Cloud of Witnesses
Original, December 2019
Something about starting a fresh decade makes a person reflective. We look back in wonder, and sometimes embarrassment, at how far – or not – we’ve come in those ten years. The stretch between 2010 and 2020 is studded with memorials of my highest highs and lowest lows. Though my instinct leans toward dwelling on mistakes and failures, I’m challenging myself to glance back instead with gratitude for those who walked ahead of and alongside me on the way.
In 2012, the culture shock of moving from the constant hustle of college life with its strings of meetings and classes, campus ministry leadership responsibilities, stacks of coursework to complete, and a steady social life, to the static doldrums of my Midwestern hometown felt like crashing face-first into a stop sign at 200 miles per hour. School provided a training ground where professors saw value in my work and pushed me to higher standards. Classmates supported each other. We formed a tight community of like-minded English majors who ate, wrote, laughed, edited, and stretched our creative muscles together. I graduated with the greatest personal confidence, spiritual maturity, professional drive, and most intimate support network I’d ever had. I was ready to claim and shape my own slice of the world.
Fast-forward nine months to find that ambitious freelance writer slumped on the worn green carpet of her childhood bedroom, lonely, isolated, and contemplating whether the last four years of tuition were spent in vain. Depression and doubt filled the voids of that lost graduation day enthusiasm.
Had I imagined launching a writing career would be easy? No. Did I expect living with my parents again would be ideal? Definitely not. I expected that with diligence, hard work, and a little divine intervention I’d find enough paying work and a new support network to get a foothold on adulthood, though. Sitting there crestfallen on the floor surrounded by bills I couldn’t pay, with no job prospects, no car, nobody remotely familiar with my industry to talk to, or even a desk to work at, the disappointment felt palpable like grime clinging to my skin.
As if washing off isolation and despair were possible, I dragged myself into the shower and began sending prayers up with the steam. Why wasn’t God opening doors for me? Why in nine months hadn’t he sent even just one person to encourage me how I needed it? It wasn’t fair how every effort to build a new and productive life produced no result! I ran in the direction he called me, so why wasn’t I getting anywhere?
With every question and complaint I could think of exhausted and the water turning a degree too chilly, I stepped out of the steam and my vision cleared enough for the image of a friendly face to surface in my mind. The familiar smile belonged to a lady from church: Jeaneen. Though I didn’t know her well, I always thought her one of the most elegant women I’d ever met. Jeaneen was kind, open, and quick to laugh. She possessed that rare ability of brightening a room with her presence and her words always rang with a note of thankfulness even in the last days of her life. Whenever our paths crossed, she took a moment to encourage or compliment me. It was a pleasant memory, but I toweled it away with the cooling drips running down my body and thought nothing more of it.
Later that evening I wriggled into bed, looking forward to forgetting my lonesome frustration for the night, but felt drawn to open my bible to Hebrews chapter twelve. An overwhelming sense of hope swept through me and tears welled behind my tired eyes as the words of verse one read,
“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.”
As I closed the cover in joyful relief, I remembered that almost exactly one year ago to the day, Jeaneen had passed away from an illness she never complained about or questioned. No, my prayers for flesh and blood provision hadn’t been answered, but I was blessed with a priceless reminder instead.
I did put my writing ambitions aside for several years, focusing on looking after ailing grandparents and getting what everyone called a “real” job as a barista and head cook instead. Tired of lamenting a lack of community, I decided to build it for others and initiated an after-school program for teens. Each of these pursuits came with their successes and failures, but God used each one to show me people willing to contribute time, supplies, money, and prayer not only to these endeavors, but my personal development too.
Then two years of what seemed like nothing but funerals and grieving followed. I lost all my grandparents in quick succession as well as several other influential characters in my life. Both the family and community dynamics shifted dramatically. And I was back at the beginning: languishing on that old green carpet, abandoned, poor, and at a dead end personally and professionally.
But this time I had a reminder in my back pocket. This time I had vivid images of faces cheering not in a quickly dissipating billow of shower steam, but an eternal cloud of witnesses with our Lord, looking down with perfect vision and rooting me onward and upward. Their words, examples, and gifts equip me for forging ahead and working through the inevitable struggles I’ll face.
Ten years later I’m still not where I want to be, but I celebrate the progress made. I have no idea which leg of my life’s race I’m on or where the next bend will lead, but I know I’m not alone. I’ve been carried part way and know that host of friendly faces wait for me at the finish line. I’ve also been blessed with a new support system here on earth, where hugs and audible words of encouragement wait at the ready whenever I sense that old slump coming on. Wherever you are in your journey, I wish for you the support of good people, memories to compel you through rough patches, and the courage to walk again after setbacks. And if you ever need a walking buddy, I’m happy to trudge alongside you any time.
Addendum July 18, 2020
Editing this piece from December 2019 while now five months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, I am reminded how God intended the challenges of the past decade to equip me for these strange times. As we navigate this era of radical change in almost every facet of society, I have a peace I doubt I would have experienced had Corona virus emerged so forcefully a few years ago. Though we may be separated by quarantine, God is banding his people together in ways this generation has never experienced before, and there is a special power in that. Wherever you are in your journey compared to five or so months ago, I hope you find comfort, encouragement, and inspiration in knowing that same cloud of witnesses growing stronger all the time is rooting for you too.