March 6, 2017

On the Mountain, With Clouds


Texts: Exodus 24:18: “Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.”

Matthew 17:5: “…suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice…”

Yesterday, I watched in amazement as a thick fog enveloped a portion of the Green Mountains behind my brother’s house. I was fascinated by the changes in the clouds, thickening, receding a bit, and then thickening again. I imagined myself climbing a mountain, with the aim of reaching the summit, where I’d be able to see a wide expanse of beautiful terrain below. I invite you for a few moments to join me in a brief meditation.

You are climbing the mountain, and suddenly the fog rolls in. You are not able to see much of anything. How does that feel? Perhaps it’s terrifying, or maybe a bit exciting, since you’ve climbed other mountains before? Or do you just feel lost, perhaps a bit cold. What can go wrong here in the midst of this intense fog? Who or what else might be on these trails? If the fog doesn’t lift, what decisions might you have to make—should you go back down, continue climbing, stay put and hope for the best, decide who to call on that one cell phone with very little battery remaining? The mountain covered in fog can be a frightening place, a place of great uncertainty. But, you decide to keep climbing, paying attention to any sounds or sights you encounter along the way. Finally, you reach the summit, and the clouds lift. The light is almost blinding. You can see the fog slowly dissipating below, and your vision becomes clearer.

Last weekend, I visited a friend with whom I hadn’t had a real sit-down talk in several years. He had entered seminary many years ago, a seminary where I was Registrar. He completed his M.Div. degree, knowing that his home diocese would not entertain sponsoring him for ordination, for a variety of political reasons. He pursued jobs as a church administrator in a large parish, as a theater manager, and finally, back near Boston, as an engineer, a field for which he’d trained before coming to seminary. He attended a large downtown parish and became active in some of the groups there, until he found a property on Cape Ann that seemed a good investment for him. Two years ago, the job dried up, and he shortly thereafter received a medical diagnosis that significantly altered the way he envisioned the rest of his life. By that point, he had left the church, and was angry and afraid. Yet, he knew there was reason to continue exploring his vocation, whatever that might mean. Today, after practicing yoga for the past two years, he has begun to attend church again. He has found a parish in which the priest regularly meditates, and that is drawing him back, slowly, into a Christian community. With a few others in that parish, he is beginning a meditation group at the Essex County House of Corrections, and he continues vocational discernment with the help of a spiritual counselor. As we spoke, he related that he is learning to open himself to all possibilities of finding a deeper relationship with God, whether it is teachings of the Buddha, the practice of yoga, meditation, or traditional Christian worship. He looks for the voice of the Spirit where he hears it, and then checks out his discoveries with others whose wisdom he trusts, or the epistle to Peter might phrase it, “men and women moved by the Spirit.” I noticed that my friend’s appearance had changed since I’d last seen him, and not only by the expected aging process. His face showed few signs of anger, and there was a more tranquil expression, with little of the nervous laughter he used to employ when he felt challenged. He has been transfigured. And still, there is more to come for him in his journey.

The disciples in today’s Gospel story certainly had a memorable mountaintop experience. Six days after Peter had declared Jesus as the Christ, the three disciples were brought to Mount Tabor to see an astounding revelation. Their vision of Jesus on the mountaintop was impressive enough to make it into all three Synoptic Gospels and the second letter of Peter! Not only Jesus was there, but Moses and Elijah were as well. These figures represent the Law and the Prophets. Also significant about this particular mountaintop experience was that the cloud in this case is a bright one, and from that cloud a voice proclaims, with the same words that greeted Jesus from the cloud at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased,” with this addition, “Listen to him!” And they were afraid. Then Jesus “came and touched them” and enjoined them to get up and not be afraid. They looked up and saw no one except Jesus. Everything else had cleared away. This is not the end of the story, as we know. The disciples and Jesus come down from the mountain and move on toward Jerusalem, toward his trial, death, and resurrection.

The Moses story today also employs the figures of the mountain and the cloud. Here Moses enters the cloud, and, significantly, he is going to remain on the mountain for forty days. We are about to embark on a forty-day journey together, as Church. What can we bring with us as we begin our move toward Jerusalem, toward Easter, toward resurrection?

•   •   •

Let’s return to the mountain you are climbing, the one with the thick fog. It’s unfamiliar, frightening. You are alone and don’t know whether you’ll be able to see any dangers that might be in front of you. Fortunately, we are never on our Lenten journeys alone. The Christian life is not lived alone. Others in our community are available to us in our times of loneliness, doubt, and pain. By asking for companions on our journeys of faith, we can be strengthened, the fog can lift, and our vision can become clearer.

Like my friend, each of us has likely had journeys that have taken turns we never expected or even desired. And, like him, we can be open to each possibility for drawing closer to God. Listen for the voice of Christ, the urgings of the Spirit in your life, and check out what you discover with others you know who are on a similar spiritual journey. Jesus has touched you, just as he touched Peter, James, and John, and he tells you, like them, to not be afraid. When feeling confused, spend a few moments clearing the fog and see no one except Jesus himself.

Today is the conclusion of the season of Epiphany, a season of miracles, a season of establishing God’s reign on earth. But now we, like Moses, must enter the cloud to encounter more deeply our God. We put aside the ancient praise-shout “Alleluia.” We enter a season of quiet, a period of self-examination. We take our inventories, not in a manner focused on guilt, but with an aim to clear the clouds of fear and self-absorption that distract us from keeping our hearts and minds attuned to Jesus. We have climbed the mountain, and are on the summit, yet still remain in the cloud, a place where we listen for the voice of the Spirit, we seek guidance of others, knowing that we are preparing to participate fully in Jesus’ passion, death, and, finally, as all the clouds vanish, to immerse ourselves in the light of his resurrection, as we rise with him.

Entering the cloud of Lent, may our prayer be the same as that of the anonymous 11th-century hymn-writer, as translated by John Mason Neale:

Therefore in our hymns, we pray thee,
Grant us, blessed Trinity,
At the last to keep thine Easter,
With thy faithful saints on high,
There to thee for ever singing
Alleluia joyfully.