more than five hours to get it under control.
The writer of Hebrews urges us to look to the future with hope as we recall how God has delivered faithful people throughout the ages. In If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, John Ortberg cites a study in which 122 men who had suffered a first heart attack were studied. Of the men who were rated as being the 25 most pessimistic, 21 of them had died within the next 8 years. Of those who were evaluated as being the 25 most optimistic, only 6 of them had passed away during that same period.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses!
People: Let us lay down the weights and sin that cling to us.
Leader: Let us run the race that is set before us.
People: Let us look to Jesus Christ, the perfecter of our faith.
All: He endured the cross for our sakes, and now sits at the right hand of God. Let us worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Loving God, you have such high hopes for us. You created us, you nurture us, you protect and guide us, and you want what is best for us. But we reject your tender care for us and seek our own paths. Instead of fruit of the spirit like love and joy and peace, our hearts produce greed and selfishness and pride. Forgive us for turning away from you. Forgive us for forgetting who we are and whose we are. Show us how to produce good fruit that is pleasing in your sight. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lord God, we bring before you the fruit of our labors. We dedicate our tithes, our gifts and talents, and our very lives to your purpose. Use our offerings and our lives for the glory of your Kingdom. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Eternal God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to earth to teach us, to love us, to guide us. We come before you today knowing that you hear us when we call to you.
We lift up to you our broken world and nation. So often we look around and see greed, hatred, disease, war, anger, and hostility. We pray for peace, love, healing, reconciliation, and unity. Let us be Christ to our world and our country, that we may see things through Christ’s eyes and help those who are hurting. We pray for people each day who awaken to gunfire, hunger, and poverty. Show us how to help our brothers and sisters in their time of need.