The great cloud of witnesses always surrounds us. As the church, we never gather alone, but with Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Jonah and Esther, Mary and Martha, Peter and Paul. The saints, who triumphed and failed, did not live a sheltered life. They faced both sadness and joy.
Because of their perseverance, I would imagine them to stand the tallest, but if we look closely, there is something peculiar about them. They are all leaning. Even if they stand flat-footed on level ground, they are leaning.
Look at the Israelites. It might be from years of hard work and bad diet, as slaves in Egypt and then eating manna in the dessert, but they are all leaning. Look at the disciples of Jesus, who put down their nets when Jesus said, "Follow me." It might be from years of fishing, hauling in heavy nets time and time again, but they are all leaning. All throughout scripture, we see the same bad posture, people tilting in one direction.
We took a vacation as a family a couple years ago, and one of the biggest attractions was the hotel pool. One afternoon, my oldest son, who was four, could not wait to go swimming. In a hurry, we grabbed a couple of towels and rushed downstairs. I got into the water, while he put up his towel and his shirt.
All of the sudden I heard him scream, "cannonball," and I turned around to see him running as fast as he could towards the pool, but because he was so excited, he had forgotten to take off his socks and shoes. I screamed, "You still have on your shoes," but by that time, he was already in mid-air. I caught him shoes and all, which were now soaking wet, but we laughed for weeks. It was one of those near perfect moments, filled with nothing but joy.
My youngest son, who is two, has started going to the pool, but he has not learned how to swim. Unfortunately, he has no fear. He watches his older brother run and dive, and he thinks he should be able to as well. He yells, "cannonball," and runs right off of the side of the pool. He would jump in whether we were standing there to catch him or not. Now when we go to the pool, I am terrified, as if we are on the brink of disaster because life is so fragile, so we must learn how to lean.
Life is fragile; it is full of joy and fear. We can be overwhelmed in the best ways, but also in the worst ways.
We must remember that the great cloud of witnesses is also the leaning cloud of witnesses. They are not saints because of all they accomplished; they are saints because of how they leaned. We do not stand on their shoulders because they stand the tallest, but because they help us lean into God. They remind us that the steadfast love of God endures forever.