#39: Cloud of witnesses

This passage follows on from a long list of ancestors in the faith: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, 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, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart … Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:1-3, 12-13)

Aunty Reverend Denise Champion is Adnyamathanha and the first Aboriginal woman ordained in South Australia. She works with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, and the Uniting Church in South Australia.

It makes it very hard for me as an Aboriginal minister to go to my Aboriginal people and proclaim the gospel because they see that it was the white man’s god that took their land away and it was the white man’s god that took their children away. It has pushed Aboriginal people to the margins. The coming of the gospel was linked together with the way Australia was colonized. It makes perfect sense then why we need to encourage Aboriginal people to gather together and worship in their own language and to do things their own way.

What we can as a church learn from this story? I always ask this question.

Loss. Disconnection. Death. Loss of hope.

Two or three years ago, we lost three of our young people in our Adnyamathanha community, my young nieces and nephew. I was thinking all along ‘How can I talk to these people about God and to assure them of the loving God who cares for them in their grieving, but also a merciful God who will take care of us in life and also care for us in death?’ I thought it through and thought it through and kept coming to the one understanding, which is of God being our Ancestor, God being Creator, the One who made us. Of course, our mothers and fathers have made us as well so they are our ancestors. Our grandmothers and grandfathers made us, made our mother and father, so they were our ancestors. It fitted that God was Creator and Maker, our Ancestor from whom we came from. And I thought, Wow. I can talk to my family about the fact that we have this from the perspective of the great cloud of witnesses who are gathered and who are spurring us on to keep going, waiting for us to finish the race. And I thought well I can talk to my family from that perspective and say that our family needed them home. They could see that our loved one was in so much pain, so much suffering that they needed them home earlier. And it was okay for me to say that nana and pop needed them home with them. It was okay.

I recognise now that that’s another way of being able to share with people. We don’t have to mention the word ‘heaven’, just the fact that there’s this group of people who’ve gone on before us, including the one who started the whole journey. When our life’s journey here gets too difficult for us they will take us home. So death is not that horrible, horrible thing that sneaks up on us and we blame God …

If I speak to one of our loved ones who is on their death bed and they are ready to leave us, I’ll always say to them, ‘Wirringha ngukanandaka’, ‘You go on ahead of us now.’ ‘Ngapala urangha yanatandha,’ ‘We’ll be coming up behind you.’ It means that we are all on the same journey. Ω

Reflect: Which ancestors in the faith are cheering you on? Who is running alongside you? Who or what helps you persevere? Ask God to strengthen your heart, and to reveal how you can smooth the path for others.

#Lent2020 © Sanctuary, 2020 quoting Denise Champion with Rosemary Dewerse. Yarta Wandatha. Salisbury, SA: Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, 2014. Order your copy here.


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