Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In the Cloud

Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud.” (2 Chronicles 6.1)

Rising into a Falling

For a brief period, I became infatuated with the open road. I’d bought my first new car, a 1987 five-speed Jetta lovingly christened “Coretta.” Any chance or excuse that came along, I made a break for it. I always knew where I was going, but remained flexible regarding the time and route I took to arrive. Each trip grew more complicated as I sought more challenging terrain to test my driving skills and Coretta’s handling capabilities. The first leg of one expedition headed south from Chicago to spend a few days with my grandmother in Decatur, Alabama. I left there for Philadelphia, where my best friend lived. I charted a roundabout method through the Great Smoky Mountains, followed by brief stops to soak up Asheville and Washington, DC before doubling back to Philly. On reaching the Virginia border, I started seeing signs for the Blue Ridge Parkway. This would be an unexpected treat for Coretta and me—her opportunity to hug a legendary mountain highway and mine to enjoy its stunning vistas.

I pulled off to map the best spots to access and quit the Parkway. According to the serpentine brown line, once you took the road, you had to stick with it for quite a distance. That seemed fine to me. Off I went, totally unprepared for abrupt atmospheric changes as the road steepened. Within a half-hour I found myself rising into a falling cloud that grew denser by the minute. I couldn’t see more than a few yards on any side of the car. There was no going back. Any turnouts where I could reverse direction were beyond my field of view. The thought of plummeting to my death terrified me, as did crashing into a slower driver ahead or being bumped off the road from behind. The higher I climbed, the harder I prayed. At last, a clearing revealed a lookout. I eased in beside the only car there. An older couple got out and walked toward me. I fully expected to break into sobs before greeting them. It was best to proceed in tandem, we decided. If one car met with disaster, the other would be there to help. As I returned to Coretta, the husband stopped me. “You know God, right?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I answered. “Good,” he said. “Then you know He’s in this cloud. We’re safer than we feel.” He was right.

Surprise Appearance

I’ll never know if the gentleman consciously referred to the divine cloud that appears on numerous occasions in the Old and New Testaments. He may have had no knowledge of it all. Either way, his remark relieved my fear by assuring me with God in the cloud there was no safer place to be. In a very literal sense, I was surrounded by His presence and protection—which is precisely why we find Him inhabiting clouds all through the Bible. In Exodus, He hovers in the cloud that leads Israel through the desert and shields them from its unbearable light and heat. He envelops the Mount of Transfiguration in a cloud that audibly confirms Christ’s divinity. At the Ascension, a cloud removes Jesus from sight.

As vivid as these manifestations are, none tops the temple cloud that permeates the site with God’s glory. In 2 Chronicles 5, the congregation gathers to dedicate Solomon’s extraordinary house of worship by raising its voice in praise. As their adoration peaks, the chapter closes with this report: “Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God.” (v13-14) Evidently, the priests and worshipers are more than a little unraveled by this surprise appearance. (Liturgical breakdowns can do this to people.) They try their best to proceed until Solomon calms them down, urging them to grasp what’s transpiring before their eyes. He opens chapter 6, reminding them of God’s promise in Exodus: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud.” Like my anonymous friend on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Solomon essentially asks them, “Do you know God? Then you know He’s in the cloud.”

An Uphill Journey

Without a doubt, following Christ is an uphill journey. And the higher we go, the less we see. And the less we see, the more clearly we understand what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 5.7: “We live by faith, not by sight.” Growing in faith is like rising into a falling cloud that envelops us until our only choice is trusting God’s guidance and protection. Despite dangerous possibilities on all sides, all we see is Him. We may want to turn back for lower altitudes. But we’ve come too far for blind risks that may send us over the edge. We continue to press upward, no matter how much our natural minds flash on images of potential ruin. We creep along, praying always in hope of the moment when we find a clearing where we can stop what we’re doing and catch our breath. Often that’s when God sends a messenger—a middle-aged man, a wise king, or another chosen vessel—who reminds us to stop looking at the cloud and see Who’s in it. We resume our journey by reentering the cloud, but our freshly gained reassurance transforms it from a fearful place to an infinitely secure one. It’s unnecessary to see where we're going or what we’re doing. All we need is faith to know we're safe because He’s there.

