Friday, October 30, 2009

The Balcony People

"We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..."
--Hebrews 12. 1a
Frederick Buechner in one of his autobiographical books told the story of some of the wonderful people in his life. He said that one of the reasons he did this was the hope that the reader would open up his or her own albums and remember faces and names and places.

All Saints Day has been a great day for the church because like a rosary we fondle the names of so many of those that have enriched our lives. Carlyle Marney, the great Baptist preacher of another era called these: the balcony people. He said we all have someone or ones that have stood in our balconies and cheered us on. Our lives would be forever different without those whose help along the way was—and is-- immeasurable.

So I take down my own album on the eve of All Saints Day and peer up into my own balcony and remember. Perhaps you will too.

I remember Nancy the black woman who worked for our family when my brother and I were little. My parents both worked and so, for a pittance, Nancy worked for us and loved us. One day when I was so down I sat at the kitchen table with my head in my hands. And she said, “It’s gonna be all right. God gonna take care of you.” And she was right.

I remember Byrdie. She took a shine to my friend and me. She encouraged us and believed in us. And when I started off to college and had little money Byrdie came through. She could hardly see. As a baby she had fallen into the fireplace and was terribly burned. His face and body were scarred. She never had a chance to go to college but moved to another town and worked in a mill. She had little of the world’s resources—yet knowing how strapped I was going off to school she gave me an envelope, more than once, with seventy-five or a hundred dollars. That money fluttering down from the balcony kept me going.

In my first church I remember Mr. John. Little fat man who had buried three wives. As a young preacher I would sit on his front porch as he smoked pencil-thin cigars. I would pour out my young, green frustrations about the church. And after listening he would say: “Preacher I’ve been around here a long time. You’re doing good.” He never prayed in public, but when Mr. John stood up to speak in business meetings everyone listened. Without Mr. John I wonder where I would have been.

Years later I was in a very conflicted church. Nothing that I tried was working. I was really the wrong pastor in the wrong place. The more I worked, the more resistance I found. So I was ready to throw in the towel. And one of the business men in the church came by one night. He sat in our living room and told me he knew I was having a hard time. He asked: “What do you want to do? If you want to stay—you don’t have to leave—I can help make that possible. And if you want to leave I will help you do that, too. What do you want to do?” My wife spoke for me and said: “ I want him to leave, if he stays here he will die. I can’t stand to see what is happening to him.” And I nodded my head and said that she was right. So my friend took a pencil and paper and begun to scratch down some figures. “If you are going to resign without a place to go you going to need a year’s severance. It must be hard to get another church when you don’t have one.” (I was 55 years old.) He added up all the things I would need and said he would take these figures to the church. And then he said something that I will never forget: “If the church won’t pay for this, I will pay for this out of my own pocket. I believe in you that much.” When times have been hard I have remembered those graceful words: “I believe in you…” And they kept me going.

I could go on and on. At every juncture of my life there has been some saint or saints that have stood in my balcony and cheered me on. And on All Saints Day I remember and I am glad.

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