Today we are going to continue in our new series called, “God Is Here.” This series is inspired by a friend of Steve’s – Rabbi Toba Spitzer. She’s written a book with this same title, and it is an extraordinary book that not only has given us teaching material for the next few Sundays that I think is really expansive and helpful (by the use of non-human metaphors for God that we’ll explore), she also has given us spiritual practices that allow us to experience God through these metaphors and of course help us live our life with the presence of God “close,” beyond a Sunday morning.
Today, I’ll speak on God as Cloud – and we’ll touch on some of those spiritual practices.
We’ll take a look at the use of the cloud metaphor in the Old Testament, as well as how it carries through in a New Testament story – particularly as we think of “going into the thick of a cloud” at certain moments in our life, when obstacles or challenges are present.
Oh God of the clouds – and all of creation. Thank you for days like yesterday that were sunny and beautiful – reminding us so strongly of the warmth of your presence. And thank you for days that are cloudy and rainy reminding us that you seek to nurture and cover us – and remind us of you – in droplets of your love at every turn. Help us to notice God – help us to notice you. Amen.
History of OT | Cloud
The nearness or farness of God is at the heart of so many of the conversations and stories of Scripture. How and where people have perceived the presence of God. How they’ve been guided by closeness of God – or felt abandoned by God. The question that arises is,
“Where is God to us?”
It’s why the use of metaphor is so helpful – particularly the use of metaphor that speaks of God with renewed meaning that opens up rather than closes down the ineffable mystery of God – because sometimes we need metaphor to help us have access to an experienced way to think about and talk about God.
Walter Brueggemann, an OT scholar and theologian, says that teachers and pastors often succeed at
“flattening out all the images and metaphors of God, to make them fit in a nice little formulation,”
one that works within creeds and doctrines, easier to make sense of, wrap our minds around – a little cleaner, neater… visible (in some ways) God.
Rabbi Spitzer says that likewise her biblical ancestors tried to shrink the presence of God into
“material objects – into idols made of metal or wood or clay. But the divine could only be glimpsed, not fully seen, heard but not entirely comprehended, encountered but not contained. … but with the metaphor of Cloud, the biblical authors found a way to convey a sense of nearness to ‘Something Close By/God’ that could not be touched.” (154).
Throughout the Old Testament we see the presence of God as Cloud in numerous instances:
The Israelites, as they fled the bondage of Egypt were accompanied by a column of cloud and fire.
It becomes an ongoing feature of the Israelites journey through the wilderness.
Ever-present sign of God’s “abundant lovingkindness – that did not abandon them in the wilderness.”
The children of Israel did not move unless they were led by the cloud of God’s presence. The God -cloud was guidance.
It was also a sign of divine nurturance, protection and presence *protective between Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian army.
A shelter from heat.
And an indication of the availability of water.
God and cloud are a known partnership to the Israelite people.
The thing is –
“the nature of clouds is that they obscure things from view – while also making something that is usually invisible – visible.”
Water vapor is always in the sky – but invisible.
And yet – when water vapor interacts with dust/ice/salt it becomes visible as a cloud.
Clouds make visible that there is something life-sustaining and ever-present (whether water vapor or the divine). Both hold the mystery of being unseen, and very much there.
Whether in private or public moments, throughout the OT – God as cloud was often recognizable to the Israelites – AND reassuring.
HOWEVER there are times when the appearance of the cloud is not reassuring – and instead frightening and daunting.
Let’s read these few verses in Exodus this is shortly after the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt – and where they met God as a nation at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the 10 Commandments.
Exodus 20: 18-21
18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance
19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness/dark cloud where God was.
So this is an interesting passage because the all familiar form of God as cloud – is seemingly one the Israelites don’t want to explore here.
They keep their distance because it’s a thick, stormy, lightning and thunder-filled cloud. Makes sense to me. It’s not my first reaction to go toward something that feels hard, looks like an obstacle or is just altogether scary.