Cloudy conditions on the Blue Ridge Parkway: God is in the cloud.

Postscript: Alone in the Presence

Rising higher in our faith can be a frightening experience—until we realize the Presence that surrounds us. “Alone in the Presence,” sung by CeCe Winans.


I'm safe and sound, serene and calm

Whenever I'm here I know You're near me

My secret place where I escape

From all of the cares of this race

Because of Your grace

Joy fills my heart

Peace rules and reigns there

Nothing but love overflows

And Your will clearly shown

When I'm alone

In the presence of You

Wisdom is served and life preserved

All from Your words that You speak, Lord

Power displayed and weakness fades

Your greatness is known and all fears erased

Because of Your grace

Joy fills my heart...

When I'm alone with You

My soul learns worship

In spirit and truth

For the glory of Your name.

Joy fills my heart...


Missy Francis said...

This is a beautiful post, Tim.

Ah, I'm surprised you did not mention the cloud at Jesus' Baptism--now I'm thinking of all kinds of clouds. I do love cloud watching--what a lovely theme for the day.

Tim said...

I also love cloud-watching, Missy. Because I spend far too much time in airplanes, I get to see them from both sides. (Cue Joni Mitchell.) And it always amazes me that what looks so majestic and serene from above can be so dark and gloomy beneath. The same cloud--different perspectives.

How could I forget the cloud over Jordan? Or Elijah's tiny one that ended Israel's drought? Or... It seems God loves clouds as much as we do!

Thanks for the kind comment--and have a spectacular St. Patrick's Day!


claire said...

I will never be again in a cloud -- and where we live in France the clouds love to hug the hills -- and not think of this post of yours.

Thank you, it's lovely. Isn't the Blue Ridge Parkway a wonderful place -- outside the cloud as well :-) ?


Tim said...

As you know better than I, Claire, all it takes is one experience of being lost in the clouds to know how unnerving and unnatural it feels--which is why a cloud is such a perfect place for God to dwell. Our unease becomes His opportunity to soothe our fears. And on the other hand, it only takes one experience to create a lifelong desire to reach for the cloud, to live in it and feel its calmness settle in, on, and around us.

Thanks for your kind note, dear friend. And who knows? The day may come when our paths cross in the Alps and we can walk the cloud together!

Joy and peace always,

Sabrenia Wolfe Sanders said...

Thanks Sweetheart! I so needed this. Love, love, love you so much.

Tim said...

SWS, my heart prayed for you the whole time I was writing this. Don't be afraid of the steepness you're dealing with right now. Keep pressing upward. I know the thinning air makes you weary. Breathe the cloud.

My first draft ended with an clumsy attempt to tie the cloud metaphor to Christ's desert temptation. But the Lent connection felt forced and I ditched it. Nonetheless, I'm going to share it briefly here, because I feel it may have been meant for you.

After he fails to entice Jesus to eat and leap off the temple pinnacle, the Enemy whisks the Lord to a high mountain and offers Him all the wealth and power in the world if He bows down to him. It's a bogus attempt to cloud Jesus's mind by luring Him to look down.

The strategy backfires. The Tempter's audacity forces Jesus to end their conversation right there. "Get away from Me!" He says. Having nothing at all and remaining true to God defeats having everything and losing faith. And once Jesus reaches this conclusion, Scripture says angels arrive to attend to His needs.

While we've not yet had the chance to talk about your situation, whatever it is, I hear God's Word reminding you any and everything the Enemy puts before you is beneath you. Don't lower your sights. Put a stop to this conversation immediately. Get back in the cloud. Don't worry about how to do that. God has dispatched angels to attend you.

Sweet cousin, know you're surrounded by God's love and power. You're borne on the prayers of His people--those who know and love you as Walt and I do, as well as untold millions of intercessors around the planet and across time. Hebrews calls these folks "a great cloud of witnesses." So much power and compassion and hope in one cloud!

We love you guys,