I Sit Alone, Surrounded.

Sep 27 / Kyle Norman
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, Hebrews 12:1 NIV

I remember the first football game I went to with my son. It was a joyous experience. We leapt to our feet at exciting plays; we cheered and hollered so much that our voices grew hoarse. And when “our team” made a glorious pass, tackle, or touchdown, we felt that we had some role to play. Of course, it was a different experience when the team stumbled. We would groan and sigh at every fumble. We lamented at every mishandled play.

The book of Hebrews pictures the Christian community like a sporting event. Instead of being in stands, however, we are the players on the field. The stands are packed and we are surrounded by the saints who have gone before us. The image is hopeful and encouraging, joyous and exciting. The race is before us, and as we run, we can hear the cheers.

For the longest time I focused on 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, this crowd knew the course. They knew what it took to run with perseverance. The crowd of witnesses called me to keep moving, to take one more step, to round the next corner.

But then it happened. I hit a time when I couldn’t run any further. All of a sudden, without notice, the ugliness of life came and stopped me in my tracks.

By focusing on the race alone, I thought the cloud of witnesses grew silent whenever I came to a time of struggle or discouragement. After all, if they only cheered when I overcame the hurdles before me, then clearly being stopped in my tracks would bring nothing but silence. The crowd would be waiting in anticipation of my next move, but there would be no cheers, no involvement, no help.

So, I would sit in my chair, alone with my thoughts.

In those times where I felt unable to pray, the silence appeared overwhelmingly thick. I felt alone. I felt abandoned. And like fans at a sporting event, I wondered if the cloud of witnesses were beginning to leave.

This is not the image conveyed by the cloud of witnesses. We can’t twist the image into some condemning mantra of just try harder, or to do my faithful best. The point of the image, for the author of Hebrews, is that we are always, eternally, surrounded. The crowd of witnesses, the company of saints, journeys with us. They hold us up. Yes, they cheer when we overcome hurdles and obstacles, but the saints also kneel beside our beds; they stand with us when we stumble, and 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.

This meant that I could make their words my own. When I didn’t know what to pray, I could turn to the prayers penned in scripture, or in a liturgical text, and allow them to speak for me. The words of the faithful before me became my own; Psalms became my songs. And in those moments, when all I could do is sit in my chair, I would dare to believe that the surrounding saints were lifting me.

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.

Almighty God, who art afflicted in the afflictions of thy people: Regard with thy tender compassion those in anxiety and distress: bear their sorrows and their cares; supply all their manifold needs; and help both them, and us, to put our whole trust and confidence in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer for Those in Anxiety; Book of Common Prayer

Kyle Norman

Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His particular interest is how spiritual formation is rooted in our understanding of baptism. His personal blog can be found at www.revkylenoman.ca