In a small denomination like the one I have belonged to, it is truly one extended community. From your early days in that church you know who to turn to. You know who has the wisdom, who has the Spirit. Many of these become the leaders, officially or de facto. They become role models and mentors. Because of the extended community you don't always have to agree, you just watch and learn from them. You discover how to be true to your beliefs and your God. You learn what to do in tough situations and what not to do. The values, spoken, written and assumed, are shared as much by what one does and what one says.
Then one day you get an official announcement, email, or read it in the paper. Another of those unique people has died. Another mentor lost. Then, before too long another is gone and perhaps even one of the last passes.
It may be the professor who excited your view of the Bible or the President who held the church together in the 60s and 70s. Maybe it was the Bishop who embraced you as a young pastor or the one who fought for his views that you disagreed with but whose life was a humble witness to the power of prayer. How about another professor who used the proverbial 2x4 to open the pastoral-counselor opportunities that have guided you for 40 years?
Then they are gone. Wasn't it just yesterday- 28 years of yesterdays- when you sat in his office accepting a call halfway across the country to the place that would forever on be home?
Wasn't it just a few weeks ago- 23 years of weeks ago- when another sat in your office expressing support and concerns for a newly recovering you? One ordains you, a second baptizes your child, a third ordains your wife.
The great cloud of witnesses is loaded with witnesses I have known and who have helped me become who I am.
But now they are almost all gone. Few are left, now in their 80s and 90s. None of them to go to for advice but in memory.
Such is the pain and pleasure of aging, the pain of loss, the pleasure of memories, and above all the gratitude of the day in and day out gifts they have left behind in so many lives.
The great hymn says it well:
Ten thousand times ten thousand in sparkling raiment bright,
The armies of the ransomed saints throng up the steeps of light;
’Tis finished, all is finished, their fight with death and sin;
Fling open wide the golden gates, and let the victors in.