Cloud (and Mountain)

Monday, June 18, 2012 — Week of Proper 6, Year Two

Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Martyr in Mashonaland, 1896

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 971)

Psalms 80 (morning) // 77, [79] (evening)

Numbers 9:15-23; 10:29-36

Romans 1:1-15

Matthew 17:14-21

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

How do you know when to get up and move — to act decisively — and when to wait? …when to simply persevere?

There is something about the image of the Israelites in the wilderness that speaks to me. Today’s reading from Numbers says that the Israelites would camp and settle down as long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle. They would not move, but would remain in that place, until the could lifted. How long the cloud might stay upon the tabernacle was unpredictable. “Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, resting upon it, the Israelites would remain in camp and would not set out; but when it lifted they would set out.” (Numbers 9:22)

The cloud is the sign of God’s presence, and as such an encouraging sign. It is also a symbol of mystery and unknowing. According to Numbers, the tabernacle dwelt at the center of the camp, inside a tent, served by the dwellings of the priestly tribe of Levi.

The scene creates something of a metaphor. God dwells in the center of our being, our source of life and light, yet shrouded in mystery and unknowing. That is holy space, rightly served with consecrated action and devotion. It is each person’s priestly role to attend to the holy center of our being.

So often the cloud is there. We experience the cloud of unknowing, the desire for direction as we move through the wilderness. There are times when we feel stuck, with no sense of direction. It seems the best we can do is to stay put and survive — look for water and nourishment in this place. Let go of the lure to move in a new direction. Just settle in and tend to the nearby essentials.

There is the cloud that can cover our mood and emotions. We have no direction. We feel the lack of a future. We go through the daily motions, but each day we wake in the same wilderness, not knowing when things will change.

In the scriptures, the cloud is often the sign of the presence of God. It is not a comfortable presence. A sense of foreboding or awe often accompanies the cloud. The cloud of life is so much stronger than we are. We do not know what it will do or where it will take us. In the presence of the cloud, we are so small.

When the cloud rests upon us, there is nothing we can do but wait. To flee, to run into the wilderness without direction would be folly and would only complicate and threaten our survival. When the cloud settles, there is nothing to do but to rest, and to take care of the common chores of life and reverence.

Yet it is an anticipating, active rest. We rest trusting that the cloud will lift, whether it will be “two days, or a month, or a longer time,” the cloud will lift. Eventually there will be time to move. And when that time comes, we will have the energy to move, to travel through the wilderness, to make some progress in the journey toward promise.

It takes trust — faith — to believe that the cloud will indeed lift one day and you will be able to move.

Jesus says something about faith in today’s reading from Matthew. Jesus tells his disciples, “truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

I now read that verse with a bit of tweaking to its interpretation. I used to think, if I could just muster enough faith (“mustard-seed” enough faith) then God would make things happen almost magically. There may be another way of thinking about this word. Mark sets this passage as being spoken while Jesus and his disciples are on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem. Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (Mark 11:24)

A portion of the road between Bethany and Jerusalem is dominated by the Herodian fortress. It was built under the direction of Herod the Great. Workers literally moved a mountain, bucket by bucket, to create a palace and military fort some fifty years before Jesus’ ministry. Spoken in that context, Jesus’ words about the faith that moves mountains could be an encouragement to simple perseverance. One shovel-full at a time, one bucket at a time, one step at a time — and over time, the mountain is moved.

The cloud and the mountain are both images of divine presence, and they beautifully combine in the story of Christ’s Transfiguration.

Every day we live in the presence. Some days and for some long periods, the cloud stays over us and does not move. So we stay in that place and we persevere with trust. One shovel and one step at a time. Believing that the mountain will move. Trusting that the cloud will lift and lead us. Lead us through our wilderness. Lead us ultimately to the promise of divine union.

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