And Rabbi Spitzer says, “exactly” – the Israelites represent us on any given day! Especially where we encounter something in our path – that looks like an obstacle. When we encounter a hindrance, like this cloud to the Israelites, we naturally want to back away – keep our distance, push away any of the unpleasant feelings associated with what’s happening in front of us…hindrances operate by distracting us from our actual experience.
And as we create distance – we also shrink our awareness/perspective that God is likely present in the thunder and lightning too.
And this can obscure our ability to perceive what is actually happening in our mind or hearts.
This summer at the end of my sabbatical we decided to take a family vacation. It was in some ways our last opportunity to spend time with our daughter who was leaving for college, a steady-ing chunk of days for our other kids, and a great way to finish off my sabbatical.
We went to a small town in Mexico that we have visited many times in the past. A setting, where we know the town, the streets, the local doctor (who we visited in the past) – etc. A special place where we’d taken friends and my Dad a couple of times. It’s where we went to grieve my Dad’s death – this place is meaningful and healing and familiar.
We took off, we touched down. Arrived at the rental car place – which is still part of the airport proper… and while waiting for our car, my husband Scott’s backpack was stolen. At his feet, as he turned in “this” direction it was swapped out for an identical – but empty one.
As you might imagine, that was an “unpleasant” experience.
Now the good news is …that because it happened 40 minutes into our arrival – we had the WHOOOOLLLLEEE vacation to figure out how to get the appropriate documents from the consulate, get passport photos done, travel to various government offices, get a police report written, navigate short working hours at all these places -and find a laptop and printer to do all this on.
I did not want to deal with this, any of this. I wanted it …”to be other than it was.” This frantic desire though, made me (even more) miserable – and became its own obstacle. (164 – 165)
I was preoccupied with figuring out how and when this unpleasantness would end. Constantly calculating
– if we can get an appointment tomorrow at the consulate
– then we could potentially have emergency passports by Friday
– which means we could really start enjoying our vacation by the weekend.
And every possible scenario from that…
My aversion to the reality of my own experience, the more I tried to push that reality away, to keep distance from it, the unhappier I got. And the grumpier everyone else got. Awesome!
One of my kids as we were playing UNO one of those first nights – picked up on my “salty mood,” and she was like, “listen if you and everyone else are just going to be in a bad mood, and not enjoy this time together – we should just go home now.”
*which was funny because I was like
‘oh honey, – WE CAN’T GO HOME!*’
But I got her point –
“pay attention to the reality that is in front of you, mom – ‘Yes’ this stinks, but everything is actually NOT ruined – you are playing UNO with me, connecting as we had planned, outside in warm weather, with the sound of the ocean in the background.”
God’s presence is in “both sides” of the clouds, the pleasant and the difficult.
Rabbi Spitzer says,
“obstacles can become an opportunity for awareness and connection.”
When a cloud obscures your view from the mountaintop – or you can’t see while driving when a fog rolls in – all you can do is slooooww down, and sit with what is – and sometimes that does mean we “go into the thick of the cloud. And just be in it.”
Challenging moments litter our human experience. In micro ways, in macro ways – in ways that have been unjustly intertwined in our systems and institutions. We live in and out of the clouds. The ones that are wispy and beautiful – that create the breath-taking sunsets – and ones that we can see from miles away that say “storm coming! Evacuate!”
It’s helpful in those more stormy clouds to slow down and notice what our reaction is – do we want to lean in? Pull away? Lash out?
“When we can take a breath and notice what is happening internally – this is how we can short-circuit the feedback loop of aversion.” (Spitzer)
Moses here, goes directly into the cloud. Expecting that God is in that thick, foreboding place. Expecting that not only is God’s presence there – but that it will be insightful, liberative – and aid in the spiritual growth of a nation. I think Moses knew that he had to draw near to this experience, this cloud – to move forward.
*Which makes me wonder, what are the obstacles or hindrances that I have to draw near to, in order to move forward?*
By turning into the “cloud” Moses discovers the truth that awaits him and a whole nation. And while Moses’ moment here feels kind of big – you know, the 10 commandments for a whole people. I think often the truth we discover is much like my moment of playing UNO – a truth that is already present in our reality – anchoring. The truth that God loves us and is with us. When we can encounter that truth – God does help us – to act with clarity and wisdom.
