Cloud Cover

There’s a picturesque dusting of snow on the evergreen tree outside my window, heralding the arrival of Winter Ordinary Time.  The snow is gratuitous, of course; it’s also Winter Ordinary Time in sunny Florida, and Southern California, and Mexico City, while here in Philadelphia we had our first (and so far, only) crippling snow of the season way back on November 15.

But it’s not snow on my mind today.  It’s clouds.

Twice last week I stumbled across a reference to the “column of cloud” from the Book of Exodus.  As in, “The LORD preceded [the Israelites], in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people” (13:21-22).  This is a thing about which I have not thought in years.  Decades, perhaps.

The first reference I found was in a poem called Passover Remembered by Rev. Alla Bozarth-Campbell, which I spotted while skimming a binder of reflection resources for service experiences.  It caught my eye last Thursday evening, and moved me so much that I copied parts of it into my journal on Friday morning, highlighting the line “I am with you in the fire, and I am with you in the cloud.”

I am with you in the fire,
and I am with you in the cloud.

The next morning, I glanced at Jesus Calling, which a friend had sent me recently.  My jury’s a bit out on these daily meditations, wildly popular though they are (which may be one reason my snobby little jury is reluctant to weigh in).  There’s something about the language that isn’t quite my cup of tea, but the gift was a very touching surprise from someone I haven’t seen in a long time, so I keep it next to my rocking chair, pick it up regularly, and stay open.

On the morning after I copied and underlined “I am with you in the fire, and I am with you in the cloud,” the Jesus Calling Scripture of the day included Exodus 33, in which the column of cloud stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses went there to speak privately with the LORD.

Well.  Now the column of cloud officially has my attention.

The column of fire is a pretty good way to describe my last semester.  Finding God in Ordinary Time came out in September, and I blazed my way through book launch events and new retreats and speaking engagements clear through to mid-December.  I had such a sense that God was opening a way before me, and although I began the season anxious about how I would ever juggle it all, I trusted, and persevered, and made it through to Christmas.  I would hop up and take a bow right now, except for one thing.

Right now, I can neither hop nor bow.

Just as my book was launching last fall, I became aware of some discomfort in my knees.  As the pain began to radiate all the way from my lower back to my feet, escalating interventions included new sneakers, chiropractic adjustments, Advil and Aleve, nutritional supplements, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, X-rays, and physical therapy–all to naught.  Walking hurts.  Driving is excruciating.  Stairs are an adventure, and inclines aren’t great either.  Putting on socks  sometimes feels like the accomplishment of the day.

My chiropractor wants me to have an MRI, but my primary care physician (i.e. the one who authorizes insurance coverage) wants me to see a sports medicine doctor first.  So, even though the only team I ever competed on was forensics (speech & debate), I’m taking my middle-aged, non-athletic self to the sports medicine clinic on Thursday.  (They do say mortification is good for the soul.)

What does all this have to do with the column of cloud?

Well, for one thing, I can’t see the way forward; the cloud cover is pretty profound right now.  There are so many things I want to do, so many exciting invitations on my horizon, but I am hobbled, slow, distracted, and worried.  I don’t know what’s wrong.  I don’t know how to make it better.  I would gladly do what it takes if I knew what it took, but I don’t.

Here’s what I do know.  The column of cloud is trying to get my attention as a metaphor, both for guidance and for intimacy with God.

First, guidance: Scripture is reminding me that the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt, not only by means of a blazing fire at night (so exciting!) but also by an obscuring cloud by day.  Day by day.  One foot in front of the other.  Not able to see very far.  Not sure where the journey would end.  But led, nonetheless; the cloud never left its place in front of the people.

In my New Year’s blog post, I pondered the astounding changes 365 days can bring.  I don’t know where I’ll be with this affliction when next January rolls around; the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be somewhere else.  I’m choosing to trust that where I’ll be is where God has led me.

Second, intimacy with God:  Sometimes I joke that God must want to say, “We only see each other at work!  Can’t we just hang out?”  I was very focused on work last year, using the hours around the edges of my campus ministry day job to write, edit, and market my book, design retreats, work on talks, keep up this blog, etc. But in these slowed-down days, my morning prayer has gotten better.  It’s so much harder to jump up and do something else; so instead, I’m lingering.  Savoring my coffee.  Watching that before sunrise sky.  Mulling over a Scripture text.  Listening to Taize music.  Pondering a deepened compassion for people who find life difficult—whether for physical or emotional reasons.  Talking some.  Listening more.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to have agenda-less prayer time, but I’m appreciating it.

