I recently ran my first half-marathon…well, “jogged” is a more accurate verb since I run very, very slowly—but I ran/jogged the whole thing. Despite my life-long hatred of running, I had a blast and am looking forward to the next one. Now, for those of you who have never done something as crazy as run 13.1 miles and who totally sympathize with my previous hatred of running (and thus find my plans for other such events baffling), let me explain….
Training for the half-marathon and running it provided me with extensive “alone” time—time without babies crying, time without toddlers demanding things, time without housework, time without my dog barking in the background, time to think about my dissertation, time to meditate and pray: time that my body and mind were my own. For the most part, I appreciated some peace and quiet but, especially on the long runs, I found that I got lonely….
During all that alone time on race-day, I found myself thinking about something the writer of the Epistles to the Hebrews had to say about living life well. He (or she) writes, “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 patience the race that is set before us…” Granted, this is not an original passage to think about while running. However, I found myself far less interested in the running bit and far more intrigued by the “great cloud of witnesses.” Often times, people talk about this “cloud of witnesses” as other people who are following Jesus or as those who are not “running” but rather the spectators, skeptical about the Christian life and watching those who claim Jesus as Lord to see if following him is worth it. What I realized while running is that neither of these ideas makes any sense.
When running a long race (or a short one for that matter) usually you only see other runners’ backs—except for when they pass you, and then you might nod to each other or something. But, the point is, runners aren’t watching the race at all and usually don’t have much time or energy to pay attention to other people’s running.
As to the spectators, they aren’t the running skeptics but the enthusiasts: supportive family members, neighbors who want to foster community spirit and support local charities, people who love running and want to encourage other runners. And it is this “cloud of witnesses” that make running a long event like a half-marathon so much fun. The spectators cheer for the runners, even the slow ones. They make signs, hand out drinks and wet sponges, play loud music, and turn on their sprinklers to aid the runners physically and mentally as they run. They inspire the runners to keep going, not to lose heart, to finish well.
Just before the writer of Hebrews tells the Hebrew Christians that they are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” he goes through a long list of other people who have trusted and followed God, people like Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rehab. After reminding his readers about all these people, he writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” Who are the people watching those following Christ? There may be a few cynics or skeptics brought out by curiosity but the witnesses are, first and foremost, the enthusiasts of the faith—those who have run and those who care about the runners.
Why does this matter? For many people, Christian faith is about the individual—not only is the initial decision to follow Jesus a personal one but there is a strong sense that the life of faith is an individual one, too. Sure, people might go to church or have Christian friends but, in the end, these other “runners” are often busy with their own lives and their own concerns. What is more, there is a sense that it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to have their own faith, their own strength of intellectual and spiritual will to keep believing, to keep following Jesus.
Thankfully, this is a misconception—what Hebrews teaches us is one of the great truths of the Christian faith: we are not alone. In following Jesus, we are part of a community. That community is not only the other runners but the spectators who have run before, who stand on the sidelines watching, cheering, encouraging…and through whose support we receive new energy, new inspiration to finish the race.