Last week, Gary and I went for a walk on a nearby bike trail. I enjoy living in the outer suburbs of Des Moines because the episcopal residence is at the top of a hill. I can see for miles in all directions and have come to love the amazing cloud formations and storm systems that rumble in from the west. All of the pictures in this blog were taken at or near our home.
A few hours after our walk, the storm clouds rolled in, delivering a one-two punch, with a vicious downpour coupled with marble-sized hail bouncing off our deck. It reminded me of the scariest airplane experience I have ever had, which just happened to take place in Iowa. In the summer of 2014, I was flying from Detroit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to participate in the 1,000 mile Imagine No Malaria bike ride across the North Central Jurisdiction. I was in a relatively small commuter plane and watched out the window as our pilot navigated his way through enormous cumulonimbus clouds that produced intense rain and a lot of rock and roll! Let’s just say that not every cloud has a silver lining! I hung on to my seat for dear life and prayed my way to Sioux Falls.
A cloud is basically water drops or ice crystals floating in the sky. These drops often can’t be seen because they turn into a gas called water vapor. The higher the water vaper is, the cooler the air is, and the drops of water start to attach themselves to dust, ice, or even sea salt.
When these droplets join with other droplets, they become larger drops that then fall to the earth because of gravity: i.e. rain. When the air becomes colder, the falling water becomes snowflakes, freezing, rain, sleet, or hail. At night, clouds reflect heat and keep the ground warmer, and during the day, clouds make shade that can keep everything cooler.
As a child, I learned that there are different kinds of clouds. Some, like cumulonimbus clouds, can reach 40,000 feet in altitude. Cirrus clouds look like feathers and are usually high in the sky; big, puffy cumulus clouds are often in the middle; and low stratus clouds look like sheets. Some clouds are so close to the earth’s surface that when they touch the ground, we call it fog. I ran in dense fog early one morning last week.
Clouds are found everywhere on earth, even in the Bible! The most well-known cloud reference is in Genesis 9:13 (CEB), where God promised Noah that God would never again destroy the earth with a flood. The sign of God’s covenant with God’s people was a rainbow in the clouds, “I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth.” A rainbow is a natural spectrum of color that appears in the sky after a rain shower. It’s actually a refraction and scattering of sunlight caused by tiny drops of waters of water in the atmosphere.
In the book of Exodus, God leads the Israelites out of Egypt through the wilderness by the guidance of a cloud. “The Lord went in front of them during the day in a column of cloud to guide them and at night in a column of lightning to give them light. This way they could travel during the day and at night.The column of cloud during the day and the column of lightning at night never left its place in front of the people.”(Exodus 13:21-22 CEB)
The last reference to clouds in the Bible comes from Revelation 1:7 (CEB), where Jesus comes back to earth. “Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.”
Other meanings of the word “cloud” have come into usage in our vocabulary over the years. In the fourteenth century, an anonymous author wrote a mystical book called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author claims that God is surrounded by a “cloud of unknowing” that we can only access by love and not knowledge. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes about The Cloud of Unknowing, “The author believes that the spiritual journey demands full self-awareness and honesty, a perpetual shadow-boxing with our own weaknesses and imperfections. While physical withdrawal from the world is not essential, letting go of attachments to people, expectations, and things is. This requires contemplative practice, a true spiritual discipline.”[i]
Of course, many people today associate the word “cloud” with the Internet; or specifically, everything that you can access remotely because it is stored on internet servers rather than on our hard drive. “The Cloud” is a much more user-friendly word than “remote data storage,” which actually describes the function of the cloud. The first use of “cloud computing” may have occurred when then Google CEO Eric Schmidt introduced the term at a conference on August 9, 2006. It could be said that the billions upon billions of bits of information that we store are similar to the billions and billions of droplets that give actual clouds their shape and allow us the opportunity to dream and imagine.
One of the most wonderful images of clouds comes from Joni Mitchell in her 1969 hit song Both Sides Now.
Bows and flows of angel hair; And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere; I’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun; They rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done; But clouds got in my way.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now; From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall; I really don’t know clouds at all.
Unlike the sun, moon, and stars, clouds are continually changing and can have whatever meaning we give them. Our reality is that none of us can ever remain the same as individuals or churches. The ability to continually adjust and adapt in order to make a positive difference in our world is essential to becoming who God created us to be.
Sometimes my head is in the clouds, but at other times I am on high alert as clouds get in my way. At times, the future seems cloudy, like right now in The United Methodist Church. None of us knows exactly what shape our beloved church will take in the future.
But I do know this. Whenever I see the bow in the clouds, I remember God’s covenant with human beings. And whenever I see the column of cloud guiding me by day and the column of fire leading me by night, I give thanks for the privilege of being a servant of the living God whose only calling is to share Christ’s love.
My dear friends, God loves us so much that God is working every day for good in the world through you and me. Can you see it in the clouds? Can you feel it in the rain? Will you live it your heart?