So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. (Hebrews 12:1a CEB)
Back when I was in seminary, people often left food in the student lounge. But sometimes hungry students snarfed it up instead of sharing with everyone else. Which led to warning notes being left. One time I found a veggie platter in the lounge with a note, “Take only a few. God is watching.” Nearby was an empty plate with a few cookie crumbs left on it and a quickly scrawled note – “Take all the cookies you want. God is watching the veggies.”
It’s true that God is one of the witnesses to our life of faith (and our occasional cookie theft)! But the author of Hebrews suggests we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Who else is watching?
Edgar Guest’s poem “His Example” reminds us of the little witnesses…
There are little eyes upon you, and they’re watching night and day;
There are little ears that quickly take in every word you say;
There are little hands all eager to do everything you do,
And a little boy that’s dreaming of the day he’ll be like you.
There’s a wide-eyed little fellow who believes you’re always right,
And his ears are always open and he watches day and night;
You are setting an example every day in all you do
For the little boy who’s waiting to grow up to be like you.[i]
Certainly our kids and grandkids witness us in life. It’s been a few years since I had any wide-eyed tykes uncritically watching my every move. But even though the favorite phrase of my young adult offspring is, “Oh, Dad” (inevitably followed by an eye roll), I know they still watch me as I go through life.
So children are witnesses, and our faith models the faith they may one day have.
Not only children, but the men and women around us see how we move through the world. Do we carry the light of Christ, moving through life with hope and a smile? Or do we bear the weighty chains of the world and bring gloom into the room with us?
Walt Wangerin, Jr. wrote a modern parable a few years back called “Edification or Demolition?”[ii] It was a story of two gas station attendants and two chance encounters. One looked him straight in the eye, offered a smile and a “good day,” and sent him on his way with a little bounce in his step. He was edified – built up – by the encounter.
The other attendant was too busy frowning at some minor task to pay attention to him. She barely acknowledged his existence, reluctantly made change for him, and went back to ignoring him as soon as possible. Walt walked out of that station carrying a new burden of gloom for the young woman so obviously disconnected from the world. He was demolished by this encounter.
The cloud of people around us witness our way of life – whether as faithful, joy-filled Christians sharing the peace of Christ, or as gloomy gargoyles glowering at a broken world.
Who else witnesses our life of faith? On this eve of the eve of All Saint’s Day, Hebrews reminds us that the great cloud of witnesses includes those saints who passed before us – the family and friends, the Sunday School teachers and pillars of the church who inspired us.
Once in a while we’re reminded of those saints in unexpected ways. My maternal grandparents, Delmar and Virginia Martin, died long before I was born. I’ve heard tales of their generosity for years. Grandpa Martin helped the homeless men who occasionally showed up at his depression-era lumberyard inside a boxcar of 2x4s. Grandma Martin led the church choir. Years later, my wife and I joined the Attica United Methodist church choir. It gave me goosebumps to open my music one day and find Grandma Martin’s famous green ink noting where to take a breath, where to sing a bit louder. Grandma was watching!
Who else is in the cloud of witnesses? We are in the cloud of witnesses! Each day we see the struggles and triumphs of others in their daily walks of faith. Each day we have a chance to encourage those that struggle, and to cheer those who triumph. Each day we have a chance to inspire, and to be inspired.
All of us are witnesses, and all of us can be saints. The race we run is the marathon of faith. We run with the great cloud of witnesses to claim the prize. And we keep our eyes, above all, on the One who finished first and best. We are in the cloud of witnesses, and we keep our eyes upon Jesus, “the champion who pioneers and perfects our faith” (Hebrews 13:2).