The book of Hebrews pictures the Christian community like a sporting event. The stands are packed and we, the players, are surrounded by the those who have gone before us. The “cloud of witnesses”- the saints and the martyrs – cheer us on. This image is hopeful and encouraging, joyous and exciting. The race is before us, and as we run, we can hear their cheers.
For the longest time I focused only the activity of the race itself. When I hopped the hurdles of life, the saints roared with excitement; When I rounded the corners of difficulty they exploded in praise. After all, the saints know the course; they had run it before. The saints know what it takes to run with perseverance, and what it takes to win the crown. And so, I looked for places where I could perform valiantly, where I would tackle my obstacles or overcome my adversities. The more I overcame, the louder I imagined the praise of the saints.
But then it happened. I hit a time when I couldn’t run any further. Suddenly, without notice, the ugliness of life came and stopped me in my tracks. I felt unable to pray, the words simply would not come. I felt alone and abandoned. Because of this I pictured that great cloud of witnesses as eerily silent. After all, if the saints only cheer when I overcome the hurdles before me, then being stopped in my tracks would bring nothing but groans and boos. And like fans at a sporting event, I wondered if the saints were beginning to leave altogether.
Of course, This is not the image conveyed by the cloud of witnesses. To think this way is to twist the image into some condemning mantra of try harder, or to do better. For the author of Hebrews, the image of the cloud of witnesses suggests one thing: we are always, eternally, surrounded. The saints, journey with us. They hold us up. Yes, they cheer when we overcome hurdles and obstacles, but they also kneel beside our beds; they stand with us when we stumble, they encircle us as we cry. And when we don’t know how to move forward, or what to say, it is the cloud of witnesses that carries us.
We are not alone in our frustrations, our discouragements, or our standstills. That great cloud of saints, that surround us all, understand; they too have walked the road of upset, hardship, or suffering. They give us strength, but not because they cheer us on yelling things like “just one more step!” The saints strengthen our walk because we can make their words our own. When we do not know what to pray, their words can speak for us. The words, and the laments, of the faithful can become our own.
The cloud of witnesses isn’t just the hype of a zealous crowd. The cloud of witnesses testifies to one fundamental reality of our lives: We are not alone. Sure, it may feel this way while we wade through our times of struggle or discouragement. It can be hard to recognize just how the wider community bears us in prayer when we find it difficult to pray. But this is a promise etched in scripture. It isn’t just a nice thought. It is a reality that surrounds us – surrounds you – this very moment. Even when you sit alone, you are surrounded.
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