When the cloud lifts and leads, I’ll move.  Maybe limping.  Maybe leaping.  But until then, I’m going to stay here and see what God has to say.

What is your fire?  What is your cloud?

In this Winter Ordinary Time, may your ordinary days—whether firey or cloudy, painful or  pain-free—be extraordinarily blessed.



Choices and Mysteries

I’m going to be a great-aunt!

Okay, technically, I’m going to be a really good first cousin twice removed. But since that doesn’t exactly fly off the tongue, and since Holly (the mother-to-be) has always called me her aunt, then great-aunt I shall be to this new little love, coming our way in April: the first child of the next generation in my family.

Holly is the older daughter of my beloved cousin Susan—my best friend since the playpen days—who died when Holly and her sister Maddy were just 20 and 17. Holly’s baby will be named Suzannah, a lovely choice that pays homage to Susan and to Susan’s mother (also Susan) while avoiding the burden of “Susan III” (since she will be neither British royalty nor pope in a parallel universe). And as if that distinction weren’t enough, young Suzannah will go by perhaps the cutest nickname ever: Sookie.

Today is New Year’s Day, as well as (in the Catholic tradition) the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Both observances call us to pondering. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking back to this time last year, marveling at the astounding changes 365 days can bring. Last year, this baby was only a twinkle in God’s eye. Yet, by this time next year, our family will barely be able to remember a time when we were Sookie-less.

So here’s where my mind has been going, as I ponder the child on her way.

  • Sookie would not exist if Holly hadn’t been born (obviously).
  • Holly would not exist if I hadn’t introduced her mother to my housemate, Jeff, when I was a volunteer at Freedom House in Richmond in the late 80’s.
  • I wouldn’t have gone to Richmond after graduation if my college friend Joe hadn’t suggested a “theology club” spring break service project to visit his favorite high school teacher, who had become the Executive Director of Freedom House, where Jeff was already a volunteer.
  • Joe and I would not have been friends if I hadn’t gone to Saint Joseph’s University.
  • I would not have gone to St. Joe’s if my dad hadn’t taught accounting there.
  • Dad wouldn’t have taught accounting if he hadn’t been laid off from a corporate job he hated.
  • He wouldn’t have had the job to lose if he hadn’t majored in accounting at Villanova.
  • He wouldn’t have chosen that major if his mother hadn’t pushed him into it when he came out of college seminary after two years, unsure what to do with his life.

But push my Grandmother did, and major my Dad did; then he took a number of tedious accounting jobs before getting laid off and picking up a night school gig at St. Joe’s, which led to a 32-year satisfying teaching career for him and a faculty scholarship for me, which enabled me to graduate debt-free and go volunteer at a street center in Richmond for a year, where I met Jeff, whom I introduced to Susan, who had Holly, who’s having Sookie. Who apparently owes her existence to a pushy great-great-grandmother–among many, many other things.

We never know what will be the pivot-points in our lives, or how our own choices may create turning points for others. But choose we must, all our days. Some things are matters for discernment. But, as we know too well, which way we turn when leaving the house on any given morning can have as much life-changing impact as our career choice. More importantly, our not-great decisions and even tragic missteps still leave God plenty of room to work, since everything (according to St. Ignatius) has the potential to call forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.

The threshold on which each of us stands on this New Year’s Day is the cumulative result of choices—our own and others’—as well as circumstances of no one’s choosing. And so we step across it, trusting that our best and most sincere choices, made in good faith, will lead us home.

As I say in my book: I can only bow before the mystery.

One final note . . . speaking of choices and mysteries . . . Sookie’s mom, Holly, works for a day care center, taking care of other people’s babies. She will have worked there full time for less than a year before the baby is born (for a pittance, by the way–especially relative to what parents pay the Center for their children’s care at her hands).  Not only does she have no paid maternity leave, but they are not even obligated to hold her job, should she happen to need more than one week off after delivery.  They have been very clear about this. It’s a lousy deal, and consequently it’s been hard for her to see a good choice; finances are alarmingly tight. And so, recently, Holly opened her own window, setting up a “Go Fund Me” page to try to finance her maternity leave—the quality time together that every parent and infant deserve.

This is an unusual choice for me in this blog, but the new year calls us to take risks, right?  So I’m just going to put it out there . . . if you are moved to help this mother-to-be (still so sad about the loss of her own mom) to start life well with her daughter, here’s the link to Holly’s Go Fund Me.

And whatever 2019 holds for you, as always: may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!