A prayer of Thanksgiving: So great a cloud of witnesses

Dear God,

One of the ways I like to celebrate Thanksgiving is by reviewing my blessings. Most years, this means creating a gratitude list that contains all the usual suspects ― friends and family, our home, our church community, financial security, and so on.

Over the past two and a half years, however, I’ve lost what feels like an unbearably long string of loved ones from various causes – nearly a dozen family members and close friends, a pair of much-admired mentors, a spiritual director, and even one of my beloved cats.

Three years ago, I used this space to thank you, God, for my wonderful parents (link HERE).

This Thanksgiving, I thought I’d use this space to thank you for several more really amazing people, because I am beyond grateful that you chose to put them in my life.

Pete’s cousin John actually seemed more like a brother than a cousin ― he and Pete were in communication with each other nearly every day. They both loved bad puns, good music and friendly arguments about politics. John honored his inner child who still loved trains, which endeared him to his grandkids, and he was a walking encyclopedia on everything about trains. He is pictured above (center) with a couple of his friends at a “live steam” model railroading event.

My Aunt Irene lived in Arizona, so I didn’t get to see her all that often in my adult years, but she and my Uncle Ben were a huge presence in my life when I was growing up. When my uncle died tragically young in a farming accident, leaving her with a business to manage and four children all still at home, she showed the rest of our family what true courage, determination and sheer grit really looked like. She was always an inspiration to me.

Some folks were so much a part of our family when I was growing up, they qualified as “bonus relatives” in our minds. “Bonus Uncle” Jim and “Bonus Aunt” Shirley certainly fit that category. As long-time friends of my Mom and Dad, Jim and Marian and Roger and Shirley were a constant presence during my childhood. And they blessed our lives just as surely as any “blood” relatives could have.

I often referred to our friend Will as “my favorite curmudgeon with a heart of gold.” During the many, many meals Pete and I shared with him and his lovely wife Paula, Will loved to play the cantankerous-old-man role, arguing about everything from politics to religion to musical techniques. He was also generous to a fault, often slipping a homeless person a $20 bill without a second thought.

John and Peg were among the first friends we made when Pete and I moved to central Illinois in 1985. They were writers, editors, teachers and extraordinary mentors to people of all ages, including us. And retirement didn’t slow them down in the least. Into her 80s, Peg was a tireless activist for social justice in our community. At 96, John was working on yet another book and joining our merry band of musicians to play his harmonica.

Jessica was the kind of boss everyone should be blessed to have. She and I worked together for more than a dozen years and her management style would best be described as “tough but fair.” She had clear expectations, but at the same time, showed profound and obvious respect for the dignity of everyone who worked with her. When I went on to become a supervisor myself, Jes was a major influence on my own leadership style.

Our church congregation has lost more than a dozen truly irreplaceable people over the past three years. Among those I was closest to were Jeanie Boo, Gene, Coralie and Lois.

Jeanie (top left) and Gene (top right) were in the choir with Pete and I for nearly 20 years. Gene also lovingly tended the rose garden outside our sanctuary, one of my favorite places to walk and meditate. Jeanie would often tell people, including me, “You’re a gift from God.” How many people besides my mother have ever told me that??

Lois (bottom left) and Coralie (bottom right) did so much to help my mother-in-law feel welcome after she lost her husband of 60 years and moved to central Illinois, where she knew no one except Pete and I. They even took a Bible study class to her nursing home when she could no longer come to church. I will always be grateful to them for their amazing hospitality.

Sister Margaret Therese was my spiritual director for three years prior to her passing in 2020. I met with her monthly for one-hour sessions in which we discussed everything from trying new prayer techniques to eliminating “spiritual clutter” from my life to discerning where God wants to lead me next. What I appreciated most about her was her completely nonjudgmental attitude, something I have tried to emulate in my own relationships with others.

It’s actually been seven years since I lost my bestie Patti, but I still miss her fiercely. She was my co-author of several “best-practices” manuals, a terrific mentor, my BFF and my partner in crime. She was a spellbinding speaker, but she also had a talent for making individual people, including me, feel special and gifted ― a major reason why everyone who knew her loved her.

Hebrews 12:1 talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” ― people who have gone before us, joining the ranks of those gathered before the throne of God:

“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.”

In this “cloud of witnesses” are the people who have given shape to our lives and set an example for us on how to live. They are the folks who have inspired us and cheered us on.

So as I count my blessings this year, I definitely consider these amazing people to be among my personal cloud of witnesses. Thank you God, for blessing me with each one of their lives.

With love and gratitude,