It’s not unusual for me to cry. My kids think it’s hilarious. My husband thinks it’s strange. My friends just shake their head. But for me, it’s just how I’m wired.
Today I cried watching a video of a little boy crossing a triathlon finish line after he dropped his crutches and fell twice only to rise again while a crowd cheered him on. I watched it more than once. I cried every time. Not like, weeping, sobbing, ugly-crying but there was definite tear leakage each time I watched him fall down, get up, fall down, get up, and finally finish.
In this video, the people in the crowd, by and large an adult population, cheered louder each time he fell, yelling encouraging words like, “You can do it Billy! You’re amazing! Don’t stop!” And every time, he muscled his way back up, and continued on his way with determination. At one point, a man moves in to help him get up but you can see him pull up, stop himself, and give room to Billy to do it himself, using the encouragement of the crowd to keep him going. (View video here)
On my third viewing, as I watched this little boy fall and rise and I heard the crowd cheer loudly, calling out his name, telling him that he would make it, I couldn’t help but reflect on the church today and specifically this verse in Hebrews 12:1,2a
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith
“So great cloud of witnesses.”
I could go all deep and theological on you and join the many interpreters who have tried to determine exactly who this cloud of witness are but…I’m not.
I’m just going to take it at face value and assume that Paul was referring to a scene much like the one portrayed in the video and say that the cloud of witnesses are those who care very much for the runners in the race and are there to encourage and cheer the runner on. Whether they be saints of old or Christians of today, whether they be family or friends or fellow believers from all over the world, whether spiritual or physical or a combination of both, they are those souls who are invested in and committed to seeing that runner succeed.
But, from my experience in working with children, I fear that perhaps our kids’ “cloud of witnesses” isn’t quite as encouraging as the crowd Billy had cheering him on.
Because when Billy fell, they cheered louder, encouraged more, clapped harder, and yelled his name more passionately. But, often when kids “fall” or youth “fail” in this race of faith, the reaction is often different. They are hushed. They are reprimanded. They are isolated. And sometimes they are rejected.
I’ve watched it happen. I’ve watched pregnant teenagers shamed. I’ve watched angry young men avoided. I’ve watched children and youth in a variety of religious environments pushed aside because of how they look, act, express themselves, and doubt. And I’ve watched the cloud of witnesses, at least the ones here on earth, dissipate with head-shaking and mumbling. I’ve seen others rush in and try to pick them up and finish the race for them without giving them a chance to fight, to persevere, on their own.
My friends, I think we must do better.
We must be our children’s biggest cheerleaders. Right from the start, we need to say their name and cheer them on. The race is not an easy one. They face many obstacles. We cannot become one of them.
Church, the children need to hear you when they are young and starting out. They need to walk into church and hear their name spoken and their faith encouraged.
The cloud of witnesses must surround them.
They cannot be set aside or pushed away because they are young and just starting the race and because they stumble a lot and fall down often. Rather, in those moments, our cheers must be loudest and our affirmation strongest.
When they run around in church because they are three and their mom is busy with an infant and their dad is talking to the pastor, we need to say their name in love and call them back into the race not turn our back in frustration and wonder “Where that child’s parents are?”
When they speak out at the wrong time or are fussy during prayer, we need to say their name in love and invite them to join us again, not sigh inside and wonder why they just can’t sit still.
When they question the pastor’s sermon or wonder about this God we serve, we need say their name in love and embrace their curiosity with grace and encourage them to fix their eyes on Christ as they continue the race.
And when they walk away and turn their back, we must cheer louder! We must speak truth to their hearts, the words they long to hear, that God loves them so much, that He has a plan for their lives, and that He wants to be their friend.
We must be the loudest voice, the strongest voice, the most encouraging voice they hear…or they will remain fallen, unable to rise, because we have given up on them.
It is not enough to simply show them the race, explain the rules, wish them good luck, and walk away. It is not simply enough to provide a few cheerleaders who graciously volunteer their time on a Sunday morning or Wednesday night to get them to the finish line.
They need a cloud. They need a crowd. They need the Church.
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About the author
Christina Embree is wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and family minister at Nicholasville UMC. She is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. Currently studying Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at ChildrensMinistryBlog.com, Seedbed, and D6 Family.