IT’S HARD THOUGH!
We feel so much in those moments – moments like passports being stolen, that sideline us out of nowhere, or long-term grievances with neighbors, or feelings of rejection from a friend or partner, or frustration with a family member – or feeling unseen by your boss – or by society. IT IS A LOT to keep walking into those thick clouds and find anything with clarity, when fear and anger and sadness are also their own micro-climates!
In fact I would prefer if someone could just bring the message to me, that I’m supposed to glean from this scary/overwhelming situation or person. The Israelites are like,
“Go ahead Moses, go right into that scary cloud, we’ll be right here, over here – so you can report back to us.”
God though, it seems – is interested in more than departing a “lesson” to us – right? And God knows that when we stay at a distance in hard things – we end up trying to teach ourselves a lesson…
Ex: My bag wouldn’t have gotten stolen if I had/hadn’t ..
My kid would be better if I had/hadn’t…
I would have gotten the job if I had said this…
or gotten the grant if I had written that..
And that my friends is the scariest of storm clouds…guilt, shame, self-judgment…rewinding, replaying…not moving.
God just wants us to experience that God is with us. The 10 commandments, even, were more than a list of rules to follow – they tell us of the generosity of God, who liberated God’s people – a God whose love sets us free from all that enslaves us…and is present in all the storms of life.
In the New Testament in the Gospel of John – we see this same dynamic with the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the disciples. Crowds of people had started following Jesus and they gathered in a field, to be closer to Jesus. And the disciples are figuring out how to feed all these people….
JOHN 6:8-12, 16-21
When a boy offers his five small loaves of bread and two small fish … that is more than enough, resulting in 12 baskets of leftovers…
It’s an idyllic scene where people are close to Jesus, fed to abundance – sitting on a grassy, sunny, hillside.
*And then evening comes and we read this,
16 the disciples went down to the lake,
17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.
18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.
19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.
20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”
21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
Jesus In the Storm
The disciples- are at one moment sitting in the sunshine – in an expansive grassy field… filled with the bounty of not only a meal of bread and fish … but fed with comfort, peace, abundance, the presence of Jesus, seen and known in their midst. A recognizable “cloud” if we keep up with the metaphor.
And then everything changes – as they find themselves in a storm. The sea, once a familiar landscape for many of these disciple fisherman – is now unrecognizable and:
The darkness of the storm overtakes the moon…
The waves overtake the boat…
The wind overtakes the disciple’s balance…
All their bearings are lost…
And they find themselves in a previously known…. but now, overwhelmingly scary and unrecognizable place.
We move about our days with rhythms and patterns – and we absorb what is familiar/recognizable as good – evidence of the presence of God. We can gauge our days as “good” or “bad” by how much or how little our sense of the familiar is disrupted.
But our life is not either/or… not “always sunny” or “always cloudy.” I mean it can feel like that – but the reality is – it is just changing. Our life is always changing. And the contrast of clouds and light – help us to realize this.
Things change, moment to moment. Destinations – like the shoreline for these disciples disappears in the mist, the destination of the promised land for the Israelites only looks like wilderness for so long… and our dreams change. Dreams we hoped for in our lives – the way we thought our partnerships or career would play out … the dreams we had for our kids …
We’d love for them to be sunny… but we experience heartbreaking things in our lives – the sun is often times covered for a long time. We weep – we rejoice – we grieve – we give thanks… We weep – we rejoice – we grieve – we give thanks… this is the pattern.
Everything comes and goes.
And GOOD can feel as though it is eluding our grasp.
GOD, can feel as though God is eluding us….
The disciples in the midst of the storm … Have lost so much that was once anchoring and known to them – the visibility of the JESUS they knew -and the question that is in that boat is,
“WHERE IS JESUS?”
All that is left for them is what they are experiencing in the moment, what they are feeling… The feeling of being afraid, isolated, anxiety-ridden, overwhelmed by their circumstances…
These feelings can rock us – as much as the waves of life – so much so that like the disciples – or the Israelites we create a distance between God and us… so much so that even as Jesus might be approaching our boat, walking on water – making himself as visible as possible – we remain frightened.
