The Great Crowd

When I was about twelve years old, I sat on a folding chair at a long table in confirmation class watching my pastor draw a line — probably 10 or 12 feet long — on the chalk board. He said, “Imagine all of eternity as this long, long line. If this line fully represented eternity, it would keep going beyond both ends of this board and never end.” I listened attentively and mentally extended the line and put little math class arrows on both ends. He then, with one quick dab of his chalk, touched the line and said, “your life is that dot.”

I have no idea, forty years later, what the context of this illustration was. He probably intended to convey the power of God to exist beyond my little arrows, but I missed all that. I had already, way before age twelve, lain awake at night pondering the vastness of eternity — how, I wondered, would I endure a never-ending life in heaven? What did never-ending even look like? I imagined myself floating in a vast black expanse and I was terrified.

Such thoughts kept me awake at night.

But this, this image of my dot-long-life compared to the expansive line of all eternity shifted the focus of my fear from that endless expanse of time to the insignificance of my life. I was one little dot. God must care very little for me — just one of many million dot-sized-lives. How in the world could he hear my prayers? Certainly my voice would be drowned in the cacophony.

Those thoughts could keep me awake, too.

Eternity and and my relative insignificance in its scope are difficult concepts to grapple with, so I learned over time to mentally place all such thoughts in a mental file marked, “to be understood later”. With those images safely tucked away, I have avoided wakeful nights fearfully spiraling alone in the dark expanse.

Not too long ago, my current pastor was teaching from Revelation (hear the sermon here). The content of Revelation, like the topic of eternity, has also been for me fairly daunting, what with all the beasts and horses and blood and fire. Unable (or perhaps unwilling) to wrap my mind around the imagery and symbolism, I typically place all Revelation-y thoughts in that same closed file folder –“to be understood later.”

So when our pastor said that he was going to “explain” a passage of Revelation and then share the application, I may have mentally rolled my eyes. I was already prepared to stash this sermon, too, in the file. However, as he used the language of Revelation to paint a new image of eternity, I felt compelled to take some notes.

An image that stood out was of the church — the collection of all believers in Christ — which he said is spread over time and space and is enduring into eternity, strong and clothed in majesty. As he spoke, I saw images of my grandparents and their parents and grandparents and all the parents and grandparents of all the people I know and love and many that I did not know, spreading out in all directions from me into time and space. I saw all these hundreds and thousands as though they were standing in the dark sky among the stars, a great cloud of witnesses — witnesses who had endured all the attacks of the evil one, all the traumas of their years, all the distractions of their days –bearing witness among the stars.

I imagined them cheering me on, like spectators that line the course at a marathon. They were standing resolute, watching my journey and saying together, “Come on! Come on!”

It dawned on me that they had already run this course — they knew what was coming, the challenges I would face, the relief that would be provided, and how far I was from the finish.

I shouted at them in disbelief, “Really? You finished? You made it?”

“Yes! Keep going! You can do it!”

“Easy for you to say! Can’t you see I’m struggling here?”

“We struggled, too!”

“You did?”

“Of course…sometimes for long stretches.”

“This has been a very long stretch. I’m tired.”

“He’s got you! You’ll make it!”

I turned my eyes back toward the road, pressed forward by their voices. Of course they were right. My difficulties are not beyond what is common to man, surely I have not be given more than I could bear.

“Keep your eyes up. Relief is coming!”

What had I been thinking, that I was the only one who struggled? Did I think my challenges were more difficult than those of anyone else?

I glanced to my right and saw an older man, sweat band across his forehead, eyelids at half-mast, jaw slack. His faded singlet exposed his thin, leathery arms. His feet, in worn trainers, pounded the pavement wearily, one step after the other.

In front of me, I saw a pony-tailed girl, clad in neon-orange and fresh kicks, trotting beside her dad who intermittently dispensed encouragement: “Gatorade just ahead….drop your shoulders and that cramp will go away…you’re doing great!” She determinedly pumped her arms, believing his words.

What had I been thinking? That the road would be easy? Hadn’t I expected that it would take work, focus, and determination? Hadn’t I realized that life is full of ups and downs, unexpected turns, and difficult paths? Where had I gotten the message that if I got it right, I could avoid trouble, tragedy, and pain?

Why hadn’t I realized that my focus should not be on avoiding trouble, but on responding to trouble? What kind of person would I be in the face of difficulty? The kind who stomps off the course? Or the kind who grabs a cup of Gatorade, leans into the encouragement of those who have gone before, and keeps stepping?

Anyone who’s run a long race knows that crowds gather at the starting line and at the finish. They also often show up at easily accessible mile markers, but on the steep inclines, the difficult hair pin turns, and the long desolate stretches, the sidelines are often empty. You might see others far ahead on the course or others way behind, but you can feel pretty lonely as you hear the sound of your feet hit the pavement and struggle to control your ragged breaths.

Yet at these times, when the cloud of witnesses has seemed to evaporate and the cheering has gone silent, a still small voice can be heard.

In the world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.

I will never leave you nor forsake you.

See, I have engraved you o the palm of my hands.

And before you know it, you’re rounding a curve and you can hear the roar of the crowd, “Come on, come on! You are almost there!”

Your knees start to lift, your face starts to smile, your pace picks up. You run to join those in front of you, as you turn to those behind yelling, “Come on, we’re almost there!”

This picture — this new picture — of a great crowd of those who have gone before cheering the rest of us on — this one I won’t tuck into that file. This one I will keep out on my desk, on the dashboard of my car, on the doorposts of my house.

I am not a solitary dot on the line of eternity. I am one of millions of dots forming a visible cloud — a collection of those to whom God has been faithful. The expanse of eternity is large enough for all of us, and not so large that I will feel alone.

That won’t keep me up tonight. Not at all. In fact, I plan to sleep in peace.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

Hebrews 12: 1-3

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