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.