Jesus says, “do not be afraid” to his disciples
Moses says to his people, “do not be afraid.”
And I wonder if part of that command is to not let the fear that is so prevalent become the sum of our experience… to not let it overtake us and strike everything good from view.
Rabbi Spitzer says that as a practice we can start to recognize things in our environment that have beginnings and endings… to attune ourselves to this reality-
“like a sound we notice on our day – as it rises and passes…. Or as we are out for a walk – to notice the trees, and cars, and buildings that we pass by – as they come into view and fade from view…All these things arise, and change and pass away.” (spitzer)
This helps us to learn that even our mind-state/emotions are not permanent.
Like everything else, they arise and pass, if we can simply let it be.
And with that realization the power over us is lessened…
It can help us separate from the story, that gets caught up in our emotions. And as we can turn toward what we are feeling, not away from it – we make more space for the presence of God… and this helps us see that,
“I am not my anxiety, I’m not my sadness or my happiness – or my anger – or my confusion.”
Emotions and mind-states come and go – and I can keep steady in their passing, as I welcome the presence of God. Whether I, like Moses go toward the cloud and sit in the midst of it – or like the disciples, we await the presence of Jesus that comes to find us – comes to companion us wherever we are.
Pretty quickly I realized that every single day we were in Mexico – there was going to be something we had to do to make sure we could get home. It was just the reality – and that was maddening and disappointing to me, so I went outside in the dark one evening and asked God,
“Where are you? Are you even here? Do you care about us?”
And then I noticed my kids spill out onto the beach, they didn’t know I was there. And I heard one of them say to the other,
“aaah look at the moon – come, see the moon.”
*And for some reason those words brought God back into view.. .Maybe the same way the disciples heard Jesus say,
“It is me. It’s me, I’m here with you.”
My deep fear was that God wasn’t close – and that even if God was, that God’s presence wouldn’t make a difference in the midst of what felt like stolen moments from my family.
The wisdom of clouds is ‘yes’, that everything is changing – BUT IT’S ALSO THAT THE PRESENCE OF GOD LOVES TO ENGAGE with us just as we are… our salty tears and our dust covered hearts – it IS where God is most felt and encountered and VISIBLE.
I can’t wrap my mind around – why a moment I witnessed with my kids about the moon – shifted me back to a sense of closeness with God – but I can wrap my heart around it. I felt it. Even in the midst of no circumstantial change.
It’s part of why I continue to follow Jesus – despite the growing roster of hindrances on a societal and national level that suggests Christianity has a duly earned bad rap.
It’s that deep down I want to believe in something bigger, something that I CAN NOT fully comprehend or capture in a box. I find it unbelievably meaningful and precious to continue to search for ways to define the Divine (the undefinable). (Thanks Andrea Gibson)
The galaxy, the universe, the MOON, the wonder, the sitting in something – being a part of something – knowing that I too have stardust in my own being – feeling that I am connected to all of that grandness – but not fully understanding how all of it works… that’s the part I love.
Because it keeps me believing that in circumstances and situations that do not play out like a cosmic moment, but actually feel gritty and burdened and hard. Somehow that the universe-sized- bigness of God’s love will play out in the end – will walk across water, or come down from a mountain to find me.
The stories of God in a big trembling cloud at Mt. Sinai, the feeding of the 5,000, the stormy sea, our trip to Mexico – and whatever your cloud-stories are… are not separate, different stories – they are a continuous story – the story of our lives.
And within, is the GREAT thru-line of Jesus’ presence, which is altogether nourishing, guiding and protective. ALLTOGETHER THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA – the beginning, (the becoming), and the end.
As we close in prayer,
Consider what kind of cloud represents God to you these days? Fluffy, wispy? Fleeting? Stormy?
* What do you feel as you approach this cloud? * How far or near does God’s presence feel?
Dear God, in whatever form you take – however your presence is known to us – could you let us know of your great love for us? Your great guidance? Your great freedom for us? Your great mystery? And could you hold us in the waves and in the storms – with a nearness that both defies and affirms your greatness…